My Artistic Love-Hate Relationship

8 Jul 2014

Untitled (#April 08) by Hilary Brace, charcoal on polyester film, 6 x 11.625.
Untitled (#April 08) by Hilary Brace, charcoal on polyester film, 6 x 11.625.

In the past, I have had a love-hate thing going with charcoal. Basically, I love it and it hates me. Seriously! I love what charcoal can do. The fact that you can use a stick of charcoal to create so many different kinds of marks—you can get an almost wash-like effect with one swipe, or turn it on its edge and use it like a traditional pencil. You can make strong, stark lines or work with it so it seems like there are no lines at all, just pure shadow. I'm amazed by the subtle variations of gradation that charcoal can create, and I love the fact that charcoal drawing is all about big gestures and shapes and not the fussy little details.

Speak Easy by Timothy Jahn, charcoal drawing, 5 x 7.
Speak Easy by Timothy Jahn, charcoal drawing, 5 x 7.
But for all the things I love about it, I've never been sure how to harness its potential. I mean, charcoal can definitely be a challenge to control. You have to get into a good rhythm, working with a certain amount of pressure and a certain amount of natural fluidity. It's not easy, and it is hard to go back, which usually means I freeze up like a deer in headlights. I tend to tense up and overthink things when there is no reverse gear in a medium. 

So even though I know it is going to be an uphill battle and I'm not going to turn into a skilled user overnight (or in the next decade), I'm still keeping my eyes on the prize. I would love to create charcoal drawings like Hilary Brace, whose abstract cloud-water-sky forms are so subtle and have such a force of motion that I kind of feel like I'm experiencing vertigo; or give my drawings a nostalgic feeling like Timothy Jahn, whose charcoals are like objects out of time. They look like old photographs and have a mysterious, shadowy quality that I'm drawn to.

Looking at the works of all these great artists and knowing how far the medium can be pushed, I'm glad to know that I'm on the right track now, with the caliber of artist-instructors I follow. And what's funny is that so many of them have graced the pages of Drawing magazine over the years. And now the Drawing 10 Year CD is available with a decade's worth of issues all on one disc. Enjoy!

P.S. Whose work in charcoal inspires you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Vito wrote
on 24 Oct 2011 2:35 PM

When I look at Robert Longo's work I get the feeling that charcoal has no limits as the medium for chiaroscuro.  Who else can create an atomic cloud like none other, as well as the finest looking cowboy hat you've ever seen!

KatPaints wrote
on 24 Oct 2011 7:28 PM

These are beautiful Courtney, thanks. One thing I really like to do with charcoal is to rub a midtone value onto the paper and then use an kneadable eraser to pull out the highlights, then I can go back in and work more darks. Your erase will be shot when your done, but don't forget that it is a drawing tool also.

KatPaints wrote
on 24 Oct 2011 7:37 PM

I checked out the artists online and I'm now wondering -What is polyester film?

on 25 Oct 2011 6:47 AM

Yeah, Kat, I'm not sure if that film is a coating or a surface. Hmmmm. Will look into this!

Trepidation wrote
on 25 Oct 2011 5:00 PM

Brace's spume and foam blew me away! The texture is amazingly phantasmagoric! I would like to know more about charcoal on polyester film.  I have been experimenting with all kinds of media and subjects in order to find the one or two that  I can focus on.  What used to come easy is now neurologically clumsy in my crooked little fingers.  Lori

KatPaints wrote
on 25 Oct 2011 6:46 PM

Courtney, I did a little research on polyester film and it seems as if it is primarily used for drafting. Years ago I used to do designs on matte acetate or vellum. It seems as if this is something similar, but can be archival. If this is what I think it is, the surface is matte and very smooth with very little tooth.

BCPortrait wrote
on 9 Jul 2014 7:43 AM

Courtney you speak from my heart.

I love your article, the way you describe and work through the possibilities of this beautiful medium..., I am so taken, I have to tell you that.

Thanks so much!


on 9 Jul 2014 9:11 AM

My favorite Artist Charles White charcoals

frizzlerock wrote
on 9 Jul 2014 9:34 AM

Love using charcoal. The artist that inspire me right now are Stephanie Inagaki, William Rose, and Casey Baugh.  

on 9 Jul 2014 1:21 PM

Just took a figure drawing workshop with artist Henry Yan. He has an amazing way of  using charcoal so that it is so fluid in it's movement that it looks like a painting when it is completed. I love the way charcoal allows you to play with the darks and the light.

Beth DuBay ,Naples FL

John_Edwards wrote
on 10 Jul 2014 12:34 AM

I am bran-new to using charcoal. The two examples you have shown here in your article have me spell-bound. The 3D effect of “ Speak Easy” by Timothy Jahn has the young womans face coming out of the paper. And the waves of Hilary Brace (work Untitled), sees myself looking at it for hours if I was standing directly in front of it. Wow. But being a pencil artist (for me) none of these depths could have been reached if a pencil wasn't placed in the hands of these artist first. As I generate depthness in my art using a pencil first, how much more can I create using charcoal? This is my goal as I am ever learning a perfectionist art rhythm.  

Birdie2011 wrote
on 10 Jul 2014 9:15 PM

Brace's work leaves me breathless. I went to the artists' website via Google and the rest of the work is amazing.

I used some "paper" many years ago that was called "Sheer Heaven". It was a polyester film that was matte on one side and shiny on the other. I packed it away and completely forgot about it. It was wonderful and you could use any medium on it. I remember using watercolor and Prismacolors on it.  I would expect it would be fantastic for charcoal. Very low tooth and velvety. It may be close to or the same type material that Brace works on. I think I will go dig it out and give it another try.

on 11 Jul 2014 8:45 PM

For sensuous charcoal landscapes, look up Ailyn Hoey Charcoals.  She has an amazing way with the medium.  I had been making progress with  charcoals for landscape studies before attending one of her classes.  Seeing her work and methods completely changed the way I approached the medium as well as the way I saw the landscape.  Very inspiring, and an effective teacher.  I like her Florida portfolio especially.

Dr_J_L wrote
on 12 Jul 2014 11:11 AM

Never had a fav for charcoal, but now I do.  Thanks for sharing :-)

Dr_J_L wrote
on 12 Jul 2014 11:11 AM

Never had a fav for charcoal, but now I do.  Thanks for sharing :-)