Exercise 4: Using charcoal

Draw a few larger boxes in your sketchbook.  Using a variety of sizes of charcoal in each box, experiment by:

  • drawing lines of varying thicknesses
  • doing blocks of shading in different grades of darkness
  • creating patterns
  • use putty rubber to create highlights
  • makes notes about what you think about the medium & when it might be good to use

This was fun.  After the small and numerous boxes of the previous mark-making exercise, this felt altogether more relaxed.

Charcoal tones and marks

I began with creating tones, side by side, both smudged and unsmudged.  The hardest to differentiate were the two mid-tones.  I think I managed it… just.  Next, I moved on to line – varying thicknesses, angles, and pressure – hatched, jagged, swirling, curved and circular, with a little stippling for good measure.  Then, I tried to create tones in a sphere and in a few examples of (slightly off-kilter) boxes, moving on to swirls (using both the sharp edge and the flat side of the charcoal).

Charcoal tones and marks 2

Moving on to the second page, I made a box of graded tone (using compressed charcoal), and then drew into it with a putty rubber in wavy criss-cross lines.  In the next box, I used a variety of different tones of compressed charcoal quite heavily, drawing them downwards with a folded tissue – rather liked the softness of the resulting effect, but feel that the unsmeared tones have more life to them.  Next, I used the side of a piece of compressed charcoal to draw rough textured lines, into which I drew with the tip of some willow charcoal.  Then, more lines and cylindrical forms created by using willow charcoal on it’s side in circular motion moving downwards.  Working at varying pressure, I drew arcs and triangles and an undulating wave – plus created a maze effect on a light tonal background using a putty rubber.  In the final box, I drew wavy bands featuring a variety of scribbled, swirling, and straight lines, with a few loose dots.

As I did this exercise, I was listening to music, and started to wonder what might happen if I made marks in direct response to what I was hearing.  I chose two widely differing pieces – and this is the result.

Charcoal and music

The top ‘drawing’ was my response to Lieutenant Pigeon’s Mouldy Old Dough!  The straight lines appeared as I listened to the military-style drumming at the beginning of the song, while the dots evolved from the bouncing movement that followed.  As I bounced my way across the page, the stick (compressed) broke, creating much dust and a few small rough chunks of charcoal.  I put heavy pressure on them with my finger and followed the rhythm around the paper.

The second ‘drawing’ was a response to Cocteau Twins’ Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires, an altogether more ethereal affair.  For this, I chose a piece of willow charcoal, and used it to echo the gentle opening of the song, before taking off as the music soared.  An interesting experiment and huge fun to do!  I was curious to see what marks would emerge, and how much they might be an immediate response to what I was hearing, or the result of prior associations with those songs.  As much as I could, I tried to keep to the former, although I think the types of charcoal I chose to use for each were probably because of what I knew of each piece of music already.

As I went along, I fixed each page using hairspray.  I’ve read conflicting ideas on whether or not this is a good idea – some people say that the hairspray ‘yellows’ the paper over time.  I thought that these early sketchbook exercises might be a good place to try it out.  For the record, I used Superdrug’s Ultra Firm Hold spray (not tested on animals, and capable of guarding anyone’s hairdo against the fiercest gale, I would suggest).  However, if it doesn’t quite do the job, I might be forced to seek out Goth Juice, “the most powerful hairspray known to man. Made from the tears of Robert Smith.”

From these early experiments with charcoal (and from previous ventures), I would imagine using it for tone, gradient, softness, filling large spaces, blending, sketching, creating textures, and shadows.

As I contemplated the characteristics of the medium, the following words came to mind: expressive, loose, dark, speed, sketchy, big, dusty, brittle, shadowy, broad, softness, depth, mood, bold, textural, black…

It’s a medium I enjoy a great deal, and I look forward to exploring its possibilities much further.