Drawing with Graphite vs Charcoal
I love 'em both!
I love drawing...I have a passion for it...though I haven't drawn all my life, I feel like I have. The biggest problem is figuring out what I love drawing WITH the most. It's like a kid being let loose in FAO Schwartz to play with whatever she wants to. I love finding new things to draw with and figuring out how to use them. Graphite pencils were what I "cut my teeth on". And then I discovered colored pencils - of which there's a great variety. Then I tried pastels, charcoal and conte crayons. I've dabbled in painting, but really haven't felt the "connection" with them like I do these dry mediums.
Though I use pastels and colored pencils, in this lens I'm only going to discuss graphite pencils and charcoal. I really love the challenge of making a colored photograph come to life by the use of one color (black), using dark to light values to convey skin tones, highlights and shadows. I will discuss the history and some technical stuff for both, and then I'll talk about my opinions and preferences...and I'd like to hear about yours.
The History and Other Interesting Tid-bits
Did you know that the core of a pencil is not really lead, though we call it that? Lead was used in early styluses. The core of a pencil is actually made from nontoxic graphite. Graphite started being used following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Graphite left a darker mark than lead, but was so soft and brittle that it required a holder. At first, sticks of graphite were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into wooden sticks that had been hollowed-out by hand! The wood-cased pencil was born.
Interesting tid-bit: The first mass produced pencils were not painted. They wanted to show off the wood casings, but soon they started painting the casings. And the reason that most hexagon shaped pencils are yellow is because in the 1800's the best graphite came from China and the color yellow represented a regal feeling associated with China.
You can now get artist graphite pencils in a full range of densities ranging from 9B (softest) to 9H (hardest)...with the softest making the darkest marks. You can also find it in large chucks for covering large areas.
The History and other interesting tid-bits
In early years charcoal was used as a preliminary tool to sketch quickly. It was much too easily smudged and was very messy, so it was normally painted over or drawn over with other media.
Charcoal can be obtained in sticks, pencils, chunks, vine and compressed charcoal. Most artists prefer vine or willow charcoal - which is made by burning wood into soft, medium and hard consistencies. It's easy to use and is versatile. Willow charcoal can come thin or very thick.
Compressed charcoal is not as messy as the uncompressed vine and willow charcoal. It is made with charcoal powder mixed with gum binder compressed into round or square sticks. It comes in different hardnesses like graphite.
You can also get charcoal in pencil form with a variety of hardnesses as well - better used with a thicker, sturdier paper. These can be bought individually or in sets.
And lastly you can get charcoal in chunks for covering large areas.
My Preference - the pros and cons of graphite
What I like and dislike about each
This is where I give my opinion...I like them both. It's like trying to choose which of your children you love more. It's impossible!!! However, I will try to give my opinion of the pros and cons of each.
* The Pros of Graphite: This was my first drawing tool...it usually is for most artists...Graphite has such a smooth even feeling and it is so much easier to get the detail desired in some works of art, especially portraits. I think graphite blends well. Whether using a blending stump or just using a gradation of hard to soft in order to blend, they can easily make your subject have a life-like or photo-like appearance. Pencils are also easy to hold and use without being messy. They are easily transportable and don't require much else when you want to head out to the park to draw or sketch.
* The Cons of Graphite: There aren't many to me. If using a kneaded eraser to pick out highlights, graphite is not as forgiving. If you make a mistake or get pencil marks on your paper where you didn't intend to, it can be difficult to erase it. And one other thing that I'm not as crazy about is that it's hard to get dark areas as dark as I want without becoming shiny.
My Preference - the pros and cons of charcoal
What I like and dislike about each
* The Pros of Charcoal: I love the "feeling" I get when using charcoal. It's goes onto the paper so easily that you feel you can freely swipe your paper and draw the world! (Boy, did that sound corny?) I like the vine and willow form of charcoal, personally. You can use your sanding block to make it nice and sharp or use the side for a broader stroke. It's really easy to manipulate. And one of my most favorite things about charcoal is the darkness you can achieve with it. When I want a dark black, it obliges me without becoming shiny like graphite.
* The Cons of Charcoal: Charcoal is very sensitive. When I'm drawing with graphite I can easily work without worrying about smudging my work. My hand can rest about anywhere on the paper, if I'm careful. However, Charcoal isn't as forgiving. I feel that my hand is doing acrobatics to keep from smudging anything. Almost like "Twister for fingers". And I'm always worried about my 10 year old getting too close to my artwork and brushing against it or touching it.
In the end, I really enjoy both of these tools when drawing. They are so different and are both fun to work with. I think determining which one I want to work with has to do with either my mood or the subject that I'm drawing. (And sometimes the size of the artwork. - because graphite is easier to get detail done and charcoal is best with larger and free flowing work - as in the dog I'm drawing in the picture above).
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Are you an artist and have a preference? Or are you an art fan and know which you like better? Tell me what you think.