THE MOST COMMON QUESTION I HEAR:  "WHAT TYPE OF CHARCOAL DO YOU USE?" 

An oily charcoal.  Vine and less compacted types are too messy and not nearly black enough. Most of my work is done using Berol / soft #632. If you are lucky enough to find it (they went out of business many years ago), it provides a rich deep black. A good substitute are "Ritmo" pencils from Italy -- very smooth and consistent. 

 

PAPER AND ERASER

300 lb cold-pressed cotton -- "Lanaquarelle" from France has a nice tooth and a subtle off-white tone. It stands up well to friction when layering charcoal and pulling highlights with an eraser (Kneaded Eraser by Design).

 

FIXATIVE

Rarely use it unless I want to flatten the work and darken my mid-tones.  

 

TORTILLON

I've made all kinds of these myself or you can find some wonderful variations of this (typically Italian-made) blending tool. They are lead-less / wood-less pencils of tightly wound paper with a point at one or both ends. How tightly they are wound produces delicate variations likened to the difference one finds in hard vs. soft brushes. 

 

PALETTE

A hand-sized scrap of cardboard-weight (140 to 300lb) cotton paper scribbled thick with charcoal makes a perfect palette.  I usually use scraps of left-over trimmings from my work. Regular paper disintegrates too quickly.


TECHNIQUE

Charcoals drawn directly onto the surface of the work will permanently "stain" cotton fibers. For that reason, direct pencil-to-surface charcoal is used only for the blackest areas. After layering a thick area of charcoal onto the "palette," mid-tones are created by using the tortillon -- like paint on a brush -- to layer the charcoal particles into the fine hairs of cotton fiber. This method of blending creates tones that can be highlighted with the touch of an eraser.   

In addition to multiple sizes and densities of tortillons -- compacted balls of bread, felt, chamois cloth and an old-fashioned school eraser make good blending tools. Each material produces a slightly different effect.

Blended edges replace hard lines. Using this technique, charcoal is painted rather than drawn.