Marc Chagall: Charcoal as Basis and Foundation

The paintings of Marc Chagall, my favorite artist, seem to explode with kaleidoscopic color and light. The intuitive scenes they describe—filled with starlit lovers, fantastical animals, and angelic beings—usually occur only in the realm of dreams. An archetypal shorthand, spiritually innocent but fully cognizant of the innate physicality and almost inevitable cruelty of the world, transmits ideas almost telegraphically. His compositions are ambitious, complex, and bold, but never without softness and empathy. It makes sense, then, that charcoal often served as a foundational tool in the genesis of Chagall’s singular visions.

Armed with a handful of sharpened sticks of charcoal, Chagall approached new ideas quickly and efficiently, sketching out essential concepts in swift, abbreviated gestures. While he also produced a prodigious number of preliminary sketches in ink, Chagall frequently employed charcoal, as well—and the medium sometimes spilled over, full-force, into his finished pieces. This is especially true in the case of Rain (1911). The composition appears soaked in the deep, shadowy pigmentation that charcoal so readily provides, and in an optical illusion of sorts, the darkened areas shine through while lighter ones seem to recede in significance.  

Marc Chagall

Chagall tended to bring through many successive permutations of an idea before settling upon its final, finished expression. In Noah and the Rainbow, which began in 1963 as a map-like, gestural charcoal composition similar to the cartons of the old masters, the artist sketched out a study of essential components and ideas he wanted for the piece. Several existing versions of this work show the progression from rough sketch to voluminous finished painting (1966). It is a work filled with stories, visions, and weightless emotion.  

Marc Chagall

In both cases, the most fundamental, earth-based foundation (charcoal) is transmuted into something ethereal and uplifted—something that causes the imagination to take flight. In Rain, its darkness and density enfold the piece, inviting us in; in Noah and the Rainbow, charcoal serves as an essential reference point, without which the piece could not exist. In the end, charcoal gives way to a riotous profusion of color and a distinct sense of weightlessness; but the entire composition is still grounded in black outlining around the figures.  

Marc Chagall

Looking at Chagall’s initial sketch, it’s easy to feel that the realization of any vision is possible, no matter how complex or monumental. Begin with a stick of charcoal, record a primitive outline of your idea, and see where it takes you!

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