The History of Charcoal

I really loved the idea that I would be writing for a blog that teachers share in schools. I think promoting creativity and more artistic pursuits in our children is amazing and commendable. It is in that spirit that I felt writing a few basic primers could be beneficial.

Being as this is a charcoal website, it seems only appropriate that the first of these is about the history of the practice and the types of charcoals you’ll use. One of the brilliant things about working with this medium is a sense of history and tradition, merged with your own unique inspiration.

The first recorded use of charcoals as an artistic medium was in cave paintings. Here, you can see a very detailed Ibex, from the Niaux cave in France. Some of the paintings and drawings shown on the Bradshaw Foundation Website can be dated as early as 1602.

The first recorded use of charcoals as an artistic medium was in cave paintings.

Not merely an art medium, charcoal also played a pivotal role in the technological development of man. Used as a fuel source to enable people to smelt and work metals, it was and is an important part of history: both in use for various tools and recording it as seen in the cave drawings above.

Charcoal production and metallurgy go hand in hand. Early attempts to smelt metal using wood were unsuccessful, because you have to have a very high temperature. When you burn regular wood, water and other volatiles are burnt off, limiting the temperature of the fire. Charcoal, however, can produce a much higher temperature with very little smoke. Originally, oxide copper ores were the first reduced with charcoal which began the Bronze Age. The charcoal itself was likely produced using a rudimentary pit kiln, where wood is burnt very slowly and covered with soil. This method then evolved to something known as the forest kiln, a much more efficient way of rendering the charcoal that is still used to this day.

Of course, going into all of that is more along the lines of history and metallurgy- and we’re looking at charcoal’s use in art.

Cave Paintings And Renaissance Art

As I noted earlier, cave paintings are our earliest evidence of man’s use of charcoal as an artistic medium. Probably the most famous are located in France. Most historians agree that these were created using charred sticks from a fire, not intentionally made charcoal. Widely used in the Renaissance, it was mostly used for creation of preparatory drawings. It wasn’t until the late 15th century that methods of fixing charcoal drawings began to be used. The original fixative was a bit less convenient than the sprays we use today- drawings were dipped in baths of gum. It wasn’t really until the 20th century that it became a medium in its own right with any regularity- most artists regarded charcoal as something to be used to outline initial sketches. One of the first well known artists to utilize charcoal as a primary medium was Albrecht Durer. Though he is most well known for ink and wood cuts, his charcoal portraits are some of the first and finest. This piece, Knight, Death, And The Devil gained particular notoriety in World War 2, when at the Nazi Rally in Nuremburg, when a print was presented to Adolf Hitler.
"Knight, Death, And The Devil" by Albrecht Durer
As the 20th century dawned, man would see Matisse and Picasso bring more charcoal into the limelight, followed by a wealth of other talented artists using the medium.
Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil),Paris, 1931
Pablo Picasso, Marie-Thérèse, Face and Profile (Marie-Thérèse, face et profil), Paris, 1931

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