Charcoal 101: Nitram vs. Willow vs. Vine Charcoal
Not all charcoal is alike and understanding the differences can make a big impact in the outcome of a drawing.
Willow charcoal is made from the twigs of willow trees, burned to a degree of precise hardness for drawing. It contains no binders, therefore it can be easily erased, but because willow charcoal is brittle, it’s prone to breaking.
The brittleness can be frustrating for beginner charcoal artists and it’s essential to learn how to hold the stick with a gentle hand in order to prevent breakage. Not all willow sticks are alike, and testing on scrap paper before drawing on a work in progress will prevent disappointment.
Occasionally, when drawing with willow, a knot will appear. The flow of the charcoal will change from smooth to scratchy, and the knot can leave dark lines that are hard to erase. If the willow stick isn’t held gently, the knot can tear into the paper. Rubbing the charcoal on scrap paper a few times will remove the knot, but it’s not unusual to have more than one knot in a stick.
Willow is the least black of any type of charcoal and is generally sold in thin, medium or thick grades.
Vine charcoal is almost the same as willow, except vine is made from the burning of grape vines. Vine also contains no binding agents, so it erases easily and is susceptible to breakage if not handled gently.
Vine charcoal is sold in various grades with extra soft, soft, medium and hard carried by most manufacturers. Because willow and vine charcoals are soft and powdery, they are less suited for fine detail work. The sticks can be sharpened to a fine point with sandpaper, but because of their softer consistency, may need frequent sharpening.
Both willow and vine charcoal produce a lot of powder dust, something that can be problematic for those with allergies or dust sensitivities.
Nitram Charcoal is produced using a unique process that maintains the wood’s cell structure to increase durability and prevent breakage. Unlike willow and vine, Nitram is not brittle and is less prone to breakage. It also creates less dust, making it a better choice for those sensitive to the dust of willow and vine charcoal. Less dust means less mess. Nitram’s variety of grades provides rich blacks and superior tonal values.
The Nitram B is a soft charcoal that produces a rich black. It’s soft, yet can hold a point.
The Nitram HB is a medium soft charcoal is the one most preferred for drawing and sketching. Nitram HB’s superior hold is perfect for homogenizing tones and retaining tonal detail.
The Nitram H can be sharpened to an extra fine point for creating fine detail. Also, the unique hardness of Nitram H makes lighter and mid-tones easier to attain. Learn how to sharpen your Nitram charcoal.
Nitram’s Petits Bâtons are available in Soft Round 6 mm, 8mm and 12mm. The batons won’t crumble or skip, and unlike willow and vine, can produce a greater tonal value.
For working in the large, Nitram offers three selections of charcoal that won’t create the mess that a charcoal chunk makes. Along with clean, crisp drawing, Nitram charcoals are wrapped with paper so the artist doesn’t need to worry about accidentally touching paper or canvas with a soiled finger.
Nitram Charcoal allows the artist to draw and sketch freely, without the worry of breakage, knots and allergy symptoms. The ability to create varying degrees of tonal value makes it the only charcoal you will need.
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Carol Thompson is a journalist and artist, working primarily in charcoal, graphite, and watercolor or a combination of the three. She writes and illustrates children's books for several charitable organizations and is a collector of children's books.