Charcoal is making a come back and standing on its own as a major art medium. As more of us learn about its history, its versatility and how to effectively render detail, charcoal is finding a place of its own away from the under painting nomenclature it has been known for. In learning how to render with charcoal, we will explore its history, view an example of how it has been used and explore a step-by-step guided exercise for you to try.
There are very few drawing books devoted just to the use of charcoal. Most books on this subject were published in the 1970s when art schools still used this medium as a required introduction to drawing. The recent return of the Atelier style art school has brought back this fundamental tool. The use of the medium goes back to the earliest of human creation when the discovery of burnt wooden sticks could leave an imprint on stone. Such as the image of the Ibex from the Cave of Niaux in south-western France. There are two commonly used forms: the compressed charcoal and the softer vine charcoal. Charcoal is produced by slow pyrolysis, the heating of wood or other substances such as a willow or grape vine in the absence of oxygen. Artists used charcoal well before graphite was discovered in the 1560's in Cumbria England. Soon Italian artists fashioned wooden handles to their graphite sticks and used the pulp of bread or a soft leather to erase or tone their work just as they had with charcoal.
Charcoal can be found as the primary sketch done on canvas under many paintings of the great master works from Leonardo to Velasquez. Jan Matejak's web site offers an example of a technique from first drawn charcoal sketch to a richly layered realist painting. Known as the Verdaccio method, artists begin with a careful sketch then place a thin gesso layer over the charcoal to keep it from interfering with any pigment. Next a monochromatic painting is composed either in earth tones or white tones to help define shapes, darks and lights. Thin layers of color are then built upon this under painting enabling a luminous quality such that it can be mistaken as photographic.
Today we are able to work from photographs as reference sources to compose detailed charcoal drawings worthy of becoming a finished work and not just an under sketch for a painting. Charcoal is a versatile medium because it can be used to form a thin line or cover a large area as well as being used to render rich dark tones. This is especially useful for beginners learning to make quick sketches and capture full tonal values. Charcoal is easily moved, smudged, erased and molded. Other mediums such as chalks and conte sticks work well with charcoal to add color or highlights. In the attached video we will explore a step-by-step process of using charcoal with various tools such as an eraser, white chalk and both hard and soft charcoal. The "Drawing with Charcoal" handout accompanies the video with the hope that you will enjoy rendering detailed images using charcoal, a once thought of minor medium for crafting great works of art.
Drawing with Charcoal pdf Handout