Most of you must have heard of charcoal being used in the mud-stoves in villages for cooking and heating purposes. Many of us relish the grand barbeques that employ chunks of burning charcoal for that distinct flavor. Charcoal obtained from various timbers are used as industrial, domestic and metallurgical fuels of various grades all across the world. Activated charcoal is also used as a purifier or filter as it has properties of absorbing impurities from the atmosphere. Besides these areas of utility, charcoal is also used in art widely. It can produce gorgeous looking pieces of art with just the monochrome it is!
As a part of the Publicity and Printing team of my college, we had to come up with interesting ideas to put up attractive paintings, posters and 3D art pieces around the campus to promote the festive mood and adorn the campus. I took up charcoal as my tool and decided to come up with some decent ideas to attract the attention of the passers-by. This intrigued me to research upon this interesting yet not-so-conventional art medium.
Charcoal art dates back to 15000 BC or even earlier when the walls of caves of human dwellings were mans’ only canvas. The popular cave drawings of a mammoth of Lascaux in France, for instance proves the use of charcoal as a tool for drawing. These pictures would have been made from charred sticks taken from a fire rather than intentionally created charcoal. The paintings were found to be well preserved when the caves were first discovered. After being opened to the public in the last 1940s, the presence of the large number of visitors started interfering with the delicate environment of the ancient caves and hence, the paintings started to deteriorate. The replicas of the caves were constructed after the original caves were closed to the public in the year 1963.
Since then many cultures, civilizations and artists have given importance to charcoal as a drawing instrument. Indigenous people from all continents including Australia and Africa have used charcoal for body painting as a part of many traditions and rites of passage like child birth, weddings, wars, hunting, spiritual rites and even funerary rituals. One of the oldest charcoal paintings date back to 23,000 BC. It is the picture of a zebra found at the Apollo cave in Namibia.
Charcoal was largely used for drawing during the Renaissance period for creating initial drawings for a panel or fresco mural drawings. Only a few of these survived as charcoal marks on paper are relatively ephemeral. As more advanced trends in art came up in the later 15th century, drawings were now fixed by being immersed in baths of gum! Hence, these pieces of art which were earlier taken to be preparatory frameworks were now considered more seriously and were taken to be finished pieces of art.
Powdered charcoal is the most basic form of charcoal used. Though it can be very messy, but it allows artists to give definition and tone up large areas of a surface. It is an ingredient in compressed charcoal which is also used for drawing. Powdered charcoal held together with gum or wax gives compressed charcoal a range of softness based on the proportions of the powder and the binder. Compressed charcoal is however harder than willow or vine and hence it can retain its shape. Moreover, compressed charcoal is more break-resistant and lends a deeper black colour. It can also be sharpened for intricate detailing. This makes it suitable for drawing fine lines, textures and details neatly.
Willow and vine charcoal are made from grape vine and willow branches which are burnt to a precise degree of hardness. Since it does not contain any binding agent, it can be erased easily and are soft and powdery. It is less suitable for rendering fine crisp images though it can be used for sketching out composition on a canvas before a painting is done.
Since charcoal tends to smudge on any surface, it becomes mandatory to preserve the work with a fixative, irrespective of the type or amount of charcoal used. However, using a fixative does not make the charcoal drawings completely smudge-proof. They still need glassine sheets or need to be framed under glass to protect themselves completely.
The techniques used with charcoal also depends on the quality and texture of the surface or canvas used. One of the most important techniques used is hatching. Hatching is defined as an artistic technique used to create tonal or shading effects by drawing or painting or scribing closely spaced parallel lines, often rapidly. It is used to create the illusion of shade or texture in a drawing. Rubbing is another technique used with charcoal where in gradient is an important feature. Erasing charcoal is used often to lend a lighter shade or define some features. A charcoal artist is capable of creating a variety of levels of gradation by simply adjusting the pressure on the tool, and by turning or rotating the instrument. He or she can create a whole new kind of stroke on the surface of a work by changing the direction of strokes. Like many other drawing media, charcoal responds strongly to the grain and texture of the paper it is used on.
Many famous artists like Albrecht Durer, Paulus Potter and various other Italian artists have created famous charcoal paintings that have survived. Charcoal drawings were also created throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and into the 21st. There are many popular examples by such artists, in particular French artists like Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Also the Germans, namely, Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollwitz had created mesmerizing art pieces using this simple medium. Most of the famous artists since the Renaissance, from the likes of Rembrandt, Degas, Matisse and Picasso, have also used charcoal in one way or another.
Some of them have used it extensively for studies, some for portraiture, while some for truly notable unique works of art. For example, “Woman Bathing in Shallow Tub” (Charcoal and Pastel Drawing) by Edgar Degas (1885), Portrait of Sergei I Shchukin in Charcoal by Henri Matisse (1912), and Note in Pink and Brown Charcoal by James McNeill Whistler are some noteworthy pieces one should definitely appreciate.