“Drawing is still basically the same as it has been since
It brings together man and the world. It lives through magic.” Keith Haring
Welcome to the Carbon family which has offered men for millennia delicious shades of grey and shades of black and thus some of our darkest (and most loved) drawing options -these pigments also used in paint these days. “Carbon” is a term sometimes used loosely to describe any intense black made from amorphous carbon that has been divided into fine particles and thrown in this or that drawing implement so it can be a tad confusing, most often though it is referring to a soot based pigment which has some of the most finely divided particles known. These days it is not made into little lamps anymore (see below Lamp black vs Carbon black) but by burning good old dinosaurs… you know, fossil fuels!
Amusingly enough it seems the Orient made a move from graphite ‘inks’ -available only in liquid or powder and used until the Shang dynasty- to Lamp black, ie soot, around 250BC in China. Whereas in Occident some sort of soot based ink has always been in use (a good example is our friend Ötzi the Iceman who was found in the Italian Alps with 61 carbon tattoos on his body which lasted not only his whole life but long enough for us to admire them some 5000 years later!) until one day in Bavaria, around 1400 actually, when deposits of a pigment which made wonderful marks were “discovered”. Our occidental guys, unfamiliar with it though, promptly mistook it for black lead and named it thus. During the next century very pure deposits of it were found in England too, but it would have to wait until 1789 to get proper recognition under the name “graphite”.
The members of the Carbon are commonly found in nature in two forms :
crystalline which has a further two divisions (one as abrasive as the second is soft)
- The first crystalline option, even if a woman’s best friend, is not used in art materials at all… as that form of carbon in which the atoms link together to form a rigid structure both very hard and beautifully transparent is… the diamond!
- The second crystalline option in which six atoms combine to form a ring, rings that tend to arrange themselves then in sheets that slide easily over one another is our good old and trusted friend… the graphite; from the Greek word graphein: “to write”. But when it was discovered, mistaken for lead it was named black lead, or plumbago… a misnomer that has stuck as many many people still come to my art shop for “lead pencils” which don’t and have never existed (thank God since they are quite tempting to chew or suck!)
and amorphous which has another four types: charcoal, lampblack, coal, and coke.
- Coal and coke are mined (or rather should not be mined anymore!) and are not workable as artists’ materials.
- Charcoal is an impure form of carbon and is obtained through the incomplete combustion of plant matter, wood, or bone. If you are interested in how artist willow charcoal is made, please read my article about my visit to Coate’s the largest producer in the world. Another interesting fact is that charcoal can be turned into graphite at 2982 degrees C (5400°F)… you might need a volcano to do the trick but, you never know, this fact could come in handy!
- Lamp black (often called Carbon black although they are not the exact same pigment: PBk6 vs PBk7) is the oldest pigment made by man in a quasi industrial way… It is obtained by collecting the soot from the burning of oil. The Chinese who perfected this art, called ink one of the “four precious implements” (the other three were the brush, the paper and the slab on which you “made” your ink). Imagine rows of men (women?) filling up little wick oil lamps and then fitting on them a sort of coned hat. After some time the oil would burn out and, eventually, the lamp would cool. It was time to go and collect from these soot lined domes, the precious “lamp black” pigment which would turn into an ink as smooth and grit free as the oil was pure and as delightfully scented as the musk, medicinal scents or other essence you threw in the mix of soot and animal glue you used to turn it into a paste which would dry into precious little cakes. Forget Indian ink! A misnomer because the boats arriving from China, swapped their loads in India and then the English knew no better… Sure ink was made more or less all over the world -and in India too- but the true masters were the Chinese and the Japanese. The particles in their ink were so varied and could be so fine that it gave all sorts of subtleties and gradations of black useful to artists. Most Oriental art as a result perhaps was made with ink, while calligraphy became an art form in itself, and one of the most revered ones. Although these artists were and are very demanding in their black inks and can choose still between an incredible variety of them (hardly ever found in occidental art stores) mostly what you get these days is not made from lamp black but carbon black produced by burning tar, creosote, naphthalene, or other petroleum products.
Both Eastern and Western artists however would have been amazed, had they been able to see in the future into all these incredible materials these three or four pigments turn into these days… with watersoluble variations and a declination in pencils, sticks, blocks, powders, putties… you name it and how exciting is that!!!
I go into more details in the relevant sections below
or just scroll down to read all three pages…
Charcoal is the carbon-rich residue of incompletely burned wood, bone, or vegetable matter. Artists’ charcoal sticks are made of wood and although any wood will “char” willow has become the wood of choice due to the consistency and fineness of its particles. Producing artists’ willow is not quite as easy as it sounds and, if you would like to know more about that process, you’ll enjoy reading about my visit to the largest producer in the world, Coate’s…
Vine charcoal, made by charring the shoots of vines, is also available in artist quality in soft, medium, and hard consistencies but seemed very much paler on the rare occasions I have tried one – which of course might be just what you wish.
Both willow or vine charcoal can be removed, usually with a kneadable eraser rather than a normal one, which makes it an ideal tool for preliminary sketches. It is dark but certainly nothing like carbon or compressed charcoal. If you do use it as a sketching device before a painting, remember to use fixative at the end as it will otherwise dissolve in the paint and sully it.
Willow sticks are available in different sizes, from fine to thick to tree sticks (don’t expect a branch here, we are talking of shoots really). Nitram also has grades H, HB & B and produces a square one, the “mignonette”, to fit their “baton” holder.
Compressed Charcoal is charcoal powder mixed with a gum binder and compressed into sticks. Just as in pencils, the amount of binder used can give different degrees of hardness: HB / B / 2B / 3B / 4B and sometimes 6B are available. Being somewhat manufactured, compressed charcoal is obviously more consistent in quality and darkness than a calcined twig! It also is stronger, with a more regular shape, which makes it easier to control and make big bold marks with. (Although you can make marks into it with your kneadable, just about forget erasing it entirely though.)
And what about white charcoal?? Well, no. They don’t bleach charcoal to make a white one or anything equally obscure and weird. There is a rare Japanese “white charcoal” mind you but bincho-tan -although used to make things as diverse as soil enhancers, humidity regulators, deodorants, socks, shirts, shampoo and cosmetic products- is not the one on your materials list for the next drawing class! Usually what is meant is that little stick up there on the picture and it’s just a term to describe crayons/sticks that look like and are used like charcoal but made of a white pigment.
While we’re at it I’ll just squeeze Conté‘s sketching crayons in this section as they too are manufactured using natural pigments (iron oxides, carbon black, titanium dioxide), clay (kaolin), and a binder (cellulose ether). Like “white charcoal”, these crayons are much less greasy than compressed charcoal (belong in fact in the hard chalk section) but I thought I’m mention them here again as they walk hand in hand with the whole carbon family really. They start with a range of blacks (HB / B / 2B) then venture into whites (HB / B / 2B), the sanguine tones, as well as bistre, shades of grey, and even colors.
Charcoal Pencils are compressed charcoal encased in wood, or protected with a wrapping which you peel as you go, while one brand has a woodless one which I like best. The idea is basically to keep your hands cleaner (the totally hands-on a approach is not for everybody) but it also gives a precision you cannot find in sticks as obviously you can sharpen them into a point. Charcoal pencils don’t seem to come in grades so much as in three options: soft, medium, hard.
Charcoal Powder is now available and to be applied dry or whetted with, I presume, anything you want from fingers to… for random rubbing / splashing of large areas.
And then, last but not least the “Fine Art Charcoal Blocks” appeared on the market not long ago. These are quite delicious! The blurb says ” These blocks have all the qualities of charcoal that you love in a chunky XL form, combine that with rich natural colours and you’ve got an artist’s dream! The blocks come in 6 muted shades from Sanguine and Violet to Sepia and Ochre. Naturally water-soluble you can use them on a damp surface and release lots of colour really quickly and build up layers of different colours as you go.” All of the above is true and, strangely enough, even their name as XL Charcoal blocks are made from charcoal with a hint of pigment to give their colour. There is also a few binders present to help hold the block together!
Coates and Nitram are good brands of willow charcoal, Conté produces a lovely compressed one, and there are quite a few acceptable more economical ones. (You could very well be buying a Coate’s charcoal under another name though as few companies actually make the willow charcoal they commercialize under their brand name.) Cretacolor offers the charcoal powder and Derwent the large “charcoal” blocks.
I know this is the drawing section but a little PS about these pigments when used in paints… I’ve never seen a “willow charcoal black” paint or even a paint named “charcoal” but you could make your own of course… simply mix your charcoal powder in water then add acrylic binder and hey presto! Some more traditional companies do have a Vine black however (it’s an opaque cool black /gray with high tinting strength useful for graying out flesh tones without dirtying them) while some have a Peach black, obtained from burnt peach stones (a pigment which has a greenish tendency, making it useful for darkening foliage and ground cover).
I have not been able to discover the difference in process between the Bone (PBk9) and Ivory black (PBk8) made today although, traditionally, pure ivory was burned instead of ordinary animal bones to produce the later. (The genuine pigment is still made in tiny quantities from ivory harvested from animals that have died naturally but is almost as expensive as genuine Lapis Lazuli, it’s a deep velvety black and has a higher carbon content than Bone Black and so is more intense.)
Graphite was used by the Orient to produce an ink and by the Aztecs as a mark making tool way before Europe knew anything about it. When it was found in Bavaria in the 15th century nothing much happened either but when, a century later, the purest deposits of graphite ever were discovered in Cumberland, England, it was promptly used by shepherds to mark their sheep then sold as rough mark making sticks wrapped in string. In time, a cottage industry of pencil making developed there (a thriving business these days known under the name of Derwent) but first… someone had to invent the pencil!
Necessity being the mother of all inventions, it was war between France and England which, imposing a very annoying embargo on Mr Napoléon Bonaparte, brought along a resolution to the many attempts to extend powdered graphite with gums, resins and glues. How was his administration, his Empire, to run smoothly without graphite sticks? The French Republic offered a reward to anyone who could come up with an idea… and, 4 days into his research, Nicolas-Jacques Conté -a fascinating scientist/artist/balloonist with a project-a-day attitude- came up with a solution! He developed a process of roasting a mixture of clay, purified graphite and water in a kiln, and then encasing that substance in wood… the pencil was born. ( By the way it’s him up there and the lost eye is not due to a pencil but to a too close study of gas for his balloons!)
Soon after, Joseph Hardmuth found that the greater the amount of clay used in the mixture, the harder the pencil point, which gave us all these H and B variations of grey (even a little F lost in the middle there). I’m not quite sure what these letters really stand for but you could trick your memory with H standing for Hard and the more Hs (2H, 3H etc.) the harder the pencil will be. B then is the opposite: 9B is usually the end of the chart and that’s a pretty dark and greasy graphite pencil there. I have been asked for numbers above 2H (Faber-Castell does go to 6H) but harder than hard doesn’t seem to appeal much and usually 2H is where artists and pencil boxes begin.
If you would like to read how a pencil is made today, there’s a good description in the coloured pencils page.
Graphite is on the whole much easier than charcoal: less dusty and more durable, its slippery nature makes it glide on surfaces yet it has a natural adhesion AND it can be so easily erased! It can be shaped easily into a variety of things -including the craziest shapes and the thinnest of leads of course which is why there are quite a variety of graphite tools. A new option is watersoluble graphite and that seem to really appeal to many for quick sketches with a twist. For fast life drawings for example I can see how it might even be an all rounder tool.
The Graphite Pencil is the most common writing and drawing tool in the world. (By the way, although there is a lead in your pencils -that middle bit which carries the colour, white, grey, etc. is called a lead in all of them- but please remember once and for all that lead pencils do not exist! I really wish art teachers stopped using that confusing name when they really want you to get graphite pencils, but I guess I’ll have to live with another misnomer in my life!)
Drawing would not be quite the same without them even if most pencils produced in the world do not end up in the hands of an artist but more used by school children practicing writing and adding up. Pencil by the way comes from pencillus meaning “little tail” in Latin. In medieval times the word was used for a little drawing brush for ink. The graphite pencil with it’s wooden handle and fine tip too seems to have simply adopted that rather unsuitable name.
Definitely, if you want to draw, a variety of hardnesses is a must but graphite pencils are produced by so very many companies, and are so very different from brand to brand that I would not be able to tell you which one to get. Some brands are waxier, you might like the smooth easy line they produce, some are harder and will keep a better point, give you a more defined line and you might like those. You might even prefer the woodless pencils which are pleasant to sharpen and can be used on the side to produce bigger strokes. However, if big marks are your thing, I would recommend you get a truly BIG pencil or even an uncoated rectangular stick.
Mechanical Pencils is another way to go, especially if you like to work very fine and need a consistent point. Since a vise is not used to hold the lead, it is free to rotate as a line is drawn so that a consistent line width is produced. You can sharpen your leads -some brands have a little sharpener at the top of the pencil under the eraser which is convenient- mostly you keep going and that’s the beauty of this tool. Leads and lead holders are common in 0.5mm, 0.7mm and also 2mm but can also be found in 0.3mm and 0.9mm. Most mechanical pencils advance in increments but some these days automatically advance the lead as it is worn down, eliminating even the need to stop and make adjustments… ha! Progress!
Graphite Sticks are, amusingly enough since it’s how it all began, relatively new in the art world. Today of course they too are not pure graphite but mixtures of powdered graphite and clay. Artgraf in Portugal has just produced the mega stick photographed up there and it’s watersoluble! Nice…
Derwent also produces “Fine Art Graphite Blocks” and these are quite delicious! The blurb says ” You can create a wide variety of textures and effects with these generous graphite blocks; subtle blending, fine lines and deep tonal work are all possible. Available in 6 shades from Olive Green to Burnt and Raw Umber, chunky blocks of XL Graphite are naturally water-soluble too.” Quite obviously Olive Green or Raw Umber are other pigments but in the XL Graphite blocks the main ingredient is graphite to which is added a little pigment to give a hint of colour… amazing is it not?
You can find graphite powder in most stores and spread it, buff it etc. and you can now also find tins of watersoluble graphite, made by ArtGraf, and play with your graphite and a brush, it’s very pleasant! But wait until you try the graphite kneadable putty they have just invented!! I could tell you about it at length but it really has to be seen to be believed and so… a link to a little video!
I know this is the drawing section but a little PS about Graphite Gray PBk10 pigment (or powder as it is most often referred to) which is sometimes available in paint ranges… It’s not something you would think of using in your drawings perhaps but I have recommended it to a few artists who wanted some of the precision / consistency you can get to with paint and it has seemed to solve their issues so just passing on that it exists in certain ranges.
Carbon Black is probably the most common black paint but it is rather recently that it has arrived on the drawing board…
Carbon Pencils have a very fine grain, a consistent texture, no shine when laid down on paper. They do not damage fragile paper as there are no impurities in carbon (which means no grittiness!) and despite their lovely softness they have a rich deep black colour. This consistency is maintained throughout the available range of degrees of hardness, which is generally identical to that of compressed charcoal, ie B, 2B, 4B, 6B.
If you like the much blacker lines they produce, carbon pencils combine the advantages of graphite pencils (sharp lines) and charcoal pencils (rich black lines) without the disadvantage of breakage and excessive smudging.
I can recommend Wollf’s carbon pencils (B / 2B / 4B / 6B) and the Conté “pierre noire” pencils (H / HB / B / 2B / 3B) which have a soft lead with a black that is dense, deep, indelible and matt. Although I have been unable to find anywhere a confirmation if was indeed carbon in these pencils, I presume it is as they are so very black (and very nice).
And now for something else… wait until you try the watersoluble carbon discs… they are divine! and produce the blackest of the blacks when whetted… They are made by ArtGraf, a new -on the Australian market anyway- company which has been producing artist drawing materials since 1907 in Portugal but seems to very recently have conjured some of the most innovative products.
Just after black they have come out with 5 extra earth colours for their “carbon” discs which can be used dry to make marks, even quite precise line in fact and then can be used wet too… You’ll make a total mess of yourself, your hands will be full of colour whether you dip the disc directly in water and play like that or wet the page then come in with the disc which seems to give even more intense blacks and colours. You could try applying water with a brush and then coming in with your dry disc but it seems any which way you choose you’ll turn black or brown, sanguine or bistre in the end!
Carbon has extremely low toxicity to humans and can be handled and even ingested safely (in the form of graphite or charcoal) so don’t worry, be happy and messy!