I love charcoal. Considering that it was one of the earliest materials, it is enduringly popular. The history of art is punctuated with masterpiece examples, many of which were studies for major works. Charcoal is a good preliminary for any work. It is honest, direct and flexible – errors can be easily erased – and it can be worked up to a fine finish, or treated aggressively to give a tortured surface. It can reveal a lot about the user.

It is good for portraiture, and very fast. When his diary became hopelessly clogged with commissions for oils, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) offered clamouring patrons the opportunity for a charcoal portrait, rather than a 6ft oil. Many, including Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, later to become the wife of George VI, were happy to take up his offer.

Sarah, Nitram charcoal on paper, (33x25.5cm). I drew this at a recent life session, using the yellow grade 6mm

Yes, it can be messy, with smudging a common problem, but working with the drawing surface vertical and by learning not to lean on the paper this tendency can be managed.

One feature of standard willow and vine charcoal is that the sticks can shatter suddenly if pressure is applied, or crumble without warning if the stick is sharpened to a point. The comparatively slim sticks, although flexible to a point, don’t tolerate expressive mark making too well, and they create a fair amount of dust.

Enter Nitram (above left). Originally introduced to the art market in 1962 by Martin Gros, a Spanish ex-pat living in France, this charcoal was harder, less prone to breaking and crumbling, and created less dust. He called the charcoal Nitram, which sounds a bit scientific but is merely his first name written backwards.

Although in constant production, it was difficult to obtain until Jerzy Niedojadlo became manager. He targeted the product at the burgeoning ateliers, dedicated to classical charcoal subjects, such as working from the cast and sight size drawing from life. Thanks to his efforts, Nitram charcoal, made in Canada, is now readily available to all.

I remember that the late John Ward, when asked if he used a special type of charcoal replied that it was all much about the same. But Nitram is distinctly different, being colour coded into different hardness grades that deliver different tonal values.

Yellow labels are on the kind of charcoal that we’re all used to: round, obviously natural sticks, marked as soft and available in nominal 6mm and 12mm diameters.

Both of these sizes come in five stick boxes. In addition to these, there are three other grades also packed in boxes of five sticks marked: B, colour coded in green; HB in orange; and H in blue. These sticks are all square in section, probably cut from larger timber. Also included in the test kit sent to me was a large paddle-shaped sharpener block, which is double sided with coarse emery cloth.


The tests

I made a test strip of each of the charcoals (above) to see just how different the tones of each were. The strips were worked densely at their tops and the pressure decreased as I went down. The final and palest tones in all cases were created by using a stump (see the small white paper roll at the top of the photograph, below) and rubbing the charcoal into the paper. As we can see each grade gives a different tonal range, the nearest to conventional charcoal being the soft yellow label.

Nitram charcoal sticks, colour coded in hardness grades, with sharpener block

My first test piece was a portrait of Hoa (below). This is a straightforward linear drawing made with the 6mm yellow label stick sharpened to a point with the block. When the linear drawing was completed, I used the B grade green label stick on its sharpened side to create the darker shading, while the lighter tone on the shaded side of the face was applied with the HB orange label stick.


Hoa, Nitram charcoal on paper, (40.5x30.5cm)


Hannah (below) was done by first applying tone over the paper using a piece broken from the 12mm yellow label stick laid on its side, and rubbing it into the paper with kitchen roll. Then a simple outline drawing was made with a sharpened 6mm soft (yellow label) stick.

The choice then was either to put in the dark or light tones. I chose the lighter tones, by removing the charcoal with a putty rubber. The Nitram charcoal came off readily, leaving the paper clean (this cannot be done with compressed charcoal, which is made from powdered charcoal made into a stick by adding wax). Finally, the darks were added using the 6mm stick. It kept the drawing loose and fresh.

This way of working is fast and ideal for completing a preliminary drawing before undertaking a full-blown portrait in colour. It enables the user to alter easily and reconsider the drawing as she or he goes along. This technique captures structure well and isn’t fiddly.


Hannah, Nitram charcoal on paper, (40.5x30.5cm)


All of the Nitram charcoals are a delight to work with. They are smooth, don’t snap unexpectedly or crumble. They are easily sharpened to a good point that doesn’t crumble, and they make surprisingly little dust in use.