Charcoal is one of the most subtle and sensitive of all drawing media. Nitram charcoal was first introduced in 1962 and had been considered one of the best on the market, but in recent years it had become difficult to obtain. Now, thanks to the determination of Jerzy Niedojadlo, a practising artist who purchased the company and took over production, Nitram is now made in Canada and is again available for artists to enjoy.
Unlike other charcoal, Nitram is less prone to breaking and also creates less dust. The unique manufacturing process produces a high-grade rich black charcoal that is neither compressed nor reconstituted. Nitram comes in different grades in colour-coded packs: soft (yellow); B (green); HB (orange) and H (blue), and there is a useful colour-coded wrapper at the end of each stick. Nitram charcoal works exceptionally well when combined with graphite. The contrast between a shiny graphite mark and a velvet charcoal gives really interesting visual effects in my drawings and sketches. I’ve also started to use it with my pastel drawings and it’s taking me in new and exciting directions. It also works well with ink, gouache and watercolour on many different supports. Being lightweight and robust, Nitram charcoal is ideal when working outdoors.
When working with Nitram charcoal and painting media, I much prefer to use papers above 140lb (300gsm) to avoid buckling. The results are outstanding, with beautiful soft tones of real delicacy and sensitivity right through to deep black intense marks.
All Weathers in the Pennines, Nitram charcoal on 140lb (300gsm) watercolour paper, (47x43cm)
The beautiful velvety quality of Nitram charcoal allowed me quickly to develop really rich darks with great sensitivity using the sides of the extra soft 8mm and 12mm batons over the surface of the paper. As the drawing began to build, I switched to using the H, HB and B sticks to give me the detail I needed – these were particularly useful for creating the distant town, giving the drawing real distance and focus in the top third of the composition. The Nitram sharpening block was very handy and quick to use: it kept my square sticks sharp, with beautifully long points to aid precision drawing.
The soft charcoal is extra soft; the quality and density is such that lovely soft subtle tones can be achieved on many different supports. It is available in boxes of five round sticks of 6mm, 8mm or 12mm diameter. Nitram Académie Fusains B grade (not to be compared with B of most graphite pencils) is very soft and yet still able to carry a point for detail on all sorts of paper and canvas surfaces. Each box contains five 5mm square sticks.
The medium soft HB holds very well to all surfaces of paper and creates beautiful velvety tones. As a mid-tone black, a little more pressure is needed to create deep blacks, but that’s the fun of using them. Each box contains five 5mm square sticks.
The hardest of the Nitram charcoals is the H, which makes lighter and mid- tones easier to achieve. It can be sharpened to an extra fine point by using the Nitram Sharpening Bloc. Each box contains five 5mm square sticks.
For artists who like to work on a large scale, there are three very handy large batons of the extra soft (yellow-wrapped) charcoal: a 25mm diameter demi baton; a 50mm diameter maxi baton; and a 15mm wide rectangular block.
The doubled-sided sharpening block looks a bit like a table tennis bat and is very robust. The surfaces, which are suitable for sharpening charcoal and other drawing media, are slow to clog and easily cleaned by running them under the tap or knocking out the dust on the side of your bin. Two spare pads of the 180 grit sandpaper are included.
Comparison of marks made with Nitram Fine Art Charcoal on 140lb (300gsm) 100 per cent cotton rag watercolour paper. A soft eraser was used to draw into the swatches produced with the different grades of charcoal.
By using an eraser quite vigorously in passages you can create various tones – the pressure you use will determine the tone in your chosen areas of the drawing. You can also blend the charcoal with your fingers or a cloth to expand your repertoire of mark making.
Various grades of Nitram charcoal blended using different amounts of pressure with an eraser
Working vertically helps to reduce the dust, although the consistency of Nitram is such that very little dust is produced. So, when using Nitram charcoal outdoors I don’t have to take my metal easel with me. If I need a support for my lightweight board, a bolder or a wall will do as I know I’m not going to get the charcoal everywhere. Broad passages of mark making can be achieved by breaking small sections and using them on their sides.
In the drawing Yorkshire Limestone, Gordale Scar – Malhamdale (below) I combined gouache and ink with Nitram charcoal, which works perfectly over the top of different consistencies of ink and layers of paint to create some really interesting effects. There are lots and lots of different visual techniques you can use with Nitram charcoal combined with other media – there are no limitations.
I think the quality of this charcoal is unparalleled. I’m really passionate about using it and the results I can achieve. As I continue to explore new and exciting directions in my creativity, Nitram charcoal will accompany me every step of the way.
Yorkshire Limestone, Gordale Scar – Malhamdal, (56x76cm)
This working drawing in progress combines Nitram charcoal with gouache, pastel and ink in multiple layers. Nitram charcoal effortlessly glided over the Not watercolour paper, producing really silky-smooth and sensuous marks. For fine details, such as in the rocks by the edge of the fast-flowing stream on the left, I used a square stick sharpened to a perfect point. I’m very impressed with this charcoal.