A new appreciation for charcoal

I have never enjoyed working with charcoal — until now. We had a model in class last week and our assignment was to sketch her using a big stick of charcoal. I thought, “No way am I going to be able to manage this chunk of charcoal. No way!”

Charcoal stick

I surprised myself.

Charcoal stick drawing 1

There are several reasons why I didn’t like charcoal (before). It’s so messy. Charcoal dust everywhere, including all over me. Smudges and more smudges. Or else dark, dark marks that could not be erased no matter how hard I might try.

I decided to become a USM art student so that I’d be exposed to new ideas and challenges. So, no complaining Diane. I had to give it a try. What I came to realize is that I didn’t really understand charcoal. I don’t think  it appreciates being told what to do — which is something I can definitely relate to. In a way, I had to “feel” more than “see” what I was doing. Especially because it was such a big piece of charcoal. I hope that makes sense.

Charcoal stick drawing 2

For the drawing below, I used the big stick as well as a thin piece of vine charcoal. I started to get fussy, but kept reminding myself to back off. Good advice.

Charcoal stick drawing 3

Because research is one of my things, I did a little research about the different kinds of charcoal.

Did you know that it is one of the oldest art mediums? Some prehistoric cave drawings were done in charcoal — the ends of burned sticks.

Vine charcoal is made by burning pieces of wood — some soft, some hard. It’s usually messier than compressed charcoal.

Charcoal sticks are generally made of powdered charcoal that has been mixed with gum binder and compressed into stick form. The amount of binder determines how hard or soft it will be. This kind of charcoal is also used in charcoal pencils.

You can also get charcoal in powder form.

My big stick of charcoal was a piece of “Bob’s Fine Vine Charcoal.” The label on the bag says it’s made from select Northwest hardwood in Oregon. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it certainly changed my view of charcoal.

Working with it last week was still a messy process and it was frustrating when I couldn’t see where I was placing a mark because the stick was so darn big. On the other hand, it was an eye-opening, joyful experience. Bring it on charcoal. I think we’re going to get along just fine now that we have begun to understand each other!

Charcoal drawing


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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now, she's a baby boomer not interested in retiring. She writes the Catching Health blog and is a regular guest on the WCSH6/WLBZ2 Morning Report. She's also a college art student at USM. You can read about that adventure on Diane's other blog mylatestart.bangordailynews.com. She says it's good (and healthy) to be busy!