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.)