Drawing with Charcoal: Historical Techniques of 19th Century France

Drawing with Charcoal: Historical Techniques of 19th Century France


Dark. Velvety. Grainy. Soft. These are some of the
intrinsic qualities of charcoal that artists are drawn to. Charcoal comes from
charred pieces of wood, capable of producing a range of
tones that are easily reworked. But because charcoal
particles are large, they don’t readily
adhere to a surface. And so finished works of
art could not be made with the medium until the
18th and 19th centuries, when artists had the
means to bind or fix it to paper–producing
a golden glow. Timothy Mayhew demonstrates
the techniques used by French artists who fell in
love with charcoal… among them Maxime Lalanne, whose
“Castle Overlooking a River” exemplifies their methods. Working outdoors, the
artist brings an easel and a portable frame covered
with stretched paper, which resembles a painter’s canvas. The paper itself is
textured–ideal for holding charcoal. The artist also brings a variety
of drawing tools and materials. Using the side of a
stick of charcoal, he puts down large areas
of tone–the foreground, middle ground, and sky. He blends these broad strokes
with a cloth or a feather, to soften them. Another way to apply
the medium smoothly is with a brush dipped into
a powdery form of charcoal. To make marks, 19th-century
artists typically used a pencil-like holder for
charcoal, which they handled like a small paintbrush. The key is to apply
everything lightly, so that the luminous white
of the paper shows through, and marks are easy to erase. Drawing with charcoal also
involves selectively removing it, to create highlights. Various tools can be
used, including a brush. Artists of the past often
used kneaded bread just like an eraser. Tightly rolled paper or leather
with a tapered end, called a stump, also works well. Stumps or a finger can
be used for blending. A charcoal drawing
emerges over time through layers of soft tones and
selectively placed darker ones. 19th-century artists typically
protected their drawings by brushing a resin-based
fixative solution across the back of the paper. In 1850s France,
artists produced soft, ethereal-looking
landscapes with charcoal. Only a few decades later,
darker-toned drawings were more in vogue, typically
representing somber subjects or night scenes. Artists began working
not just with charcoal, but with similar powdery
materials–black chalk, conte crayon, pastel–or
they combined them. Experimentation emphasized
the medium itself as integral to a work of art.

8 thoughts on “Drawing with Charcoal: Historical Techniques of 19th Century France

  1. Great video. What was the fixing agent brushed on to the back of the paper… perhaps more specifically… what did the great French artists use?

  2. Yes. I work with dry charcoal but I have watercolor charcoal I want to try. A friend in Australia has won me to do a picture for her for a couple years and now But she elephants, so I'm going to use the watercolor charcoal to do a elephant in a water hole. I have hand tremors and they have worsened over the years but I need to just go at it and not give up.

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