Drawing With Charcoal, the Oldest Medium in the World

By: Mark L Robb

Drawing With Charcoal, the Oldest Medium in the World

Drawing With Charcoal, the Oldest Medium in the WorldWhen you hold a piece of charcoal between your fingers you are doing exactly the same as the mysterious people, or even person, who created the works of art in Chauvet's cave, southern France. The cave paintings depict all kinds of animals hunted at the time in a fabulous three dimensional detail which would subsequently vanish from art until the renaissance as much as twenty thousand years later!

In this article I will not discuss the mystery of Chauvet's cave, it's purpose is to give beginners a guide to charcoal as an artist's medium. The best charcoal is usually willow, it is made by heating the wood in a kiln, when the wood starts to burn the amount of oxygen supplied is reduced by covering the wood with sand, it is a delicate process that is much dependent on mother nature being kind with the right weather conditions. When you hold charcoal it has a slippery feel, you will find that it will break easily into smaller shards and when you work with charcoal I recommend that you break pieces up so you have a variety of chunks, some thin and pointed, others stubby with flat sides.

Work on good thick, cold pressed, medium to heavy textured paper. The paper will need to absorb the charcoal, hence the requirement for a rough surface. Now you are ready to draw. With charcoal you are looking for the source of light on your subject. This is the paper your charcoal will never touch. It is the most important element of any charcoal drawing and provides the strange glow that no photograph could ever reproduce. Work around the light. I personally start with fine lines to contain shapes and then shade these in. As your work progresses let the lines become less evident, on portrait work charcoal is an excellent medium for capturing the texture of skin. A lot of work can be done with your finger tips. For example draw a heavy line and then see what effects can be obtained with your fingers. You can smudge the line one way only, thus keeping a sharp edge with the other side fading into the light, or you can gently smudge both sides, this give the effect of a recess where the light cannot reach. You can dab at the line with your fingertips. This will give a dappled undulating effect. Always remember, as you work, the effect of the light on your subject.

You will find that charcoal is a forgiving medium. If you are not happy with an area of work it can be almost completely erased using a normal rubber eraser. I say almost because you should always try to keep the pure white areas completely untouched. When working fine detail of tone I recommend a blob of blu tack. This can be used as a very fine point eraser. You can for example highlight the light reflection in an eye just by gently dabbing with a pointed blob of blu tack on an area you have shaded. If you wish to show reflected light on skin then very gently sweeping a larger piece of blu tack over the area will achieve the desired effect by gently lightening an area.

Finally you should alway fix your work. Fixatives can be bought from any art supplier. It is basically an aerosol can which you use to spray a thin layer of fixative over your work. This gives a fairly good resistance to smudging or loss of tone. Fixing does not stop you working on your picture but it will make you have to work a bit harder with the eraser!

As an artist there is so much to learn. I do not think you can learn about light and dark with any other medium better than charcoal. It is also good to know of the very ancient footsteps you will be following with your burnt willow stick.

About the Author:
Mark Robb is a practising artist based in Haworth. If you have enjoyed the article above then he invites you to browse the website [http://firstforart.com -- site may be currently offline] where you will find all kinds of art materials, art prints and further advice and tips to help you become a better artist.


Drawing a portrait in charcoal



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