Even though it is one of the most delicate art media, charcoal is featured in some of the oldest artwork in the world. It was used in the famous Chauvet cave paintings in France, for example, and many artists still use the medium to sketch thanks to its softness and ability to be easily erased. True pastels are not as old as charcoal — they were first used in the Renaissance — but still remain one of the oldest media.
Modern charcoal comes in a variety of types, in including vine, compressed and pencils. Vine charcoal is made by simply burning wood, most commonly willow or linden, and is characterized by its irregular shape, fine particle size and consistency — it most resembles the charcoal used in its earlier days. Compressed charcoal uses a binder, which makes it harder and less easy to erase, and charcoal pencils use compressed charcoal wrapped in paper or wood.
Whereas charcoal is available only its distinctive black, pastels, made with pigment, binder and chalk, offer a wide range of colors. Depending on how much chalk is added, they may be soft, which is easier to blend but dusty, or hard, which is less likely to erase or smudge but produces finer details.
Issues With Dry Art Media
One of the greatest strengths of charcoal and pastel is also their greatest weakness. They are not only easily erased by the artist, but by anyone or anything that touches it — even a heavy breath may disturb the fine particles. Artists who create charcoal or pastel artwork that is intended to be sold may use a fixative to seal the materials, but this can often change the appearance of the work in terms of saturation and hue.
If you have bought charcoal or pastel artwork and the artist has not sealed it, it is not recommended to use a fixative yourself as they are made with toxic chemicals that pose a serious health hazard. Hairspray has also been suggested as an alternative fixative for at-home use, but the chemicals in hairspray cause the artwork to yellow over time.
How to Store & Frame Charcoal and Pastel Artwork
While you wait for a new wood or metal frame to arrive, ensure that you store the artwork correctly. Charcoal and pastel drawings should be stored face-up and flat in an acid-free storage box, preferably not on top of one another. Each work can be covered with a glassine sheet — not plastic or paper, which can both disturb the artwork — if necessary, held in place with acid-free tape to a substrate such as mat board. Handle the artwork as little as possible to avoid smudging, and touch only the corners.
Because charcoal and pastels are one-of-a-kind pieces of art, you should not use any permanent mounting methods. Instead, mount the artwork using T- or V-hinges or acid-free photo corners to the backing board — not the mat board — to ensure minimal movement.
A mat board can be a particularly helpful tool thanks to the bevel. Typically, mat board is cut with a standard bevel edge, meaning that it is cut at an angle to expose the mat board core. However, cutting a reverse bevel on a mat board — in which the bevel faces inward, and only the straight edge is visible — creates a channel into which dislodged dust from the artwork can fall, remaining hidden from view.
Glazing is almost always used with charcoal or pastel artwork to protect it from damage. Glass is recommended over acrylic with media such as charcoal and pastel, as acrylic builds up a static charge that can disturb particles in the artwork.
Earlier, artwork may have been framed right up against the glass — it certainly seems to make sense that framing pastel and charcoal works against the glass would prevent any dust from falling. However, the space between the glazing and the artwork prevents mold growth and humidity; while some argue that moisture can help “bind” dust, professionals confirm that there should always be a space between the glazing and the artwork.
When putting together the frame, move it as little as possible. Each time you jostle the frame, especially flipping it over repeatedly, bits of the charcoal and pastels will become dislodged.
Charcoal and pastel are popular and commonly used, but they may be less often bought, framed and displayed at home due to their fragility. While they may require a little extra care, a few extra steps and different techniques can make framing them just as easy as a photograph.