In today’s day, artist’s charcoal is formulated to be as uniform and reliable of a product as possible. However, charcoal has not always shared such a quality. I have found the experience of collecting wood and making my own artist’s charcoals to be a beautiful experience through which to understand and explore the medium.
Let’s explore what types of wood have been traditionally used in the past, and how we can go about making our very own charcoal.
Two common types of charcoal found in art stores are known by the names Willow and Vine. Traditionally, Vine has often been grapevine, and willow of course being the branches from the willow tree. Many native forms of grape and willow exist here in California, as well as many other regions of the world. If we learn to recognize what is available nearby, we can then choose to interact with our environments in a very rewarding way. Reward nature back, by practicing responsible gathering. Always keep the health and sustainability of the resource plant in mind. With just a little care, sourcing these raw materials from the wild can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Willow and Grape branches should be dried before turning into charcoal, look for dry branches on a dead portion of the plant or nearby on the ground. Do not use rotting or crumbly wood. If the plant goes dormant, as many grapes and willows will, the wood may still need to be dried. If the wood needs to dry, lay it out in open air to breathe for several weeks or until the wood readily snaps when bent.
The next step is turning the collected wood into charcoal. We do this by burning the wood in an oxygen-free environment. This will keep the carbon from combusting and leave us with charcoal which can be used to draw and paint and get messy with.
Place the wood into almost-closed steel containers. IMPORTANT: Hot air expands, so be sure the container used to cook the charcoal has a small hole or cracked lid, otherwise the container may EXPLODE during the charcoal cooking process. Think accordingly and be safe.
The next step is to place the container into the campfire. I personally just place it into the heart of the fire, until ashes have dropped and converted the container. Continue burning until the fire burns down and the container is cool to the touch.
Open, enjoy, and learn!