Charcoal Animation

Charcoal is one of the most versatile mediums for drawing.  It’s ability to be spread easily over surfaces and erased with ease makes it a medium of choice for many artists.  Charcoal also has the ability to produce deep backs, allowing the artist to create a full range of value in drawings.  Charcoal is such a traditional drawing medium, that you might find it surprising that animation can be produced with it.

When most of us think of animation, our minds go to cartoons.  After all, this is usually our first contact with animation.  Because of this, it’s easy to overlook the potential that exists to create art through animation.  Instead, we often “pigeon hole” animation as cartoons that feature talking animals and are designed to entertain children (and some adults).  In reality, more and more artists are embracing animation as a viable form of art and have discovered its expressive possibilities.  Many artists are exploring the animation mediums of the computer, stop motion,  rotoscoping, and cut paper.  Others are looking to more traditional drawing media, like charcoal.

Charcoal Animation

Marks from a charcoal animation

Charcoal for Animation

William Kentridge is a pioneer in the use of charcoal as a medium in the creation of animation.  Charcoal actually makes sense as media for animation when you consider its characteristics.  It erases easily and can be changed quickly on the surface.  The deep blacks produced from the charcoal translate nicely in photographs.

Kentridge creates short expressive stories with charcoal.  The stories are usually dark.

The Process

He begins with a large sheet of drawing paper and draws the first scene.  His camera is positioned across his studio, the lens focused on the large drawing paper.  He walks across the studio when the scene (drawing)  is ready and snaps two photos.  The short breaks from drawing to photograph allow him to think through the next mark.  He then returns to the drawing to make small changes, erasing and adding charcoal to the surface.  He repeats the process to build up the frames that will become the animation.  During the process, he cannot see what he creating, only the drawing that stands before him.  Each frame of the animation marks a permanent change in the drawing.

The resulting animations are naturally expressive.  The illusion of movement produced in the changes from one frame to the next is echoed in the traces of charcoal erased.  The marks and the process become a part of the experience, almost crucial to its success.

The animation is choppy, due in large part because of the framerate.  The choppiness however, is welcome as it gives the viewer the chance to experience each single drawing without losing the movement that is created.

When the scene has been photographed, the drawing that remains may be drastically different.  The artist can then finally see his art – the animation.

Here’s a look at his original process…

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