I’m pleased to report that I did not chicken out. Monday a week ago, I proclaimed my intent to deploy compressed charcoal in Larry Christian’s life drawing class, and on Tuesday I did just that. I had prepared myself by acquiring a large bag of cots. What is a cot, you ask? They are little rubber caps for fingers. They look like condoms. Larry said they would fit his dog’s, well, you know. I thought I would need only one cot, for the third finger, which I favor for smearing soft willow charcoal. I soon discovered that compressed charcoal attaches itself to fingers that merely touch the stick. By the end of the class, I had one cot on every finger of my right hand, because all of them were handling the stick. My thumb is fatter than my other fingers, and all my cots were medium-sized to fit my other four fingers, so my poor thumb suffered mightily from the constriction of blood flow; after all that, my thumb still got covered in dust because of a pinhole leak in the tip of the cot.
Smearing, the technique that I love to use with ordinary, vine charcoal, is not a good technique for compressed charcoal. You can’t soften a mark left by compressed charcoal–you can only make it look messy. You’ll see.
I started with a test sheet of mark-making.
My sticks were square, but not precisely square. One side of a square might produce a perfectly even application of charcoal, while the side next to it will produce streaks of darker lines at the edge. Unless you were expecting and planning for those streaks, this would be quite upsetting. Because THERE IS NO CORRECTING OF MARKS MADE BY COMPRESSED CHARCOAL. You can start light and get darker, but you can’t reverse direction. If you try to erase, you’ll probably sink the boat.
Upper left–that’s what happens when you try to smear or spread the mark left on the paper by compressed charcoal. Yucky!
You’ll notice that I am not drawing with lines. Instead, I am trying to create form by darkening the space around it, or by filling in form with a darker value. Given the size of the charcoal stick, details can’t make it into the picture. You can probably deduce from a few stray boobs that our model was not a man.
The magic of the compressed charcoal comes from its revelation of the grain of the paper. Almost anything you do can look cool. To the extent that these gesture drawings are successful, it is probably because I didn’t have time to find ways of spoiling them. The more time I got with a pose, the harder it became for me to adjust to the unique properties of the compressed charcoal, as these next three poses demonstrate.
Struggle no. 1 Where do you go when you can’t draw the face or fingers?
Too black, too soon, those last two. I resolved thereafter to slow down, tread softly. Restraint is key.
Finally, I feel I am getting somewhere. Can you make out the smudges from my fingertips (actually from the cots on my fingertips)? By this time, my finger cots were layered in thick, greasy, black soot.
Because the back view is my favorite, or maybe because this was our last pose of the night, whatever, I finally produced something of which to be proud. My light, early marks that were “wrong” (too wide buttocks) did not detract from the beauty of the final drawing. The paper I was using was low-quality sketch paper. I can’t wait to see how these marks will look on some decent “laid” charcoal paper.
Isn’t it ironic that a drawing that looks as though it were born of wild abandon is actually born of restraint?
P.S. Larry was quite pleased with me.