Why are these Charcoal Drawings so good? Can they be replicated with only pencil and Carbon?

One of the amazing talents of the AniArt Academies is to consistently pump out students capable of producing such a high quality of charcoal drawing that they perennially outclass the other drawings on show in the Art Renewal Center Salons, despite the fact that these other drawings themselves are already of a very high standard. This work from Helen Crispino epitomises this excellence.

So the question is, why are they so good and why are they so realistic. Here’s some reasons I could think of:

  1. The reference scene/photo is always under what I would call chiaroscuro lighting, and this helps hugely with realism, depth and general wow factor.

  2. Darkness in and of itself, seems to me to be a huge helping factor in creating the illusion of ‘realism’ and all these drawings are very dark.

  3. Perhaps this is the same point as 2, but when a scene is dark, you can start to merge regions of the artwork, borders become less visible and this, I think, adds to the realism.

Other than these two/three aspects, related to the composition itself, I presume everything else is a matter of technical excellence acquired by studious repetition of the Language of Drawing exercises.

However perhaps there is a further point which is related to the fact that the use of charcoal and white pastel leads to a greater range of contrast between lights and darks.

This brings me onto the next main question of this post which is, can the same standard of work be achieved only using pencil, along with maybe carbon and black coloured pencil?

The reason this question is important to me is that I find charcoal an incredibly difficult medium to work with, whereas I love pencil. I feel skilled as a pencil artist and therefore wish to work in dry media. However, if I want to attain works comparable to those put out by the AniArt academy, this would require putting in some serious hours with charcoal. So I don’t know whether to stick or twist.

If I decide not to bother with charcoal there are some alternatives to it that can provide you with some nice blacks. These are:

Carbon Conte pencils: I find Carbon to be generally a lot more workable than charcoal whilst still possessing that rich, glowing quality. Points can be difficult though.

Staedler 8B: This is a coloured pencil. It’s very easy to use, though you can never quite get a sharp point. But it lacks that rich glow that charcoal has.

Kimberley’s 9XXB: This is a form of graphite, I think, but it does not produce a sheen like graphite does. Lacks the rich allure of charcoal though.

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The above possibilities then are a way of mimicking the black of charcoal. The other issue we might consider is that of imitating the white pastel.

This is where it’s hard to make an analogy with the language of Drawing techniques that produce the AniArt charcoal drawings. This is where I think there is a definite lack of kinship between Charcoal/Pastel Drawing and Graphite Drawing.

In pure pencil art the whitest white is prescribed by the whiteness of the paper on which you work. There are issues with this. First, it can be difficult to keep it clean.

Second of all, this white fails to have the glowing properties of white pastel.

But maybe the most important issue is the blending issue. Because charcoal/pastel is a fluid medium, you can take the black charcoal and the white pastel and blend them to create anything in between. The neutral zero tone, the colour of the paper, is in the middle.

With graphite there seems to be two jumps. A jump between the darkest graphite grey and the black produced by one of the three black pencils listed above; and a jump between the lightest graphite tone and the white of the paper.

The transition from pure whiteness to low tone grey or indeed the transition from dark black to white can be difficult to handle and lead to discontinuities that shouldn’t be there.

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I always think that a pencil drawing, without employing very black tones in certain places, lacks zip and pop and wow factor. Then again, look at these drawings from Paul Cadden.

They are pure graphite (more or less I think??). There is a part of me that wonders if the tone just needs to be blackened up in certain areas. But by and large I feel that they are incredible artworks and that so much can be achieved in graphite alone.

EDIT: I think it’s become clear to me now that graphite and charcoal are simply two different mediums. And that it’s folly to think that the bright glowing properties apparent in charcoal and pastel artworks can be achieved also in pencil.

Nevertheless, pencil drawings can still be highly attractive in their own right.

Incidentally here is Anthony’s article on the difference between the two mediums and why the AniArt Academy chooses to work with charcoal instead of graphite: http://anthonywaichulis.com/charcoalpastel-vs-graphite-as-a-precursor-to-oil-painting/

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Having filled a couple of sketchbooks with pencil drawings over the last year, I was getting increasingly frustrated with the limits of their value range. You can do a lot with a slow careful application of tone and layering, but there’s no way you can get as black as charcoal can, and it’s so quick to get real dark darks too.

So I got some vine charcoal, and I got some Nitram compressed charcoal fusains (in soft/medium/hard) and used those instead of pencil. I had big issues with both, particularly in smaller drawings with fine details. Now there will be an element that is attributable to my having not used them before, and perhaps even going about employing them in the wrong way (essentially trying to use them as I would a pencil) but my pressure sensitivity seemed way off the mark. Even with them nice and sharp, and being as careful as I could I was generally getting thick dark lines and horrible results, even worse if I tried any blending. So I put them down and haven’t touched them since (I will, but time allowing).

Now in preparing for the LoD course (having gotten on board for all the reasons you mention, including hearing that suggested donation podcast) I got some generals charcoal 6b pencils, and some of that blue canson pastel paper, and even when I first set to work on the origin/destination, the difference is astounding. I immediately had an element of control and pencil like precision which was lacking with the fusains and vine charcoal. Sure you can mess it up easier, but at least I feel like I can definitely work with it and make progress and have an idea of how those amazing Ani Academy quality drawings are possible. So if you haven’t tried Generals Pencils, you need to, they are far easier to sharpen, keep a point, control naturally and get pencil like results from than any of the other charcoal medium or brand I’ve tried. Might be a total game changer for you.

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Thanks Martin. I have in fact tried the General 6B pencils. I have done the initial gradation exercise from the language of drawing. I got through it, but I used up two charcoal pencils in doing so and found the medium very frustrating, not to mention that mere contact with the drawing caused heaps of charcoal to be shed onto my clothes.

The idealist in me wants to go back to the course and master the charcoal. The pragmatist in me however, told me to put it aside and concentrate solely on the Language of Painting, a course which I have in large part ‘completed’. Obviously, like everyone here, I only have a limited amount of time and have to designate it appropriately.

I think therefore I’m just resigned to working in pencil at the moment. A medium that I practiced at for years and in which I feel a lot can still be achieved. Especially if by adding in some black carbon and even white ink, you can at least extend the value range.

One of the biggest ironies for me is how (relatively) easy painting is. I’ve been terrified of this medium for years. But actually in some ways it’s the easiest. I feel like it obeys me (unlike with charcoal), whereas it’s fluid nature allows you to paint negatively (i.e. by scratching and needle work) which is way more difficult to do in graphite (where you have to use rather blunt rubbers).

An improvement in your painting will come from cross-pollination via whatever medium you put work into. So it’s not like you’re neglecting one to get better at the other in my opinion.

You seem to be going to a lot of trouble to get your chosen medium to emulate Ani charcoal drawings. I don’t doubt you can do it, but might it not be easier simply putting the time in on LoD and getting those results in the most direct way.

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I think I have accepted that the same results in charcoal cannot be replicated in pencil.

If I were to do the LoD programme it would take at least 3 months minimum, and I mean minimum. I don’t have that time to spare gratuitously.

Also, I feel like it’s time to ‘cash in’ on all the work I put in previously in the graphite medium. I’m getting old, the clock’s ticking down, and I want to get some works to put on my CV. And like I say, with people like Paul Cadden, there is a precedent for producing stunning works in graphite only.

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Thank you for another interesting topic Thomas. Let’s see if I can adequately address a few of the factors that you put forward regarding the consistent quality of the Ani drawings:

First I would just like to state that the example you chose was a great piece. I actually remember Helen drawing that in my first studio. It was her “gauntlet” capstone project. And I’ll add that the image truly does it zero justice. The resolution/definition of the drawing is absolutely incredible, and her handling…impeccable.

Ok, with that said, you put forward the following contributors to the quality.

1.The reference scene/photo is always under what I would call chiaroscuro lighting, and this helps hugely with realism, depth and general wow factor.

I would indeed argue that the manner in which something is illuminated will hold significant influence on how effectively/efficiently it is communicated. Without going into one of my long-winded ramblings here, I will just say that there is much here that has to do with processing fluency, categorical-canonical perspective, and I something I would dub canonical “illumination.”

2.Darkness in and of itself, seems to me to be a huge helping factor in creating the illusion of ‘realism’ and all these drawings are very dark. (Perhaps this is the same point as 2, but when a scene is dark, you can start to merge regions of the artwork, borders become less visible and this, I think, adds to the realism.)

In most contexts or representatrionalism, the inclusion of lost/found edges or other opportunities for visual completion will indeed contribute significantly to how “realistic” a representation will be perceived. This is because what we describe as “realistic” is not some exact accordance with absolute physical world properties/measurements—rather it is the degree of experienced relative similarity between a perceptual response to a surrogate, simulation, or other representation and the past perceptual responses to the stimulus, stimulus components, or experience that is being represented. As such, visual completion scenarios within a representation may push a viewer to become a much more active participant in achieving a brain state that is similar to one that was elicited by an appropriate, real-world perceptual event in the past.

You can explore this topic much further with my full paper on this here: https://www.smartermarx.com/t/what-does-realistic-look-like-free-download/645 or listen to the corresponding lecture here: https://www.smartermarx.com/t/video-slideshow-lecture-what-does-realistic-look-like/776

For a much shorter glance at this topic you can read my article for Art Aesthetics Magazine here: https://www.artaesthetics.net/publications/2018/11/30/what-does-realistic-look-like

Other than these two/three aspects, related to the composition itself, I presume everything else is a matter of technical excellence acquired by studious repetition of the Language of Drawing exercises.
This brings me onto the next main question of this post which is, can the same standard of work be achieved only using pencil, along with maybe carbon and black coloured pencil?

From a drawing standpoint—as long as you canachieve the same range of values, and the reflective properties of the material are not a detractor, I would think that you should be able to find the same level of “realistic” representation with many types of dry media other than charcoal.

However, there are many reasons we use compressed charcoal with our programs that fall beyond mere potential value range and ease-of-use. There is a somewhat lengthy article on this topic here: Charcoal/Pastel vs. Graphite as a Precursor to Oil Painting

Hope some of this is helpful!

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Thanks a lot Anthony. Yes, Helen Crispino was (in my mind at least) always one of the original AniArt students whose work I very much admired. There were many others too, but I was always shocked by how realistic she got a lot of her animals to look, both in charcoal and paint.

I have of course already watched that video and read the articles, but I will take another look. The stuff about drawing the dollar note from memory seems a very important point vis-à-vis how our memories really function, so I will go over all that material again.

Just out of interest, have you never had a student who got irritated with charcoal and threw their toys out of the pram, telling you that they came to learn how to paint instead?

I just can’t imagine that not happening at sometime, but then maybe frustration with charcoal is just peculiar to me, and in any case all the AniArt students seem so professional and level headed (not like the archetypal temperamental tantrum throwers that artists are made out to be!)

I’m certainly no expert, but I have recently started experimenting with the general’s black and white charcoal pencils.

One thing I’ve found that hasn’t been mentioned here or (I think) in Anthony’s wonderful article is that with the charcoal pencils, you lighten things with the same tool and medium as when you darken things. In both cases, you’re using a pencil which handles more or less the same. Sure, there are slight differences in the materials, but generally they’re quite similar. Whereas with graphite you lighten with a very different tool—an eraser. So, you either have to mechanically master two very different tools, or you have to get so proficient with a pencil that you hardly ever need to erase.

Personally, I’ve found the eraser a hard tool to master. And I’ve never had the patience, focus, or coordination to get to a level where I don’t need to use one :slight_smile:

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I think that’s a really salient point Tim, as it gets to the heart of what I think I was trying to intuitively say about there being a lack of kinship between Charcoal and pencil. That lack of kinship is related to the discontinuous nature of producing darks and lights in pencil. And you’ve hit the nail on the head in that that discontinuous nature is because you’re using two different tools.

I agree that rubbers can be very difficult to use and exercise control over. The needed eraser is never strong enough so can’t be vigorously applied, and the stronger erasers are too coarse and blunt for precise work.

Of course there are other alternatives: some people use white ink; JD Hillberry recommends the indenting technique; and I also saw a guy on YouTube putting cellotape over dark regions and then drawing on the cellotape, to create negative pencil work.

It’s like comparing acrylic to oil. Apples to oranges,
Really no comparison. I tend to be more enraptured with oils. But I’ve seen some pretty awesome acrylics.

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