Charcoal is one of the oldest drawing materials, with examples dating back 28,000 years. Thanks to its immediacy and versatility, the appeal of charcoal has endured. Charcoal is made by burning wood or other organic materials in a low-oxygen environment. This process produces a soft material which yields a deep black mark. Nitram Liquid Charcoal combines extra-fine powdered Nitram charcoal with gum arabic to make a water-based paint.
Before putting brush to paper, we put together a list of qualities of dry charcoal:
• Sensitive and interactive; it is great for bold, expressive drawing as well as delicate studies.
• It is easily manipulated and blended on the page, but it requires a fixative to stabilise it.
• It’s possible to achieve a wide range of tonal values with it.
We wondered: to what extent does Nitram’s Liquid Charcoal share these attributes, and what other possibilities does it offer?
Using Liquid Charcoal
For the first application I squeezed the paint onto a large sheet of cold-pressed watercolour paper, loaded a squirrel mop with water and brushed out the paint. The first thing I noticed was the range of tones that were created within one continuous brush stroke. At its darkest points it was warm velvety black and at its lightest points a smokey, light grey. The deepest tone, where the paint was only minimally diluted, was as dark as a hard willow charcoal mark.
It compares well with dry charcoal for the range of tones it can achieve, clearly lending itself to dramatic contrasts of light and dark which are so characteristic of charcoal drawings. However, I did notice that the paint is slightly warmer in tone than the willow charcoal and powdered charcoal I compared it to.
Working with its textural properties
Liquid Charcoal dried quickly to a matt finish with areas of varying texture and granulation. In watercolour and other mediums where a lot of water is used, granulation is an effect that occurs in when the pigment particles settle unevenly. As a general rule, pigments with smaller particles tend to cover the surface more evenly, whereas large or irregular pigment particles will gather in certain areas more than others. Powdered Nitram Charcoal has a particle size of 100 microns, which is large compared to other pigment particles which generally range from 50 – 0.05 microns. This gives Liquid Charcoal a textural graininess; an effect that can be enhanced by using rough paper and more water.
Workable wet or dry?
Gum arabic is a re-soluble medium, so even when Liquid Charcoal is dry it can be reactivated with water. Nitram claim that the paint is also workable ‘wet or dry’, suggesting that the dry paint can be moved without the use of water. One of dry charcoal’s most characteristic properties is how fragile it is on the surface. This instability leaves the marks workable, allowing for corrections with an eraser or for it to be blended out with a finger. In contrast, the binder in Liquid Charcoal stabilises it in areas where the paint is darker and less dilute. These areas were relatively difficult to erase with a putty rubber and did not blend out when rubbed with a finger. However, in lighter areas where the paint was diluted and the binder was less strong, the paint could be smudged with a finger and easily erased with a putty rubber. For this reason, I would recommend using a fixative on finished work. I contacted Nitram to ask what fixative they would suggest, and they advised a general purpose fixative such as Lascaux Fixative Spray.
How is it different to black watercolour paint?
Although Nitram describe Liquid Charcoal as having the consistency of an oil paint when it is, in every practical sense, a watercolour paint. The difference between Liquid Charcoal and black watercolour paint lies in the pigment. Powdered charcoal isn’t commonly used as a pigment in watercolours because of it’s large pigment particle size. Lamp black or ivory black are considered better choices- they have finer pigment particles and produce smoother washes. Liquid Charcoal’s granular texture sets it apart from other black watercolours. It can be used as a special effects paint, either on it’s own, or mixed with colour to create muted shades with highly granulating properties.
Gum arabic based paints require a porous support, and if the ground is not absorbent enough the paint will become brittle and unstable. Watercolour paper is prepared specifically for the ideal absorption for watercolour, so it makes a great surface for Liquid Charcoal as well. If you wish to use a panel or a canvas, the surface will need to be prepared appropriately with a watercolour ground, which are acrylic-based yet formulated to be porous enough for watercolour.
Nitram Liquid Charcoal is an innovative approach to a long-established medium, allowing artists to explore the place where painting and drawing meet. The gum arabic vehicle gives the charcoal different properties, allowing it to be used as a paint as well as a drawing material. You can also use it to create textural effects within watercolour paintings, either for monochrome studies or for describing a dramatic sky. For artists who draw, it can be used to vary the quality of your mark-making within dry charcoal drawings, or for covering large areas; the size of the mark is as big as your largest brush.