In our high tech world, charcoal must seem like a pretty primitive medium. And of course it is. Maybe the most primitive. Drawing with a charred stick of wood is probably as old as the domestication of fire. Yet in a lifetime of teaching myself to use ink and paint and now Photoshop, no medium I’ve ever used is as direct, simple and cheap as sticking a stump of charcoal in my coat pocket and taking a walk with a sketchbook.
One of the chief virtues of charcoal is speed of execution. When you're drawing something like a barn at noon in upstate New York, the light can shift and shade so completely in half an hour that if it takes you any longer than that, you can find yourself finishing a drawing that’s quite different from the one you started.
Being able to draw quickly is also imperative when you're trying to draw people in motion, or who would become self-conscious and uncooperative if they caught you drawing them. Not that the fellow below would have noticed however. He had just finished a big meal on a trans-Atlantic flight and had settled down into a world of his own.
Of course some subjects have nowhere to go and can be drawn with greater detail at a more leisurely pace. This cow, which I found in the countryside north of Zurich is a case in point. I made a finished painting of this sketch, and nothing was different, except for the addition of color.
When you’re drawing a model who’s only posing for half an hour, charcoal really comes into its own. No other medium lets you to cover a surface so quickly or modulate tones with more subtlety.
Because it’s so easy to carry around, charcoal is perfect for drawing things you don’t expect to find. In Tokyo one morning, I got up at 3 AM to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market and do some drawings. On the way back I sat down to have a Coke in a little park on the grounds of a Buddhist temple and before I had finished the Coke I had done this drawing.
At Florianopolis, off the coast of Brazil, I noticed that the local musclemen would get to the beach early so that each of them could stake out his own private rock and hold it for hours, preening and showing off for the babes on the beach back across the shallow tidepool.
I drew my friend Jennifer on a Shinkansen Bullet train as we traveled from our little cottage in Hakone and headed for our next destiation:Takayama in the Japanese Alps. You could see Mount Fuji over her shoulder but I was taken with her exquisite profile. Jennifer is a brilliant designer and we've done a number of fantastic projects together.
At Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, I skipped lunch with some friends one day to wander around the ancient city and draw. This stretch of shoreline is of such extraordinary beauty that it was said Mark Anthony gave it to Cleopatra as a wedding present. I wouldn’t know about that, but I confess it was one of those times that the brilliant colors of the sky, the cliffs and the sea made me wish that I had a little more time and a box full of pastels.
I found this magnificant pool table at a great pink hotel in the Brazilian forest near the city of Foz do Iguaçu. The Iguaçu River forms the boundry bewween Brazil and Argentina and culminates in the great waterfall there which many people regard as one of the seven wonders of nature. At two miles in length and comprised of 270 separate cataracts, Iguaçu Falls simply wouldn’t fit into my sketchbook, but the pool table did.
During my first trip to Australia I was so taken by the kangaroos that I did half a dozen drawings of them my first day. Until then I had never realized how human their anatomy is. It’s not apparent when you watch them bounding about, but seeing them in repose is a different matter. All this character below would need to complete the picture is a can of beer, some Cheese Doodles and a TV remote at his side.
I’m fast, but I wasn’t fast enough to draw this lady of the night on the streets of Frankfurt before she and her client had settled on terms and disappeared inside the hotel. I took a few minutes to sketch in the rest of the exterior and thought I’d draw the woman later from memory. But once I got back to my own hotel, I decided that her ghostly absence serves the picture better than a concrete drawing of her would have done. So I left the picture alone and concluded that it was finished.
In Leningrad I did several drawings on site, but the most evocative for me is this crude sketch I did from memory during a long night on the Gulf of Finland sailing back to Helsinki. The perspective is no artistic device: this part of the city is the only place I’ve ever been where the space was so vast and the line of sight so unimpeded that the streets, the buildings and streetlights all went to a single vanishing point.
The gentleman strolling towards me was wearing a large white hat that looked like a scoop of vanilla ice cream on his head. On his suit coat he wore a World War II medal. It reminded me that during the war Leningrad survived the longest and deadliest siege in the history of warfare. Nearly one thousand days – two and a half years – during which the inhabitants were reduced by the Nazis to eating dogs and cats and rats. Yet they held out and prevailed, and there, by their will to resist – as at Stalingrad in the south – people like this old man – then in his youth – turned the tide of the second world war.
My wife, when I was married, kept sketchbooks of her own and some of the happiest times of my life are of the times we spent together, both drawing and not drawing. Her pictures were always as strong and sensitive and beautiful as she was herself and, as I would imagine, still is.
Flying out of Bergen Norway, the scene below us was a maze of channels and waterways that threaded their passage west to the North Sea and south to a great fjord. I didn’t know the geography well enough to know what I was seeing and what I was seeing changed so rapidly that what I drew was an abstraction anyway. By the time we passed over Stavanger in the south, the landscape had changed again and I found myself drawing another abstraction: this time suggesting snow covered hills dotted with pines.
Vernal, in eastern Utah, is the northern corner of the “Dinosaur Triangle.” It streches from there to western Colorado and then back over to Price in southern Utah. Not far from where I did this drawing is a 75 foot-high ridge upended by the earth’s convulsions and eroded over millions of years so that along its entire face, dinosaur bones literally stick out of the ground. As I drew this sketch, a prarie dog watched me warily from his hole and in a bush nearby, I saw the ripped-off leg of a deer caught in the branches, with the blood on it barely dried.
In our twenties, my brother Jim and I looked so much alike that our relatives had to see us together to tell us apart. That changed over the years, but our closeness never did. Although he was six years younger than I, he was my best friend from the day he was born until he died six years ago. He looks severe in this drawing but he was merely squinting in the Arkansas sun. He was smart and inquisitive and unimpeachable, yet he was the kindest and most thoughtful person I’ve ever known. When he died in 2007 some part of me left the world with him.
Many of you know Marzena, or have run into her at openings. She represents a number of excellent artists and has my nomination as one of the best reps in the business. Besides having great taste and and integrity, she also has courage. I’ve done several drawings of her over the years and one painting; and if she still lived in New York City, I’d try to do more.
“What an expression!” I thought when I saw this woman’s face on a crowded street in Toyama Japan. Yet in less than ten seconds she had disappeared into a sea of faces and I was left to draw her mostly from memory. I’ll never forget that look though. Was it urgency, desperation, tragedy, indigestion? It’s not a look you can put into words. Yet of all the drawings I’ve ever done, this face – which took me hardly a minute to draw – haunts me like nothing else I’ve ever drawn from life.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve heard about the “miracle of the swallows” of the mission of San Juan Capistrano in southern California. According to legend (and song), they return to the old Spanish church every March 19, a symbol of continuity and a harbringer of spring. Of course in southern California, I don’t know how you tell spring from the rest of the year, but it’s a great story and who wants to quarrel with that.
I’ve been to the mission four times over the years and have seen, as advertised, plenty of swallows. But on my second visit there I was dawn to this lonely dove sitting on a rock. All around her people came and went but the commotion and jostling of the crowds didn’t seem to faze her. She seemed to have found a zone of her own in both time and space and I felt that I had found a similar zone for myself in the half hour I spent there drawing her.
I began this post by writing that charcoal was the medium most suited to my personality. Yet as much as I love the medium it was hardly love at first sight. Back in high school my first charcoal drawing was a mess and it wasn't just because I had never heard of fixative.
I was in the ninth grade when I first saw some charcoal drawings in a library book. I wanted to do pictures like that, but there were no art stores in town and the local hobby shop didn't sell art supplies. So where does a smart kid go in a small town to get charcoal? To the super market.
I took my bike because I didn't know if they sold charcoal in five pound bags or whether I'd have to get a 25 pound bag and lug it home. Also, I didn't know whether I should get the kind with or without fire starter. I figured things like that could make a difference.
I had the same issue with finding paper. A cartooning book at the library said that professional cartoonists did their work on illustration board. I had never heard of illustration board and neither had anybody at the super market. The hobby store didn't carry any either, but the woman who ran the place said shirt cardboard should do the trick. So off I went to the dry cleaner.
Now I don't know whether any of you have ever tried to do a charcoal drawing – with a charcoal briquette – saturated with fire starter – on shirt cardboard; but I recommend it to any young artist who has trouble sticking to things. It will either cure you forever of wanting to draw or teach you perseverance, which in my case, is apparently what happened.
At the time, however, it simply taught me to abandon charcoal and shirt cardboard. I settled instead for Ebony pencils and typing paper. They sold both at the town stationery store. That got me through high school. Then at 17, I got a social security card and a bus ticket for Chicago. It was there, at the Sam Flax store on Wabash Avenue, two blocks from the river and the Sun-Times building, that I bought my first grown-up charcoal. I’ve been using the stuff ever since.
Art and Text © Brad Holland/Photograph by Jennifer Phillips