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CHARCOAL: Expressive and Forgiving (from American Artist Drawing)

by Linda S. Price

James Adkins, a Maryland artist and teacher, has been working in charcoal for years and finds it the perfect medium for him.

As a student James Adkins fell in love with charcoal and has been using it ever since. To him it is "forever forgivable, the most forgiving medium there is." Other drawing methods, he points out, have limitations on how many times you can put on and take off layers. Graphite has to be built up and adding enough layers to make it dark can result in a shiny surface. Taking it off can be challenging. Graphite also lacks charcoal's expressive punch. A charcoal drawing, on the other hand, can be very light or very dark. Charcoal can specifically depict or subtly suggest. And he finds it a great tool for teaching. Relishing the very basic nature of charcoal, Adkins speculates that the first art was probably created with a burnt piece of wood.

Every charcoal drawing---or oil painting---begins in one of Adkins' journals where he doodles ideas, makes lists, takes notes on books he's read and how they impact on his drawing, collects magazine clippings, as well as playing with figures and compositions. Here he practices framing the figures, deciding if and where it should be cropped or whether other figures should be added to the composition. He tries to look at the figure abstractly, paying special attention to creating variety in the positive and negative shapes. Sometimes he uses a watercolor or ink sketch to work out values. (Ideas in the sketchbook, he notes, also provide him with inspiration when he's blocked.)

Once these decisions are made, he draws the figure loosely in vine charcoal. At this stage he does a lot of measuring---both vertical and horizontal---and figuring out angles. He also asks lots of questions: What's the angle from one shoulder to the other? How many heads tall is the figure? Where's the base of the neck? "The location of one point in relation to another point is absolutely crucial," he warns.

In the second stage he's concerned with silhouettes, that is, looking at the positive and negative shapes and piecing them together like a jigsaw puzzle. In his Drawing 1 class he has his students doing "puzzle piece drawing" which involves drawing one shape, then the one next to it, treating the shapes like pieces of a puzzle rather than as specific objects. "I've been drawing for thirty years," the artist says, "and I do exactly the same thing. For as much as possible, for as long as possible, I try to think of everything as shapes that fit together. I don't have preconceived notions of shapes, as I would of an arm or a leg. The question I'm always asking is 'What's this shape?'".

Only when the puzzle pieces fit together and look right does Adkins move on to the third stage. Using compressed charcoal and charcoal pencils, he begins to develop the surfaces and focus on the form. "Figuring out the planes is what makes a figure three-dimensional. You must have a feel for what the surface is doing. It's better if you know anatomy," he notes, "at least the muscle groups and the surface evidence of bones. That way you know what to look for and what to reveal. Values are used to help show form. Each plane will have a different value and will, ideally, reflect anatomy. The quality of the edges and the nature of the value transitions will reveal the evidence of muscle, fat, or bone underneath the surface. But don't lose sight of the over-all form, the cylindrical or spherical nature of a particular area.

Adkins describes his process at this point as, "bouncing back and forth from the general---working on structure and form---to the specific---dealing with details. If the details aren't working he blurs the charcoal to return to generalizations before resolving the details. But he's careful not to get too detailed. Years ago he found his technique advancing towards photorealism, and, wanting his work to be more than just technically impressive, and not wanting to spend eight months on one drawing, he retreated. "Try to make it right, not tight," became his motto and what he tells his students. If the values are right," he explains, " details are not necessary," so he suggests rather than depicts, revealing more detail in the light areas, fewer in the shadows, noting that the eye travels around the highlights, so the shadows shouldn't attract attention.

Adkins' practice is to work with the same model for a series of drawings. The model comes to his studio the same time every week. "Working with a model keeps me honest," the artist says. "I may have photographs of the pose but the presence of the model reminds me of what she looks like. I'm not aiming for a photographic look but a true response to an actual model." He runs an open-model session once a week for local artists that gives him a chance to constantly practice his perceptual skills. He has fifteen years of effort put into hundreds of drawings and oil sketches that are rarely developed beyond the immediacy of the time spent in front of the live model.

Usually, the artist says, he has an idea of what he wants to draw, the body type that intrigues him, but initially he sketches and photographs to get a feel for the model and the poses. What he is looking for is a pose that can be held. Besides that, a pose appeals to him because either it demonstrates good design, such as a nice set of shapes, or is expressive, perhaps in a rhythmic way. To create drama he directs a strong spotlight on the model. Sometimes he uses a second light to provide reflected light in the shadows.

Over the years Adkins has refined the way he shows his models. His first ventures into charcoal, when he was teaching himself how to use the medium, were still lifes. Then he began adding figures. Eventually he eliminated the still life elements and began to experiment with backgrounds. Attracted to Victorian photographs, he tried to recreate their moody, grainy quality with backgrounds drawn from his imagination---rocks, the suggestion of a beach, the illusion of architecture. These touches of background completed the scene, insuring that "negative space was not dead space". Originally his compositions were very complex, containing many figures, sometimes family groupings. First he found an aesthetically pleasing pose, then constructed a composition around it.

In recent years Adkins has been turning more and more to oil painting and has developed a technique similar to the one he uses for drawing in charcoal. He paints directly, then scumbles and glazes to modify and correct, a method that allows him, once again, to bounce back and forth between the general and the specific. "Years of charcoal drawing gave me the essence," he explains, "now I add color." But he still makes sure to correct the drawing every time before he starts to paint.

Whatever the medium, Adkins breaks down the artistic process into three essential elements. The first is perception, that is, realizing what you are actually seeing in terms of shapes, values, and relationships and then communicating that. The second is convention, having the body of knowledge---including color theory, design principles, perspective, anatomy and structure---to be able to create the image. The third is expression, either emotional or intellectual, determining the point of view of the image. Why are you making it? What are you trying to communicate? Answering these questions should tell the artist how to approach the figure in terms of composition, background, and mood.

Adkins considers himself a teacher of fundamentals. He has a simple mantra that he repeats to his students: "It's always about getting the right shapes, the right values, the right edges, and, if you're painting, the right color. If you have a problem it's generally one of these things, not a little detail like eyelashes. It comes back to good artists are artists that do the fundamentals right. And," he says, "learning to draw is crucial. Even if you want your work to look loose and raw, you have to master the fundamentals if you want it to be satisfying."


After trying various brands of paper, Adkins settled on Arches Rives BKF. Other papers, he notes, have their advantages and disadvantages. For instance, on hot-pressed watercolor paper he found he couldn't burnish as well. Whereas, Arches cover paper is good for creating an atmospheric look. Recently he's been experimenting with gray and tan paper, which does, however, narrow the value range. He notes that the surface of the paper becomes more satisfying after he's worked on it for a month. (His average time to complete a drawing is two to three months.)

When it comes to vine charcoal the brand, he says, is not important. For compressed charcoal he prefers Grumbacher or Hardmuth. These sticks are composed of ground-up charcoal with perhaps some binder. They should not contain wax or pigment and are not, he emphasizes, the same as pastels. His basic charcoal pencil is a #2B from General. When a sharper point is required for details, he picks up a Ritmo brand pencil. "In a finished work what you see," he explains, "is basically charcoal pencil work. Pencils give me more control."

To blend, rub in and knock off excess charcoal, he uses small cosmetic sponges. He also finds Kleenex good for blending, noting that blending with a tissue lends a glow to shadow areas because it lifts enough to provide some variety. Tortillons or paper stomps are good blending tools, too. A kneaded eraser is essential for removing and lightening. Adkins kneads it flat to remove charcoal from small areas or wads it into a ball to lift off larger areas without smudging. By pinching it into a fine point he can pick out unwanted dark specks. His final drawing is burnished into the paper sufficiently that fixative isn't necessary.

Adkins works on a drawing board he designed and built himself---a 3' x 4' piece of masonite framed out in the back to keep it rigid and edged with metal strips. A dowel with magnets at either end works as a mahl stick with the magnets adhering to the metal edge and keeping his hand off the paper. He likes the hard, smooth surface of masonite because there is no texture to show through in the drawing.

About the Artist

James Adkins attended the University of Maryland where he began as a political science major but so loved doing political cartoons for the daily student newspapers, that he soon realized he was spending more time at the drawing board than at the books. Wanting to improve his drawing skills, he became a studio art major. After graduation he worked as a high school art teacher, but was interested in teaching at the college level, so he earned his MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. He is now Director of Visual Arts at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. He maintains a studio in an old school building, the Howard County Center for the Arts, where he works at his own art every weekend and whenever he has time to spare which is another reason he likes charcoal: with no preparation time, drying time, or clean-up time he can work on a drawing for a few hours, then drop his pencil and go off to teach. "I have the best of both worlds," Adkins says. "I have a good job and get to do my art work. I'm not sitting at my easel worrying about paying the mortgage. That would have a negative effect on my art."


1) Mother and Child III. 1993, graphite, 10 x 12. Private collection. At one point when the artist felt he had pushed charcoal as far as he could, he turned to graphite but found it too precise and tight to suit him.
2) Mother and Child IV, 1993, graphite, 17 x 23. Private collection. Adkins describes his venture into graphite as "a little journey," He came back to charcoal but says, "you learn from those little trips."
3) Crouched Figure I, 1994, charcoal, 15 x 21. Private collection. Because he wanted to create a sculptural form and not a portrait, the artist had no hesitation about cropping part of the model's head to create a more compact composition.
4) Crouched Figure II. 1994, charcoal, 16 x 14. Private collection. At this time Adkins was heavily influenced by sculpture and photography.
5) Shadow, 1998, charcoal, 20 x 27. Private collection. When the shadow of the models face fell on her leg the artist knew this was the pose. Cast shadows, he points out, have edges but not as sharp as a contour edge.
6) Interiors, 1998, charcoal, 23 x 41. Private collection. Adkins looks for poses that have a mood, without being a portrait. He was attracted to this introspective pose with its "withdrawn fetal quality."
7) Seated Figure, 1998, charcoal, 20 x 20. Private collection. Because his figures are not gestural, the artist uses diagonals and negative triangular shapes to impart a sense of movement.
8) Figure in a Landscape, 1998, charcoal, 16 x 17. Private collection. The artist played with the shapes in the clouds, trying to make them appealing, as well as a foil to the figure.
9) At the Water's Edge, 1998, charcoal, 21 x 22. Private collection. With the figure off to one side, this composition is less formal than others. It needed detail and contrast in the background to balance the offset figure.
10) Eve, 1995, charcoal, 21 x 25. Private collection. Adkins likes to draw crouched or kneeling figures because they convey a sense of stability.
11) Three Figures and a Sheet, 1995, charcoal, 17 x 30. Private collection. The artist experimented with a sheet to suggest clouds and a landscape.
12) Race, 1996, charcoal, 22 x 30. Collection the artist. The artist prefers models who are archetypal females with clear surface definition so he can reveal anatomy.
13) Nocturne, 1995, charcoal, 22 x 26. Collection the artist. The artist experiments with lighting on his models and develops the abstract shapes of shadows and highlights as part of the composition. He liked the rim lighting on both figures.
14) Dawn, 1996, charcoal, 22 x 30. Collection the artist. The artist works to make his figures look sculptural and feel as if they have weight.
15) August on Salisbury Plain, 1997, charcoal, 41 x 29. Collection the artist. This drawing of a pregnant friend was done at a time when Adkins had been reading about mythology and goddesses, so it seemed natural to create an imaginary view of Stonehenge as the background.
16) Standing Figure, 1999, charcoal, 42 x 20. Collection the artist. A trip to Italy provided the inspiration for the background drawn from the artist's imagination.
17) Trinity, 1997, charcoal, 30 x 44. Collection the artist. Working on as big a sheet of paper as possible, Adkins deliberately crammed the large figures into the composition, thus activating the negative space. He wanted these figures to look like a relief sculpture.

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