The Studio Art School: Dorset

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By Justin Cooke, Feb 25 2015 12:03PM

There are various types of charcoal used for drawing. You will commonly find willow and vine charcoal as well as compressed charcoal. Willow and vine charcoal is nice to use, it gives a good even line, does not splinter or break up too easily when used. The fact that they both grow as slender stems also means that you can get pieces that you can hold like a pencil. It is also available in larger more randomly shaped blocks.Compressed charcoal is formed out of charcoal dust; it is compressed to various degrees and is available buttery soft to hard.

Why use compressed charcoal?

Firstly, it gives a darker and denser black.

Secondly, it can be found in pencil form, some artists prefer to use it this way.

Thirdly, sticks of compressed charcoal can be shaped or sharpened with a blade to make specific marks, much like the different nibs of a pen.

Any problems with compressed charcoal?

It does not smudge or blend as freely as charcoal does, neither is it easily removed with an eraser. The benefits of it adhering to the paper better, have to be balanced with the fact that it is not easy to work with once it is on the paper.

Why use charcoal? (such as willow charcoal)

The first thing many artists say is “it’s quick” and “direct”. With one piece of charcoal you can achieve all sorts of effects that would otherwise require a whole range of materials. Here is a summary.

You have a box of charcoal….

• If you snap a stick, you will get a sharp edge for detailed drawing.

• You can use it on its side for broader marks as you would a large brush for painting.

• By using your fingers you can soften marks much like you could if you use water to soften a watercolour painting.

• Just by pressing harder or softer, you can grade your tones from the lightest shade to rich dark tones.

• You can “draw” light areas back into your charcoal drawing by simply using an eraser.

Then there are some more innovative ways too; for example, that charcoal dust at the bottom of your charcoal box…it is very useful. You can use it with your fingers to shade tones. The very finest dust can be used with a brush. Just pick it up with the brush and paint with it!

(This is a good way of working out a drawing prior to drawing with finer –maybe splinters – of charcoal on top.) As well as your fingers, try using pieces of cloth or tissue folded into a pad.

Here is a tip for using charcoal that many artists have found useful.

To show you I will use cartridge paper and willow charcoal.

Firstly; cover your paper with a layer of charcoal using the stick on its side. Roughly smooth out with your fingers to spread it evenly. What we now have is a very thin charcoal layer to draw on and this can be very useful. It particularly helps with life drawing if you are a little apprehensive about drawing. I will show you why.

Let’s have a go at drawing on top.

I will do the same thing on a bare white paper.

Supposing I have drawn some lines that I do not like; if I try to smudge them away with my fingers on the bare white paper they still show. I would then have to stop, find an eraser, rub it out and start again. Even with an eraser, there is a very good chance my old drawing will still be visible.

On the prepared paper; a quick swipe with my fingers and it has disappeared.

You can also draw in highlights with an eraser. Below is an image showing a charcoal line removed and a line drawn with and eraser.

You can see there is an obvious danger to this. The drawing on the prepared paper, until fixed, is vulnerable.

The advantages though, you may consider worth it; because in just a few minutes you can draw hundreds of lines, any of which you can easily loose if you want to. The pressure is off… You have the freedom to try things over and over. You can experiment wildly, knowing anything can be put back to how it was. It is very liberating and helps to develop the sort of freedom in drawing that only comes with practice.

You can then also use an eraser to remove excess background tint and few people will know how you did it!

As your confidence and technique grows, you will find yourself making fewer changes to your drawing. You could then reach for the unprepared clean paper and just go for it! You are well practiced now, more confident and it will show.

By Justin Cooke, Dec 16 2014 02:44PM

Figurative Art: It's not to do with figures

Figurative art is a term we use for painting, drawing, and scuplture that is clearly derived from the real world. You could call it Representational Art. It is often used as a term to contrast Abstract Art. A picture being described as either Abstract or Figurative (or most likely, somewhere in between!).

So a figurative drawing is a drawing of a thing.

I know what you are thinking… can that thing be a figure? Umm… well yes it can. But it also be a tree, a box of eggs or a whole landscape.

If you are concerned with ideas and devices such as; use of pattern, the surface texture of your drawing, or optical effects of colour: then you are using abstract elements.

Figurative : Abstract

You will know from your own work, that as artists we rarely fit into those neat boxes: you will often find yourself at various places between the two.

Below is a demonstration I made for a lesson on drawing . It shows some of the different drawing techniques used by artists, when producing figurative drawings.

Beneath it, I briefly explain each method and give some recomendations where to see examples by artists throughout history.

Clockwise from top left.


Contour Hatching

Measured Drawing

"Taking a line for a walk"

Gestural Drawing

The fluid line


With this drawing method, areas are hatched with an even tone. Darker areas can be achieved by using firmer fatter lines, by placing lines closer together or as in this case by overlapping hatch marks. This called cross hatching

No outlines are drawn. The edges are merely described by changes in tone.

This is a quick way of sketching out doors using pencil.

You can see great examples by looking at some by David Hockney from the 1970's . The Tate gallery website has some great examples

Contour hatching

is similar but the lines curve to show the form of the subject; everything else still applies, including cross hatching which in this case can add to the feeling of volume and shape.

We are in the realm of some of the greatest artists here including Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo. But some of my favourite drawings are by Rubens and Watteau. If I could have my own at no expense art collection... it would include a Watteau drawing.

The example I have chosen however is by Rubens of his child Nicolaas. It is a truely stunning piece of drawing.

"Peter Paul Rubens, Bildnis seines Sohnes Nikolas" by Peter Paul Rubens - Unknown. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Measured Drawing

Here is a very quick drawing of a head drawn to classic proportions. This is basically drawn using a formula of proportions and lines that have been learned by artists for centuries. A measured drawing can be made in a similar way. The process consists of finding lines and measurements that relate to each other and using them to plot out the basic elements of a drawing; this can be applied to any subject be it a figure or even a landscape. A subject observed and transcribed in this way can lead to a very accurate drawing. It can also be used to discretely mark out very quickly the basics of a drawing which could have a very loose, confident and bold drawing on top.

The Artist William Coldstream was a great advocate of this method when he principle and professor at the Slade School of Art, London 1945 - 1975. The Tate Gallery has some fine examples of his work.

"Taking a line for a walk":

I've taken a quote from from the artist Paul Klee here, but my drawing is much more of a scribble than his. For this method, keep the pen or pencil in contact with the paper as much as possible and draw lots of overlapping and intertwining lines. You need to kind of feel your way as you go. The more ink or graphite you lay down the more it should feel like you're modelling clay or shaping a ball of scrunched up wire; working a bit like a sculptor.

It is no suprise then that one of the best who drew this way was an artist called Alberto Giacometti; and yes... he was a sculptor.

Gestural Drawing:

My own term for this method is gestural drawing. For this, all those marks a pencil or charcoal can make become a vital part of the drawing, in much the same way as an artist uses a brush. This allows us to give the impression of mood and movement, even the weather. This type of drawing also allows us to free up and convey our feelings directly on the paper. When it works well it seems to be completely instinctive as we naturally include all sorts of marks and squiggles into our drawing

There are many artists who work this way. But I would like to let you in on a little secret. Little, because it is a very small thing. In the Victoria and Albert Museum London they have John Constable's 1814 pocket sketchbook. They have reproduced it on their website so you can have a virtual thumb through. These are'nt drawings for exhibition, they are for his own use. They are quick, llively and full of gesture. If you have not seen them before, have a look, you are in for a treat!

Here is the link

The fluid line:

Think Picasso, or the un-inhibited spontaneous drawing of a child. It is a huge challenge to draw this way, you have to just go for it! Try not to hesitate; and draw quickly with confidence. This example is drawn with graphite and is based upon Picasso's dove. In the class we use ink and bamboo pens for this.

There are films of Picasso drawing, some can be found on youtube. If you come across film of him painting or even making sculptures out of soft clay pots you will see the same amazing confidence. For most of us though, this can be a bit of a hit or miss approach giving all sorts of results. But we can take comfort... in one film of picasso painting even he decides his picture is not working. The next one he does however is of course stunning.

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