The Great Charcoal Shootout

Charcoal choices.From left to right: Nitram B (soft), Windsor & Newton Vine (soft), Grumbacher Vine (soft), Derwent Dark (soft), General’s 6B (soft)

When I was studying at the ateliers in the U.S. and in Florence (1980-1990), our go-to charcoal brands were Windsor & Newton and a French brand named J. M. Paillard. Generally speaking, W&N was for block-ins and initial shading, whereas Paillard was used for halftones and finishing. Other brands, like Nitram and Grumbacher were also in use by some students and ateliers. Now that Paillard is gone, and Nitram has been resurrected, it’s time for a great charcoal shootout!

Update: 12 hours after releasing this article, I received an e-mail from Nitram (as did all who are on their e-mail list). It seems that the Nitram manufacturing plant just burned to the ground. No new stock will be made for at least a year.

First off, I should note that I am not affiliated with any of the brands I test in this article. Second, in my own work, I tend to use W&N, Grumbacher and Nitram, interchangeably. I also recommend all three. Finally, I also lament the loss of J. M. Paillard. I have a few sticks left and just can’t bring myself to use them, knowing that they are my last.

What makes a good stick of charcoal? Many ingredients, actually. Although most types of wood and woody vines can be used, some do work better than others. Willow sticks and grape vine are the most common. As I learned during my own efforts at making charcoal, how long the wood is charred and the vessel used to house the sticks during the charring process also affect the result. Two other important variables also account for variations: the paper being used and one’s ability to lay down a flat tone.

There are essentially three different levels of hardness in drawing charcoal: soft, medium, and hard, although some manufacturers prefer other designations. The soft versions (B, dark, etc.) leave the darkest line. The hard leaves the lightest line when using the same amount of pressure as one would with the soft. The medium is in-between. Beyond the range of value they produce, the soft, medium, and hard rankings also represent the physical qualities of the stick. You’ll notice this as you sharpen the various sticks.

The photograph at the top of the article shows the brands I am testing. From left to right: Nitram, Windsor & Newton, and Grumbacher are regular, soft drawing charcoal. Since I know that some schools recommend charcoal pencils, the remaining two subjects, Derwent and General’s, are soft charcoal pencils. I am using Fabriano Tiziano white charcoal paper.

Charcoal is both a linear medium (it can do detailed work) and mass medium (it can be used to lay in broad, flat tones). Regardless of the application, you need to maintain control, and to do that you will almost always be using a point. Therefore, over the course of any given drawing you will spend quite a bit of time sharpening your charcoal sticks. Here is a video which shows how:

One reason that some like to use charcoal pencils is that they can be sharpened in a pencil sharpener. My experience doing that was somewhat of a failure, as I will mention later on.

The basic charcoal stick sharpening process involves a sharpening block, a little dexterity, and time. There are many kinds of sharpening blocks, from homemade, to some that are quite expensive. Below is a selection.

Three kinds of sharpening blocks.From the left: a sanding block that house painters and woodworkers use, the typical artist’s sanding block, and a homemade sanding block.

If you want to make your own, or use the kind shown on the left in the photograph above, 180 to 220 grit is best. For my money (and time), the typical artist’s sanding block (shown in the middle) is almost useless. When sharpening you are trying to achieve a long, tapered point. As such, and as you’ll see in the video above, you hold the charcoal stick more or less perpendicular to the long side of the block. In that orientation, the block’s width determines how long of a taper you can manage. Therefore, a wider block is better.

Another concern regarding sanding blocks is that the sanding surface should go edge to edge. If it does not, you are likely to sand a groove or stepped edge into the taper where it meets the un-sanded part of the stick.

As you will learn, the sharpening process can take quite a long time, especially when you are new to it. Soft charcoal sticks sharpen a bit faster than hards do, and they require less pressure on the block. Don’t be surprised that a properly sharpened stick will likely be a quarter to a third smaller in volume than a brand new one right out of the box.

Why pursue a long taper? Two reasons: the point lasts longer, and the fragility of the length can help teach you to draw more gently.

For the test, I am limiting myself as follows:

  • using only soft charcoal
  • attempting to maintain the same pressure across brands
  • able to completely erase it
  • limiting the time spent shading in the square to less than 30 seconds
  • limiting the time spent doing a short value scale to less than 1 minute
  • no smudging of any kind
  • no erasing allowed to smooth a tone

In the image below and those that follow you will see:

  • the charcoal stick across the top
  • a test square to test erasability
  • a gradient
  • the main test square
  • beneath the main test square, a high pressure stroke

Nitram charcoal test.Nitram B (soft)

Above is the result of the Nitram brand test. Although it was soft (‘B’ in Nitram’s scale), it sharpened hard. By that I mean that it took more pressure to sharpen than the other two brands. Had I not seen the tone it produced, I would have said that it was a medium or even a hard.

Evenly shading in the square (right side of the photograph), was fairly easy. I did not have to make too many passes, but because I was not very used to the hardness of the stick, it took awhile to adjust my pressure evenly. I did not succeed as well as I can now (after getting used to it again), but I decided to keep to the test as specified.

It was not possible to match the high pressure stroke value by shading. That said, it could be done when erasing would not matter.

The value gradient test was next. Some schools practice pressure scales in order to help you to shade. I was not taught that, and did not follow those procedures here. I was, however, taught to grade through pressure until I reached the level of the next hardness of charcoal, and so on. This usually means that about midway through the gradient, I would have switched to a medium or hard. Nonetheless, here I was testing softs and so I stuck with it. Pressure scales are also commonly done perpendicular to the direction of the intended gradient. I did not do that, instead I mostly kept to layers of a rain from heaven. As I am left handed, I also went from right to left.

The ease of gradating with the Nitram was about the same as the other brands.

Nitram also seemed to need more pressure on the stick in order to make marks than the others did. This concerned me because one of the things you want to preserve as long as possible in a charcoal drawing is the ability to completely erase it. As you see in the upper-right corner of the left-most square, it erased fairly well nonetheless.

Windsor & Newton test.Windsor & Newton soft

I am the most used to the Windsor & Newton brand, therefore the evenness of my shaded squares and gradient was better with this brand’s soft. It feels softer when sharpening, as well as when drawing and shading. To be fair, I liked it, probably because I was most used to it.

Surprisingly, the WN did not erase a cleanly as did the Nitram.

Grumbacher test.Grumbacher soft

Grumbacher’s soft actually felt the softest as I was sharpening and using it. Furthermore, it laid down a smooth tone the most easily.

It erased to a level somewhere between the Nitram and WN.

It would not go quite as dark as the Nitram nor the WN. Notice as well that its tone is cooler, relative to the previous two. I laid all of the tests out on the same sheet of paper, and photographed them as one. I only split them up in Photoshop to show them separately in this article. Therefore, the color value comparison is true.

I also note that for all the tested brands, had I given myself more time on the main squares, I could have more quickly eliminated the paper’s texture using the Grumbacher than the rest.

Derwent test.Derwent Dark (soft)

To be honest, the Derwent charcoal pencils annoyed me. Sharpening was not as easy using the pencil sharpener as I had expected, and therefore I gave up when trying to do the gradient. That some can do remarkable work with these kinds of pencils must be a testament not only to their skill but also to some genetic predisposition. Or, I just needed a different sharpener.

General's test.General’s 6B (soft)

Despite coming last in the listing, I actually tested General’s first.

Although I could never return to a sharp point with the Derwent (both the Derwent and General’s come pre-sharpened), I could do that on occasion with the General’s. Unfortunately, more often than not, the points would break off before I could check their sharpness. I even tried to use an Exacto knife, like we used to do with wooden drawing pencils, in order to remove some wood and then use the sanding block to sharpen the revealed charcoal. But the same thing happened – the charcoal broke before I could use the sharpening block. My guess is that the package had been dropped at some point and the charcoal inside the wood was fractured.

As you can see, I did complete the test of the General’s brand. The tone went down fairly well, but it (like the Derwent) reminded me of something called compressed charcoal.

At Atelier LeSueur, we used compressed at times, near the end of the drawing. We did not use it when I was at Atelier Lack’s or Studio Cecil-Graves. At least I did not. Anyway, compressed charcoal does not erase well. Its appeal is that it can be sharpened to almost a needle-like point and remain sharp for a very long time. Therefore, it was great for filling in those little holes of paper texture. If you want to use it (and/or spend weeks doing this) be aware that the learning value of the exercise is debatable.

I have read that charcoal pencils do indeed contain compressed charcoal. Whether these brands do, I do not know.

Both Derwent and General’s made darker shadings than any of the charcoal sticks, but, neither erased very well. Not that I expected them too.

To be honest, I went into this test with some presuppositions. The first was that the charcoal pencils would not be to my liking and I assume that part of that bias is simply how I was trained. The second was that nothing would match my memory of the long lost Paillard. Unfortunately, nothing did.

The test seemed to show no standout brand. However, had I gone further with the test, to compare how each laid down halftones and maintained a line, from experience I know that Nitram would have pulled ahead of the others. Its texture is just hard enough for it to keep its point longer. With that in mind, a better test, one of mediums and hards might be in the offing.

I will continue to recommend Nitram, WN, and Grumbacher to my students. One advantage of both Windsor & Newton and Grumbacher soft charcoal is that they are less expensive than the Nitram and you get 12 sticks as compared to the Nitram’s 5. Then again, I go through those sticks faster than I do the Nitrams.

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