{Art Together} Exploring Charcoal + Conte Crayon

{This post is part of the art together series. You can see all the posts in the series here.}

“I sometimes think there is nothing so delightful as drawing.” –Vincent van Gogh

A better title for this post, perhaps, would be Exploring Drawing Media. It doesn’t matter what you and your kids experiment with, as long as it’s something new to you, and it doesn’t really matter what you sit down to draw, either. The point is to step out of the comfort zone a bit and experiment with drawing with something different, and you really should try to think of it as an experiment. Just as with watercolors, the idea is to mess about with the material and see what it can and can’t do, in a low-pressure situation. The more experimenting that goes on with different materials, the larger the art vocabulary will be. Think about how much easier writing is when you have lots of words at your disposal; in the same way, bringing forth a vision in your head onto paper is much easier if you have a wide variety of methods and materials with which you’re comfortable.

Recently, at the local art supply store, my kids asked if we could bring home this figure model, so this is what we chose to try to draw today.

But again, it doesn’t much matter what you draw; you’re getting the feel for a different material. We set out a variety of charcoal pencils and conte crayons. Stick and vine charcoal will have different effects; stick charcoal is even smudgier and dustier than the pencils. We didn’t discuss shading or blending as a technique; mainly we noticed how the paper smudged if our hands rubbed over it while drawing. There’s certainly lots to explore more deeply when it comes to charcoal…but here, we were just getting comfortable with it to start.

4yo’s figure sketch with charcoal.

Another adjustment is the lack of ability to erase these lines. I’m not a fan of erasing while sketching-as-practice; I think it tends to hyper-focus attention on small parts of the drawing, bringing attention away from the drawing as a whole. It can contribute to perfectionism, which can be crippling. I encourage my kids to just go over a line if they feel it’s in the wrong place…learning to draw is about learning to see relationships of parts, and corrections are part of that process. (And I often like the effect of multiple lines, as in this crab I drew at a nature center a couple of weekends ago.)

8yo’s figure sketches.

Because we were drawing a figure, we talked about proportion and angles as we drew. Drawing real people can be so nerve-wracking! I remember my first college drawing class and how awkward it felt to try to draw a live model. But humans are collections of shapes and angles, and they can be drawn, too. It’s an amazing revelation (and drawing this wooden figure made me wistful for a live figure drawing session; I think I’ll be checking local resources for the summer). It’s been a long while since those figure-drawing sessions in college, and it’s good for me to step out of my comfort zone right alongside my kids. I prefer for us to be exploring together; nobody is the “expert,” which means nobody is lagging behind, either. We’re learning and discovering together, which is so much more relaxing for all of us.

One of my figure sketches, using conte crayon.

“Make a drawing, begin it again, trace it; begin it again and trace it again.” –Edgar Degas

Further Resources

Art Lab for Kids, by Susan Schwake, has several drawing “labs” that involve charcoal, including one that involves lifting off the charcoal with a kneaded eraser.

I recently picked up a copy of Drawing Magazine, and I decided it was well worth the cover price. The issue I bought was a mix of techniques, interviews, and perspectives on drawing…it was interesting not just to me, but to the kids, too. I’m thinking a subscription might be a good investment for us.

Take it Further

We’ve explored these drawing media before here, and then switched it around, using white on black paper, here.

Experiment with figure drawing by getting into a pose for two minutes so your child can draw you. (The resultant quick drawings are known as gesture drawings; you can search Google Images for examples.) Switch, have your child pose, and draw him or her quickly. Don’t worry about details like facial features or fingers, just try to sketch in shapes and angles. Keep it loose!

Share Your Work

Just a reminder, there is a Flickr group, and I’d love to see what open-ended art explorations other people are doing with kids (your own or borrowed)—it doesn’t matter if the photos are of activities inspired by this series of posts or not.

5 thoughts on “{Art Together} Exploring Charcoal + Conte Crayon

  1. Michelle

    I love seeing these. Thanks so much for this. I need to get some charcoal. I think it might help my 9yo let go a bit, since she gravitates toward sharper drawing pencils and wants that precision and struggles with things not being perfect. I need to get the art labbook again. It’s in my shopping cart, i just need to fill it first.

  2. Dawn Suzette

    Digging out the charcoal might be just the thing for my perfectionist as well.
    A figure model might be a great gift for him too. He draws lots of humanoid figures, that are sometimes actually human. It might be fun for him to position the model and refer to it as he draws.
    Thanks for another great post!

    1. amy Post author

      She’s just grown up so comfortable with art materials and the process, and she’s really taken to observational drawing. She looks closely, this one.

Comments are closed.