Charcoal Drawings
History, Sketches Using Carbon Sticks, Japanese Sumi-e Drawing.

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See: Art Definition, Meaning.


Woman Bathing in Shallow Tub
Charcoal and Pastel Drawing
by Edgar Degas (1885).

Charcoal Drawings

Charcoal is one of the oldest drawing media - see, for instance, the ancient Nawarla Gabarnmang charcoal drawing (26,000 BCE) - and is commonly used by artists even today, in stick or compressed powder form. The sticks are usually made from twigs of willow (or linden wood) which are subjected to a slow-burning process that reduces the wood to carbon. Sticks come in varying thickness ranging from the very thick (used by scene painters), to medium and thin sticks (used for more detailed drawings). Bamboo charcoal is the main media employed by Japanese Sumi-e artists, (note: Sumi-e actually means charcoal drawing).

Preparatory Sketches

Charcoal is often used by painters making preparatory drawings on the canvas, before adding pigment. This is because it is easily overpainted without affecting the colour or tone of the overlaid paint. Edgar Degas, the French Impressionist, used it to develop his drawings which he then overlaid with layers of soft pastel.

An example of this is his Blue Dancers, 1899 (Moscow Pushkin Museum). Editing of drawings is performed very easily by means of a feather, a brush, putty rubber, or even soft doughy bread.

Charcoal Effects

Charcoal's major advantage as a media of graphic art is its versatility. It can be used to produce either a soft or strong quality of line, which can be erased without difficulty, or it can be dragged across the paper to produce different tonal areas, texture, and shading. However, drawings made with charcoal on paper are impermanent unless sprayed with a fixative - normally a resin dissolved in alcohol.

Other Graphic Art Forms
- Chalk drawings
- Conte Crayon
- Pen and Ink drawings
- Pastels
- Pencil drawings

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

Available Forms

Charcoal is commonly obtainable in regular stick or compressed powder form. Regular sticks come in soft, medium, or hard consistency. The compressed variety, powder mixed with gum binder, comes in round or square sticks. This is used in charcoal pencils.

Draughtsmen Who Used Charcoal

By the 15th century (the Early Renaissance), charcoal was extensively used to prepare fine art preparatory sketches for panel or fresco mural paintings. In the 16th century (the High Renaissance), cartoons - full-scale drawings - were transferred onto the support by pouncing charcoal dust through holes pricked in the paper. Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of many Old Masters who drew in this media (along with pen and ink, and red and black chalks): see for example his Study of a Man Shouting (Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence).

For more examples, see: Best Drawings of the Renaissance (1400-1550). For details of drawings by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, see also: Venetian Drawing (1500-1600). See also the difference between Florentine "disegno" and Venetian "colorito".

India also has a tradition of charcoal drawing. See, for instance, the drawings devoted to the god Shiva on the ceiling of the cathedral hall of the great temple of Lepakshi. See: Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th century).

• For facts about painting movements, styles and Old Masters, see: History of Art.
• For details of drawing/sketching, see: Homepage.

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