The Art Medium Charcoal

The dramatic, rich markings left by charcoal appear in the earliest primitive cave painting of early humans, which are believed to have been drawn with the charcoal created from burnt sticks. Currently, three kinds of charcoals are used in art. Powered charcoal, compressed charcoal and vine charcoal. In its powdered form, charcoal is used to achieve a desired shading and tone. Charcoal pencils consist of compressed charcoal powder and a gum binder, which produces a fine, sharp line, while vine charcoal provides a smooth, softer line. Charcoal is sometimes viewed as a preliminary medium for sketching or drawing before painting.

Able to produce lines with either a soft or strong quality, charcoal is rather versatile, allowing the artist to approach texture, shading and tone with ease. Charcoal is easy to apply and does not adhere to the grooved surfaces of canvases, giving artists the freedom to create smooth drawings that are easily corrected.  However, without a fixative, charcoal illustrations are vulnerable to smudges, which could explain why so many artists use it as a preliminary tool. Throughout the Renaissance, most artists used charcoal to prepare their panel paintings or fresco murals, and many used charcoal in their drawing studies. However, some masters used charcoal alone or with chalks and ink to create stunning masterpieces.

Michelangelo’s “Study of a Man Shouting” illustrates, that in a skilled hand, charcoal could capture both emotion and detail, and produce subtly in both shade and tone. Charcoal’s use continued beyond the Renaissance, sweeping through the Romantic period and into the modern 20th century. In the Romantic period, French sculptor, Antoine-Louis Baryen used charcoal to create “Dead Young Elephant.” His depiction of the fallen giant is another example of the depth and emotion possible in charcoal drawings. With a variety of dark and light strokes, and his shading and detail, the elephant’s image slowly fades between stark realism and gentle, sorrowful abstraction.

German expressionist Ernst Barlach created many dramatic charcoal drawings. His “Self-Portrait,” from 1928, clearly captures the weariness and frustration of a pacifist at odds with his homeland’s Nazi wartime regime. Still another example of charcoal’s ability to evoke delicate, yet stirring emotion is found in Robert Blackburn’s “Man With Load” from 1936. Blackburn’s mixture of darkness and shadow portrays the emotional drudgery and physical exertion of the laborer. As one of the world’s longest surviving artistic media, charcoal has provided a means to sketch and draw with increased attention to quality, tone and subtly. Artists continue to employ this medium because of its versatile ability to capture both gestures and emotions with an intuitive mixture of the soft and the dark.