Beauty of Charcoal

This week, Dave takes a closer look at the history of charcoal, and gathers willow sticks from Whitworth Park that will be used to make his own charcoal.


Lovely rich black dry charcoal has a drawing history going back many thousands of years.


charcoal sticks
Whitworth park willow charcoal sticks ready for drawing.


Charcoal sticks from ‘domestic’ fires from basic habitats long ago, would have been used to draw and  decorate cave walls with wonderful animals and hunting scenes. In Africa,  the image of a Zebra found in a Namibian cave was dated to be at least 28,000 years old. Even more recently a drawing of a Babirusa, or pig-deer, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has been dated at 35,000 years old. Lasted well you have to say.


Big Horn Rhino. Charcoal cave drawing from the Chauvet caves in France estimated at around 20,000 years ago Source


This is a medium that is swift, direct, easily rubbed out and often messy. William Kentridge is a master at inspirational charcoal drawings, as is Robert Longo and Kathe Kollwitz.

For more detailed drawings have a look at the work of Albrecht Durer. ‘Portrait of his Mother’ (1514) is very fine indeed and produced when she was 63. We also know how brilliant Durer was at drawing hands, but have a look at Walter Cranes (1845-1915)  ‘Study of Hands’ showing hands exquisitely drawn in charcoal.


Study of hands
Walter Crane (1845-1915) ‘Study of hands in charcoal’.  A very fine charcoal drawing. Source


One of my favourite charcoal drawings, by local Manchester artist Ghislaine Howard, is ‘Pregnant self portrait,’ which the Whitworth has in its collection. An original piece from 1987, it is the mirror image of Jacob Epstein’s marble sculpture ‘Genesis’ from 1929-31. Epstein was an accomplished sketcher in charcoal working out swiftly solid forms to be worked up.


Crane charcoal and chalk
Walter Crane (1845-1915) ‘Study of garden at night’. Charcoal sketch with white chalk. White chalk is often used to enhance form or highlight subtle lighting in this case. Source


The immediacy of charcoal is something that is liked a lot by artists, and a particular favourite for scenic artists working on scenery and drawing up backdrops for the theatre and television. Daler Rowney produce an extra-large stick called ‘Scenic Charcoal’.

Sometimes you want to get drawn into fine detail when drawing but Charcoal doesn’t allow you to get that bogged down.


Gathering willow


Charcoal pic 2
Twisted willow tree trunk in Whitworth park.


The willow we chose came from picking up branches and twigs found on the ground under two weeping willow trees in Whitworth park, close to the Edward the 7th  statue.


Dave and Rosy picking up fallen twigs and branches in the park end of November.

Charcoal pic 3
Size of willow twigs needed.


I had, some time ago, used willow that had dropped off of Gustav Metzgers ‘Flailing Trees’ and fired those. The ultimate ‘Auto-Destructive’ use of his sculpture recycled back into drawing material.


Gustav Metzger (1926-2017) ‘Flailing Trees’ 2009. Pieces that dropped off were collected and fired into charcoal.

Join us next week for part 2, where Dave fires the charcoal and leads a William Kentridge inspired workshop with the team.





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