Saturday, August 15, 2015

Drawing Charcoal Comparisons: General's, Royal & Langnickel, Daler Rowney, Koh-I-Noor

one of my charcoal sketches
Sketch using various charcoals
on Strathmore pastel paper
Just as I had promised in my "Messin' Around with Charcoal" post, today I will actually review a few brands of drawing charcoal in various forms including pencils, vine/willow, and compressed sticks. The brands I have on hand are General's, Royal & Langnickel, Daler Rowney, and Koh-I-Noor, but I plan to buy more brands in the future because I am really enjoying the effects I can get with charcoal. I made some sketches and swatches in my sketchbook to demonstrate the qualities of these brands and to give you "real world" examples. Images in the product listings are usually pretty limited, often showing only a package of charcoal- not very informative, in my view. While pictures are no substitute for hands-on experimentation, I do hope that my reviews and doodle pics will be a bit more helpful to you next time you shop for charcoal.

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General Pencil Company (a.k.a General's)

This company is one of the oldest art suppliers in the U.S, and I have used their products since I was a kid. I remember buying General's drawing pencils and sets at the Ben Franklin five and dime (yes, I said "five and dime") with my allowance. I have never been disappointed with the products from this company, and I have continued to use them even after my introduction to the pricier "artist quality" supplies. In my opinion, General's charcoal is definitely artist grade, but it is priced so reasonably that some may overlook it when shopping for drawing supplies. If you have any cash at all to spend on arts and crafts, then you can afford this charcoal. Honestly, the only reason I tried other brands was because some of my drawing sets came with charcoal sticks and pencils. 

I used to have some nice compressed sticks of different grades, including the white "charcoal" (I'm thinking this is really chalk), but I have used them up. I was lucky to have enough of a 6B pencil left to make photos for this post, so it is definitely time to restock! I have been using more of the extra soft General's 6B charcoal pencils lately because they render a deep, rich black like no other brand, but you can get a good range of values by varying pressure. This is the main reason why I use them up so fast, but I have to admit that my sharpening skills were horrible at first. You need to use a sharp craft knife to sharpen them because an extra soft core will just crumble in a sharpener. I suggest getting a pack of 12 if you have to order them online. They come in other grades, including white, and you can buy drawing sets with a mixture of  grades and types of charcoal. The compressed sticks also come in a variety of grades, and General's has jars of powdered charcoal available if you don't make your own.

Here is my first swatch, and FYI, this paper is from a Daler Rowney Simply sketchbook, which has a rougher texture than most sketch books, making it ideal for painterly techniques with pastel and charcoal. Unfortunately, it is probably the worst paper for graphite and ink, especially if you want crisp detail. You can read a little more about paper in a previous post, but that is all the paper talk for this one.

pic of Gerneral's Charcoal pencil and chalk pencilswatch of General's charcoal pencil 6B

I used a macro setting and no flash with the first pic, so it is a more accurate representation of the color and texture. I included the other pic so you can see the tools. The white pencil is also from General's- not the white charcoal, but a chalk pastel pencil. Below is one of my sketches that I did with the General's 6B and chalk pencil, along with some white Nupastel (Prismacolor). I needed a soft pastel to get brighter whites in the highlights. You won't get that with the harder white chalk.

one of my charcoal drawings
I used an Internet photo of James Dean- got the angle wrong,
I think he looks a bit Asian here- anyone else see that?

Royal & Lagnickel Charcoal Pencils and Compressed Sticks

A couple of months ago, I bought a cute little drawing set by Royal & Langnickel at my local Walmart for about eight bucks. It came with charcoal and graphite pencils, compressed charcoal and graphite, vine charcoal, a sanding block, blending stump, handheld sharpener, a white plastic eraser, and a kneaded putty eraser. It is a nice set if you discount the erasers and pencil sharpener. However, considering the price, I am not bitter about those. I did a lot of playing around with the charcoals, though, and this was the beginning of my most recent obsession. 

Both the charcoal pencils and compressed sticks were labelled  with degrees of "soft", "medium", and "hard", and the vine was vine- I don't think those are graded like compressed varieties. When comparing the compressed charcoal to the pencils, the quality was consistent, as were the degrees of hardness. That is no surprise since the pencil cores should be exactly the same as the sticks, which are a quarter inch in width and about 2.5 -3 inches long. I prefer the R&L soft and medium grade charcoals because I could get more gray values from them than the hard variety. I think this is true for any brand, but one brand's "hard" may be way harder than another brand of the same degree. For example, R& L soft is harder than Daler Rowney soft. The R&L hard charcoal is fine for details, but don't expect to erase it too easily. 

On the other hand, the vine charcoal included in this set is velvety soft, and makes a nice dark line- until you blend or smudge it. That is the nature of non-compressed charcoal (willow, vine). I still love those velvety strokes, though, and if your paper has tooth, you can layer vine charcoal to get some interesting textures and tones. This type of charcoal is designed for initial rough sketches or foundation drawings, but I have found that I can blend layers of compressed charcoal with it as well. This is the only brand of vine that I have right now, but I know I'll have some more to try and review next month. 

swatch of Ryyal and Langnickel charcoal
Royal & Langnickel medium grade pencil(left)
and compressed stick (on the right)

Here is the R& L vine without any blending

Daler Rowney Simply Compressed Charcoal

swatch of Daler Rowney charcoals
Daler Rowney Simply Charcoal "swatch"
I don't remember where I got these Daler Rowney sticks, but they probably came with another sketch set. Good thing the sticks were labelled soft, medium, and hard at some point. I could only make a swatch of the soft grade because I had worn the labels off of the other two. DR charcoal seems to be a bit softer than the R&L if I compare each grade individually. It is not a huge difference visually, but I can feel a real difference when I draw. The DR glides more smoothly, and the sticks are thicker with a half-inch width. They are rectangular like the R& L and are roughly the same length. I think the Daler Rowney sticks are great for laying down large areas of tone. You could sharpen the sticks using a sanding pad or blade, but I doubt you would ever get a fine point. FYI: The thinner Royal & Langnickel sticks can be sharpened to a point easily, and they also fit in a standard pencil extender. 

Koh-I-Noor Compressed Charcoal and Negro Artificial Charcoal

I only have one stick of Koh-I-Noor regular charcoal and one KIN charcoal pencil, both of which came in my Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth Gioconda Drawing/Sketching/Toning set. It also included three grades of the Negro artificial charcoal, three Negro pencils, a white chalk stick, white chalk pencil, red "chalk" (more like crayon) pencil and stick, two shades of sepia hard pastel with matching pencils, three grades of graphite sticks, three water soluble graphite pencils, a blending stump, and a fantastic kneaded eraser. Really! I didn't realize how crappy my other putty erasers were until I used this one. 

From my experience, Koh-I-Noor graphite tends to be harder than graphite from other manufacturers, so it was not surprising that the charcoal was on the hard side too. You have to really press to get the darkest tones, but you can get a nice black out of the middle-grade (2) charcoal. Unlike most other brands, Koh-I-Noor just has a number for the grade. From what I can gather, 1 is the softest/darkest grade and 3 is the hardest/lightest (going by my set- the website has more degrees).

swatch of Koh-I-Noor medium charcoal
You can get nice and dark with the KIN 2 charcoal,
but it feels a lot harder than other brands
 Even though the set only gave me one grade of the regular charcoal, it made up for this by providing more selections from the Negro line. I have a metal 5.6 mm lead holder for which I bought some Koh-I-Noor leads in 2B graphite and the #2 medium Negro leads. This is how I found out that KIN leads tend to be on the harder scale; 2B graphite from KIN is harder than many HB grades from other companies. I discovered the very interesting Negro line when I accidentally ordered the #2 medium leads rather than 2B graphite on the first try.

Negro is an artificial charcoal with an oil binder. It feels somewhat waxy like colored pencils and hard like Conte' drawing crayons, but there is no dust. You can smudge it, but not as easily as regular charcoal, and you can get some really nice shades of black and crisp lines using this medium. Negro mixes well with other media such as regular charcoal, colored pencil, graphite, ink, and watercolor. The Facebook page for KIN states that they are particularly good for under-drawings for oil paintings, Since I am not an oil painter, I have to rely on their word.

swatches of Negro pencils and sticks
Degrees for Negro pencils and sticks range from the soft #1 to
hard  #3 in the set I own, but the KIN website has a larger variety

Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth is an Austrian company that has been making art supplies since the late 18th century. This brand costs more than the others I have reviewed, but the quality is outstanding. When it comes to soft, smudgy black charcoal, I would pick General's over any of them, but the Negro oil-based charcoal products are extremely useful when you want more control over lines and details and when you don't want dust everywhere. The sticks are rectangular, 7x7x75 mm, while the 5.6 mm "leads"are about 6 inches long (they go in a holder). 

Just to make something clear: "Negro" is the name on the artificial charcoal pencils. To make this post easier to read, I have been using "Negro" to refer to all of the KIN artificial charcoal products. Really, Negro= artificial charcoal. I know this from using the products, but I don't know why the website has so many different terms. The vine-type charcoal is listed as"natural charcoal", the regular compressed charcoal is called "burnt artist charcoal", while the stick-shaped form of Negro is listed as "unburnt artist charcoal" in some instances and "artificial charcoal" in others. Confusing!

Bottom Line: I believe it is better to have a variety of brands, sizes, and degrees of charcoal because you can get a lot more creative when you have more tools at hand. However, if your budget does not allow for a lot of experimentation, you cannot go wrong with General's. There are a few different charcoal sets available, and once you know which grades work best for you, you can buy multiples of the same pencils or sticks in boxes. 

1 comment:

  1. I’m just starting to draw and sketch and I found your article to be extremely helpful. Thank you for taking the time to post your thoughts and such great information for those of us who are newbies. Have a great day!
    Janice Feenstra