Art Term

Charcoal

Charcoal is a black crumbly drawing material made of carbon and often used for sketching and under-drawing for paintings, although can also be used to create more finished drawings

Leon Kossoff, ‘Self-Portrait. Verso: Untitled (Two Figures)’ 1967
Leon Kossoff
Self-Portrait. Verso: Untitled (Two Figures) 1967
Tate
© Leon Kossoff

Charcoal is traditionally made from thin peeled willow twigs which are heated without the presence of oxygen. This produces black crumbly sticks, which leave microscopic particles in the paper or textile fibres, producing a line that is dense at the pressure point, but more diffuse or powdery at the edges. The overall result is less precise than hard graphite pencils, so charcoal is suited to freer studies. Charcoal smudges easily and is often protected with a sprayed fixative.

In the twentieth century a processed version was developed, called compressed charcoal.

Selected artworks in the collection