Charcoal: A Story of Its History and Use by Artists for Over 26,000 Years

By Rick Jones

You just returned from a mammoth hunt. No luck today. You saw some bison in the distance, but a mammoth never showed up. You and your clan are a little bummed when you get back home. Rather than take it out on a fellow clan member, you decide to head into the cave and sulk a bit. You walk by a smoldering fire that had been burning all day and pick up a piece of limb still burning on the end. This will light your way for a little while, you think. At the same time, you see a smaller piece of wood that is thoroughly charred, but now cooled. You pick it up as well. You look closely at it. Something deep inside your primitive brain is intrigued with this very black stick and you pick it up, too. With the “torch” in one hand and the burnt stick in the other, you walk into the cave. As you do, you drag the burnt stick over a rock. It leaves a trail of soot. You drag it across the rock again, another black line.

Then, something, some flicker of a creative urge, some spark of “what if” races through your brain. You reach up to the cave ceiling and make another black line. You cross that with another. Then, as if some magical force began to guide your hand, you begin to draw on the cave wall. A crude shape emerges. It looks like the outline of an animal! And voila! The first charcoal drawing. You stare at it. Although crude, it mimics the shape of a bison you’ve seen, and killed, on past hunts. Not finding that mammoth today is suddenly not an issue. You’ve not only made the first charcoal drawing, you’ve experienced the power of the arts!

Something similar to this happened in a Spanish, French, or Australian cave some 26,000 years ago. It wasn’t the beginning of “art” since rock engravings have been traced back to 70,000 BCE. Some negative hand stencils on cave walls have been carbon dated back to 40,000 BCE and are considered by many to be the first cave paintings. But our caveman may have been the first to do an actual charcoal drawing on a cave wall. If only he knew what he started. By the Early Renaissance in the 15th Century, charcoal was used by most artists, including the Old Masters, to create preliminary sketches for fresco and panel paintings. In the Late Renaissance, by the early 16th Century, artists like Michelangelo would use charcoal and chalk to draw on large paper. They would then prick holes along the drawn lines. They would place the drawing over the surface they were going to paint. Crushing the charcoal into a fine powder, they would place it into a small linen-type bag and pounce the bag along the punctured, drawn lines. The charcoal dust would filter through the bag and the holes transferring a dotted line reproduction of their drawing onto the surface to be painted.

Preliminary sketches for more permanent works, drawing exercises, quick studies, and other uses by artists were typical with charcoal until the 1980’s. During that decade, this versatile medium finally began to be accepted as a significant art medium. Today, charcoal comes in several different forms for artists. There is powdered, chunk, block, cylinder (or baton), compressed, pencil, and stick. The sticks are made primarily from carefully charred grapevines and willow. The main difference between vine and willow is that willow tends to be blacker than vine. Most forms of charcoal come in hard to extra soft giving artists a great range of values from light gray to black. Powdered form is used to fill in large areas which can then be manipulated by using erasers or lifting off with various methods. The cylinder, or baton, form ranges from 6mm to 50mm in diameter. They typically come in six inch lengths. Nitram makes these and they are very fine quality. You can find them at better quality art supply stores. Chunks and blocks are used by artists for making heavy, thick lines or filling in large areas. Compressed, which also comes in sticks in various degrees of soft to hard, is powdered form mixed with a binder like gum arabic or sometimes wax in less expensive brands. Compressed can give you the blackest blacks and can be used with all other forms, but due to the binder, it is not as versatile. It cannot be easily erased, for example. The binder makes it harder to remove and also can discolor paint if used to sketch out a composition before painting. This is not a problem with regular charcoal. The compressed form is also in charcoal pencils. These come in wood encased form and sharpen like a regular pencil or wrapped in paper. There’s a string wrapped inside along with the paper and pulling it tears the next layer so it can be unwrapped exposing the “lead”.

Charcoal is a medium that allows you to loosen up in your drawing. Its dusty nature makes it both interesting and challenging, as well as frustrating at times, especially when it smears. Drawings need to be “fixed” with a workable fixative, which allows you to re-work the drawing until you’re satisfied that it’s completed. Then, a couple of final coats protects it pretty well, but even then, it will not be smear-proof. Solve that with a nice frame, mat, and glass!