Saturday, August 29, 2015

Nitram Fine Art Charcoal Review- Soft Bâtons Moyens 8 mm

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I have been salivating over this brand of charcoal for a while now, thanks to the stylish Youtube videos uploaded by Nitram. You get see several artists creating flawless charcoal drawings of plaster busts using the Nitram products, and the setting is a beautifully outfitted atelier studio. Everyone has an easel and a leaning stick or "bridge", and there are plenty of the white plaster sculptures around to class up the scenery. Well, I cannot afford all of the trappings of a fine atelier, but at least I could buy one box of Nitram charcoal to see if it is better than other brands.

pack of 5  Nitram Baton Moyens
sorry for the blur!
I decided on the box of medium round sticks, or "bâtons moyens", which come in boxes of five. Nitram labels all of the batons as "extra soft", which is accurate as far as the texture. They are 8 mm thick (.32") and 152 mm (6 inches) long, and they are a soft type of charcoal more akin to vine or willow than compressed sticks, but they do not fit neatly in any of these categories.

Neither the package nor the Nitram website states whether the batons are vine, willow, natural, compressed, or whatever. When you look at the baton's cross-section, you do not see the hard little core that is in most of the willow sticks from other manufacturers, and there are seam lines on the sides that indicate a mold is used. I would never call this a compressed charcoal, however, as the texture is too porous. So Nitram's proprietary formula/process must be different from that of other brands.

One stick Nitram Baton Moyens, 8 mm x 152 mm
One stick Nitram Baton Moyens, 8 mm x 152 mm

Playing with Batons

Below are my initial observations:

  • Very soft texture, creates velvety strokes like willow sticks 
  • No need to sharpen- just start drawing and rotate the stick as you go to create a fine edge or tip
  • Very low dust- most vines and willows will leave a pretty mark that disappears when you blend it or blow on it, but not the Nitram 
  • VERY easy to clean off your hands and erase from paper with a kneaded eraser
  • Feels sturdier than it looks- you can use some pressure when shading. My sticks didn't break in transit, either, save for one small end piece- not a big deal for me. 
  • You will not get a true black from this particular charcoal- just a dark gray 
The last point was surprising to me because most charcoal labelled as "soft" or "extra soft" will be darker than harder formulas. This is one of those rules that have remained consistent with both charcoal and graphite, but perhaps that only applies to the compressed varieties. Nitram makes three degrees of Fusains Acadèmie, which are 5 mm thick square sticks that come in hard, medium, and soft grades like many other brands of charcoal. I have a feeling that these are more like compressed charcoal, but I will confirm this when I have a chance to try one of them.

Over all, I prefer the Nitram bâtons to the willow sticks in the Royal & Langnickel set and all of the other willow and vine charcoals I have used in the past. I still need to use a soft degree compressed stick or charcoal pencil (General's 6B extra soft is my personal fave) for the really dark areas in my drawings. I think the Nitram bâtons are perfect for artists who use vine and willow sticks to make under-drawings for their paintings. They also work well for  the first stages of charcoal and pastel works and for developing light to mid gray values in finished works. 

Nitram offers 5-packs of the 6" (152mm) bâtons in 6 mm, 8 mm and 12 mm widths. One can buy single "maxi" bâtons in 25 mm and 50 mm widths (also 6" long), and large blocks that measure 15 mm X 46 mm thick and 152 mm tall/long. Other products include the "sharpening bloc" and refill pads and the really cool Nitram Bâton, not to be confused with the charcoal sticks I just described. The Nitram Bâton is a sleek and slender black charcoal holder that comes with five 4mm bâton mignonettes, which, like the other batons, are 6 inches long. Refill mignonettes are sold in packs of seven. 

Now for the Big Question: Is Nitram Worth the Extra $$$?

Just to make it clear, I don't work for Nitram, and I didn't get any free products from them to do this review. When it comes to price, I am not sure I really paid more for the Nitram batons than I would for a box of 10 or 12 charcoals from other good brands. 

The box of bâtons moyens costs around $13 USD whether you buy it from Amazon, Jerry's Artarama, or Dick Blick. This includes shipping- the list prices before shipping are $7-8 for the 5-pack of medium bâtons, and the prices increase as the bâtons get thicker. The Fusains Acadèmie (literally, "school charcoal") are about $6-$7 at the Jerry's and Blick sans the shipping, while Amazon sells them for $10-$12 (with free Prime shipping). Any way you look at it, the sticks are at least $2 each when you break it all down. That is at least twice the price for single sticks of General's, Derwent, Cretacolor, Faber-Castel Pitt, and other artist grade brands. 

However, Nitram sticks are quite a bit longer than these other brands. Derwent are 75 mm (roughly half of a Nitram stick), and General's, Daler Rowney, Koh-I-Noor, and Royal are even shorter. When you consider the amount of charcoal you get, it puts Nitram batons on the same price level as Derwent and similar brands.  

Based on my first impressions, I would say yes, Nitram is worth the price, but it is not necessarily better than other high-end charcoals.  It is certainly better than the cheaper kinds I have tried already.  I want to see how long the sticks last for me, and I still want to try the Fusains Acadèmie in soft B grade. I plan to order them with some sticks of Derwent and maybe Faber-Castell or Cretacolor. That would be a fair comparison in my opinion. 

Bottom line: The Nitram sticks feel very smooth and strong, and I can get a decent value range by layering, but true black is not possible with the extra soft batons. While the texture and blending ability reminds me of classic vine and willow charcoals, the Nitram batons are sturdier and leave less dust behind. They live up to the company's claims that they do not "skip or crumble". I don't think that I paid too much for them, and I would recommend them to other artists who enjoy using charcoal in their fine art projects. 



  1. Thanks for such a thorough review.

    1. Thank you for your comment and for reading my blog!

  2. I need to try these. My favor sketch pencils for renderings have always been my Grumbacher charcoal pencils both wood pencil casing ones and the woodless ones. I have small stumps and need to replace . I bought General's variety but don't get the same effects.

  3. I do like General's white charcoal pencil for highlights on watercolors, ink etc.