Charcoal Drawing: Getting Down to the Detail with a Charcoal Stick

Intricately detailed work, such as facial features and small objects, can be worked with Nitram Charcoal, dispelling the myth that fine details should be drawn with a sharp charcoal pencil or with 8B or 9B graphite.

The Nitram Charcoal baton can be sharpened to a fine point and used in the same manner as a charcoal pencil. It’s even better because there’s less chance of point breakage, no paper to peel and no annoying string.

For portraiture or other fine detail work, the best results can be achieved with a finer toothed watercolor paper. The paper should be smooth, yet have enough tooth to grab the charcoal. Watercolor paper has more weight, making it more able to withstand multiple erasures.

Before beginning, the paper should be soaked and stretched, as if it were to accept water media. Allow the paper to air dry. This should not take longer than a day.

Your Tools

The tools needed for detail work include blending sticks, cotton swabs, a soft cloth such as chamois, putty eraser, masking fluid (frisket), an inexpensive paint brush or old ink nibs and fine grain sandpaper for sharpening. It’s inadvisable to use tortillions for blending charcoal because the papers can drag, leaving behind fine lines that are difficult to erase. A coffee can or Mason jar can be used to collect the charcoal residue for later use as portrait backgrounds or large areas of a landscape.

Mahl Stick

Because charcoal can smudge if the hand or arm is accidentally dragged across the paper, when drawing fine details, a great aid is a mahl stick. Not only will it reduce smudging and keep the drawing hand steady, but it helps to reduce arm and shoulder pain. There are commercial mahl sticks available or one can be made with a dowel and some folded chamois tied with string at one end. Just be sure the stick isn’t too heavy.  

Unless the detail work is in the center of the paper and will be drawn first, a few inches of white space should be kept on each side of the paper for placing the mahl stick so that any work in progress isn’t smudged. The stick should be long enough to move easily around the white space, yet short enough to be workable.

The mahl stick should be held in the hand not in use for drawing. Place the cloth end of the stick on the paper and rest the heel of the hand on the stick.

Masking Fluid

The mahl stick is useful when masking fluid is used for areas that need to remain white. Apply the masking fluid with the desired size brush. An inexpensive brush or an old brush or ink nib will work well. The masking fluid should be completely dry before removal. With the heel of the hand resting on the mahl stick, use a putty eraser brought to a fine, sharp point, to lift the masking fluid. The mahl stick will keep the working hand steady to prevent accidentally erasing any of the detail.

Nitram Charcoal and a mahl stick make the most delicate detail easy to achieve.

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