Lesson 3 of 10
Creating with Charcoal
by Debi West
Ahhhh, charcoal! I have found over the past 24 years that we either love it, or hate it! Regardless, it’s an essential medium to teach our students and one that teaches technical, patience, and really reiterates the art of “seeing” that, in my opinion, is one of the most important components in teaching the visual arts.
My Art II students get two back-to-back charcoal lessons, starting with the ever-popular charcoal sheet study. I believe that most secondary visual art teachers incorporate this into their curriculum and so I would be remiss to not mention it. I hang a white sheet on the wall and spend about 30 minutes having my students look at the sheet and discuss what they see. We talk about the simple lines and shapes that we see in the folds of the cloth and discuss how easy it actually is to draw the lines and shapes. It’s when we begin to discuss the values of lights, darks and shadows that students often get a bit intimidated.
When we continue to teach using the building blocks of art—a.k.a. the elements—I believe that it helps students to better see and work towards achieving a final piece of art that they are excited about. I remind students to use the Internet to find videos and handouts that may help them. Most want to start drawing their sheet studies using graphite, but then I remind them that this lesson is about using a new medium that differs from graphite. Graphite is pretty reliable and precise, while charcoal can be more dramatic and messy. It’s a very different experience.
I introduce different types of charcoal—vine, compressed and pencils—which basically change the degrees of darkness and lightness. I also explain and model how using a gray-toned charcoal paper can often change the appearance of their final piece and therefore they need to be concentrating more on their darks and whites.
Charcoal is a wonderful tool for going big and bold in an artwork, so we also discuss the freedom of not worrying about the fine details in the beginning, these will come in later with the use of gummy erasers, eraser pencils, white charcoal and blending stumps. And then we discuss the importance of workable fixative and when it’s best to apply this to their work.
We spend a class period experimenting with charcoal and mark making in our sketchbooks and on large newsprint, and by day three, they are ready to begin their final sheet studies. I give them about a week to complete these and they have the option of working on easels, drawing boards or their tables. Again, this is something they are free to experiment with and I have to say, this lesson truly keeps my students engaged, disciplined and serious about drawing what they see, using a new medium.
Once these sheets are complete, I then have them take high-contrast portrait photograph (or find them on the Internet with the understanding that they can’t be used in competitions or scholarships if they are not their own images) and they draw those using charcoal and grid art techniques that they learned in their intro art course. I give them about a week to complete these and after the two and a half weeks of working in charcoal, they are pretty excited with their results and all that they learned!
Up next …“Anatomy”!
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A&A Contributing Editor Debi West, Ed.S, NBCT, is Art Dept. Chair at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, Ga.