I am often asked, “What kind of charcoal are you using?”
There are a few kinds of charcoal but their qualities are suprisingly diverse. I use all of them – for different purposes. Here is a quick run down of the different types and their key characteristics:
Willow charcoal is a made from natural willow, you can see some typical variations in the photo above. It is made by cooking the willow wands in a low oxygen environment.
Generally willow charcoal is soft to use and the broader sticks are fantastic for fast coverage or large areas, ideal for techinques that rely on wiping out. It is very forgiving to work with as it erases easily but this also means that it does not adhere particularly well to the paper.
Vine charcoal is also a natural charcoal, again you can see the stem markings above.It is made in the same way as willow charcoal.
It is harder than willow charcoal and slightly more difficult to erase than willow. It makes a fairly grey black. It is much harder to find in art shops than either willow or compressed charcoals. I found this at Green and Stone.
Nitram charcoal is pretty unique and hard to get hold of, it is available from Pegasus Art, online and in their shop in Gloucestershire. Judging by its appearance, it looks to be made from machined wood but the exact process and manufactuing equipment were designed about 40 years ago by its creator.
It is available if different hardnesses and can be sharpened to an extremely fine point. It’s less messy than willow charcoal or compressed charcoals, creating much less dust. It makes a reasonably strong black but remains easy to erase. It allows close control over the precise value of the marks you make.
These qualities make it particularly popular with ateliers and academies where traditional sight size and similar techniques are taught. I used it at LARA, it gives an amazing amount of control in your drawing but it doesn’t cover large areas well.
Compressed charcoal starts out as charred wood dust and other materials to which a binder is added. The amount of binder can be used to control the hardness, so different grades are available. The format varies too, from pastel type to wooden pencils or paper wrapped pencils (not shown above).
Compressed charcoals make the darkest blacks but because of the binders they can be very difficult to erase. The sticks in particular can be incredibly messy to use since the dust will stick and transfer to most things. The pencil format is much more convenient and widely available although the quality and binders variy a great deal between different brands.
Here’s a quick comparison for blackness and erasability, shown on white cartridge paper and partly erased with a kneaded eraser:
This image shows the blackness of compressed charcoal (centre) very clearly, making the vine charcoal (2nd in from the left) look a little chalky next to it. Note the differences in texture, dust created and the colour/temperature. The colour/temperature difference is most marked between the vine which has a cool bluish tint and the Nitram with a warm brownish cast.