Charcoal in Art

Artists’ charcoal is a form of dry art medium made of finely ground organic materials that are held together by a gum or wax binder or produced without the use of binders by eliminating the oxygen inside the material during the production process. These charcoals are often used by artists for their versatile properties, such as the rough texture that leaves marks less permanent than other art media. Charcoal can produce lines that are very light or intensely black, while being easily removable, yet vulnerable to leaving stains on paper. The dry medium can be applied to almost any surface from smooth to very coarse. Fixatives are often used with charcoal drawings to solidify the position to prevent erasing or rubbing off of charcoal dusts.

Charcoal is used in art for drawing, making rough sketches in painting and is one of the possible media for making a parsemage. It must usually be preserved by the application of a fixative.

The method used to create artists’ charcoal is similar to that employed in other fields, such as producing gunpowder and cooking fuel. The type of wood material and preparation method allow a variety of charcoal types and textures to be produced.

Compressed charcoal charcoal powder mixed with gum binder compressed into round or square sticks. The amount of binder determines the hardness of the stick. Compressed charcoal is used in charcoal pencils.

Charcoal was often a key component of Cave painting, with examples dating back to at least 28,000 years ago.

One of the oldest paintings is a picture of a zebra, found at the Apollo cave in Namibia.

In the renaissance, Charcoal was widely used, but few works of art survived due to charcoal particles flaking off the canvas. At the end of the 15th century, a process of submerging the drawings in a gum bath was implemented to prevent the charcoal from flaking away. Charcoal paintings date as far back as ca.23,000 BC. Since then, many cultures have utilized charcoal for art, camouflage, and in rites of passage. Many indigenous people from Australia, parts of Africa, Pacific Islands, parts of Asia, and others still practice body painting for rites of passage including child birth, weddings, spiritual rituals, war, hunting, and funerary rites. Many artists use charcoal because of its unique dark black strokes. The weak structure of charcoal causes the material to flake off onto the canvas.

Classics (Prud’hon) and Romantics (Delacroix, Goya) used it as a drawing instrument.

Post-Impressionists used it more extensively, such as Degas, Redon and especially Seurat. The latter made many studies preparatory to his works pointillist and (and it is the majority) of independent drawings (series of ‘Blacks’) in charcoal which allowed him to work the composition by plans of values, seeking volumes without recourse at the line and analyzing the play of shadows and lights by the only means of the grays.

Auguste Allongé was one of the masters of charcoal in the nineteenth century. He taught drawing in charcoal and published in 1873 a treatise on this art which was translated into several languages.

Throughout western art history, artists well known for other mediums have used charcoal for sketching or preliminary studies for final paintings. Examples of contemporary artists using charcoal as a primary medium are Robert Longo, William Kentridge, Dan Pyle and Joel Daniel Phillips.

There are various types and uses of charcoal as an art medium, but the commonly used types are: Compressed, Vine, and Pencil.

Compressed charcoal (also referred as charcoal sticks) is shaped into a block or a stick. Intensity of the shade is determined by hardness. The amount of gum or wax binders used during the production process affects the hardness, softer producing intensely black markings while firmer leaves light markings.

Vine charcoal is a long and thin charcoal stick that is the result of burning sticks or vines in a kiln without air. The removable properties of vine charcoal through dusting and erasing are favored by artists for making preliminary sketches or basic compositions. This also makes vine charcoal less suitable for creating detailed images.

Charcoal pencils consist of compressed charcoal enclosed in a jacket of wood. Designed to be similar to graphite pencils while maintaining most of the properties of charcoal, they are often used for fine and crisp detailed drawings, while keeping the user’s hand from being marked.

Other types of artists’ charcoal such as charcoal crayons were developed during the 19th century and used by caricaturists. Charcoal powders are used to create patterns and pouncing, a transferring method of patterns from one surface to another.

There are wide variations in artists’ charcoal, depending on the proportion of ingredients: compressed charcoal from burned birch, clay, lamp black pigment, and a small quantity of ultramarine. The longer this mixture is heated, the softer it becomes.

Paper used with artists’ charcoal can vary in quality. Rough texture may allow more charcoal to adhere to the paper. The use of toned paper allows different possibilities as white oil pastels (commonly referred to by the brand name Conté) can be used in combination with charcoal to create contrast.

The mark of the charcoal on the support is fleeting, which has the advantage of allowing repentances and corrections, but requires, in order to preserve a charcoal drawing, to use a hairspray, in order to prevent the carbon from peeling off, when any object is rubbed on the support. In the past, work was fixed by impregnating the paper from behind with a fluid varnish6. There are now products in bombs or flasks (for use with a small mouth spray). It is economically possible to use hairspray but, not being intended for this purpose, it can cause inconvenience, as the yellowing of the leaf eventually.

If it is not framed, the charcoal drawing on paper will be kept between two sheets of crystal paper.

It is a method in which thin, dark lines are continuously placed parallel to each-other. When done with charcoal, it comes out smoother and darker.

Rubbing is done with a sheet of paper pressed against the targeted surface then rubbing charcoal against the paper. It creates an image of the texture of the surface.

Blending is done to create smooth transitions between darker and lighter areas of a drawing. It can also create a shadow effect. Two common methods of blending are, using a finger to rub or spread charcoal which has been applied to the paper or the use of paper blending stumps also called a Tortillon. Many prefer to use a chamois, which is a soft square piece of leather.

Lifting (Erasing):
Erasing is often performed with a kneaded rubber eraser. This is a malleable eraser that is often claimed to be self-cleaning. It can be shaped by kneading it softly with hands, into tips for smaller areas or flipped inside out to clean.

The most used wood today is willow because it allows a wide variety of diameters, homogeneity of tenderness and a good density of blacks. Other trees can be used for their manufacture: European charcoal of course, birch, spruce (in Finland), linden but also walnut, fig, plum, myrtle (in Greece) or rosemary (in Italy) and boxwood.

Charcoal can be more or less tender. As for the pencil mine, the more it will be dry and the less it will mark the support, and the opposite, the softer it will be, the more it will darken it.

There is also compressed or compressed charcoal: harder, it consists of charcoal powder mixed with a binder. It is also harder to erase.