Getting back to the nuts and bolts of charcoal art is a bit fun, but I think in doing this, it’s best to remember what I mentioned before about artists. I think that while my answers at times don’t seem all that helpful if you’re looking for the “here’s what you do” cut and dried answer of it, the truth is once you have the basics down, charcoal is an awesome medium that can take you places in your own artistic expression. So, like all things, it’s best to get down the basics and go from there. There are, however, a few tips and tricks that people who’ve been working in it for a while can share, and I think that’s really for the best. Who’d want to hamper creativity?
Types of Charcoal
The great thing about working in charcoal is, unlike digital mediums, it’s not really that expensive. You can play around with it, see what type suits you best, and go from there. However, there are some traits and attributes you may want to be aware of with each type. For instance, if you’re using willow or vine, you’re going to get some really nice, delicate grey work. It lends itself very well to all kinds of terrific textures, and it blends easily. If you want something that’s just a bit more bold out of the box: go with compressed charcoal. It is a little harder to work with in respect to smudging, but that can also be a benefit when it comes to wanting to work with something that’s less messy.
There are also pencils, which hold the compressed charcoal in timber- you know, like a pencil and those are fantastic if you really just want to minimize mess almost entirely. I guess I’m somewhat puritanical, because for me, if I’m going to work with a pencil, I’ll just go graphite. That’s down to personal preference and I have seen some passionate arguments on that subject: but for me, it’s not that they’re any better or worse. It’s the experience. I also find that working with vines, particularly those with the tops wrapped- it tends to keep you disciplined insofar as wrist position and hand strokes. Your mileage, of course, is going to vary. Lastly, there are carbone pencils. These pencils claim to offer the same rich charcoal black without the mess, but I’ve yet to find one that didn’t smudge like crazy. My experience is admittedly limited, there, as I bought some for sketching but wasn’t crazy about them.
Speaking of brutal debate, this is something that gets tossed around so much it’s probably a dizzy subject, but many people wonder about the use of fixatives. When I was younger, I had a serious full on hatred for them. I did. Like many others, my biggest issue with fixing my drawings was that whatever I used, changed the original drawing. However, as I grew a bit, worked with it a bit, I learned to use the fixative as a part of the whole: and so will you. My opinion is now solidly on the side of advising you use a fixative on your charcoal drawings. The best method I’ve found so far, is a process. Lightly spraying a paper with a good tooth to it with the fixative first. I like Windsor and Newton’s, but a word of warning- if you’re using it with graphite or charcoal, it’s great. If you’re working with pastels, opt for something else. A very, very light coat will do. Then, I work the drawing and then, spank the excess powder into the trash. When I am finished, another couple of light coats of fixative. Spank it again, so anymore excess comes off. The thing you’re wanting to be very careful of is in over saturating your paper. If you do this, it’s going to buckle, but also, the charcoal will float more into the grain of the paper, causing all sorts of undesirable effects.