Art Supply Tips: Compressed Charcoal

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There are many brands of compressed charcoal, and I find that most of them are far too stiff. Read the packaging carefully and don’t buy black “soft pastels”, these are not the same thing and will not provide good results.  I recommend Art Alternatives Charcoal Drawing Sticks.   These sticks are strong and dark, but also soft enough that when you draw with them, the sticks can create a soft powder.

Many students are afraid of compressed charcoal, it is a very dark, powerful piece of charcoal that is blunt and permanent. You can definitely lighten an area of compressed charcoal with an eraser, but only to a degree.  Once the paper has been touched with compressed charcoal, you can never go back to the perfect white of the paper. While drawing with compressed charcoal is certainly a bigger commitment, the advantages of compressed charcoal are huge.  Compressed charcoal has a wonderful strength and body to it, and there is nothing more dramatically black than an area of deep compressed charcoal.

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For this reason, it’s a good idea to lay out the fundamentals of a drawing with vine charcoal first.  When you feel confident about that initial sketch, you will want to transition to compressed charcoal, and stop using the vine charcoal altogether at that point. Many students run into problems because they refuse to transition to the compressed charcoal, resulting in grey drawings that are dull with low contrast. Ultimately, your drawing should be about 20% vine charcoal for the beginning stages, with the compressed charcoal being used for the last 80% of the drawing.

Break your compressed charcoal stick so that it is is about 1″ long; this will allow you to draw with the side of the compressed charcoal.  Drawing with the side of the charcoal allows you to block in areas of tone.  Most students limit themselves to drawing with only the tip of the compressed charcoal, which is slow and will make your drawings flat and too reliant on outlines. When blocking out areas of tone, exert very little pressure with your hand and build up the darkness of the compressed charcoal slowly. If you start by adding pure blacks everywhere, you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking later with your erasers.

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Related articles:
Art Supply Tips
Charcoal drawing supply set
charcoal paper
vine charcoal
erasers for charcoal drawing
white plastic erasers
charcoal pencils
kneaded erasers
eraser sticks
fixative
layering & mixing charcoal


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