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Mixed Media: Charcoal and Graphite

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Mixing Matte and Glossy
Mixed Media Painting Graphite and Charcoal

When you compare them side by side, you'll quickly notice that graphite (pencil) is shinier than charcoal. In the top photo where I've angled the paper to the light it's particularly evident.

Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Charcoal and graphite are amongst the most fundamental of art materials, and shouldn't be forgotten when investigating mixed media painting techniques. You can use the inherent characteristics of each to great effect, contrasting not only lighter and darker tone, grey and black, but also matte and glossy surface finish.

Charcoal is much blacker than graphite, even when applied lightly or thinly, leaving a flat, matte surface. Charcoal comes in various forms:

  • Thin and thick sticks in varying degrees of hardness, known as willow or vine charcoal, depending which wood it's created from (Buy Direct). This is the form you'll typically encounter in art class.
  • Compressed charcoal (Buy Direct) which is very dark, and a little less messy to use as it gives off less dust.
  • As a pencil (Buy Direct) which makes it less messy to hold in your hand, and easier to sharpen. These come in various degrees of hardness, as well as color-tinted versions (Buy Direct).
  • Also useful with charcoal: Fixative (Buy Direct) and a Kneaded or Putty Eraser (Buy Direct)

Using charcoal couldn't be simpler: press it onto the paper and it leaves a mark. The harder you press, the more charcoal gets applied. You can lighten areas by lifting off some of the charcoal with an eraser. If you collect the dust, you can apply it with a brush as you would powdered graphite. Apply fixative to stop charcoal smudging.

Note: Working with charcoal is messy, and you need to take suitable precautions, especially about breathing in dust. When you want to dislodge excess dust from an artwork, tap the board rather than blowing on it.

Graphite, or pencil, produces a range of tones, from a very light grey to very dark depending on the hardness of the pencil and how you've applied it, though not easily as black as charcoal. The more layers of graphite you apply, the shinier the surface becomes. You can't eliminate this property of graphite easily; you might for instance spray on a matte acrylic medium or a matte varnish. Graphite comes in various forms:

  • Traditional, Wooded Pencils from hard to soft. Try a few different ones -- 2H, 2B, 8B -- you don't need every single grade! (Buy Direct)
  • Woodless Pencils which don't need sharpening unless you want a fine point (Buy Direct)
  • Powdered Graphite (Buy Direct) which you can apply with a stiff brush, cotton bud, or piece of cloth. (Again, work sensibly with any medium that's powdered to avoid inhaling it.)
  • Liquid Graphite, like paint made with graphite rather than colored pigment (Review: Liquid Pencil, Buy Direct).

Remember, heavily layered graphite is slippery and you may encounter adhesion problems if you try to apply charcoal over it. Spraying some fixative over it will help.

Mixing graphite and charcoal gives you the chance to create glossy and matte sections in an artwork. Use these characteristics to enhance your mixed media painting, don't fight against it and don't expect something the medium isn't capable of doing.

I've seen minimalist abstract art created with only graphite and charcoal where, at first glance, the paper seems to be a uniform dark grey. It's only when you position yourself so the light catches the shinier sections where graphite was applied that you begin to see the patterns and shapes in the artwork.

When you introduce paint, remember that charcoal will smudge, as will very soft or thickly applied pencil. Again, work with this rather than against it: let the charcoal and pencil merge with the paint to create a transition, or an extra color. Or remember it'll happen and paint up to the edge only rather than into it. Don't forget the option to use charcoal and pencil into still-wet paint!

If you're using graphite or charcoal over dried acrylic paint and have adhesion problems, try applying a clear gesso or matte medium over acrylics to create a little tooth for it to grab onto. Lightly sanding the surface is another option.

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