The Parsemage Technique
with Nitram Charcoal
Parsemage is a surrealist technique that is credited to Ithell Colquhoun, a British painter and author. Parsemage (powdering) produces abstract art with minimal tools.
All that is needed is a heavyweight paper, preferably watercolor paper. The paper should be able to withstand saturation without curling or tearing. Other tools include a zester, a flat square pan slightly larger than the size of the paper, a small bowl, water and, of course, a Nitram Charcoal baton. Surgical or kitchen gloves are optional.
A zester works best for powdering the charcoal. They can be found at most department stores, in the kitchenware section, for a few dollars. The best zester for powdering charcoal doesn’t have a grater, but rather a slightly sharp edge with bottom holes for the powder to pass through.
Hold the charcoal baton lengthwise, between the thumb and middle finger, with the baton resting on the index finger. Holding the hand over the bowl, scrape the zester up and down along the side of baton, using the index finger for firm support. The charcoal should easily remove from the baton with little pressure. Softer charcoal, such as Nitram B, will produce larger dust particles while harder charcoal, such as Nitram’s HB, will produce a finer dust. Grating in one direction will also produce a larger dust. Because there will be some stray residual, it’s best to have paper or plastic under the bowl.
When the desired amount of powder has been scraped, add tepid water to the pan until it’s about half full. Lightly sprinkle the charcoal dust into the water, making sure there are no clumps, unless they are desired. Don’t dump the charcoal into the water because it will clump together quickly. When sprinkled, the charcoal dust will “float” on top of the water. If it floats to the center, the pan can be gently rocked or the water can be moved by placing one finger in the water and lightly swirling.
Now, you’re ready to begin creating parsemage.
Submerge the paper into the water, beginning at one side of the pan and slowly moving the paper across the pan and under the dust. When the paper is completely submerged, grab the edges and slowly lift it straight up. The charcoal will adhere to the paper. The process can be repeated until the desired effect is reached.
Once the paper has been lifted, it is ready to be dried, but don’t forget to look at the back side! One of the most fun things about parsemage is that the charcoal adheres to both sides of the paper. Hang the paper to dry or dry flat, with the preferred side facing upward.
Parsemage is a work of art in itself or, when dried, it can be used as a background for a charcoal drawing.
Nitram batons, in all hardness grades, work great for the parsemage technique and produces less residual dust and mess as vine or willow charcoal. It’s not only a technique used by the serious artist, but a technique that children enjoy as well and teaches the versatility of charcoal as a serious art medium.
The charcoal dust on the parsemage can be blended when the paper is damp or dry and other mediums, such as watercolor, can be added. As with any charcoal drawing, it should be sprayed with a workable fixative when completely dry.