What is it?
In the most basic sense, charcoal is the remnants of burnt wood. It’s likely that it didn’t take long after man discovered fire for man to also discover the bold mark-making ability of the remnants of that fire. Charcoal as an artistic medium has come a long way, and artist’s charcoal today is a more deliberately crafted mix of powdered materials, often held together with a kind of gum or wax binding agent. Art charcoal comes in many forms, including hardened blocks or sticks, “vine charcoal” which is a softer form for sketching, as well as powders, crayons, and pencils. Charcoal is a fantastic and expressive dry medium that can be applied to a variety of surfaces, and is easy to smudge, blend, and lighten for a dramatic range of values.
Examples in art history:
Charcoal is arguably one of the oldest mediums for the creation of two-dimensional art. Cave paintings have been discovered all over the globe that show how charcoal has been used in art for well over fifteen thousand years.
Unfortunately, the same properties that make charcoal so excellent for expressive sketching and drawing also make it a substance without a lot of staying power, and one that easily flakes off of paper or canvas. Artists used charcoal for many centuries to help them plan compositions, but it was always considered an ephemeral medium, and few of those works on paper survive today. In the late 1400’s, a method was finally discovered that helped “fix” the charcoal to the paper more permanently. This early process of fixing charcoal drawings involved dipping the drawings in a bath of gum. A short time later, Albrecht Durer began to really popularize charcoal as a primary medium rather than just a means of preliminary sketching, and by the 20th century more and more artists were exploring the medium. Thankfully, fixatives have come a long way since the gum baths, and today artists can choose from a variety of advanced spray fixatives to preserve their artwork.
Examples in Principle Gallery:
We thought it was an especially great time to take a look at charcoal art, since among the newest work to come in the gallery are some fantastic charcoal drawings! Many of the painters represented at the gallery enjoy working with charcoal for sketching purposes as well as a primary medium, and Casey Childs and Susan O’Neill are two who are certainly talented at using it. Seen below are just some of the drawings from Casey’s “Influtential Figures” series, and trust me–they’re even more incredible in person (click here to check them all out on our website)!
Also new to the gallery are some incredible and expressive figure studies by local Alexandria artist Susan O’Neill. Deeply inspired by the human figure, Susan enjoys crafting spontaneous and energetic images with charcoal. Here are just two examples of her latest group of fantastic drawings (click here to see them all!):
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