Great Art Blog October 2015- Derwent XL Charcoal and Graphite

Great Art Blog October 2015- Derwent XL Charcoal and Graphite


Hi and welcome to this month’s Great Art Blog! This month I’ve been experimenting with two ranges by Derwent: XL Charcoal and XL Graphite.


Derwent XL Charcoal and Graphite

These are innovative products which are well worth trying as they are very versatile and exciting to experiment with…the easiest way of spotting the difference between the two is that charcoal always has a grainy matt texture, whereas graphite has a slight sheen. You can see this in work produced and also in the blocks themselves.

As you can see from the picture above, both ranges come in particularly practical and durable tins; great for keeping the materials in which is important with a relatively delicate material. Both come in sets of 6.


The Graphite tin comes with a useful range of colours shown above from left; Olive Green, Dark Prussian Blue, Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Soft Graphite and Very Soft Graphite. The blocks are really chunky, but can create surprisingly delicate lines and marks as well as bold, wide ones.


The Charcoal set also includes six chunky blocks; Black, Sepia, Mars Violet, Sanguine, Ochre and White., and similarly they are wonderful at making broad expressive marks, but can also make more controlled delicate lines.

XL Graphite are made by:

…Combining pure Graphite powder with clay which acts as a binder to hold the fine particles together. The Very Soft Graphite pictured on the right has a higher proportion of Graphite to clay which produces a richer darker mark and a softer, crumblier consistency, compared with the Soft Graphite which is the next from right hand side in the photo. The remaining 4 colours are produced by combining graphite powder with powdered pigment and again some clay as a binder. All the XL Graphite blocks are manufactured using both heat and pressure to produce a more durable chunky block.

XL Charcoal are made by:

…Combining Charcoal and clay and treating them with both heat and pressure, as with the XL Graphite to make a compressed charcoal block, which is much more durable than a traditional charcoal stick. The black in this set is simply charcoal and clay, and the sepia, violet, sanguine and ochre are produced using a delicate mix of charcoal and powdered pigment to produce the range of subtle colours. The white block is essentially a compressed white pastel block and contains no charcoal to produce a clean fresh white mark, but the texture matches the charcoal beautifully so compliments the darker shades, and can be mixed with them by blending.

Just a quick note about the history of charcoal…

Charcoal dates back thousands of years and is used for multiple applications as well as an artist’s medium.  Modern day artist’s charcoal is largely made from Willow sticks or (Grape) Vine sticks. These are burned to produce a brittle  medium which is very delicate but makes rich grainy black marks.

Diverse cultures from around the World have used and continue to use charcoal as a medium for creating Art, for camouflaging themselves and as part of ceremonial rites of passage.

One of the most beautiful examples is from the ‘Dappled Horses’ of Pech-Merle in France, which were painted with charcoal and ochre on the limestone cave wall in around 25000 BC. Ochres are natural earth pigments which produce the familiar yellow ochre colour, but also earth reds, browns and purples.

*For more about the history and development of Graphite, please look at the September Blog about artist’s pencils.



Mi-Teintes, Pastelmat and PaintOn papers for working in charcoal and pastel

 For working with both XL Charcoal and Graphite, papers with a bit of ‘tooth’ are definitely a good idea-in other words papers with a slightly textured surface that will hold on to the tiny particles of charcoal or graphite. The picture above shows some of the papers I enjoy using for these materials:- Canson Mi-Teintes Touch paper which comes in a wonderful range of colours and has a velvety texture perfect for both charcoal and pastel work, PaintOn Multi-Techniques paper in Natural which is a fantastic all-rounder and great when you want to add mixed media, and Pastelmat, which again is a beautiful purpose-made paper in great base colours.

**GreatArt Packing papers!

When you order from GreatArt, all the art materials come carefully wrapped and packaged in paper. It is a kind of ‘sugar’ paper web-IMG_1750and comes in a range of colours….bit random as to what you get around your materials, but well-worth saving the ones you like! A light iron sorts out any creases and you are ready to go…


You can see from the middle picture that I’ve managed to save quite a range of packing paper colours…
web-IMG_1752The paper is large and free, and perfect for very expressive mark making, for trying materials out and for working drawings…it’s also nice to be able to recycle and reuse the paper, rather than see it just go to waste.

You might also have noticed that I usually work with some ‘rough’ paper under my work so that I can test things out and also collect stray paint/ dust etc…and the packing papers that you don’t like so much colour wise are perfect for this!

Derwent XL Graphite and Charcoal worked onto saved wrapping paper

The picture above shows some experimental mark-making on saved wrapping paper…It works beautifully, but  is limited by the fact that you cannot build up so many layers as you can on a high quality paper like Mi-teintes as it won’t hold on to the sheer quantity of particles….still it is perfect for practising on!


As usual it’s a great idea to start with some exploration of different ways of working on a range of papers-

I began with the XL Charcoal, in this case the black charcoal, which is excellent for rich black textured marks with a lovely grainy feel. It’s possible to produce thin and thick marks by changing how you hold and use the XL block. Using the block on a flat edge makes a wide solid mark, whereas working with a corner or edge will produce a range of fine lines.



Groove Cube marks with Charcoal

You can also try some other useful tools which are made especially to work with Derwent XL:

  • The Groove Cube is a plastic cube which allows you to create multiple lines in one pass by creating grooves in the charcoal or graphite block. To make the grooves you simply run the block along the ridges on whichever side of the cube you fancy…You can rotate your blocks to have some plain and some grooved sides…the grooves wear away after a little use so you do get back to a flat surface fairly quickly. The Groove Cubes are fun to try and a good way of making large patches of hatching and cross hatching.

  • Also pictured is an oblong grater/ sprinkler, which fits the blocks perfectly and allows you to grate fine particles of graphite or charcoal. You can grate directly onto clean paper and rub in to create a soft even ground, you can sprinkle onto dry paper and manipulate with a soft dry brush to add subtle details and you can sprinkle particles onto damp paper to create interesting effects. The samples on the left hand page of my sketchbook below show effects made with the help of the grater: the top three are made by grating onto the paper and working in with a brush, before knocking off the excess.

    The bottom example is simply black charcoal grated onto a dry paper and worked in with a finger tip.web-DSCF4749

The example on the far right shows the grater and white ‘Charcoal XL’ used to create

soft patterns on a warm yellow Pastelmat web-IMG_2351paper…simply grate onto the paper and ‘draw’ your pattern or texture with a dry soft brush.


The image on the right shows a range of charcoal colours grated onto damp paper and then lightly sprayed with a fine mist of water >

  • derwentxlgripper.jpgAlso shown is a Derwent Gripper which can be used with both XL Graphite and Charcoal ranges. They improve grip and reduce the amount of charcoal dust which sticks to your hands- Call me messy, but I like to work directly with the block in my hand, but as lots of people are put off using a brilliant material by the feel of charcoal on their skin, this is an excellent and useful tool!


 <To the left, you can see some loose cross hatching with each of the XL Charcoal blocks, worked onto PaintOn Natural Paper. The colours overlay and harmonise really well, and produce a soft natural palette.



A disadvantage of both Charcoal and Graphite is that they do both produce a lot of dust when you work with them…this is unavoidable but lessened with these compressed blocks which are less messy than traditional charcoal for example….

As you can see from the shot above, I always have a sheet of rough paper (could be newspaper, or any cheap or recycled paper) which collects the dust and general mess and makes it easier to clean up. It might sound a bit over the top, but having a hoover handy is also a good idea, as you can keep up with excess dust as you go.

However, I collect a lot of the charcoal and graphite dust, especially where the colours are not mixed, and store it in screw top jars for future use, for web-IMG_2462instance to create soft backgrounds to work into.

I hate wasting anything and find this genuinely useful…even mixed colours can be good, or combinations of both XL Charcoal and Graphite as they can make very soft subtle browns-give it a go!

On my sketchbook page below, you can see some further experiments with XL Charcoal blocks on a range of surfaces…web-IMG_2397

  • L.H.Page: Top left-Black and White charcoal marks on Mi-Teintes Terre Rouge paper

  • L.H.Page: Top right- Black and ochre charcoal worked onto a textured Gesso base which gives a nice rough surface to work into, and a more pronounced structure if you want to create a very textural look.

  • L.H.Page: Mid right- Playing with blending XL charcoals on a warm yellow Pastelmat base.

  • L.H.Page: Bottom- Here I painted a base with thick acrylics applied with a Catalyst Blade and then worked black and white charcoal on top when the base was dry.

  • R.H.Page: Top left- a simplified study made with blended charcoals; black, white and ochre on a Mi-Teintes Touch base in cachou.

Both XL Charcoal and Graphite are water soluble and here I’ve used Xl Charcoal blocks to create soft subtle paints, by grating a little onto a palette and mixing with water. Experiment with quantities and mixing, but the resultant colours are really gorgeous, and I definitely intend to use this technique in future work.

If you have some white designer’s gouache a little of this made up into a thin cream consistency, can be blended with the charcoal ‘paint’ to give an even better range, and the chalkiness of the gouache works perfectly with the charcoal.


web-IMG_2399  web-IMG_2400---Version-2


In the top three samples , XL Charcoals have been built up in many layers:-

  • Top left- Charcoal strokes built up in thick blocks on black Mi-teintes paper

  • Top right- Loose mark making onto a base created with strips of black indian ink.

  • Middle right- This example is worked onto a white Gouache base with charcoal over the top when completely dry.

  • Bottom- Multiple layers of hatched and cross-hatched marks building texture.

Moving on to experimenting with the XL Graphite, these blocks work in a very similar way to the charcoal ones, and can be used for broad and fine marks and blend in just the same way…

Experiment with making marks with the block almost flat to the paper so that a broad sweep of Graphite is left on the paper….try making long lines and marks using the tip of a long edge as below.



The linear work above was made using this flat edge technique, and taking each of the XL Graphite colours in turn.

 The  bottom section of marks here are made with multiple lines created using the Groove Cube, which produces interesting hatching and cross hatching…In both cases each of the Graphite colours has been used in turn to show the full range.


On the Sketchbook page above, you can see a range of further experiments with XL Graphite:

  • Top Left: Blue Graphite and Blue wash made up with Blue Graphite powder and a little water plus white gouache.

  • Top right: Green and Blue Graphite sticks on a dark brown Mi-Teintes base with a little wash added in some areas.

  • Left hand strips: Blue and Green Graphite XL grated onto a damp heavy weight white cartridge base.

  • Bottom right hand square: Blue and Green marks with water applied to create controlled wash areas, on same brown base as before>

Try making a soft ground created with graphite dust which has been rubbed in with a clean finger or a paper stump to give a mid tone base. Below you can see a powered eraser used to ‘draw’ into the Graphite and ‘lift out’ the colour. This enables a controlled mark which can be quite delicate. You can build this up in layers by adding more grated Graphite and continuing to rub away until you have the effect you are looking for.



The Left hand page above shows linear marks made with the Graphite blocks, with a wash of clean water added on top- this technique works equally effectively as it does with the Charcoal XL, and similarly produces a nice delicate paint palette.

Also on the LH page, at the bottom right hand side, you can see a test with the graphite used on a gesso base, which gives a pleasing textured feel, which the graphite then reflects when you draw over the top. On the Right Hand page, as well as the ‘lifted out’ work using the powered eraser, you can also see multiple lines built up in layers using the Groove Cube and worked onto a warm yellow pastel mat base, and black acrylic ink used as a base with subtle green and brown graphite marks on top.


^The samples above show a base created with graded whites and Paynes Grey Gouache as a base with lively mark making on top; left hand sample being in white and ochre charcoal and the right being blue and green graphite.


<The quick sketch on the left demonstrates how well the two materials work together-here Graphite and Charcoal have been combined on Terre Rouge Mi-Teintes paper.



The velvety, slightly rough surface holds on to multiple layers really easily.




In the study above, blue, green and black graphite have been combined with black, white and ochre charcoal blocks, worked on a Mi-Teintes Touch blue base. Here I’ve tried to create a sense of life and movement by using very vigorous marks and blending.

This sample really demonstrates the versatility of the two media, in that colours can remain separate and ‘clean’ or blend softly together.


In the sample on the left, I experimented with working direct onto wet paper with the XL Graphite blocks. This is experimental and not very easy to control precisely but creates a really lively feel, and great base to work into…

In the picture below I’m working into the surface when dry with white charcoal and graphite web-IMG_2456 and blending with a torch on to create a layered, more complex effect.

The image below shows the same approach, but this time using charcoal on wet paper.web-DSCF4769web-IMG_2445

The paper above was really wet allowing the blocks to make instant paint as they were applied…lightly spray the paper with a mist of water if it dries too fast.

< In this picture the paper has had time to dry out thoroughly and I’m applying more layers of mark making in white, sanguine and ochre charcoal, with paper stump blending for fine control.

The completed abstract piece below, reveals the complexity of layers that can be achieved using this kind of approach.


The extremely rapid sketch below was made outside using just the XL Charcoal set and a piece of Pastelmat paper which I had taped to a solid drawing board…it has been very stormy here, so it really was a very quick exercise, and by no means finished, but it does demonstrate that these would also be ideal for quick sketchbook work outdoors….I used my finger for a little blending, but no other tools at all, just a quick coat of fixative spray when I got back in the warm.


The sketch below took a little longer, and I worked on white Pastelmat. This is a loose expressive style, which I think suits the medium well. I’ve deliberately used a range of fine and very broad lines and blocks of dense colour and tone. I particularly enjoy the way that one colour overlays on top of another, and allows some ‘see-through’. Simple still-life set ups like this are great for practising, and really quick to put together…simple is often best, and the very pared down background really shows off the charcoal textures.


web-DSCF4761^This final sample is worked on top of a ground made by applying a thick layer of charcoal onto a heavy weight paper, and then blending completely with a finger.


It is a quick and effective method, but you really need a specialist pastel/charcoal paper to allow for the very thick layers of material that will be built up.

The face emerges from the black ground using only white and sepia charcoal in bold quick strokes to suggest the facial structure. Here, I’ve used almost no blending so that you can see the difference.


My Materials List:

  • Derwent XL Graphite-set of 6 chunky blocks                            Code 31623

  • Derwent XL Charcoal-set of 6 chunky blocks                            Code 31612

  • Derwent ‘Groove Cube’ for making grooved lines in XL        Code 31624

  • Derwent Gripper                                                                                 Code 31627

  • Derwent Grater/Sprinkler                                                                Code: 31626

  • Range of specialist papers including: Pastelmat-                     Code 4-16858

           Mi-Teintes Touch, select own choice of colours-


           PaintOn Natural                                                                                   Code 4-11771

  • Derwent Battery Eraser                                                                     Code 30568

  • Jaxell Aerosol Fixative Spray                                                            Code 4-20166

  • Paper stumps for blending- set of 6                                               Code 4-23875

  • Honsell  kneadable eraser (putty)                                                   Code 4-23728

*All available from GreatArt UK:

I also used:-

Top Tips!

  • Keep your work area as clean as you can, and minimise mess by using a rough under sheet -recycle paper, newspaper etc…collect charcoal and graphite dust for future use and remove excess dust with a hoover. If you really don’t like the feel of charcoal and graphite on your hands try the gripper or even ‘CSI’ gloves!

  • A couple of light coats of Fixative spray are essential for keeping your work in good condition, and personally I also put a sheet of clean cheap paper between leaves if keeping in a sketchbook or portfolio.

  • Use a putty rubber to clean unwanted marks and smudges from work as you progress.  They are great for cleaning up and web-IMG_2466can also be used to lift out areas to create highlights. They physically remove the charcoal, pastel or graphite etc…so do eventually become saturated, but the surface can be cleaned by wiping onto some clean paper.

  • Both XL Charcoal and Graphite blocks quickly become dirty with use, and this can result in muddy colours in your work. I’ve found that cheap kitchen scouring sponges used dry are brilliant for cleaning the surface of the blocks after use and between colours. Just hold the scourer flat to the block surface and wipe gently until clean. They also produce a fine charcoal or graphite dust which you can collect and use if you do not have a grater sprinkler…web-IMG_2455

< The picture on the left shows how clean the blocks are after a gentle rub with the scouring sponge.





and finally for inspiration…




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