Get Creative with Nitram and Gesso

Charcoal often is referred to as a “limited” medium. It is thought of as a tool for only creating black and white drawings. It gets a bad rap for being messy, crumbly and hard to work with. As charcoal artists well know, it’s one of the most versatile and rewarding mediums to use.

The sky’s the limit when it comes to charcoal. Whether used alone, or in mixed media pieces, charcoal is versatile, expressive and fun. Charcoal is far from limited, in fact, it’s challenging to push it to the limits.

Charcoal can be mixed with watercolor, acrylic, pastels, conte crayons, graphite and gesso. Yes, gesso- and not just as a primer.

With charcoal and gesso, the artist has the ability to create the illusion of a three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface with minimal tools.

Gesso is simply plaster of paris or gypsum mixed with glue. Some artists make their own and it’s also available commercially in many different brands. Schmincke Aqua Fine Modeling Paste can also be used in place of gesso and, although it’s a bit more expensive than gesso, it’s easy to work with.

There aren’t many tools required. A heavyweight paper is recommended and, along with soft charcoal (Nitram B works well), you will need gesso, some stiff paint brushes (inexpensive or old), water, erasers, paper towels and a fixative.

It can be tricky to manipulate the charcoal and gesso, so it’s best for first-timers to practice before attempting to complete a project. There are several ways to work with the two mediums. Some artists prefer to draw with the charcoal and create the mid-tones, shadows and highlights with the gesso last. Others will apply the gesso and let it dry before drawing with the charcoal. Using both mediums simultaneously is more challenging, but, oh so much fun.

For the greatest three-dimensional effect, the process works best with portraiture or figure drawing. The paper should be larger than 8 x 10 so that the gesso and charcoal can be easily manipulated.

If using a color picture for reference, it needs to be copied to black and white so that the shadows and tones are crisp and sharp. The lighting can be adjusted in any photo-altering program, such as Photoshop, Gimp or Picasa, if need be. Sketch the drawing using a soft graphite pencil, using your preferred method, enlarging to fit the paper.

Once the picture has been transferred to the drawing paper, begin by filling in the darkest areas with charcoal, using the reference photo to determine the areas that need to be filled.

Now the fun begins! Using the gesso, begin adding it to the light areas and blend it with the charcoal to create the mid-tones. Be careful not to apply the gesso (or molding paste) too thick because it could crack when dried. Using the brush, gently push and pull the gesso into the charcoal until the desired highlight, shadow or mid-tone is achieved. The charcoal and gesso will give strong contrasts between the lights and darks.

For those more daring, the gesso can be applied with a painting knife for impasto effects using the same method of blending the gesso and charcoal to create the mid and light tones, once again being careful not to apply the gesso too thickly. This method create a phenomenal figure drawing.

When the drawing is complete, two to three coats of fixative should be applied. This will preserve the drawing. Keep in mind that fixative can darken the finished drawing if not carefully and lightly applied.

Working with a drawing tool and a paint brush, wet and dry media, can feel a bit strange to those not used to it, but it’s easy to catch on, and once you do, it may well become your favorite mixed media medium!

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