As the base of my latest piece ‘Flutterbies' is charcoal I can’t think of a better place to start than that for taking a closer look at materials on offer to artists.
Many of you may know charcoal is an ancient material primarily used for fuel. However charcoal was also used for art over 32,000 years ago in cave painting. It is created through a gradual heating of wood and other materials, without the use of oxygen.
How is charcoal used in art today?
Charcoal is a relatively versatile material and has many uses for art from substituting pencil for sketching out drawings prior to painting (willow), creating full greyscale pictures and adding charcoal for definition on top of other materials. Fine sketches can be created as well as large areas of smooth grading (through smudging). Extra definition can also be added with a small paintbrush and water. Over painting with water (on charcoal which hasn’t been fixed) causes the charcoal particles to form a smooth wash.
Are there different types of charcoal?
Yes: Willow, Vine, Compressed and Nitram.
What are the differences between the charcoals?
Willow and Vine - Both of these types of charcoal are natural, produced from branches and vines. Natural charcoals do not include binders and they remain in the shape of the branch they were cut from. Both charcoals are quite soft and can be erased easily (though vine requires a but more effort). Willow and vine charcoals are very useful for sketching due to their ability to be altered. If you used either of these charcoals for a full or final piece they will require fixing to give them permanence (either with a professional fixer spray or hairspray).
Compressed Charcoal - This is created by adding binders to charcoal dust. It is a much harder charcoal than willow and vine which in turn also makes it harder to remove. Compressed charcoal also creates a dense black colour rather than the darker greys of the other charcoals.
Nitram - This is rarer than the other charcoals and the method of production is relatively modern. It is a middleing charcoal in colour and hardness but creates much less dust. This type of charcoal is useful for intricate work as it can be sharpened as a pencil to a point and smudges less than others.