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Charcoal Drawings

The tradition of charcoal drawing traces back to at least 26,000 B.C., evidenced by a rock fragment bearing a charcoal design discovered in a Northern Australia rock shelter. By the 15th century, artists frequently employed charcoal to create preparatory sketches of large-scale murals and frescos. Charcoal can be painted over without changing the color or tone of the overlaid paint, which explains why artists have employed it for centuries to create preparatory sketches before embarking on larger scale oil paintings.

French Impressionist artist Edgar Degas would often layer pastels over an initial charcoal sketch, a method that he utilized in the production of his famous "Blue Dancers" in 1899. During the High Renaissance (16th century), charcoal became the medium of choice among caricature artists. They transferred charcoal dust onto the support through paper elaborately incised with tiny holes.

Charcoal remains a popular medium among contemporary artists. Artists including William Kentridge and Robert Longo continue to explore the expressive possibilities of this age old medium in the current era.

Quick Facts

  • Japanese Sumi-e artists predominantly use bamboo charcoal in their artworks
  • Charcoal tends to be a fugitive pigment unless it is sprayed with a fixative, which is generally a resin dissolved in alcohol
  • Charcoal is typically created by slowly burning twigs of the linden or willow trees until they are reduced to carbon

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