The following contemporary artists use charcoal as a medium and/or material to discover, to innovate and to express. For those who are curious about the varied creative directions made possible with charcoal, read my commentary below, visit the links, and explore. This list is presented in alphabetical order according to the last name of each artist, and it grows with time.
Lee Bae (Korea, 1956-)
This artist embraces charcoal both as medium and material for his minimalist 2D and 3D artwork. His bound-up pieces of charcoal are testaments to the transformative power of heat and to the physical challenge of bundling large sections of carbonized wood. These artworks have an imposing, raw and brutish presence.
Seon Ghi Bahk (born in Sunsan, Korea, 1966-)
The charcoal sculptures and installations of this artist at times consist of numerous pieces of charcoal suspended from nylon thread. These suspended objects are grouped in carefully designed arrangements so as to create the illusion of familiar forms floating in space. Examples of forms are: a stairway, a vessel or a whirling tornado. In each case, the viewer is left with a magical impression, because the floating visual flotsam of charcoal pieces has both solid and gravity-defying qualities.
Kelly Blevins (lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.)
Kelly Blevins’ imagery is populated with a variety of human, animal and insect subjects. The occasional hybrid image or strange juxtaposition, combined with a generally gritty or shaggy appearance to most of her subject matter, unsettles the viewer. Kelly’s drawings are like electric prods that push viewers away from complacency and towards a series of questions about societal norms, acceptable behaviour and conventions of beauty.
Sue Bryan (born in Ireland, lives and works in Ireland and New York, U.S.A.)
Sue Bryan’s artistic vision is influenced by the Irish countryside of her childhood experience. Her landscape drawings reveal tangled and dusky places of mystery. Working on a variety of support surfaces ranging from paper to gessoed board, she combines atmospheric and smudgy treatment with complex interwoven line work. These drawings are brooding and powerful evocations of the natural world as an untamed and hauntingly beautiful domain.
Dale Chihuly (Tacoma, Washington, U.S.A., 1941- )
Dale Chihuly is an American glass sculptor known for his large-scale pieces. He suffered an accident in 1976 that deprived him of vision in his left eye. Because his resulting lack of depth perception made glass blowing dangerous, Chihuly evolved into the role of an art director in the production of his glass pieces, relying on other glass blowers to produce his sculptures and installations. He creates drawings as visualizations of the sculptures, and these drawings are interpreted by master glass blowers under his supervision. His drawings are spontaneous and splashy, and are realized with both wet and dry media, including charcoal. His process can be described as energetic and artistically liberated. Watch this Youtube video (from the 7:32 mark to the 9:26 mark will provide a good idea) to see how Chihuly draws with spontaneous virtuosity, using charcoal in combination with other media and in connection with his glass blowing enterprise. Chihuly’s has mounted a small quantity of his thousands of drawings on his website.
Jonathan Delafield Cook (1965-)
This artist has produced a body of charcoal drawings that share much with botanical and zoological illustration in their exacting detail, but in a context of contemporary art production. Cook draws his subject matter isolated from other visual information, compelling the viewer to focus on the subject as its own universe rather than encouraging metaphoric associations or narrative interpretations.
Trevor Guthrie (born in Dunfermline, Scotland, lives and works in Zurich, 1964-)
This artist creates deceptively realistic charcoal drawings by referring to photographic source material. While realistic, the imagery offers unusual visual and conceptual juxtapositions that can elicit a sense of unease in the viewer.
Heather Hansen (lives and works in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A.)
Hansen is a visual artist and production designer. As a visual artist, she has experimented with charcoal by mapping out her body movements onto large sheets of paper. Unafraid of the dirtiness of charcoal, she engages in symmetrical actions to produce large-scale drawings, creating a variety of shapes and patterns as she drags large pieces of charcoal over paper. Her skills as a dancer contribute to this process, resulting in designs that speak of the beauty and range of human movement. To see one of her drawings in process, watch this video.
Susan Hauptman (Michigan, U.S.A., 1947-2015)
Hauptman’s charcoal drawings reveal a singularly unglamorous and dispassionate approach to self-portraiture, with absurdist props that foster an other-worldly feel to the otherwise stark realism. Despite the neutrality of facial expression that characterizes her work, the intimately detailed quality of moist skin and other delicate elements in combination with the absurdist and playful juxtapositions can be experienced as a bleak eroticism.
Iskra Johnson (lives and works in the Seattle area, Washington, U.S.A.)
The eloquent Iskra Johnson has developed a visual language rooted heavily in printmaking techniques and aesthetics. A range of materials, including charcoal, are thoughtfully explored and layered into challenging pictorial spaces. Natural and architectural forms emerge. The work of this artist reveals a deep sensitivity and reflection upon the fleeting visual experience that inspires its production, whether related to transformation in nature or in man-made environments. In all cases, Iskra embraces the textures and atmospheric effects to which the physical properties of each medium lend themselves.
William Kentridge (Johannesburg, South Africa, 1955-)
Prolific and socially conscious, William Kentridge has created a gritty and powerful oeuvre that is ever-expanding and which embraces film-making, theatre, sculpture and installation. On durable paper, charcoal drawings can be reworked, rubbed out, erased and reconstructed many times over. The mutability of the charcoal drawing process has enabled Kentridge to create short animated films by shooting frame by frame the evolution of particular drawings so as to create narrative sequences. Kentridge also explores other drawing and printmaking media. Visit Art21.org to view videos of the artist.
Véronique La Perrièrre M. (lives and works in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, 1978-)
It is particularly true that the charcoal drawings of this artist are best experienced in their physical form rather than as reproductions, because the tiniest elements are drawn with such delicatesse that standard photo reproduction does not do them justice. The drawings of La Perrière are visual poems that interweave the human body and elements of nature into hybrid forms that express the fragility and transience of life.
Julio Reyes (U.S.A., 1982-)
This artist uses a variety of drawing media, including charcoal. His work is characterized by an austere and sincere interpretation of people, in association with unpresuming landscape and cityscape elements that provide deeper contexts within which to experience these individuals. The work of Julio Reyes is lovingly observant of variations in surface and subtleties of light.
Fiona Robinson (U.K.)
Fiona Robinson has created complex abstractions with charcoal and other media, partly in response to the musical compositions of John Cage and Bach. Her work incorporates intersecting linear elements of various widths, with pigment dragged out from these elements to activate surface outside of these lines.
Paul Rumsey (Essex, England, 1956-)
Dreamlike and hallucinatory, these mysterious and at times disturbing drawings offer fleeting glimpses into Rumsey’s smoky psyche.
Ron Shuebrook (Canada, 1943-)
This artist marries representational subject matter and abstraction into bold architectures of shape. Whether working in charcoal, ink, or lithography, Shuebrook embraces the materiality of his medium in that he is unafraid of marks left over from application or removal. In the case of charcoal, fingerprints, smudges and erasure marks all add a wonderful vitality, rawness and tactility to his drawings. Through the decades, Ron Shuebrook has approached his work with an admirable fearlessness and an underlying sense of humour.
Ricardo Spinace (lives and works in Vancouver, Canada and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico)
Spinace applies charcoal and conté to plywood to draw sweeping and stylized forms representing land, sea and air. A grand stillness and monumentality is expressed in his artwork.
Scott Tulay (lives and works in Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.A.)
Scott Tulay is an architect who uses drawing to expand beyond the pragmatic constraints of architecture. In his drawings, viewpoints shift, solid structures dissolve atmospherically, forms blend together, and multiple lighting scenarios coexist. His media include charcoal, spray paint, ink and pastel. His works are an act of rebellion against the conventions of descriptive visual representation.
Levi van Veluw (the Netherlands, 1985-)
Levi van Veluw’s multi-disciplinary range includes scenographic installations, films, photographs, sculptures, paintings, and drawings. There are crossover elements that characterize his work, including geometric intricacy, repeating compartmentalized forms, and a sense that the mysterious and somber structures he creates are like aging but largely intact ruins from a time of rich complexity. His charcoal drawings are powerful testaments to his formidable imagination, his sensitivity to the interplay of light and shadow on architectural form, and his technical prowess with the charcoal medium. These impressive pieces are deeply satisfying and engaging.
Aron Wiesenfeld (Washington, DC, U.S.A. 1972-)
Wiesenfeld’s dark pieces are populated with lone figures dwarfed by sublime forces. The solitary characters persevere despite their diminutive statures. In this artist’s hands, the charcoal medium enables atmospheric treatments, sensitive differentiation of values and varied textures. Lovely and compelling work.
Hong Chun Zhang (Born in China, now living in Lawrence, Kansas, U.S.A.)
This artist’s charcoal drawings intimately explore, reflect and question the cultural values, traditions, relationships and personal identity connected with her Chinese heritage. She also integrates a Western influence in her approach to contemporary art practice. Her long pieces unrolled as scrolls are drawn with breathtaking skill and grace.