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What is Charcoal?

14 Feb 2021 5:32 PM | Lesley Samms (Administrator)

Charcoal is one of the oldest art mediums. It is an ancient medium produced by heating wood - usually willow or vine twigs- in a tight space with a lack of oxygen to produce the black drawing sticks we know today. It is essentially carbon mixed with mineral ash. Throughout the centuries, the medium has been refined from the original burnt wood to pencils and crayons.

Cave paintings are art historian’s earliest evidence of charcoal used as an artistic medium. These date back approximately 28,000 years. These pieces of charcoal were likely not made intentionally but were used from firewood created for heat and light.

Cave paintings in the cave of Niaux in France


Charcoal as a medium was used widely in the Renaissance period for preparatory drawings, with fixing methods being developed in the 15th century. To make the artwork last they were dipped in baths of gum to preserve the drawings on the paper.

Renaissance charcoal sketch


During the 19th century, experiments with scraping, mixing of charcoal and water, and reductive techniques with a rubber began to emerge.

The 20th century saw charcoal marked as a medium in its own right. Whereas previously it had been used for initial drawings before a larger work, artists like Picasso and Matisse were now using the medium as their final works.

Charcoal boasts a wide range of expression, often producing gestural marks rich in drama and fluidity. Artists have made it their own. Think of Da Vinci’s ochre ‘Study of a Woman’s Hands’ or Redon’s Spider Charcoals.


The particles of charcoal that are created when brushing the medium across the surface allow for a diversity of marks and a scale and variety of tones. These are then easily manipulated by a finger or tools.

The beauty of charcoal lies in the interplay between shadows and light.

Significant charcoal Artists include:

Albrecht Durer

Francesco Salviati

Keith Vaughn


Vija Celamins

Georges Braque

Pure artists who use charcoal include:

Will Taylor

Louisa Crispin

Sophie Douglas


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