Oh the places you’ll go

Cheap, plentiful, environmentally-friendly, and you can create a masterpiece with it. We should all use more charcoal.
Portrait of my friend Jane in charcoal, by Carol L. Douglas.

 Art supplies tend to be expensive, especially at the rarified corners of the business. Mother Nature, however, has given us a drawing material that is plentiful, dirt cheap, and environmentally friendly. A package of 12 sticks of Winsor & Newton vine charcoal costs just ten bucks, and a tablet of newsprintis about the same. For the cost of a pizza, you can go to the far corners of self-expression.

Charcoal is a great way to work out difficult drawing problems before you commit the problem to paint. Feet by Carol L. Douglas.

I use charcoal extensively in my studio: to work out new ideas, for gesture drawings, or to contemplate composition. It’s an excellent medium for experimentation. As a student yesterday remarked, “it’s not all about lines, like pencil work is.” When blended and lifted with an eraser, charcoal handles much like paint, making it the perfect preparatory medium for oil and acrylic painting. That’s why I start every new class with charcoal drawing exercises. It’s far better to learn the fundamentals of drawing and composition with something that’s not precious.

This was a preparatory sketch for a painting. By Carol L. Douglas.

I particularly like to have watercolor students do value exercises with charcoal. Value separation is a major challenge in watercolor. It helps to do it up front.

Charcoal is the cheapest medium in which one can create a masterpiece with staying power. For example, there are many works on paper by Edgar Degas done in charcoal and white pastel. He and other great masters used charcoal extensively.
Charcoal allows us to work out compositional questions. By Carol L. Douglas.
Choose a paper with a dull finish so that the charcoal can bite into the surface. Charcoal doesn’t stick well to hot-pressed, smooth papers like Bristol. It’s best on a fine-toothed, dull paper, but a rough tooth is also appropriate at times, although it raises more dust. My solution is to buy Canson’s Mi-Tientes, which has a different surface on either side, but there are many fine papers for charcoal work, including Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500 Series and Fabriano Tiziano. You shouldn’t need to use fixative to get the charcoal to adhere; if you do, try a different paper.
Compressed charcoal is powdered charcoal bound with gum or wax. It’s harder than vine or willow charcoal, meaning it can be sharpened to do very fine work. However, it’s not appropriate for using under paintings, because the binding can bleed. It doesn’t blend or erase as well. I never use it.
Seated figure, by Carol L. Douglas
Willow and vine charcoals are made of burnt grape vines or willow branches. They have no added binders, making them easier to erase. This charcoal can be used to sketch on canvas before painting in oils or acrylics; it will just vanish into the bottom layers of your work. It’s very light and makes soft, powdery lines.
“It takes a steady, careful, and patient hand to use charcoal,” an online student remarked yesterday. Only sometimes! Charcoal is an infinitely varied medium, in which one can make smooth graduations of value as well as slashing, dark strokes.