Charcoal is one of the oldest art mediums, having been used for cave drawings by early man. Back then, charcoal was used in the form of the ends of burned sticks. Today’s charcoal artists have more modern options: compressed charcoal, vine charcoal, and powdered charcoal.
The charcoal you used in art class in elementary school was probably compressed charcoal, which is powdered charcoal that has been mixed with gum binder and then compressed into sticks. The amount of binder used determines how hard or soft the stick will be. This is also the kind used in charcoal pencils. Vine charcoal is made from burning pieces of wood into harder or softer consistencies. You may have used this in art class too, but it tends to be messier than compressed charcoal. Powdered charcoal is exactly what it sounds like – charcoal in powder form that is great for covering large areas.
Artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Ernst Barlach used charcoal to create high-impact images. Today, prominent charcoal artists include: Kate Sammons, who produces highly realistic drawings of people and objects; David Kassan, who uses charcoal to draw photorealistic portraits; Seth Fitts, who combines charcoal with other mediums to create striking and often surreal animal images; and Joel Colo, whose art is varied, lovely, and thought-provoking.
Some of you may be running for your charcoals right now, but if you’re like me and haven’t touched charcoal since that Fourth of July barbecue, here are some tips for working with this awesome medium:
Charcoal Drawing Tips
Charcoal smears easily
this is a blessing and a curse. If you can’t avoid resting your hand on the page while drawing, tape the paper to a wall and draw vertically instead. Just be sure to lay down some newspaper or a tarp, so that the dust has somewhere to go other than the carpet.
Use workable fixative as you go
This will reduce the amount of smudging to your image while also allowing you to continue drawing. If you can’t get your hands on some fixative spray, most hair sprays will also work.
Cover an entire page in charcoal and “draw” with an eraser.
Watch videos to learn new techniques
You can also find many video tutorials on YouTube, but don’t get bogged down in the technicalities! Just choose a workspace and an outfit that can get dirty and dive right in.
If you’re ready to try some charcoal drawing of your own, then join me in welcoming Nitram Charcoal to Pencils.com! We currently carry soft, medium, and hard options, so pick up a box of each for maximum range and get creative, then be sure to share your experience and your art in the comments.