Maker’s Medium: a student artist illustrates the powerful potential of charcoal through her drawings


Mastery of materials is fundamental to the artistic process and the career objective of any artist in the chosen medium. All The method requires a different set of skills and may elicit different reactions from viewers. Follow columnist David Egan on “Maker’s Medium” as he shines a light on mediums of fine art by profiling a different art student each week.

(Cat Nordstrom / Daily Bruin)

Ana Belcher remodels the light of the fire that created her charcoal.

A sophomore art student, Belcher said she had been interested in art since second year when her mother enrolled her in classes focused on teaching Old Masters techniques. Classes taught her the basics of charcoal drawing when she was in fourth grade, and she has been using the medium ever since. A recipient of the UCLA Department of Art Scholarship, Belcher painted charcoal portraits while in college.

“I really like using the charcoal (and) the depth you can get with the medium… (in) the contrast, shadow and light,” Belcher said. “It’s really nice, but at the same time it’s a bit difficult. … If you apply it too hard on a sheet of paper,… it will be more difficult to remove it with an eraser.

Most charcoal – including the charcoal used by Belcher – can be washed off if applied lightly enough. This is because it is made up of large particles without any binding substance. Charcoal is elementary, the debris of animal and plant substances – wood, bones or twigs – burned slowly in a container without oxygen, and its use has been confirmed in the prehistoric cave drawings of Altamira and Niaux. Engraving lecturer Jacob Samuel said Belcher’s use of charcoal created a dramatic feeling and contrasted his work with drawings made on the same medium by 20th century artists Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

“When you look at… works from the turn of the century, artists are deliberately leaving traces of their (artistic) process,” Samuel said. “(Belcher) doesn’t really do that. She has a really good idea of ​​what she wants to do, probably because she’s working from a photograph.

[Related: ‘Made In L.A. 2020: a version’ to feature work by local artists in 2 LA exhibits]

Belcher has indeed worked from photographs, notably for his pieces “03/03/03” and “Self-Loathing Self-Portrait”. The first shows her twin sisters – whose birthdays give the drawing its title – while the second is represented four times, twice in front and twice in the background. She said the numbers are representations of her distorted subconscious – they don’t look like her, but she sees them like herself. Belcher used charcoal for these drawings because she said there was a certain seriousness in the medium.

(Courtesy of Ana Belcher)
Belcher’s play “03/03/03” portrays her younger twin sisters in dramatic light. Lin said her use of shading creates a spellbinding atmosphere for the room. (Courtesy of Ana Belcher)

Charcoal drawing is an effective way to create dramatic lights and shadows, said assistant professor of mixed media Candice Lin. Student artists who use charcoal on white paper can sometimes miss average values ​​on the lighting scale, she said. Charcoal allows artists to be more selective about where to place highlights when they start with tinted paper or cover the paper with a first shade of gray, as Belcher seems to do, Lin said. .

“There is such an obsessive use of shadow and light to create a sense of mystery,” Lin said. “In (’03 / 03/03 ′), it looks like (the subjects are) witnessing something by candlelight; … There is a lot of emotional impact that I get when I see them.

This treatment of light, said Samuel, is a classic technique called chiaroscuro, used by artists like Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci. Lin said the charcoal drawings are powerful in creating a mood that is evoked by a sense of light. Chiaroscuro is powerful in Belcher’s work because it brings out expressions of solemn witness, Lin said – the characters, with the seriousness of their expressions, don’t let what they see unmarked by..

[Related: Maker’s Medium: Art student explores the wonders of watercolor through familial portraits]

Belcher said her drawings tend to sound dramatic, and while she doesn’t mind, she said she risks taking herself too seriously and becoming narcissistic in what she tries to express. Because Belcher is not a serious person in her day-to-day life, she said she finds this outlet in her work, which covers themes of identity and her portrayal of herself as an Afro. -american. The medium is also the message; As Belcher said, the application of the charcoal itself gives insight into what an artist’s emotions are and what they are trying to convey.

“The app is everything,” Belcher said. “It’s different for each person. I feel like no one can apply charcoal the same way someone else – it’s almost part of who you are.

(Courtesy of Ana Belcher)
“Self-Loathing Self-Portrait” features Belcher four times, each a reflection of herself. The personal piece is tied to her use of charcoal, as she stated that no artist can apply the medium in the same way. (Courtesy of Ana Belcher)

In terms of the application of the material, Samuel compared charcoal to graphite, another means of drawing, saying that the work produced using the two materials depends on how an artist touches the paper, did -he declares. Touch can be learned, but it is also a gift. Having constant touch requires extraordinary focus and physical control, Samuel said. Belcher has that degree of control – while experimenting, she highlights and shapes form in a very traditional way, he said.

Charcoal can also be easy to do at home, said Lin. During isolation from the pandemic, she said many students contemplate the elementary nature of the art materials they use. Lin said it’s valuable to consider the context to which certain materials relate and for artists to create images that challenge those stories.

“This period has been a time of reconnection for students, not only with their priorities in life and what matters, but also what it means to be an artist,” said Lin.

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