Not all charcoal is the same and that can create confusion when starting a drawing. Here are a few things to consider when working with charcoal.
Natural charcoal ( vine or willow) is made by baking thin wooden vines or branches in a kiln. There are special types of natural charcoal made from specific types of wood. It is preferred by artists because of the ability to create subtle tones of grey and deep blacks. Vine does not adhere as well to paper as willow charcoal.
Nitram charcoal is a very high quality that comes in different grades, from H (hard) to extra soft. It will adhere well to paper, it blends well and it creates very little dust. It is the preferred brand for fine artists specializing in charcoal drawing.
Charcoal techniques are additive and subtractive. Additive means that charcoal is applied in multiple layers to achieve different dark tones. Subtractive means that it is lifted off the drawing surface in order to reveal the drawing surface. Lesser quality vine charcoal will be very powdery and will not adhere well to the drawing surface withou a fixative.
Compressed Charcoal is made of charred wood, ground to a dust and then bound together with gum arabic. It will create deep rich black tones.
Compressed charcoal varies greatly depending on the brand. Good quality compressed charcoal (Derwent, General’s, Yarka) will create deep dark tones and will also blend and lift off the paper fairly well. In other words, it will behave much like vine charcoal. It will also adhere to the drawing surface better than certain types of vine charcoal.
Certain brands of compressed charcoal will create very dark tones but it will be very difficult to blend or lift of the surface. The same is true for charcoal pencils. They generally have much more binding material and may have some of wax added. Charcoal pencils can be sharpened to a fine point but it's not easy to blend with them.
N.B.: Black pastel and compressed charcoal are not the same thing although the results may be similar. Black pastels use black pigments which are not derived from charred wood.
The most common ways of blending charcoal is by using hands and fingers, blending stumps and a cloth or chamois (a soft thin leather). Brushes can also be uses to blend and lift off charcoal.
When blending with my fingers or a cloth, I am able to spread the charcoal evenly across the surface. This way of blending will also lift off a large amount of charcoal. The ability to smoothly blend and lift charcoal off the surface depends on the type and quality of charcoal I am using.
Blending stumps tend to push the charcoal into the surface of the paper rather than lift it off. They are also used to define finer details. They can be easily cleaned and sharpened with sand paper sticks.
If you are not familiar with the charcoal that you are using, always test it before you start a drawing project. This way you are not going to have any unwanted outcomes. A simple test is to do a graduation from light to dark. This will allow you to determine how the charcoal:
Lifts off of the surface, (subtractive technique)
How well it blends to get subtle tones
How strongly it adheres to the surface in order to work towards darker tones (additive technique)
The image above shows different types of charcoal. They were applied, blended with my hands and a cloth. The eraser marks were made with a gum eraser. Notice that the Yarka compressed charcoal and charcoal pencil don’’t erase or blend as smoothly as the natural charcoal sticks.
What to consider when choosing paper:
Acid free: Acid free paper will not yellow or degenerate over time. Most artist quality papers are acid free. Nonetheless, verify this before buying paper. If you are going to do quick studies or throw away sketches, inexpensive non acid-free paper is fine.
Archival paper is both acid free and it will not deteriorate or break down over time. Fine artists who want their work to stand the test of time choose this type of paper.
Material: wood fibre (cellulose) or cotton?Wood fibre is most commonly used for all types of papers. Unless the paper brand specifically states that the paper is made with cotton you can assume that it is made from wood fibre. Sometimes papers are made of a mix of the two materials.
Cotton is considered the best paper to work with because of its durability and permanence. It is generally more expensive that wood fibre paper.
Cotton paper used for drawing: Stonehenge, Canson edition, Arches drawing paper, Arches Ingres Paper WeightThe thickness and heaviness of paper is measured by its weight. A heavier paper is thicker and more resilient.
Sketch paper: 60 lbs
Drawing paper: 80 -90 lbs
Watercolour paper 90lbs, 140 lbs, 300 lbs.
Paper texture:The texture of the paper is extremely important. Texture is commonly referred to as tooth. A paper with less tooth is smooth (Bristol) whereas a paper with a lot of tooth is textured. The tooth will determine how the drawing material will behave and adhere to the surface. It will also determine what types of material techniques will work best for the paper
If you are not familiar with the type of paper you are buying, lightly run your hand across the surface to feel the texture. Papers range from very smooth to vellum (velvety feel) to increasing types of textures. If you are drawing with charcoal or pastel, and if you are building up layers of drawing material, a vellum or textured paper is often preferred.
The textured surface will allow for adding multiple layers of drawing material before reaching the point of saturation. Saturation refers to the maximum amount of material that you can add to the drawing surface. After saturation, it is difficult to add anything more to the surface or to make any changes to the drawing.
Pastel papers: Canson ( Mi-teintes, Ingres) and Fabriano (Tiziano) have a rough tooth and are available in different colours.
Strathmore Charcoal 500 is a slightly textured paper designed for charcoal and pastel. It is made of cotton, so it will be quite resilient to the additive and subtractive techniques. It comes in white and muted colour.