Charcoal (art)

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4 "vine" charcoal sticks and 4 compressed charcoal sticks. Drawing materials.

Artists' charcoal is a form of dry art medium made of finely ground organic materials that are held together by a gum or wax binder; which can also be produced without the use of binders by eliminating the oxygen inside the material during the production process.[1] These charcoals are often used by artists for their versatile properties such as the rough texture that leaves marks less permanent than other art media.[2] It can produce lines that are very light or intensely black while being easily removable and vulnerable to leave stains on paper. The dry medium can be applied to almost any surface from smooth to a very coarse. Fixatives are often used with charcoal drawings to solidify the positions to prevent erasing or rubbing off of charcoal dusts.

The method to create artists' charcoal is much similar to that of charcoal used throughout different types of fields such as producing gunpowder and cooking fuel. Therefore the type of wood material and preparation method allows different variation of charcoal to be produced.[3]


There are various types and uses of charcoal as an art medium, but the commonly used types are: Compressed, Vine, and Pencil.

Compressed charcoal (also referred as charcoal sticks) is shaped into a block or form of a stick. Intensity of the shade is determined by hardiness. The amount of gum or wax binders used during the production process affects the hardiness. Soft hardiness leaves intensely black markings while Hard hardiness leave light markings.[4]

Vine charcoal is a long and thin piece of charcoal stick that is the result of burning sticks or vines in a kiln without air. The removable properties of vine charcoal from dusting and erasing is favored by artists for making preliminary sketches or basic composition. This also makes vine charcoal less suitable for creating detailed images.

Charcoal pencils are compressed charcoals that are wrapped with a layer of wood. The design of charcoal pencils are similar to that of graphite pencils while keeping intact with the properties of charcoal. Often used for fine and crisp detailed drawings while keeping the user's hand from being marked during its use.[citation needed]

Other types of artists' charcoal such as charcoal crayons were developed during the 19th century and used by caricaturists.[5] Charcoal powders are used to create patterns and pouncing, a transferring method of patterns from one surface to another.[citation needed]

There are variation of each types of artists' charcoal that range in shading and hardiness. Production from different companies varies due to additional materials that are included such as clay.[6]

Art techniques[edit]

Paper used with artists' charcoal can vary in quality. Rough texture may allow more charcoal to adhere to the paper. The use of toned paper allows different possibilities as white oil pastels (commonly referred to by the brand name Conté) can be used in combination with charcoal to create contrast.[7]


It is a method in which thin, dark lines are continuously placed parallel to each-other. When done with charcoal, it comes out smoother and darker.


Rubbing is done with a sheet of paper pressed against the targeted surface then rubbing charcoal against the paper. It creates an image of the texture of the surface.


Blending is done to create smooth transitions between darker and lighter areas of a drawing. It can also create a shadow effect. Two common methods of blending are, using a finger to rub or spread charcoal which has been applied to the paper or the use of paper blending stumps also called a Tortillon. Many prefer to use a chamois, which is a soft square piece of leather.

Lifting (Erasing)[edit]

Erasing is often performed with a kneaded rubber eraser. This is a malleable eraser that is often claimed to be self-cleaning. It can be shaped by kneading it softly with hands, into tips for smaller areas or flipped inside out to clean.


Charcoal was often a key component of Cave painting, with examples dating back to at least 28,000 years ago.[8]

One of the oldest painting is a picture of a zebra found at the Apollo cave in Namibia.[9][page needed]

In the renaissance Charcoal was widely used but few works of art survived due to charcoal particles flaking off the canvas. At the end of the 15th century a process of submerging the drawings in a gum bath was implemented to prevent the charcoal from flaking away.[citation needed] Charcoal paintings date as far back as ca.23,000 BC. Since then many cultures utilized charcoal for art, camouflage, and in rites of passage. Many indigenous people from Australia, parts of Africa, Pacific Islands, parts of Asia, and others still practice body painting for rites of passage including child birth, weddings, spiritual rituals, war, hunting, and funerary rites. Many artists use charcoal because of its unique dark black strokes. The weak structure of charcoal causes the material to flake off onto the canvas.[citation needed]

Throughout western art history artists well known for other mediums have used charcoal for sketching or preliminary studies for final paintings. Examples of contemporary artists using charcoal as a primary medium are Robert Longo, William Kentridge, Dan Pyle and Joel Daniel Phillips.


  1. ^ "Charcoal: powdered, compressed, willow and vine". Muse Art and Design. September 7, 2011. Retrieved September 15, 2013. 
  2. ^ Harris, Peter J F (1999). "On Charcoal". Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. 24 (4): 301–306. doi:10.1179/030801899678966. Retrieved September 15, 2013. 
  3. ^ Lindquist, Evan. "How to Make Drawing Charcoal". Retrieved September 18, 2013. 
  4. ^ Saitzky, Steven (1987). "Carbon Based". Art Hardware: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials. Watson-Guptill. ISBN 9780823002672. 
  5. ^ Elisabeth, Mary. Foster, Niki, ed. "What are Charcoal Pencils?". Retrieved 2013-09-15. 
  6. ^ "How to Choose Drawing Materials: Compressed Charcoal- How it's made?". RUSART Art Supplies. Retrieved September 18, 2013. 
  7. ^ Vebell, Victoria (2004). Exploring the Basics of Drawing (1st ed.). Cengage Learning. ISBN 9781401815738. 
  8. ^ "An archaeologist has discovered charcoal drawings that are 28,000 years old..."
  9. ^ Kleiner, Fred S. (January 1, 2012). Art Before History. Gardner's Art Through the Ages; A Global History (14th ed.). Street Boston, MA 02210: Wadsworth: Cengage Learning. ISBN 0495915432.