Art Supply Tips: Vine charcoal

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I recommend buying Bob’s Fine Vine Charcoal pack.  The sticks in this pack are very soft with all different sizes of sticks, with some sticks that are very large and wide. When you need to cover a large area of your drawing, the large sticks make this task very quick and efficient.  Some of the other brands have vine charcoal sticks that are way too skinny, making this task difficult and time consuming.

Vine charcoal is an excellent charcoal material for the initial stages of a drawing because it is very soft and easy to erase.  Therefore, it’s a great tool when you are in the very beginning of a drawing, and you want to be able to sketch lightly and make many changes to your drawing quickly.  If you draw lightly enough, you can erase the vine charcoal with just a wipe of your hand which is very convenient.  In that way, vine charcoal is very forgiving and easy to get rid of.

However, I don’t recommend using vine charcoal beyond the first 20% of your drawing.  Ultimately, the majority of your drawing should be made of compressed charcoal. Once you establish the fundamental composition of a drawing with vine charcoal, move on to compressed charcoal and don’t add any more vine charcoal at that point. One of the major drawbacks of vine charcoal is that it is an incredibly fragile material; even the slightest touch of a finger will mess up an area of vine charcoal. There is also a limit to how dark vine charcoal can get, no matter how hard you press, vine charcoal will never compete with compressed charcoal in terms of achieving a deep, black tone. I find that most students limit themselves to drawing exclusively vine charcoal, and consequently, their drawings are too grey and lack the permanence a drawing with compressed charcoal has.

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I like to start my charcoal drawings by toning my entire paper with vine charcoal. (see above image) Get a giant stick of vine charcoal and color the whole paper in, and then finish it off by wiping your hand over the entire sheet of paper to create a smooth, even tone of grey. This middle grey tone creates a foundation from which you can add charcoal or remove charcoal to create highlights with erasers. Because the grey tone is already present before you start drawing, the drawing will develop much faster than if you started with a white sheet of paper.

After toning the paper all grey, you can do a line sketch on top of the grey tone with vine charcoal.  Because the paper is toned grey, you can easily wipe away the line sketch with your hand, and the line sketch will quickly disappear into the grey tone.  I encourage my students to keep wiping away at their initial sketch until they’re satisfied, most of my students will wipe out their initial sketch at least 7 or 8 times.

This toned paper technique gets students over their fear of the white paper. Since the paper is already full of vine charcoal, students don’t feel that they can make noticeable blunders, and if they do, mistakes are very easy to get rid of with a quick wipe of your hand. Below is a torso drawing by one of my RISD freshman drawing students that was started by toning the paper grey with vine charcoal, the drawing has a very loose, painterly appearance.

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


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