How to Put On the Brakes

Matthew Carr refuses to use pure white in his drawings, treating his surface with charcoal before he begins. (Gordon, 2006, conté pencil on prepared charcoal paper, 56 1/2 x 44.)
Matthew Carr refused to use pure white in his drawings,
treating his surface with charcoal before he began.
(Gordon, 2006, conté pencil on prepared charcoal paper,
56 1/2 x 44.)

As you all might remember, charcoal drawing and I haven't always worked well together. Largely it's been my hang-ups that have been a sore spot between us, one of those being that I tend to stumble when going back and reworking a charcoal drawing. I was always uncertain how to retrace my steps, but here are a few of the tactics I use that have really helped me see charcoal in a new way.

I put myself in the mindset of working from dark to light. As an exercise I'll start by laying down the charcoal in really heavy strokes to cover the whole page with black. Then I'll do a simple drawing using just a kneaded eraser to pull back the charcoal to give me highlights and middle tones. It's messy but this gives me an awareness that a charcoal drawing doesn't have to start on white paper. Sometimes, I'll also cover the whole surface with a light layer of charcoal and create a drawing using the surface as my middle tone.

I've also learned the lesson that if I want to go back, using a really smooth paper works well because I don't have to press as hard with a kneaded eraser to remove marks. And charcoal sticks instead of pencils are a must. The charcoal goes on with broader, shallower strokes that way. Pencils tend to dig in and leave grooves in the paper.

Carr's process was to use a hard eraser to remove passages of charcoal and expose the white of the paper. (Mimi, 2006, conté pencil on prepared charcoal paper, 78 x 56.)
Carr's process was to use a hard eraser
to remove passages of charcoal and
expose the white of the paper.
(Mimi, 2006,
conté pencil on prepared
charcoal paper, 78 x 56.)

Going in with a white conté crayon also allows me to revisit passages within a charcoal drawing. I usually have to use a kneaded eraser, but the addition of these white highlights can give dimension to a work if I haven't been deft enough to preserve those areas of the paper.

But I'd say the most successful tactic I've used is getting comfortable with the nature of the medium of charcoal and other drawing media. So I think to myself, I don't need to put on the brakes with charcoal or need to learn how to draw charcoal "in reverse" because the point and power of the medium is the freedom and the gesture of it, and the subtle gradations you make with each successive layer. Instead of pulling back, I need to push forward with my explorations. Get messy, make mistakes, and keep everything on the table. In Strokes of Genius 6, the power and beauty of drawing is harnessed, showing us what can happen when we are in tune with our medium—not fighting it—learning its full capabilities and making the best work we can. Enjoy!  

Do you believe in going back when you are painting or drawing or do you think it is best to always make forward progress? Leave a comment and let me know.


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

16 thoughts on “How to Put On the Brakes

  1. I’ve always thought of “Going back” as part of an essential process that’s necessary to produce a “finished” work. (Going back to those troublesome areas that just don’t quite look right to you and fine tune darks and lights, removing search lines and the like.) That being said, one can also chase squirrels around a canvas for a lifetime in the pursuit of perfection… Sometimes forward progress means letting go and allowing your medium to speak for you.

  2. I believe in making forward progress but I think it is perhaps due to some incipient character flaws. My head never met a brick wall it didn’t like. I also find it difiicult to recapture the mood I was in when I was working on a specific piece of art. The difference is in my found art displays, which can morph as I discover new “treasures ” on the mean streets of Portland, OR. (And pal they ARE mean, despite Portland’s image.) Best–Alan Scally

  3. If realism is the goal, then the eraser is as important as the charcoal.

    BTW – check out some of David Kassan’s charcoal work – he’s achieved some striking results using Pan Pastel to lay in the broad darks before going in with eraser and pencils, both black and white.

  4. I’ve always thought most drawing was a forward only option, so its kept me from it for too many years. My artistic thought does not travel in such a nice progression so I didnt’ think I was capable. Thank you for this post, having the knowledge of technique to go back and forth will allow me to explore drawing in all forms again.

  5. I am not a professional artist. I find that “going back into” a finished work or “failed” painting is not fun, and is often discouraging, as I would be likely to run my head into the same wall that I hit the fiirst time. To go back in successfully requires perhaps more creativity than is involved in designing the work for the first attempt. I paint in watercolors and acrylics (usually not on the same painting). Most of the watercolor technique books describe ways of lifting, lightening, or removing colors that have already dried. For me, these techniques never work, and cause a sad overworked spot on even the highest quality papers. I think acrylics will allow overpainting to some extent, but the canvas surface texture may be smooth with the underpainting already there. Going back to the creativity needed to redo a work that is on paper, The bast approach would be to examine the design and scissor off the undesireable part, and add very little to the good part.

  6. Your determination to master a medium that you are not that comfortable with is great!

    I used to be convinced that gouache was a difficult medium, and that I could not possibly make a convincing piece of work with it, let alone master it.
    Then one day I just forced myself to learn how to work with gouache, and to my surprise I found that I am a natural.

    So, my advice to any artist would be, Just Try It!

  7. I find it very hard to go back to a painting or drawing once I started it because its hard to find the same mojo I had when creating the piece and it tends to throw the whole concept of what I was trying to achieve to begin with. it still works out somehow but I don’t like leaving something unfinished because im afraid I wont go back to it and find that mojo again. I loose mojo when looking for inspiration also. I have an idea I want to portray then find my medium but get distracted then when I try to go back and express my inspiration its gone. can someone help me with this? its very frustrating. I usually move onto something else and forget the whole thing if I cant start my idea right away or finish a project. im very quirky I believe.

  8. I really think the brain of an artist works in that a painting is never really finished we just let it go so we can move on to the next one. Can man ever achieve perfection? I think not.

  9. I am a bit of a purist (whatever that may mean :)) and a minimalist and prefer to use the white of the paper and other tones to create the necessary luminance. If I want to highlight a particular area in a charcoal drawing, I give a tone to the entire drawing except that part. I do the same with watercolour. Am probably still respecting the freedom of the medium. I find that all this takes is some preplanning.

    I did some academic work with this in mind; they include no white except for the paper and I think you can still get the desired effect. Some can be viewed here:

  10. One time in Mexico someone wanted she could draw and paint as well as I once did. (As one gets older, and rusty at painting, even at drawing when not using pen or brush) her drawing was excellent, however her painting was raw color. since it was water color, and she requested assistance, I took a stiff brush and a Kleenex, and started erasing with plain water. Her pictures were much better than mine when I finished.