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Using Charcoal with Watercolor

Another gorgeous fall day today, with temperatures near 70 degrees, saw lots of families out hiking along the C&O Canal which runs along the Maryland side of the Potomac River. Several ‘plein air’ painting enthusiasts worked alongside the Canal, facing either the river or the canal; a path for hikers and bikers runs between them for gorgeous mile after gorgeous mile.

In such a perfect circumstance, it was a great day to try an experiment: using charcoal with watercolor as was done to such great effect by late-19th century and early-20th century French painter, Paul Signac (who also used black Conte crayon and graphite with watercolors). The canal next to us was drained nearly dry so there wasn’t an opportunity to practice painting reflections on the water except for a little puddle near the bridge over the canal.  However, even without water, the whole scene was already challenging enough.

The final verdict:  At first it didn’t seem like it would work, but certainly if the watercolor is added first and allowed to dry, then charcoal can be applied to make accents or give depth. Here is my first attempt to do so (with a charcoal pencil), and I think it’s going to be something I’ll want to keep trying in the future.

great-falls-tavern

Illustration:  Great Falls Tavern on the C&O Canal, Great Falls, Maryland painted in watercolor, gouache, pen-and-ink and charcoal on 6″ x 8″ Fluid cold press paper (in about 2 hours) by Black Elephant Blog author

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3 thoughts on “Using Charcoal with Watercolor

  1. I have used charcoal quite a bit over my watercolors and like the effect very much. I use ink too, but with the charcoal I get softer blacks. I like what you’ve done here with your bright colors.

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    • Thank you JadeArt4. I had not thought of this charcoal possibility until seeing a few watercolors of Signac in the Barnes Foundation Museum in Philadelphia very recently–and just had to try it. I use ink a fair amount, so it’s helpful to me to know that you get softer blacks with charcoal. Thank you!

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