Saturday, 5 November 2011

Elephant No. 34: Fusain

For today's elephant, I thought I'd try something I haven't touched in a long time. Although many people would simply call this charcoal drawing—fusain is actually a specific type of drawing charcoal, also known as "vine charcoal", "willow charcoal", or simply "willow".

Charcoal is one of the oldest drawing materials in the world. Our long-ago ancestors learned fairly quickly that a sooty stick from the fire would make a line when scratched against a rock, and the basic principle has stayed pretty much the same for millennia.

Charcoal is usually produced by heating wood slowly in the absence of oxygen. Historically, charcoal for the purpose of providing heat was produced in areas with extensive forests. In the Alps, when charcoal production was at its height, it actually resulted in massive deforestation. In the British Isles, forests were more closely monitored in the production of charcoal, although shortages of wood occurred there as well.

The traditional method of producing charcoal involved creating a conical pile of wood, with openings left at the bottom to allow air inside the pile, and a central shaft-like opening to serve as a flue. The whole pile was then covered with turf or damp clay to create a sort of oven or kiln.

Firing began at the bottom of the flue, gradually spreading up and out. Because there was no air—other than the openings near the bottom, and the flue in the centre—the pile burned very slowly, taking about five days to produce charcoal. The average yield from raw wood to charcoal was about 60% by volume, and 25% by weight. Because it was a somewhat tricky operation, it was generally left to professional charcoal-burners called colliers.

Although charcoal's primary use has always been as a form of fuel, it has many other uses, from medicine to filtration to horticulture. And of course, art. There are several forms of charcoal used in art: willow, powdered and compressed.

Willow charcoal or fusain (also known as "vine" charcoal) is made by burning sticks of wood—usually willow or linden—into a soft, medium or hard material.

Powdered charcoal is ground charcoal, and is often used to cover large areas of a drawing, which may be lightened later with an eraser.

Compressed charcoal is powdered charcoal in a gum binder, which is compressed into sticks such as Conté crayon, or into pencils. The greater the amount of binder, the harder the material.

For today's elephant, I decided to use willow charcoal, which to me is the most like using a sooty stick. I've had this box of soft willow charcoal for years. To give you an idea of how much I like fusain—or any kind of charcoal drawing, for that matter—the box still contains 23 of its original 25 sticks. I also kept a couple of kneadable erasers nearby, as they come in very handy for removing excess charcoal and creating highlights.

I've been thinking about drawing an elephant's eye area for a couple of weeks, and this seemed like the technique to use for it. I drew a faint pencil sketch first, just in case. I thought about winging it, then dimly recalled that sketched-in charcoal lines can be virtually impossible to remove completely, kneadable eraser or not.

As soon as I started drawing, I remembered why there is so much charcoal left in the box. I don't like charcoal drawing. The stuff gets everywhere—clothes, hands, face, parts of the drawing where it doesn't belong—and has an irritating tendency to smudge if you look at it sideways.

At first, this annoyed the heck out of me. Soft smudginess is not my natural inclination. That being said, once I gave in to the dark side, I actually enjoyed smudging stuff. It took me a while to get the hang of what would smudge, and what wouldn't. Once I figured it out, however, I liked the medium's subtlety.

Part of the issue was no doubt the softness of the charcoal. Ultimately, however, that turned out to be its charm. Although sharp lines were hard to maintain, it was relatively easy to layer soft shadows.

Once I had the basic range of tones fleshed out, I went back in and removed some of the charcoal with the kneadable eraser. It's easy to shape the eraser into tiny points and mini-chisels, so you can be relatively delicate in what you remove. I remember once having to cover an entire sheet of paper with charcoal, using only an eraser to create the actual drawing. I hated that exercise so much that, for this drawing, I left a lot of areas white with only the barest hint of shading.

A few things I learned today:

• The darker you lay in the pigment, the easier it will be to smudge it as light as you like across a wide area.

• The lighter you draw, the more likely you're going to be stuck with that line. I have no idea why.

• Don't even try to use the side of a skinny stick of willow charcoal to cover a wide area.

• Dark black lines and shadows should be done absolutely last, because they will smudge at the slightest provocation. And make sure to spray your final drawing with fixative.

• Kneadable erasers are our friends.

The main danger for me was a tendency to overwork the drawing. Because it's relatively easy to add and subtract shading, it was tempting to fiddle the thing to death. I had to force myself to stop playing with it.

I was happier than I expected to be with the final result, but you could literally chase your tail for days with this technique. In fact, forget paint fumes—I think fusain is far more likely to drive an artist nuts.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants are quite shortsighted, able to see only about 20 metres (65 feet) in front of themselves. This is probably the origin of the myth that elephants are afraid of mice: unable to see something so small, elephants would have been startled by the quick movement. In some instances, elephants have also been known to go on a rampage when surprised by something they cannot clearly see. Their sight improves when they are in shady areas, although not by much.

An elephant's eye is very small in relation to the size of its head, measuring only 34 mm (1.3 inches) in diameter, which is about the same size a cow's eye. The eye of an adult human is 24 mm (1 inch).

Elephants have a vestigial tear gland and no tear ducts. Elephant tears simply evaporate or run down their cheeks. There is also evidence that, like humans, elephants may shed tears in response to emotional stress and grief.

Although elephants have poor eyesight, their heightened senses of hearing, smell and touch more than compensate.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation