Subtractive Charcoal Drawing - What You Need to Get Started

Subtractive charcoal drawing can easily be done with Nitram charcoal, erasers, paper towel or tissues, cotton swabs and a heavy weight paper that can stand to erasure.

Robin George subtractive charcoal drawing

It’s best to start with a simple black and white photograph that clearly shows the tonal values. Mapping the image is very important and should be done lightly but dark enough to show through the charcoal to be laid down over the sketch. If grafting the image, use a 2B pencil with light enough lines to be covered by the charcoal.

Place the charcoal on its side and rub lightly and evenly over the paper until the entire mapped out surface is gray. Smear and smooth out the charcoal using the paper towel or tissues carefully so as not to smear the image.

Form a point on the kneaded eraser and begin to remove the bright whites. Continue to remove the lightest areas first. Once all of the light areas are removed, it’s time to begin working the dark areas. Use the charcoal to draw in the black areas, referring to your photograph for tonal values. Smooth the large black areas with a tissue and use the cotton swab to smooth the finer details, paying close attention to the tones.

For denser line quality, use a stiffer eraser, such as a stick or pink pearl. Continue to add and subtract the tonal values as necessary being careful to gently rub and erase. A kneaded eraser should be cleaned periodically to avoid dark smears in the lighter areas. To clean the eraser, mold it in your hand, folding it over and rolling it until the charcoal disappears. Kneaded erasers are self-cleaning and can be used multiple times with proper care.

If the image has a background such as grass or water, add black areas and smear to the desired effect. White charcoal can be used for light values. Work the drawing until you feel satisfied it’s complete and then step back from it. Check the tonal values from a distance and from different angles.

Once completed, spray with a fixative so that the charcoal remains in place. A fixative can be purchased for about $8 and will set the charcoal so that it doesn’t smear or lift off the paper. Spray the fixative in a well-ventilated area, preferably outside. Stand a few feet away from your drawing and spray in light, quick strokes until the paper is covered. The fixative may darken the work somewhat, especially if sprayed too closely. Allow the paper to dry completely. A second coat may be applied but keep an hour or more between coats.

Aerosol hairspray should not be used because it can darken work substantially more than fixative and over time, it can cause the paper to yellow.

Subtractive drawing with Nitram charcoal is simple and rewarding. Give it a try!

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