Artist stages and drawing with charcoal

April 25, 2018


In the 1992 production of Turandot, an opera by Puccini, British painter David Hockney designed sets with red walls, vivid blue skies and stark pagodas. The unnerving colors paired with actors in patterned costumes made the production unforgettable.  

Painter and fabric designer Sonia Delaunay created costumes for Tristan Tzara’s 1923 absurdist play Le Cœur à gaz. Earlier, Delaunay and painter Robert Delaunay, designed sets and costumes for Cleopatra.  

In 1917, Pablo Picasso designed costumes for Parade, including a towering work of skyscrapers and musical instruments. The cubist style made Parade a spectacle.

British artist Conrad Shawcross crisscrossed between art forms on the 2012 National Gallery/Royal Ballet’s production of Metamorphosis, about Titian’s paintings of the goddess Diana. Shawcross’ contribution was a robotic metal sculpture of Diana.


Courtesy of the Bequest of William S. Lieberman
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Robert Delaunay’s set design for Cleopatra

Color in relation to cosmetics is particularly interesting because it can completely change your mood, how others perceive you, and how you interact with the world. Having the power to influence perspectives is extremely intriguing to me and I love playing with a wide spectrum of color in response to that.
~Derick Cich, Duluth Makeup Artist

Compressed charcoal is made from powdered burnt wood with a wax binder, pressed in a mold and fired. The sticks come in different degrees of soft and hard, capable of capturing a depth of empathy and tone.

Willow and vine charcoal are carbonized grape vines and willow branches. Willow is darker, and each type comes in different sizes and hardness. They tend to shriek across your work surface, but despite their loud voices, are wonderful for soft, powdery lines.

Charcoal pencils are a dream for two reasons: Your hands stay clean and the tip works for detail. Pencils come in different degrees of hardness and are available in white.

Paper for charcoal includes Mi-Teintes, which is slightly toothy, but available in sheets and pads in every color under the sun. My favorite is Arches watercolor paper in cold press or rough, which have a canvas-like surface. Sheets are generally 22"x30" with deckled edges.

Fixatives can change the color and tone, but without fix, the charcoal smudges. Test drive your fix by applying test marks of charcoal to the same type of paper you plan to use for drawing. In a ventilated area, fasten the paper on an inclined or upright surface so it doesn’t move. Hold the can two feet away and let the mist settle. Spray one coat horizontal, let it dry, then one coat vertical.   

Hairspray is often used as a fix though it’s not archival. But alternative products have long been a trademark of artists who yearn to push the limits.  

AJ Atwater teaches studio art classes for women of all skill levels.

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