First, vine charcoal is one of the most lovely substances on earth. It lays down a line that looks as though it was painted in some sort of new raw umber. Second, it is capable of a huge dynamic range that really opens up an artist’s voice. Third, working without color brings the focus around to value - and as I learned years ago (and often need to be reminded), value is the most important component in making a successful composition work.
About 30 years ago, I was wandering around the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., and it occurred to me that of the hundreds of paintings I was viewing, a great number of them were wildly off in skin color - and yet highly successful as paintings. I bought a catalog of the collection and during months of study, came to the conclusion that the reason portraits could work and yet be way off in color is because the underlying value structure is dead on.
That makes a lot of sense when you consider how paintings were created by great masters from the Renaissance to the pre-Impressionist period. Paintings were most often created by doing a grisaille atop the initial cartoon, and then dealing with color by glazing once the value structure had been perfected with the grisaille. Here’s a book that details the process (I’m not fond of the paintings, but the process is expained beautifully).
Value is why we squint when we work. Value imbalances make a work interesting. Check out sometime the ratio of light to dark in Caravaggio or Rembrandt. I could go on, but you get my drift. All to say, I’m working with charcoal in an attempt to study some of the paintings from my sabbatical that just don’t excite me.
Here’s a really great video of a really great artist working in charcoal and chalk on toned paper.