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Getting to know your medium
Charcoal sticks and pencils
By far the oldest drawing medium still available on the market today, charcoal is simple to use and lends itself to expressive, spontaneous work.
The perfect medium for beginners, charcoal is nearly always the starting point of any art course—students are encouraged to pick up a piece and start sketching big, bold images right away. This is because working with charcoal can teach a great deal about drawing textures and creating different tonal areas—essential steps before starting with color. And using charcoal encourages artists to think about the subject as a whole and not about fussy details.
Charcoal is made from burned vine and willow twigs and is available in natural or compressed sticks, pencils, or as a powder. Vine charcoal makes a brownish black color, while willow produces a bluish black mark.
There are varying degrees of hardness—soft, powdery charcoal blends easily and is useful for tonal areas, while the harder sticks are more suitable for linear work and details.
The sticks come in various thicknesses, so you can create a range of marks—from broad, sweeping strokes to fine details. In its pencil form—sticks of compressed charcoal encased in wood—charcoal is much cleaner to use, but you lose the feel of the traditional sticks because you can draw with only the pencil's point, not the sides.
Paper and accessories
Charcoal works well with any type of matte paper with a textured surface. Do not use it on smoothor glossy papers because it simply will not adhere to the surface. Canson and Strathmore are good-quality papers for drawing with charcoal, but for everyday practice, newsprint provides a suitable alternative.
Smudging Charcoal smudges easily, allowing you to produce smooth, velvety effects. Use the sides of the stick to make a series of lines. Then, with the tip of your finger—or with a tortillon, a pencil-shaped roll of paper,—rub across the charcoal from one side to the other, creating light and dark tones by varying the pressure as you go.
Cross-hatching Another way to build up tone with charcoal is by using a series of loose strokes known as cross-hatching. To practice this technique, make a series of parallel lines, then cross them with a series of others at a different angle. Vary the size and closeness of the lines to each other to produce different tones.
Soft blending Instead of smudging the charcoal with your finger or a tortillon, use the wide tip of the charcoal stick to create lines and marks that blend into each other. Sharpen the tip slightly first on a piece of sandpaper, then hold the stick near the top end. Vary the pressure as you scribble to create a range of light and dark strokes.
To begin, you need only the bare minimum of equipment—a few sticks of charcoal in different thicknesses, paper, and fixative ( essential because charcoal smudges easily). Buy proper fixative from an art store or use ordinary hairspray to coat your finished drawing.
You will need fine sandpaper or a sharp utility knife to sharpen the point of a charcoal stick, and a kneaded-rubber eraser to create highlights and to correct errors. Fingers are ideal for the job of blending, but you can use a tortillon to avoid dirty hands. Paper tissues, cloth rags, and cotton swabs are inexpensive alternatives.
Wash your fingers after using them for blending—the dust can work into your skin and then you'll leave prints on the paper.
Experience will teach you the amount of pressure needed for the different grades of thick or thin sticks. Too much pressure on a thin stick causes it to break frequently, splattering charcoal crumbs across the paper.
Although willow and vine are the main types of charcoal available, there are several others that give you the chance to create many different tonal and linear values in your drawings.
Charcoal has been used as a drawing medium since Roman times, and probably before. It may be that the first artists discovered the potential of the medium by accident, when charred wood from a fire was used to sketch on stone in an idle after-dinner moment! But whatever the origins of the medium, it was not until many centuries later that the comparative virtues of different wood charcoals were recognized. One of the most commonly used and readily available is willow charcoal, but you can also purchase charcoal sticks and twigs in a variety of other wood types, sizes, grades, and shapes.
Square-cut sticks with pointed tips, for example, produce a relatively light tone and are excellent for drawing fine, sharp lines and detail. Beech twigs, however, make a darker, more velvety mark; and since each twig is unique in size and shape, the lines they produce are very varied. Chunky sticks of natural vine charcoal are often used for large-scale work. With their deep, rich tone, they are ideal for creating strong light-and-shadow (chiaroscuro) effects; they can also be used to create black "grounds" out of which images can be erased, or "lifted out." Finally, charcoal powder provides you with perhaps the most direct form of drawing possible. Simply scatter some powder on paper and draw with your fingers, a cloth, an eraser, or some other blunt instrument. (Excess powder should be gently shaken or blown from the paper as the drawing progresses.)
You may not find some of these charcoals at general art suppliers. However, most stores should be able to order them for you or provide the names and addresses of specialist suppliers. Beech twig charcoals are available by mail order (see page 10).
Beech twig charcoals
This type of charcoal is available from Luxor, an art material specialist, at this address: Hameau de Coquin, 89140 Villethierry, France (tel: 0033 3 86 66 53 87 or fax: 0033 3 86 66 12 25).
Blending with charcoal
The soft, powdery nature of charcoal is ideal for working with your finger or a tortillon to create a vast range of rich, velvety tones.
More than anything else, be it light, patterns, colors, or shadows, it is tone that gives your work the depth it needs to be convincing.
Charcoal is ideal for this. Drawn straight from the stick, the marks are grainy and highly textured. But rub them with your finger and you will find that they blend into a smooth layer that is perfect for subtle tones. Depending on the strength of your initial marks, you can create a variety of tones ranging from light to dark. You can reduce intensity by gently rubbing with a kneaded-rubber eraser, or increase it by simply repeating the blending process.
And that is not all. The bonus with using charcoal is that it is infinitely adjustable. If you do not want a mark you have made, dust it away. This leaves an appealing "ghost" image that also functions as a guide for laying down new marks.
If this technique is new to you, practice blending with your fingers and a tortillon before you begin to draw. You will need paper with a rough texture, or slight tooth, or the dry charcoal powder will not lie on the surface. Charcoal smudges easily, so spray your drawing with one or two light coats of fixative at the end to protect it.
Lightly build up an even area of scribbled marks with a charcoal stick. Use a tortillon (top) or your fingertip (above) and lightly rub the scribbled marks so that they blend together. The fine point of a tortillon gives you more control in intricate areas.
Overcoat on a hook
* The setup The flowing lines, soft textures, and range of deep tones on this overcoat contrast dramatically with the pale, solid, angular door—an excellent combination for a charcoal drawing. Our artist liked the idea that, although the coat did not hang so its left and right sides were identical, there was still a simple symmetry about the setup.
YOU WILL NEED
 Several thin willow
charcoal stick, and
one thick stick
 Sheet of 18 - x 24-in drawing paper
 Drawing board and pine and masking tape
1 Look hard at your setup. Decisions made early on will help make your lines loose and free when you begin to draw.
Consider proportions. The distance from the top of the coat to the bottom of the scarf is roughly four times the width of the hood at its widest part. Similarly, the length from the bottom of the hood to the third button down is much the same as from the button to the bottom of the scarf. Look at all the angles in the folds of the coat and relate them to each other.
2 Using a thin stick of charcoal, loosely draw the coat and scarf. Once you have established these you can relate the door to them. Keep your marks fairly light, but do not be afraid to make bold defining lines. Drag the side of the stick down the paper, following the outline of the coat, then do the same with the rhythms of the folds.
For the scarf, hood, and collar, use the tip of your stick. Try to catch the layers of the scarf.
Draw the top two door panels. They are based on straight horizontal and vertical lines and 90 degree angles.
* 3 Draw the two bottom panels, the doorknob, and the door edges. Then start blending, beginning with the doorknob (see inset). Lightly scribble a few marks, then blend them by rubbing gently with your thumb. Remember to leave some white paper free for the highlights. Do the same for the shadow. Make a small mark to indicate the edge of the shadow, then use your thumb to draw it in with the charcoal dust, keeping roughly to this mark.
* 4 Now you need to lay down a general tone on the coat—you can work into this later. Using the side of your thick charcoal stick, make light scribbles all over the coat, leaving the scarf for later. Try not to create dark spots of charcoal in any one area, aiming instead for an even covering.
* 5 Blend the scribble marks with the flat of your knuckle to create a smooth, even tone. This represents the color of the coat, which contrasts with the lighter tones of the door and scarf. You will bring out the various tones within this "color" later.
Do not be afraid to lose the lines of your underdrawing. Remember, you put them there in the first place, so you can put them back again.
* 6 Using a small charcoal stick and the blending technique (see page 11), bring out areas of depth around the collar and hood. Light shining from the right makes the left-side tones darker.
Draw in the collar edge and lines of stitching on the hood, then put in the dark fold between the sleeves. For deeper tones, make darker scribbles before you blend. Use a tortillon for blending up to the edges. The sleeves are brought out by the darker tone next to them.
* 7 Now work down to the bottom of the coat's left side in the same way. Half-close your eyes and let them travel along the peaks and valleys of the folds to pick out deep tones. Bring out the folds by drawing bold lines along their edges. Use a thin stick for small areas, and the thick stick for larger expanses.
* 8 Now work into the right side of the coat. Once you have blended an area of tone, put in descriptive lines on top where needed—for the edge of the cuffs and sleeves, for example.
Use a small stick to draw lines that loosely indicate the scarf's plaid pattern. Draw the bottom edge of the coat to neaten it up, then add any finishing touches around the coat, such as the buttons, coat tag, and door hook.
* 9 Put in the shadow cast by the coat and scarf on the door. Draw faint lines to indicate its edges, then blend a light tone for the shadow.
Straighten the lines of the door panels. Show the door's grain by lightly dragging and twisting the side of a thin charcoal stick down the page. Our artist used his wooden drawing board to taking a faint rubbing (frottage) of its grain.
* 10 The finished drawing shows how the blended charcoal marks work together to create a sense of depth, bringing out the folds of the coat. The "mountain range" of these folds creates a dynamic feeling that contrasts with the static, solid quality of the wooden door. The plaid scarf adds a casual touch to this portrayal of a simple subject.
Drawing straight lines can be very difficult. On a subject that demands them, such as this door, you might find it easier to use a ruler or any other straightedge. Accuracy at this point can make all the difference to your drawing.
Lifting off charcoal marks
Creating highlights and light tones is easily done with charcoal drawings. Just lift off the charcoal marks with a kneaded-rubber eraser or—bread!
Charcoal is an excellent medium for beginners—it forces you to work boldly and strongly without worrying about minor details. Lifting off your marks is a useful technique, because the effects gained by carefully erasing or softening lines and tones are unobtainable any other way.
You simply use a kneaded-rubber eraser or a little piece of soft, white bread, either to subdue the charcoal or rub it off altogether, to create light tones and highlights. By lifting off your marks in this way, you are actually drawing in the negative. The paper you reveal is as important to the final picture as the charcoal marks themselves.
Practice makes perfect
Practice using your kneaded-rubber eraser before starting your picture. Block in a solid area of tone with the side of your charcoal stick and draw into it with the kneaded-rubber eraser (1). Or pull a piece of bread from the middle of an unsliced loaf (2 and 3) and use it in the same way—it's just as efficient at creating subtle tones, especially over large areas.
Simple still life
* The setup Copper and aluminum pots provide strong shapes and a full range of tones, and the bright highlights on their reflective surfaces offer the opportunity to lift off charcoal from the paper's surface. The irregular ellipses and organic textures of the fruit contrast well with the smooth, shiny pans. They also reflect attractively in the metal.
Our artist used a sheet of watercolor paper for this drawing. Note that the textured marks this produces are a little harder to remove than those made on smoother paper, because charcoal dust tends to sink into the lines and crevices of the paper's surface. As always, experiment to find the paper that you like best.
YOU WILL NEED
 22- x 30-in, sheet of 300lb. cold-press watercolor paper
 Drawing board and
 Thick and thin sticks
of willow charcoal
 Kneaded-rubber erasar; soft rag
 Soft, white bread
 Can of spray fixative
* 1 Lightly sketch the outlines of the composition with the point of a thin stick of charcoal. Do not make this drawing too small and tight—let it fill the whole page. Look at the negative spaces between the objects to help you get both shape and position right. Keep adjusting the lines until you are completely satisfied with the drawing.
Now use the flat of the stick to suggest the main tonal values of the pots and fruit as well as the planes in the burlap backdrop. Indicate the shapes and positions of the shadows and reflections too.
* 2 Using a large, clean, soft rag, lightly flick over the surface of the paper from a distance. This leaves behind a faint "ghost" image in charcoal that acts as a firm found-ation to guide you through the rest of the drawing.
It is easy at this stage to redraw any of the elements. If you do, make sure that you flick over the picture again before continuing.
* 3 Now begin to darken tones all over the drawing. Use the flat side of your small stick of charcoal to make broad strokes to shade in large areas, such as the outside of the pans and the burlap. The tip of the stick is good for hard edges and details. Use a worn-down tip to scribble in the reflections of the fruit on the small foreground pot and the shadows and dark handles on the larger pots.
Do not darken the tones all at once, but build them up slowly, trying to keep the whole picture at roughly the same stage all over.
* 4 Continue working in the same way, slowly building up and darkening the tones all around your drawing. Give more detail to the pears and tangerines in the foreground, indicating the tones and emphasizing the misshapen spheres and the different angles at which they sit. If you find your tones getting too dark, use your soft cloth to lighten them.
* 5 Use a corner of your kneaded-rubber eraser to "draw" the highlight on the rim of the top pot. Do not rub with the eraser, as this pushes the charcoal dust into the paper grain. Instead, use smooth strokes to lift the marks.
Now start to lighten the tones in the backdrop to the right of the top pot with the flat edge of your kneaded-rubber eraser. Cut off the clogged, unusable parts of the eraser with a utility knife.
* 6 Work across the backdrop, lightening areas to vary the tones. Use some bread for this because it picks up marks over large areas better than an eraser. Break the loaf open and pull out some of the soft center. Use this to soften the tones on the left of the top pot, then move on to other background areas that need to be lightened. Notice how visible the tooth of the paper becomes once you have lifted off the charcoal.
(When using bread, keep your board at an angle so the dirty crumbs fall to the floor.)
* 7 Still using the bread, lift out the highlights on the pots. Work over the whole of the picture, both putting on and lifting off marks where necessary. Aim for an overall harmony and simplicity. Do not finish one area at a time, but work on the whole picture to bring it together. Use your finger to blend any charcoal marks that look too harsh.
* 8 Using your thick piece of charcoal, begin working on the darkest tones. Deepen the dark saucepan handles and draw fine lines for hard and distinct edges—around the rim of the bottom right pot, and the edges of the fruit. As the edge of the charcoal becomes blunt, turn it slightly to find a sharper edge.
Work across the picture, tidying up tones by darkening or lifting off charcoal as you go. Smudge the marks on the fruit to give them soft tones to suggest their irregular, rounded shapes. Darken the shadow of the top pot by scribbling the charcoal marks on, then blending softly. Use a little piece of bread to lift off charcoal to adjust the folds of the backdrop.
* 9 Continue working in the same way until all the objects look solid and three-dimensional. Now turn your attention to details, using your kneaded-rubber eraser and a thin stick of charcoal to lift off or add the finishing touches. Our artist decided to lift out the highlight on the handle of the small pot and define the fine dark lines between the objects.
When you have finished, spray the drawing with a coat of fixative so the charcoal does not smudge.
* 10 By slowly building the tones all around the drawing, the artist has created a feeling of depth and solidity. The irregular light tones in the backcloth, and the sharp highlights on the pots add a realistic touch, helping to make a success of this portrayal of a simple still life.
The appeal of graphite pencils
Graphite pencils are the most familiar drawing tools of all. Perhaps that is why we do not always value them as the amazing tools that they are.
Most of us learn to handle pencils as children, and then promptly forget their usefulness and flexibility. This is a shame considering the vast range available—from pencils so hard that they produce the palest of gray lines, to soft pencils that are perfect for dark, velvety shading.
But it is not only the hardness or softness of the pencil that you use that affects the kind of drawing that you produce. There is also the sharpness of the tip to think about, and whether it is rounded or chiseled. Add to that the amount of pressure that you exert on the pencil—and the surface of the paper itself—and you are nearly there. All except for the little matter of the way you apply the pencil, of course!
DID YOU KNOW?
The items in this still life have been
carefully arranged to lead the eye
around the composition, from one thing
to another, without being drawn out of
the picture area. This type of setup is
known as a closed composition.
Excerpted from Complete Drawing & Sketching Course by Stan Smith. Copyright © 2001 by Eaglemoss Publications Ltd. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.