Finding some old charcoal in the drawer!

What can I do with this? I haven’t used charcoal since uni, over twenty years! For a start, I needed some paper without a smooth surface, such as watercolour or pastel paper. I know the paper needs to have some ‘tooth’, in other words some texture or roughness for the charcoal to grip. If the paper is smooth, the charcoal will kind of fall off, and smudge much more easily.

I rummaged about in my studio and managed to find an old A3 sketch pad that had a bit of a rough surface. I also found a charcoal pencil and a kneadable eraser, which can be used to remove charcoal to emphasise hi-lights and lighter areas. Kneadable erasers are better for this as they can be squeezed into shapes or points. When the erasers get soiled with charcoal they can be stretched and folded to find a clean patch to use. I believe blue tack can also be used for this purpose.

I was ready to go! I jumped in at the deep end. I used a good photo of my grandson, Stanley, as a reference. I always thought it would make a good photograph for a painting due to the shadows on the face. I used paint portraits in oils a long time ago, but never charcoal.'Stanley' Charcoal on paper A3

My rather messy approach was to cover the paper and rub the charcoal in to create a soft grey area forming a midtone, in which I would add the dark areas and shadows.

This was relatively successful. I would then remove some of the charcoal for the light areas. As well as the eraser, I used my finger to blend and soften the shadows. For the blonde hair I used the eraser with strong bold strokes.

The main problems I encountered were:

  1. Trying to get the darks dark enough. Adding more charcoal on top of the darker areas to make them stronger, resulted in rubbing it off as I was putting it on, so the areas didn’t really get much darker – maybe I should have tried to do the very darks after spraying with fixative.
  2. Working on the eyes, forgetting how much this stuff really smudges and having to redo the mouth which had disappeared due to my hand resting on work! – I should have put a piece of paper underneath!
  3. I found it hard to blend detailed areas, I needed some blending stumps, sometimes called Tortillons. They are made with tightly rolled paper with points like a pencil.

Overall, I was very happy with the results. I felt it was quite an achievement, especially using charcoal for a portrait. Although I painted many portraits, I always struggled to get a likeness in black and white, eg pencil or ink.

Despite the mucky mess, I enjoy the freedom of charcoal, it causes me to loosen up and be more expressive.

I am now frequently using charcoal for various subjects. Here is an example of tall pine trees, which unfortunately have been cut down at Cally Woods in the West Midlands, UK.

'The Lost Pines of Cally Woods' Charcoal on paper A3

I have received several commissions due to my old charcoal find!

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Finding some old charcoal in the drawer!
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