Charcoal is a popular art medium and because it comes in various forms, this makes it a versatile tool. From quick sketching to portrait drawings, it can serve many different purposes.
Vine charcoal and Compressed charcoal are some of the many forms of charcoal and in this article, we cover what they are and the differences between them.
Vine and compressed charcoal might be from the same source -burnt organic matter- but they differ in a lot of things.
|Easy to erase
|A bit harder to erase
|Most likely to break
|Less likely to break
|How it’s made
|Powdered charcoal held
by gum and wax binders
sketch before painting
|Who it’s for
|Beginner and advanced artist
Just like lead, charcoal can be soft (2B, 4B) or hard (2H, 4H).
Vine charcoal is more on the soft side. It is very loose and powdery since it is a more natural form of charcoal.
Compressed charcoal can be either soft, medium, or hard. However, it still ends up being harder than Vine charcoal.
The reason for compressed charcoal’s hardness is simple – The gum binders! The more gum binders are used in compressed charcoal, the harder they become and vice versa.
How It’s Made
By burning living things like plants into oblivion, you get charcoal, one of art’s oldest mediums.
Charcoal predominantly contains carbon, which if you remember from biology, is found in every living thing.
Burning takes away every other thing and leaves the carbon, which forms the charcoal we use today. Though Vine and Compressed charcoal have a subtle difference in how they are made.
Vine Charcoal or Charcoal from grapevines is gotten from burning grapevines in a kiln with no oxygen. This dries up everything leaving only our stick charcoal. In simple terms, vine charcoal is an aggressively burnt stick.
Compressed Charcoal or Powdered charcoal turned into sticks is powdered or ground charcoal bound together with gum or wax binders and molded into sticks and blocks.
Compressed charcoal comes in sticks or blocks kind of like pastel. They are also darker in color than Vine charcoal. You can express bold and darker marks because of this.
Vine charcoal comes as it was formed, an actual stick. It is not as dark as Compressed charcoal so don’t expect a blackity black while using it.
Mark Making & Drawing
Any artist that uses graphite pencils will conclude that hard pencils are for detailing and finer strokes, while soft pencils are more shading inclined.
Similar to this comparison, compressed charcoal, being the harder medium, is perfect for fine detailed and finished drawings.
Vine charcoal, due to its soft and powdery consistency, is great for quick sketches, gesture drawings, and making composition drawings on a canvas before painting.
Tone and Values
Let’s assume you’d need a value range for a portrait you’re working on. You use the vine charcoal and do some shading.
You try to blend your charcoal to form that smooth gradient of dark to light but it comes out the wrong way or like a grey wiped-off blob.
Blending with Compressed charcoal produces the contrast and the value range you need for your picture to pop. You can create varying tones in your drawings much smoother than with vine charcoal.
Charcoal & Paint
You can’t use compressed charcoal with paint or any wet media. It’s not easily erasable so painting over it would be equivalent to mixing charcoal with paint. That’s going to leave some weird color combinations on your canvas.
However, vine charcoal doesn’t make such a mistake. It’s the right medium for a preparatory sketch before painting.
You can easily wipe it off and not worry about charcoal mixing with your paint.
Since vine charcoal is soft, it is easy to erase. You can erase all traces of vine charcoal with your finger. Though I recommend you use an eraser for this to prevent oils from your finger from staining the canvas.
Since vine charcoal is easy to clean, artists use vine charcoal for quick sketching. Make a mistake, just clean it and continue drawing.
Compressed charcoal? Not so much.
It will erase but it will be a tougher job. So when a mark is made with compressed charcoal, it’s almost like it’s written in stone. But if you’ve gotten your composition and quick sketches done and ready, compressed charcoal can come in to make the final masterpiece.
Charcoal is brittle. It’s not as tough as lead. However, amongst its various forms, some are more fragile than others.
Between vine and compressed charcoal, Vine is more likely to break. Think of vine charcoal as soot rolled into a stick. It can easily snap if you apply much pressure using it. Making use of vine charcoal requires a gentle hand.
Compressed charcoal is also fragile, but unlike vine charcoal, it’s less likely to break. The wax and gum binders in compressed charcoal give it more firmness.
Beginner’s luck or Professional’s friend
Even with charcoal, there’s a recommendation for beginners trying charcoal for the first time and that is: Compressed charcoal.
Not that Vine charcoal is any less, but using Compressed charcoal trains beginners to be confident with their mark making and helps them understand how to create dynamic tones and varying shades with charcoal.
That’s a lot of artistic jargon but it helps beginners learn some important art fundamentals.
Vine charcoal is a little advanced. For you to create art with it, you should already understand some basic art fundamentals like shading and composition to use it to the fullest. Professional artists can use either since they know what works for them and what doesn’t.
Preserving Charcoal Drawings
Drawings made with charcoal need to be preserved. The last thing anyone wants is their artwork to get ruined by smudges or stains. Charcoal art can be preserved in 2 ways:
- Using a fixative
- Framing with acrylic or double glass picture frame.
These two charcoal types give very different artistic effects. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each of them enables you to use them to the fullest.
Compressed charcoal and cine charcoal aren’t all that’s out there. We have white charcoal, powdered charcoal, charcoal pencils, and willow charcoal which is like a brother to vine charcoal.
Charcoal is an interesting medium to try out. There’s so much you can do. Keep experimenting with it and surprise yourself with what you make.