When I think about choosing charcoal paper, I want a paper that
- loves charcoal and also
- allows for easy erasing
My favorite brands of paper so far are Canson's MiTientes and Fabriano Roma.
- Canson's is readily available at art supply stores and is not expensive - probably around $2.50/sheet. There are two differently textured sides to MiTientes. I always use the smoothest grain which is the side to which the label is affixed.
- Fabriano Roma is available online and is roughly $12/sheet. I've only done one drawing using the Fabriano paper and while it wasn't as easy to start on as the Canson's, it had lots of latitude later on.
- Strathmore charcoal paper is my least favorite. I would rate it as OK, but I only use it if the drawing is not too important to me or if I want its particular texture to show as part of the piece.
I use both Winsor & Newton and Nitram charcoal. They are very different from each other and I would like to say they are special in their own way. The artist should learn when to use one or the other - simply by experimenting while drawing with them. Nitram charcoal gives the artist more control when putting down light values and sharp edges. Winsor & Newton is easier to lay down as a large, dark value. One thing that I would warn against is pressing too hard as you draw. It will ruin the grain of the paper.
You will want to sharpen your charcoal from time to time. Most artists use fine-grained sandpaper twisting the stick of charcoal as they stroke it on the sandpaper to produce a fine point. There are sandpaper pads at art stores. You can save the scrapings in a bottle and use it as powdered charcoal.I sometimes also use a simple pencil sharpener. Other artists in the past found the edge on a freshly broken piece of charcoal to be the sharpest.
I occasionally use powdered charcoal for the background. It comes in a jar and, as mentioned, you can continually add to it as you sharpen your sticks of charcoal. Just carefully tap out what you think you'll need and use a tissue or paper towel to spread it around.
Here is an informative blogpost on types of charcoal: http://helen-frost.co.uk/wp/what-kind-of-charcoal-are-you-using/
This is the eraser of choice - in fact, is there any other kind for charcoal drawings? Actually, there is, but it's something only to use in a pinch - so to speak. That is a piece of white bread! This is something that was recommended in the old days, and I have to confess it was just too interesting of an idea not to try. Wad up a portion of the bread and knead it, then erase. It works. Another friend also recommended trying painter's tape for those hard to erase areas. You carefully apply it and carefully lift it up. It didn't do wonders for my drawing but was an idea that's worked for him - and he did warn to try it on a corner of the paper you're using just to be sure it didn't rip it up when lifting.
Be sure to clean your kneaded eraser by playing with it, stretching and pushing it back into shape. However, there are limits to how much charcoal your eraser will be able to absorb. If it gets old and dirty enough, it makes a great stump...and one that you can shape.
As your drawing progresses you may want to use something on which to balance your hand so that you don't inadvertently smudge and lift off the beautiful charcoal you've already applied. Mahl sticks can be something as simple as a nice long ruler or even a long-handled paintbrush - or you could actually buy one. I had a teacher once who had a collection of light-weight carnival canes which were rather nice since you could hook the one end over the drawing board or canvas.
If and when you apply fixative at the end of your drawing, try setting your picture flat on the ground and holding the can three or so feet over it, gently spray from side to side and top to bottom starting to spray off to the side of the paper. Let it dry for about 15 minutes, then apply another coat. I personally use Krylon Matte Finish 1311.
STUMPS and BLENDERS
There are different opinions on using something with which to blend. Teacher Harold Speed was "agin 'em." Others like Anthony Waichulis are "fer' em." As you experiment with charcoal drawing, you might want to try using your paint brushes as stumps or even as erasers. You will find that the different types will act in different ways. Fingers are another option, but beware...oil from your youthful skin can create patches on your drawing that are very hard to work around. If you are older, this is where you have an advantage with your drier, ungreasy skin. Or you could actually use stumps which are available at art stores.
PATIENCE and THINKING: PRICELESS
You will not find these tools in any store, but they are qualities you must develop. Plaster cast drawings - at least good ones - take hours and hours and hours of thought and work. If I told you how long I spend on a plaster cast drawing, it might scare you. When you do a cast drawing, you are training and developing your thought processes as an artist:
- to see
- to analyze
- to be able to put down deliberate statements that describe what the object is.
By the way, my current teacher advises on doing about ten of these drawings. I can promise you that if you are alert that you will learn new lessons with each one. Write them down for future reference.