Charcoal Rendering: Charcoal

Charcoal is the primary medium used to make charcoal drawings; in the Aristides Atelier, we use vine charcoal almost exclusively. Poor quality vine charcoal crumbles easily when you try to sharpen it, is gray- not black, and is generally softer than the high quality brands, making it difficult to use for certain drawing techniques.

Nitram- The best vine charcoal on the market- currently unavailable, but according to this article it’ll be back soon. I haven’t used Nitram for any extended drawings since it was temporarily discontinued last year, but this is what I’ve gleaned about it:

Pros:The color of the charcoal itself is a warm, rich black- not gray- so it is possible to get a full range of darks in your drawing. The hard sticks are harder than any other brand I have used, which comes in handy at certain times. (I’ll discuss this in the article on technique.) The sticks are strong and don’t crumble or snap as easily as the lower quality brands.

Cons- Apart from the fact that it’s out of production for the present, I honestly can’t think of a single thing I dislike about this brand. And how many things in this world can you say that about?

The other charcoal brands I would recommend are also no longer in production, although I haven’t heard if either of these will be coming back. The old version of Grumbacher would have been my second choice (there is a new version on the market, but it is horrible), followed by Prismacolor, which is what I used during my year of drawing.

These two brands are not much different from Nitram except in that they are very slightly lacking in all departments. They are grayer and lighter overall, making it harder to get a full range of the dark values in a drawing. The hard sticks of both brands are almost as hard as Nitram’s, but not quite. Their only advantage is that it takes less time to sharpen them, as they are thinner.

My recommendation to the new student of drawing is to experiment with the charcoal that is available and find a brand that you find acceptable. If possible, borrow a few sticks of the brands I’ve mentioned so that you get a taste for a high standard. As Cennini says: “…your hand and your mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pluck thorns.”

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Today, to try to paint the existent is an act of resistance instigating hope.

— John Berger

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