I have been asked many times why I started with charcoal medium and why it is a personal favorite. I think charcoal is one of the most underrated artist's mediums while it's also the simplest. Before we discuss charcoal let me break down my thought process when I start planning the drawings or paintings. Contrary to the common notion I imagine in 2D. That is how my brain thinks and aligns the different pieces of the 'puzzle' before it becomes a vision. I humbly believe that artist needs a vision, however small or big the project is. A clear idea of the outcome of the drawing or the sketch, the perception, the lighting, texture, and emotion he/she wants to convey. Be it a portrait of an underprivileged child or the stillness of a standing glass of wine every picture has a feel, a vibe without which you are just creating a template. But I digress...with charcoal the dimensions are simple and clean. You can blend with ease and add elements and build on top of it.
So what types of charcoal are available for artists.? I have listed the ones I use below.
1. Vine charcoal
2. Willow charcoal
3. Compressed charcoal
4. Charcoal powder
5. Charcoal pencil
6. White charcoal
If you are looking for some delicate greys for some highlights and lowlights a vine or willow charcoal will work well. Vine charcoal is nothing but burnt grape vines. Grape vines are burnt without air in a kiln and willow charcoal is the result of burning willow sticks. Both break easily and hence can be used to draw small areas. Very forgiving and erase easily with a kneaded eraser. Both vine and willow come as long sticks and are not heavy like compressed charcoal.
Compressed charcoal on the other hand is bold, dark and creates less messy lines. These don't smudge easily and so I use them for defining overlapping touch-lines or highlighting features. Compressed charcoal can come as short thick sticks or blocks. It is what the name suggests, powdered charcoal compressed with wax. Because these are sturdy they can also be sharpened to a shape that works for the defining fine lines. They are not very flexible due to the robust texture and do not blend well or bleed with wet medium. So....clearly use caution if you are a beginner.
You could start by practicing on cheap newsprint paper until you get the hang of it before transferring to drawing paper like in my practice drawing below. I have used both willow and compressed charcoal here, darker lines rendered using the latter. Vine charcoal and willow charcoal do not have any binding agents so if I were to use them like powder charcoal I could. Speaking of charcoal powder, these are vine or willow charcoal sticks ground into a fine powder. I have made charcoal powder for small projects using exactly that process but mostly use ready-made powder for large projects. This is excellent for background and adding an undertone before you start the drawing. I use it with simple blending tools like the blending stomp, paper, make-up brushes or my fingers as needed. Powdered charcoal is great for large backgrounds.
Moving on to charcoal pencils now. These are compressed charcoal inside wood similar to graphite pencils. To be honest this is the least exciting for me as it is the least messy. However, I do use charcoal pencils quite often to draw thin lines. Charcoal pencils should not be sharpened with a regular pencil sharpener but with a knife or a blade as they break easily. I sharpen them until the charcoal tip is about an inch or an inch and a half in length for grip and easy blending. Pencils come in different grades like HB, 2B, 4B,6B. HB is the hardest and 6B being the softest. Softer pencils make darker marks so knowing the gradation means fewer surprises.
I could go on and on about white charcoal. To the extent that this makes sense it is like compressed charcoal in texture and often used with charcoal. These are referred to as white pastels sometimes and can be used to define highlights in your drawing. You are now familiar with my love for black and whites and I should say black drawing paper and white charcoal is where it started. However you can use it for contrast drawing on any toned paper like gray or other color papers. Remember, a little goes a long way and the brightest areas need to stand on their own before you highlight them with white charcoal. White charcoal can be used to blend in to create color. I usually draw over previously shaded darker charcoal, and then blend in until the desired intensity is achieved.
A charcoal drawing is never finished until it is stabilized. Just like a good coat of varnish on acrylic painting charcoal needs to be sealed with a fixative. Fixatives, if used correctly prevents, fading, smudging and flaking over time. Make sure the fixative is completely dry before storing or displaying as desired.
Go on...take a closer look at a charcoal sketch next time you are at a gallery or an artist's website and I swear you will see things in a different light(no pun intended).