In our first drawing class at art school, we were given sticks of charcoal to draw with. I had never used it before, and I hated it. Charcoal sticks are fragile, and dirty, and not pointy. You (and everything else) get covered in black dust when using it. It smudges easily. It's hard to draw clean, straight lines, and the width of the line isn't consistent as the charcoal constantly changes shape while it's being used. You need to seal drawings with fixative afterwards to stop it from smudging right off the paper. I didn't understand why anyone would ever want to use the stuff.

My early pieces for studio drawing mostly involved trying to use charcoal in a similar way to how I would use a pen or pencil. It was frustrating and messy. Our teacher regularly extolled the virtues of using the kneadable eraser and "working back in" to a drawing, but my drawing style has always been to draw a line then leave it alone, so this just felt wrong. Because I like clean lines, I rebelled against getting deliberately soft and smudgy. It was simply not my thing.

That all changed just before Easter, about 6 weeks into the course. In studio drawing we arrived to find the centre of the room filled, as usual, with random objects to draw. That day the theme was tools. We were to do a couple of quick studies, then move onto a more detailed work. By this stage, studio drawing was probably my least favourite class, as I was proving pretty rubbish at still life pieces, especially in charcoal (don't get me started on ink - I'm even worse at that).

Here's my first study of an old blunt and bent saw. And some other thing.

Quick study of a saw (and some other thing) in charcoal

It's obviously pretty basic, as it was just a fast study. But you can see it is all lines, no real shading or texture or character. I was finding the angle and perspective of the saw quite tricky, as it was pointing away from me and was therefore quite dramatically foreshortened, so I thought I'd use it for my longer piece of work too, as a bit of a challenge.

The next photo was taken quite a way into the final drawing. At this stage I thought I was just about finished. I couldn't see anything more I could do with it. You can see that there is some shading work and extra detail. It's not bad really, but it's not very polished. However, I genuinely thought I was not capable of developing it further.

More detailed study of a saw (unfinished) in charcoal

Of course I was wrong, and this is where you really appreciate the value of a good teacher. Although I was on the verge of stepping away from it, the teacher pushed me to keep going. She made some suggestions about adjusting the blade length and adding shadows. Most importantly, she showed me how to create feelings of depth and dimension using the charcoal and kneadable eraser together to create soft and sharp edges between light and dark shades.

The final piece is pictured below:

Detailed study of a saw (finished) in charcoal

That class was a revelation. The following week I went to town with the charcoal and kneadable eraser combo, and really surprised myself (I will share that piece soon). It had finally clicked. I could do things with charcoal that I couldn't do with pens or pencils, and I loved it.

In the second term, a wider range of materials was provided for us to work with. More often than not, I found myself reaching for the charcoal in preference to other media. In life drawing, too, it's now my go-to medium. I'm hoping to spend some time with charcoal outside of class as well, to get even more comfortable with it (although you do need to be careful of the mess).

If you'd like to see larger versions of these photos, either click on the images to link through to Flickr, or check them out in my Art School 2016 Flickr album.