Painting with Charcoal- Yes! You Can

When spring finally begins to wake from a winter’s sleep, it really sparks my creativity. I like to capture the buds as they begin to sprout on trees and bushes, the early flowers, and the essence of a new beginning. It’s also a time of experimentation and I like to push myself to the limits.

Painting with charcoal, wet or dry, has been occupying much of my time lately. I find charcoal one of the most rewarding and versatile mediums.

Painting with wet charcoal is considered an advanced technique, but it can be fun for beginner experimentation.

It’s important to use a watercolor paper or one that can take gesso. I use a watercolor paper with fine tooth. If the paper isn’t in a block, it should be stretched before beginning.

I found that Nitram Charcoal works best. Vine and willow don’t adhere as well, even with a decent amount of fixative.

I use my residual dust (because I always have plenty) but if you have none available, you can sand the baton, letting the dust fall into a container.

I place the charcoal dust on a porcelain palette. A glass palette will work well as will tin foil or Styrofoam. I don’t recommend a wooden palette.

Carol Thompson - Feathers

To begin, I wet the paper with a brush, giving it a nice, even wash. I prefer to use a bamboo, or Chinese watercolor/calligraphy brush. My favorite brush is the Mr. Big Cat Jr. I load the brush with my charcoal powder and begin laying down the large areas of tone. When this dries, I spray with a workable fixative. When dry, I add more fixative, allow it to dry, and add more tones.

I change to a smaller brush to add fine details. These can be added either wet or dry. I usually alternate, depending on my anticipated final outcome. I always give my final painting at least two coats of fixative. I don’t recommend using hairspray as a fixative because it yellows over time and can cause the paper to become brittle.

The most important thing to do, if you’ve never before done wet charcoal painting, is to practice so that you don’t create a muddy look. The results can be amazing with the proper ratio of water and charcoal.

Feathers was done in a combination of wet and dry charcoal on dry paper. I wanted this to be more of a practice sketch because I hadn’t used charcoal wet for some time.

For watercolorists, another advantage of wet charcoal painting is the richness that can be achieved. I personally don’t care for any of the black watercolor options. Mars black does darken enough but it looks flat to me, so I opt for wet charcoal. The painting, In Memory of Mary, has a combination of black watercolor and wet charcoal for the shirt and the belt. When I paint with watercolor, I always keep some powdered charcoal on my palette.

Carol Thompson - In Memory of Mary

Charcoal gets the wrongful rap for being a restrictive medium but with experimentation and practice, anything is possible. Pushing the limits with any medium is challenging and rewarding. A well-known artist in my hometown paints with melted crayons. His work is finely detailed and amazing and looks nothing like a crayon drawing. My next artistic venture will most likely be a mixed media piece using charcoal and crayons. So, go ahead and try some charcoal painting. If you have any other suggestions or ideas of how to paint with wet charcoal, drop us a note. We’d love to hear from you.

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