Charcoal Painting Tips

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Charcoal is a dark grey--almost black--drawing medium made from the carbon residue. It is a soft, brittle and lightweight drawing material.


With charcoal, artists can render a range of velvety blacks not possible with graphite pencil media. Also, charcoal is extremely soft: it smudges easily and smoothly (thus artists must set charcoal drawings with a fixative, once they are finished with the drawing).


The "spreadability" of charcoal makes the process of charcoal drawing closer to painting than it is to drawing in many respects. While pencil and pen are linear media with dark areas rendered in dense lines, charcoal spreads around without lines. Many painters use charcoals in their paintings on canvas—sometimes to sketch out the figures of the painting, and other times to add a series of marks on top of the brushstrokes to add visual interest to the finished work.

Selecting the Right Charcoal

  • Several types of charcoals are available, all of which produce different effects. Vine charcoal is made by burning small sticks of wood and comes in soft, medium and hard consistencies. The harder the vine charcoal, the stronger the line will be when you use it.

    Compressed charcoal is much darker than vine charcoal, and a bit waxier. It is not as easy to erase as vine charcoal.

    Artists use powdered charcoal to cover large swathes of the canvas or drawing paper in soft grey tones. It is light enough that the charcoal can be lifted off easily with an artist's eraser to create a greater range of values.

Charcoal and Painting

  • Oil paint is insoluble in water. To use charcoal with an oil painting is to use the medium in tandem with oil-based paints and paint thinners like turpentine or mineral spirits.

    The results achieved depends on the thickness of the oil paint on the canvas. If there is little paint, the weave of the canvas will affect the quality of the charcoal line. With thick paint, the charcoal will dig into the paint—and will bring a small amount of the paint along with the charcoal, moving the pigment into other areas unless you clean off your charcoal stick.

    Turpentine and mineral spirits will spread the charcoal around as well. Remember, however, that charcoal is essentially a powder, so when spreading charcoal around, the likely outcome is an area of small black dots (often an attractive effect).

Experimenting

  • Experimentation can be the key to success with any medium, particularly when working with several materials in one work of art. Working and playing around with charcoal painting will result in surprising and often attractive effects.
    Combine different surfaces, types of paint and charcoals.

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References

  • "Art of the Pencil"; Sherry Wallerstein Camhy; 1997
  • Photo Credit valkenburg in charcoal image by Frenk_Danielle Kaufmann from Fotolia.com
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