Charcoal: Velvety Black Beauty

Charcoal's earthy origins started with the charred ends of sticks, and truth be told, working with charcoal these days is no less messy, and no less grounded. Working with charcoal allows the artists to focus fully on the essence of a subject, and ignore many things that can often detract from a subject's true nature. Charcoal brings the artists down to earth, back to basics, and demands focus.

But, charcoal is also a flexible medium. Unlike working with most graphite, you can blend it into varying shades of gray, create strong, solid lines, or blur the lines into a swath of shadow. Working with charcoal is very close to working with the essence of art: positive and negative space, perception, and tonal values become the keep components, as well as the areas where an artist should focus their attention.

Getting Started
Because charcoal is a notoriously messy medium, make sure your space is well-prepared. Cover your workspace with newsprint, and have clean paper towels at hand. Make sure your workspace is well-ventilated, and get down to business.

Materials for Charcoal

The best paper choice for charcoal work is white, thick paper with a bit of texture. It shouldn't be too smooth, or the charcoal will not stick to the paper. Choose paper that is not too dark, otherwise the detailing will not be as visible.

Vine Charcoal
Vine charcoal is uncompressed charcoal. One of its characteristics is that it is easy to erase. It is also called willow charcoal.

Compressed Charcoal
Compressed charcoal looks like graphite and comes either in pencil form or stick form. It is available in various hardness levels: soft, medium or hard. Softer charcoals are darker, while hard charcoals are lighter.

Kneaded Eraser
Kneaded erasers are soft and bendable so that you can knead them into any shape. Kneaded erasers are great for creating subtle changes.

Gum/White Erasers
Gum erasers are comparatively harder. These are good for revealing white highlights.

Blending Stumps
Blending stumps are also called tortillons. They are good for blending in smaller details.

Paper Towels
These can be used for blending large areas. These are also effective for rubbing vine charcoal sketches.

Wrapping It Up
Just as when you work with pastels, once you finish a charcoal piece, you probably want to cover it with a fixative so that it doesn't get smudged or damaged. Remember, as a safety precaution, to keep your hands away from your face when working with charcoal, and wash them immediately after you're done. Charcoal dust is not something you want to breathe in.