My Artistic Love-Hate Relationship

24 Oct 2011

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, too. I've had a breakthrough with artist and instructor Chris Wynter. His new DVD, Dynamic Charcoal Drawings Lessons, has given me the building blocks to capture an object spontaneously and accurately in charcoal. I can't believe it either, but in Dynamic Charcoal Drawing Lessons Wynter walked me through what the medium can do, how to control it, and how to achieve all the effects I'm interested in. 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.