Despite its delicate nature, charcoal is featured in some of the oldest artwork in the world. It was used in the famous Chauvet prehistoric 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, including vine, compressed and pencils. Vine charcoal is made by burning wood — most commonly willow or linden — and is characterized by its irregular shape, fine particle size and consistency. Compressed charcoal uses a binder, which makes it more dense and harder to erase, and charcoal pencils use compressed charcoal wrapped in paper or wood.
Charcoal is available only its distinctive black. But pastels are made with binder, chalk and pigment, offering a wide range of colors. Depending on how much chalk is added, pastels may be soft — easier to blend but dusty. Or they may be hard — less likely to erase or smudge but able to produce finer details.
Issues With Dry Art Media
One of the greatest strengths of charcoals and pastels is also their greatest weakness. They are easily erased by the artist to correct a mistake or change direction. They're also easily erased by anyone or anything that touches the art — even a heavy breath may disturb the fine particles! Artists who create charcoal or pastel artwork for sale may want to use a fixative to seal the materials, although this can often change the appearance of the work in terms of saturation and hue.
If you've bought charcoal or pastel artwork and the artist hasn't sealed it, we don't recommended using a fixative yourself. Fixatives are made with toxic chemicals that pose a serious health hazard. And while hairspray has been suggested as an alternative fixative for at-home use, the chemicals in hairspray cause the artwork to yellow over time.
How to Store and Frame Charcoal and Pastel Artwork
While you wait for a new wood frame or metal frame to arrive, make sure to 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. Cover each work with a glassine sheet or acid-free tissue — not plastic or paper, which can both disturb the artwork. To be extra careful, use acid-free tape to secure the artwork to a substrate such as full sheet 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 with hinging tape or acid-free photo corners to the backing board (not the mat board). These mounting methods will help 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, cleverly hidden from view.
Glazing is almost always used with charcoal or pastel artwork to protect it from damage. Glass is preferred over acrylic because acrylic builds up a static charge that can disturb particles in the charcoal or pastel.
At one time, charcoal and pastel artwork used to be framed flush against the glass. It certainly seems to make sense that framing these fragile works tightly against glass would prevent any dust from falling. However, space between the glazing and the artwork is better because it helps prevent mold growth and humidity.
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 media among artists. However, they may be framed and displayed less often due to their fragility. While these artworks may require a little extra care, a few thoughtful steps and helpful techniques can make framing these special pieces well worth it.