David Winning thought he’d seen it all before until he experienced Derwent’s Fine Art XL Charcoal and Graphite blocks.

When I was asked whether I’d be interested in trying out Derwent’s XL Blocks I jumped at the chance – what sketchoholic wouldn’t?

As I waited for the blocks to arrive, I started to question how different they could be from other similar products on the market. But nothing could have prepared me for the chunky XL blocks, which measure a generous 20x20x60mm and fit comfortably into the palm of the hand – they invite you to grasp them in a fist with just the tip of the block protruding.

What’s so special about XL Blocks?

Each set has six subtly moody colours: very soft, soft, burnt umber, raw umber, dark Prussian and dark olive in graphite; and ochre, sanguine, violet, sepia, black and white in charcoal.

Simply looking at them fired my imagination and I set to work immediately on a series of test sheets.

It wasn’t long before I was doodling happily and making fanciful images from the ostensibly random marks – see doodle sheets below.

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Top features

  • Derwent’s XL graphite and charcoal blocks have a softer, creamier composition than some other compressed blocks
  • They are more responsive to variations of pressure and therefore release a hitherto undiscovered vocabulary of inspirational marks, everything from the fattest, broadest slabs to the frailest and most delicate lines, and the loudest statements to the barely discernible whisper
  • The blocks responded intuitively in my hand, instantly presenting different facets, edges and points of contact, each with its own unique mark-making potential
  • The chunky dimensions enhances their balance and handling, facilitating an expressive approach and more imaginative applications, which for me frequently resulted in unique and unpredictable outcomes
  • Being heavily pigmented, they are capable of delivering an extensive range of tones at no discernible loss of chroma, from the lightest and most transparent to the darkest and completely opaque
  • Their dense but friable composition easily enables textural effects: dry scumbles, impasto applications and tonal variations
  • As they’re water soluble they offer further potential for creating sloppy washes and serendipitous wet-in-wet effects
  • It’s an easy matter to erase passages to reveal clean paper or underlying washes for both correction and to create new shapes, highlights or finishing detail

Where to buy

Derwent XL Blocks can be purchased from Jackson's Art Supplies by clicking here and from art shops and other online retailers.

Experimenting with XL Blocks

Initial experiments with Derwent Fine Art XL graphite blocks

Initial experiments with Derwent Fine Art XL charcoal blocks

As you’d imagine I’ve thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with the XL blocks.

They readily yield every mark and nuance, presenting results I’d never experienced before, which is why they’re so inspirational.

You can’t fail to respond – they can sometimes take you by surprise by coming half way to meet you in the creative process, offering options and solutions you’d never even dreamt of.

Landscapes with Derwent XL Blocks

Landscape 1, Derwent Fine Art XL Charcoal and Graphite block on smooth grey Canson paper, (60x60cm)

Both Landscape 1 (above) and Landscape 2 (below) were essentially media driven, from first marks to final detail.

I chose not to work from preliminary sketches or photographs, but allowed the initial arbitrary marks to stimulate my imagination, which then naturally jogged memories of generic landscape features that I later incorporated.

Whilst this free-fall strategy is a liberating creative experience, it can also be scary and may not suit everyone. In the relentless search for alternative approaches it’s become one of my preferred starting points.

I worked on both pieces simultaneously, beginning with the blocks flat to the paper, applying broad swathes of dry pigment in opposing directions, varying the pressure to produce a random composition of marks, colours and tones.

Landscape 2, Derwent Fine Art XL Charcoal and Graphite blocks on heavy textured paper, (60x60cm)

The first layer of graphite for Landscape 2 was then washed with a flat 100mm brush and clean water and allowed to run.

I enjoyed drawing into the wet surface with contrasting colours, which instantly releases a creamy strip of live pigment with a solid core and a delicately feathered edge. Pure alchemy!

I employed the same unstructured expressive approach with both pieces, mixing and matching charcoal and graphite as I progressed.

The next couple of days were spent adding new sections and removing others, wrestling them towards a resolution (40 per cent of this time was spent drinking coffee and scrutinising) searching the semi-abstract compositions for incidental shapes, textures and tones that began to suggest landscape features, such as a rain-soaked ridge, a gleaming lake, a receding lane.

Once identified it’s back to the drawing board to juggle the precarious business of developing and establishing these vague references, the features you imagine you’ve seen, without overstating them or destroying their originally tantalising ambiguity, as in stage two of both demonstrations.

At this stage my approach is primarily trial and error. The most rewarding part of the process is when things begin to come together – working on top of previous layers, defining edges, patterns and vague details which are often implied by serendipitous juxtapositions of marks and shapes formed by the medium itself.

The process: Landscape 1

1. Initial arbitrary marks in charcoal

2. Recognisable landscape features began to appear

Landscape 1, Derwent Fine Art XL Charcoal and Graphite block on smooth grey Canson paper, (60x60cm)

The process: Landscape 2

1. The first layer of graphite was washed and allowed to run

2. A storm atmosphere emerged

Landscape 2, Derwent Fine Art XL Charcoal and Graphite blocks on heavy textured paper, (60x60cm)

Final thoughts

Derwent’s Fine Art XL blocks cry out to be handled.

I loved just crumbling them, rubbing the dust into the paper surface, drawing with pigment transferred from the block to my fingers, blending areas with a Derwent paper stump or a soft cloth, or removing sections with an eraser, wire wool or sandpaper.

For me the process is a constant dialogue. It’s about being aware and responsive to the potential of the media, and being tuned into what‘s evolving on the paper.

If you’re prepared to let go of the inhibiting notion of an ‘intended’ or anticipated outcome, it’s as if this intelligent medium is talking to you, guiding your hand and creative imagination towards an unpredicted and often unique outcome.

They are liberating and inspirational, a serious ‘drawing-fromthe- shoulder’ tool. If only my longsuffering art tutor had had a couple of boxes back in the ’60s I’m certain his job would have been a lot easier!


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