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Although charcoal is sometimes is considered a "beginner's" medium, this really is far from the truth. Vine charcoal is another forgiving art medium, allowing free flowing expression, but also capable of rendering careful details. Shading can be achieved in the fraction of the time it might take with a conventional pencil, and drawings/sketches produced on tinted papers with a hint of chalk can add a whole new dimension to your art.
Charcoal comes in various forms, both compressed and in vine (taken from the willow tree). These two tutorials from Art Graphica, explore vine charcoal and its use for sketches and studies using brush techniques. The medium can be messy, and you should be careful not to inhale the dust. It is a sadly neglected media with huge potential and a joy to work with.
Making charcoal is not something I've ever attempted, but it would certainly be fun to give it a try. Given how much quality charcoal can cost (the kind of charcoal that goes on smoothly until the last tiny bit, rather than smooth one moment and scratchy the next), it may be worth it. The result can surely not be worse than some of the cheap charcoal one can buy.
Charcoal has been made throughout the world for thousands of years. The usual process is to pile long pieces of wood in the shape of a large cone. Bury the wood with dirt, leaving a chimney hole at the top and a few air hole at the bottom. Light the wood from the bottom and let burn for several days. This is a long and slow process, but to yield charcoal and not ash you need to burn the wood very slowly and thoroughly. As you might guess this is an art form. Once the wood is burned to a good charcoal state, cover all the holes and let it cool. If you do it right you should get about 20% of the wood back as charcoal. Sound hard and unrewarding? Well it is, but before coal mining became a industrialized and practical process, it was about all people had to work with.
So what do you do if you don't want to spend a lot on charcoal, but you're not quite up to the task of making your own? First, don't buy self lighting charcoal. Second, light your charcoal in a charcoal chimney or similar device. This uses newspaper instead of lighter fluid and also allows you to light and add charcoal to your fire without adding fluid to the grill. This follows the rule of never, and I mean never, add lighter fluid to already lit coals. Not only can it be dangerous, but it'll give you food that tastes like lighter fluid. Third, always allow your coals to burn to a complete ashy surface before you start cooking. This ensures that any glues and additives are burned off before you start cooking. The draw back on this is that one of the better tips to doing a long smoke with charcoal is to only light about half the charcoal before you start the smoke. Over time the hot coals will start the unlit coals burning and stretch out your smoking time. To get around this, invest in a coal bucket or some other heavy metal container. Once you start losing heat you can dump out the burning coals and start a fresh batch while you keep the food warm in the oven. Or you can just get the solid wood stuff.
The drawing medium of charcoal is probably the most ancient - it was first used (as ashes from a fire) on cave walls many thousands of years ago to make pictures of animals and hunters. This lesson gives a history of the charcoal medium, techniques, detailed descriptions of types of charcoal and the materials used with charcoal, many illustrations, technical and expressive possibilities, and web links to charcoal drawings done by major artists through the ages.