The story of charcoal

Sharpening a piece of charcoal is no easy business. First one must place the blackened stick gently but firmly against one’s index finger, with the top end protruding but a millimeter or two above the end of the finger, and hold it in place with the thumb. Then, with a sharp paper knife, and with considerable risk to that steadying finger, scrape away a segment in order to leave a shape not unlike that of the nib of a fountain pen. The sides are then honed down to form a delicate and sharp quill. The fragility of this object must be remembered: one pauses often to regard its irregular shape where the knots are sometimes still visible… alas poor willow – will you spill your tears as I command through this newly sharpened apex I have fashioned for you, seasoned perhaps with a drop or two of my blood from early-morning shaking fingers, cold in the steely neon classroom glare? If one grips too tightly, or lacks dexterity with a blunt knife, the stick too often crumbles, silent mutiny perhaps, a last act of dying.

Charcoal holds a magic unlike other materials. It is obstinate yet luscious in its texture. As every artist knows, it can destroy a work more easily than indelible ink; it is not to be treated lightly. The range of tones required – pasted in a hated row at the top of the canvas …. oh dreams of galleries and rows of gay canvas, where are you now, in this stark realm of numbers, prescribed formulae of color, lists of shadows. Indeed, each tone is numbered and carefully boxed, to be sardonically held up against that longsuffering face of Hera, or Apollo, cheap coffee spills on new paper and wood shavings.

One must press neither too lightly nor too heavily. One must retain the seniority over this transmuted willow branch, bend it to one’s will. And, in time, this is accomplished, careless error sometimes being cathartic on a difficult morning.

The shadows, however, are another matter. Even in their comfortable boxy row, they demand their rites. Too black is too black. Too white may be corrected, but the lines will remain, telltale signs of careless handling. And as one strives to knit them in their dance over tea-kettles and earthenware pots and grimy sheets in myriad folds, they will be stubborn, for not only do they demand their tone, but their direction also, their connection also.

For it is not against the white that a shadow will be judged, blissful, unassuming paper white, but against its brother, cousin, sister, in relation. In relation. Most of all in relation to the ultimate, the absolute of unforgiving black. It is this kinship, these unhappy marriages and sibling rivalries which will turn random scratchings into familiar objects, elicit praise or disdain. The shadow is not of our creation. It comes to be through invocation, repeated failure and humbleness, respect for its nature. “Therefore let there be beauty in your strength, and power in your humility, discipline balanced through mirth and reverence”.

The blackness of hidden corners, frustrated scribbles is the easiest yet most destructive of shadows. And the charcoal shadow is the most elusive of them all, for its powdery softness is deceitful. For in the end, it is not the light which an artist in thrall of charcoal hopes to render; that is easy, that is provided from the start. Even on an overcast day that poor, despised trusty neon will hold the fort.

It is the darkness, the various darknesses hidden within the black, shape shifting, quicksand darkness, the shadow of a hand on a knee, the curve of a breast, an elbow… what good is light now? Light serves but to give an outline, but the soul, the soul is breathed into them by the shadows, by the darkness.

One may ask, and rightly so, why not resort to color, so much easier to conceal a lack of skill behind bold sweeping opposites of red, blue, rainbows even. Why not indeed. Frustration and too many mutinous willow cadavers warrant it. But to the purist, nay, even the stubborn radical, there remains the knowledge of the power of black. For black is the totality of color. It is not, as has been thought, the absence of color. The absence of color is white. Is light. The absence of dark also. But in the blackness, all the colors willow and wave, shift and coil, and the black of charcoal is the blackest of all, and the most living of all, alive in its texture, its proximity to the willow bough drenched in some far memory in river water, and now passed through fire to render itself immortal in its blackness.

The associations of the blackness make it all the more tantalizing a medium; for in gaining control of the dark, one gains control of the bogeyman of childhood, of the shadows on a wintry avenue, of the dark night of the soul. The darkness of death; or is it a gestation of new life, as is every winter also? As the transmuted willow branch hides within it the potential for rebirth on the page, so the darkness holds secrets of death and life.

The dark of the moon, hidden in deepest night… the master of otherworlds, and the fear that coils around your heart in the times of your trials… the soul of nature, that gives form to the universe… who awaits you at the end of the spiral dance”.

It is thus that the hated earthenware pot, complete with battered straw hat and ubiquitous wine-bottle – darling instruments of torture for aspiring artists – becomes alive, a thing of its own, freed from its plodding, homely form, cast with so many others as a cheap tourist delight…I was told I would hold flowers… so much dust, it chokes…becomes a nest of shadows and darknesses, is brought to glory on the pale sheet, the wine bottle breathes its long dissipated scent …lovers’ nights, warm breaths, so long gone, love forgotten, so many dreams I gave them, for one night only, wine-drenched passion…, even the hat may sigh wistfully of its own shadows once cast on a grateful forehead, yet still more than this. For if any given thing is more than a sum of its parts, then these are no longer the commonplace, poorly lit, dusty grimy objects positioned precariously on a cardboard box. They are swept into the realm of shadows, they become as one, bound in the black lines and blocks that give them their new form, their hitherto unseen exquisiteness now basking against the whiteness of peeling walls like a beauty queen under strobe lights.

What of the artist, one might say. Is there no credit for the eye and hand that has rendered them thus, delved into the darkness to bring to the surface these qualities, survived the rebellion of the charcoal and mysteries of the black? Is the artist but an instrument then? Indeed, the artist is an instrument. An instrument by choice, such as the choice of medium, and perhaps of subject, but one must not forget that the artist has selected to use this medium, and this medium carries with it its perils. It is a medium of shadow, it is a more thorny road, the artist may please to remain with the more humble pencil, more eager to please from its own bound and subdued form. In the selection of such a willful medium as charcoal, the artist in failure learns humility to his medium, respect for the shadows, and it is only the most daring that will indeed dive to the depths of the pool of shadows, casting finally that hated line of boxes adhered to the easel, casting away even the easel to join the torn sheets accumulating in the corner. He will use the floor, a chair, sprawl, crouch, snarl until the black has been satisfied and the shadows begin to dance. For the eye too has been given over now. No longer does the eye belong to the artist, it is intoxicated now, it will not see the glass and straw and clay, it will see only the shadows, beckoning, whirling, calling. And so the shadows will lead the artist into their dance until they are placated. And their offering is the mirror finally imprinted in the black of the once-wood of the once-willow, now no longer weeping.

Beauty is a curious thing. It is subjective by nature, indefinable and impalpable. Yet there is no disagreement as to its existence. It does, however, possess one other quality which renders it still more mystifying; everything is beautiful in the dark. What paradox is this, one might say. Not so fast.

In the dark, nothing can be seen. As in silence, sister of darkness, nothing can be heard, though it is irrelevant whether we speak here of visual beauty or audible beauty. Dark is light in absentia, no? Light renders the colors of this world, sound its tones and notes. However, in the dark, colors dim and cease, and become one. Become whole. Unify. All that is left is the shadow, the shape. An object is no longer blue, or round or uneven. It simply is. A woman is no longer fat, or thin, or tall, or short, she is. I refer in the latter case not only to the blackness or darkness of light alone, but of the darkness of the mind not as it is usually understood, but as a simple step into a different level of perception. Of being. Characterizations are no longer necessary. One simply is. And how can simple, pure existence, be anything but beautiful? Through the silence which is the parallel of this darkness, one must allow a heartbeat. What is left but existence, gentle, perpetual motion at the rate of the heartbeat? Something akin to the mother’s womb, or free-floating in the sea? That is the world of shadows, the world of darkness, not populated by werewolves and vampires and the stuff of so many nightmares, but pure existence. Glimpses of which are allowed to us by those who have entered there and returned, with a trophy for their trouble, that finished charcoal sketch on the wall, incongruous objects now held in harmonious union by the power of black.

She turns now, slowly. The rain is gathering and thunder rattles the windows. The elm tree outside rustles and sways, mutters to itself more angrily now. She must shed her leaves soon, she too will be black against the night soon. A lone street light gutters and goes out as the electric storm circles overhead, ever closer. She glances at her comforting candle, small source of light and warmth, a living flame in this desolate neighborhood, at this witching hour. The good people are long in their beds . Softly stepping she moves to the small table, so long gathering dust. The thunder rattles and the house is swathed in darkness now. Hot wax dribbles over frozen fingers, long unaccustomed to the fragility of charcoal. She nears the window, kneels, greets the night. The elm tree mutters its own lonesome whisper. She shreds the final strands of web binding her hand, drops them as an offering to the candle flame, then blows it out. The stick is placed against the forefinger and in the other hand the knife…