Blending with charcoal is easy and can produce beautiful tone and value, provided the proper tools are used. Blending stumps, tissues, chamois, cotton swabs, cotton balls, foam pads, natural hog bristle brushes, house painting brushes, and kneaded erasers are all excellent choices for use with charcoal, either alone or in combination. Every artist has their own preferences for blending charcoal, but for those who have yet to pick favorites, here are some suggestions and tips to help in deciding what works best for you.
But, before you grab that box of tissues- check the box! Tissues should be free of perfumes and softeners that can leave an oily residue on paper resulting in distorted color and difficult erasures.
Cotton swabs work well but, because they are small, it can get expensive to use them. Swabs work best on smaller areas and with a light touch. Pressing too hard can cause the stick to poke through, leaving an indentation or scratch on the paper.
Cotton balls are great for blending large areas and for laying down background. Scribble some Nitram charcoal on a scrap sheet of paper and run the cotton ball back and forth, picking up the powder. Rub on the desired area and repeat as often as necessary. It’s a fast and easy method for covering a larger surface.
Chamois provides a nice, smooth surface for blending and it’s relatively inexpensive. Chamois can be found in the automotive section of many stores and art stores generally carry it in packages of small pieces. It washes and dries in a jiffy and can be reused many times over.
Foam pads, made for pastels, are great for blending smaller areas. They do come in different sizes but none big enough for large surfaces. The pads can be washed and are reusable but are prone to slipping off the holder the more they are cleaned. Be sure to secure the foam pad tightly to the holder.
Kneaded erasers are a charcoal artist’s best friend because they can be used for blending and erasing. The erasers are inexpensive, self-cleaning, and can be formed to a sharp point. They work well for lifting color in tight areas and can be extended or combined with another eraser for large areas. Charcoal can be cleaned from the eraser by working it in your hand for several minutes.
Natural Hog Bristle Brushes
Natural hog bristle brushes are a stiffer type brush and works well for blending charcoal. They are relatively inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes. Despite the stiff bristles, they won’t scratch the drawing surface. Some artists prefer a softer brush, such as one used for watercolor. While a watercolor brush will blend charcoal, the hog bristle brush may take less effort and produce better results. Regular household paint brushes will work and are great for extra-large surfaces. Be sure to clean brushes when finished because the charcoal residue will build up on the bristles. Hog bristle brushes can be cleaned time and time again without losing shape. They are durable and one brush can last years if taken care of properly.
The blending stump is one of the most popular tools to use with charcoal. They come in several sizes from small to jumbo and many brands can be sharpened to a fine point with a sanding block. Not all stumps are created equal, so it’s best to try several brands to see what’s most comfortable, or keep a variety on hand. Some stumps are rougher than others but they are inexpensive and last a long time. Residue buildup can be sanded off with extra-fine sandpaper.
Tortillions are different from stumps in that they are rolled paper. The tortillion is wound tightly but can leave small lines in charcoal. Generally smaller in size than a stump, some artists do prefer tortillions. They are very inexpensive and come in various sizes. It’s best to test a tortillon before using it on a work in progress to be sure it’s wound tightly enough as not to leave lines or scratches in the paper. Nitram Charcoal blends easily with any of the above tools. No matter what tool or combination you choose, be sure to use something other than your fingers. Blending with the fingers is not only messy, but as with perfumed or softened tissues, the oils from the finger can cause distorted colors and can make erasures difficult. Most importantly, the oils from the fingers can cause the color of a drawing to change over time.