Hints 'n' Tips | Visual Arts

Starting Out In Charcoal: Preparing for Paintings in Black and White

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One really effective way to begin planning your next studio painting is to do several thumbnail sketches until you hit on something you like. After that, you might forgo heading directly into oil paint and do some pre-planning in the medium of soft vine charcoal. The reason for this is because soft vine charcoal is very workable, takes the eraser well, and is a joy to work with when making changes and adjustments. As a drawing medium, it is the closest thing I know to oil painting in many respects. Specifically, you are dealing with a “mass” approach in charcoal, as opposed to a linear one, as in pen or pencil. Also, you are working with values, edge control and textures to some extent; the only thing it lacks is color, which at this stage of planning, is a plus! It’s a great way to work out problems associated with painting, before you ever set brush to canvas.

In my studio I have a number of drawing boards that I cut from larger pieces of quarter-inch MDF board, purchased from any home improvement store or lumber supply company. These drawing boards are ready when I need them, with a good quality charcoal paper handy, which can be taped to the board for quick access. I have cut these boards in two sizes: (21” x 24”) for most studio situations, as well as a couple of 14 x 20s for outside use. I have constructed carrying boxes with slots in order to carry them without disrupting the drawing surface when in transport.

A good quality paper is also very critical for modeling in charcoal, as well as being able to lighten areas of the drawing and to make crisp erasure marks. Without a good quality paper, it’s very difficult to make full use of the limited value range of the medium; this also enhances a clean textural effect. Papers such as newsprint that are used in college drawing classes are an excellent way for students on a budget to rack up drawing miles, but once they start to produce saleable works, it’s a must to switch to a better quality paper. The charcoal papers I mostly use are Strathmore 300 and 500 series. There are others that are equally good, and some that are even tinted, making it possible for the artist to use a white chalk to create highlight effects. You can experiment here, to your heart’s content.

When doing a charcoal drawing my tools of choice are as follows: several sticks of thin soft vine charcoal, as well as some thicker ones used in set design; a chamois, which is used to wipe the drawing surface and move large amounts of charcoal with one broad swipe; for erasers, I carry a kneaded eraser, as well as pink and white ones (there is even an eraser that comes in the form of a pencil that can be sharpened to reveal a clean tipped tool for smaller technical parts of the drawing); a couple of bristle or synthetic oil painting brushes, to move the charcoal around as well as a paper stump for blending and modeling the forms of the drawing. Add to these some sandpaper for sharpening the vine, blue housepainter’s tape for securing the paper to the board and there you have it, all the tools you need to create a quality charcoal rendering.

You can use any standard easel outdoors to prop up your drawing boards, but make sure they are well-anchored to the easel, so as to prevent the wind from catching them and turning your boards into kites! In some situations, you may even have to anchor the easel to the ground with a rope and a tent stake.

After you have made your initial drawing, it is best to study it for a while, so that you can assess it for possible errors in composition and design. This waiting period can be anywhere from a few hours to a few days, but often coming back to a drawing after a day or two will be just what you need to gain a fresh eye that is so important in getting things back on track. The reason for this is simple enough — it is very easy to become accustomed to errors in a design, whether it be a drawing or painting. Seeing something a little bit later, in a mirror, through a reducing glass or a tinted glass, will often give you that fresh way of looking, that jolts you out of your “perceptual comfort zone” and into a more objective frame of mind. You may know of other ways to accomplish this, and if it works for you, do it; it can only improve your understanding, as well as your art.

After viewing the drawing you may even decide to make major changes or discard the idea you had in mind for a painting altogether. Better now than later, when you have invested a lot of time, paint and linen canvas to a large project. Just remember, revisions are just part of the process in reaching excellence, and why settle for less. Changes are easy, and it is not always necessary to start over on a fresh drawing — simply wipe the surface back with your chamois, and re-design (note — this is only possible if you have not fixed your drawing with a spray fixative). Once you are satisfied with the drawing, pull out the spray and then move on to your canvas, using what you have learned along the way as your guide to design.

These charcoal drawings and finished paintings were done by Utah landscape artist Tom Howard.

An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you John for using my work. I feel it’s a really good thing to see this kind of writing going on. This article is one of my favorites, as each publication of 15 bytes comes around. It always is a good presentation of theory and practice for the artist to consider in their own work. Great work John, and thank you Shawn for this publication.
    Tom Howard

  2. Although paintings are lovely, I almost always prefer the drawings or sketches that form the basis for an artist’s painting. So much energy and life in these sketches. Beautiful Tom.

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