Charcoal is a popular medium, with its rich matte blacks and grays offering dramatic expressive possibilities. Charcoal particles have a naturally rough surface that reflect light irregularly, giving the medium its characteristic velvety quality. Charcoal is available in various forms. For the exercises in this book, a couple of sticks of thin willow charcoal, a good piece of vine charcoal, and a medium-compressed charcoal stick or pencil will be all you need. You can add to these later on if you enjoy using this medium.
Willow charcoal produces a beautiful, velvety gray-black color, smudges with just a touch of the finger, and erases perfectly. It is essential to use spray fixative to protect willow charcoal drawings, as this type of charcoal virtually falls off the page.
Compressed or Stick Charcoal
Compressed charcoal is powdered charcoal mixed with binders and pressed into regular-sized sticks or bars. It is available in grades—usually soft, medium, and hard. Sometimes it is given 2b, 4b, and 6b grading—though these tones bear little resemblance to the pencil weights of the same grades. Try several brands if you can, to see how they handle. Charcoal should have a dry, slightly abrasive feel on application, but it should deposit an even tone and not scratch the paper; such irregularities are a sign of an inferior product.
These handy drawing tools are compressed charcoal cores encased in timber. Clean to handle and easy to sharpen, these are versatile and convenient. Like compressed charcoal, the consistency can vary depending on the manufacturer. Some brands have a smoother, waxy texture, but these can be a little sticky and difficult to blend and erase. Though they cost a little more to buy than stick charcoal, ease of handling make these a good choice for beginners.