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Charcoal as seen through the microscope. The field of view is 1/4" in diameter.


As a stick of charcoal is applied to paper, it splinters and the almost weightless particles scatter lightly over the surface producing dusty gray passages and soft lines that even the gentlest rubbing can smudge or erase. These qualities have favored its use for preparatory drawings, rapid sketches, and underdrawings throughout the centuries. The photomicrograph at the left illustrates the sparkle of the minute fractured particles in a charcoal stroke as they reflect light.

Found in prehistoric cave paintings and gaining substantial popularity in the nineteenth century, charcoal has been used by artists of all periods. Natural charcoal is made by slowly heating vines or wooden twigs in an airtight chamber, after which it can be used directly without the addition of binder. For denser, more saturated marks, the artist soaked the charcoal sticks in olive or linseed oil, a technique practically forgotten today. By the mid-nineteenth century, the need for darker charcoal was met commercially with compressed charcoal, which consists of charcoal powder pressed into sticks and fired in a kiln. A charcoal stroke can be easily manipulated or removed with a soft rubber eraser or smudged with a tight roll of paper called a “stump” or “tortillon.”

Shown above from left to right are sticks of soft vine, thin willow and compressed charcoal.


Examples from the Collection


Acrobats, 1913-1914
David Bomberg, English
Charcoal with erasing and conte crayon on laid paper
Sheet: 18 1/2 x 22 7/16 inches (47 x 57 cm)
Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund and the Fiske Kimball Fund, 1981
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A leader of the British avant-garde and an early modernist, David Bomberg's abstract compositions reflect the steel forms of the modern city and the heightened gestures he saw in London's Jewish theater. Acrobats, created in 1913-14, was done when the artist was only twenty-four years old and his work from this period is extremely rare. In this powerful abstract image, the soft dusty passages of charcoal are reinforced with lines of black crayon. The presence of the artist's hand can be sensed as he pressed his thumb into a pliable eraser, removing charcoal to reveal the paper and create highlights. Upon inspection of the actual work of art through the microscope (but too subtle to capture in a reproduction such as the digital image seen here) the relative warm tonality of the charcoal compared with the crayon is particularly evident as they are viewed side by side in the same composition.


Two Dancers Resting
Two Dancers Resting, c. 1890-1900
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, French
Red chalk and charcoal with wet brush on paper (tracing paper)
Sheet: 22 1/4 x 17 1/2 inches (56.5 x 44.5 cm)
The Samuel S. White 3rd and Vera White Collection, 1967
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Edgar Degas created this study of Two Dancers Resting during a period when pastel was his preferred medium and he continued to favor the theme of female ballet dancers. The translucency of tracing paper, a support he commonly used, enabled him to trace, correct and plan his compositions, often repeating or reversing similar figure groups for different works of art. This preparatory drawing is executed in charcoal and red chalk on a sheet of tracing paper that was extended along the right by an additional strip of the paper to increase the dimensions of the drawing surface. This procedure was a common practice of Degas' although in this particular piece he did not draw in the extended area. The bold strokes of charcoal convey the sense of the artist actively working out his image, erasing and smudging the charcoal in the arms, hands, and faces. He also may have moistened the stick of charcoal or applied a wet brush to the charcoal drawing, accenting the heel (center right) and forehead of the dancer (top right).

Seated Nude and Standing Nude
Seated Nude and Standing Nude, 1906
Pablo Ruiz y Picasso, Spanish
Charcoal and crayon on cream laid paper
Sheet: 25 1/16 x 18 13/16 inches (63.7 x 47.8 cm)
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950
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Inspired by Iberian and classical Greek sculptures displayed at the Louvre in Paris, Seated Nude and Standing Nude represents a phase of austere and monumental classicism in Pablo Picasso's work. Rubbed tonal areas, sharp outlines and rapid background hatching sculpt the two powerful stylized figures set within a shallow space. In this drawing, the artist intelligently combines charcoal and crayon, using the materials in a way that takes advantage of their inherent properties: a faint charcoal underdrawing softly shapes the forms, while distinct lines of black crayon, possibly Conté crayon, clarify the contours and facial features of the figures.

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