Thursday, August 30, 2018

Making Friends with Charcoal

8/28/18 Topiary at Woodland Park Rose Garden

You’ve heard me say this before: I detest charcoal. If I’m in a studio where I can wash up easily, I barely tolerate it, but I have managed to endure life drawing classes where vine charcoal has been required. But on location? Forget it!

When I first signed up for my Drawing Nature class at Gage, I was dismayed to see vine charcoal on the supply list. I emailed instructor Kathleen Moore and asked if I could use charcoal pencils instead, and she was very open to it. In fact, she didn’t even insist on charcoal use – it was an option – which was a huge relief.

Initially I was going to skip charcoal altogether, but since I have acquired various charcoal pencils over time (Have I mentioned that I almost never have to buy supplies for classes because I have such a huge stash of everything?), I’ve been taking them to class each week. When Kathleen encouraged us to give charcoal a try this week at the Woodland Park Rose Garden, I decided I would.

8/28/18 Woodland Park Rose Garden
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been using graphite more lately (which has similar behavioral properties), but the charcoal pencils seemed a lot friendlier to me than in the past. Unlike graphite, which turns silvery and shiny in areas of heavy application, charcoal stays dark matte black, yet erases surprisingly well. I enjoyed how quickly dark values could be built, hard edges softened and textures made. I didn’t have chamois, which was recommended for smudging, but I used Eduardo’s toilet paper trick, and it worked as well on charcoal as it does on graphite.

Although being encased in wood has made it much less messy to use, there’s still the smudging and transfer issue (which, to a lesser degree, is also a problem with soft graphite). However, I’ll soon be trying a non-toxic fixative that is on its way from Blick, which might take care of the issue for both media. I hope so.

Charcoal and I will probably never become BFFs, but in pencil form, it’s a cordial medium, even in the field. Despite my usual hesitation, I’m happy that I gave it a try.

I used General's charcoal pencils in HB and 2B.


  1. I have that same hesitancy about using charcoal. You got some very nice results!

    1. Thanks! I'm happy that I found a more amenable way to use charcoal because I do like the results, too.

  2. I like the sketch of the rose garden. Tried charcoal pencils the other day at a life drawing session. I quite like the effects.

    1. Now that I've found a way to make friends with charcoal, I'm going to use it at life drawing this winter, too. I can understand why instructors require it. It has properties that can't be duplicated by other media.


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