The 'dark' side of art

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The dark side of art

Discover the smudges and shades of charcoal WORK through UAE-based artists who are playing with the colour black to 'paint' a colourful spectrum of emotions

By Purva Grover

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Published: Thu 19 Jan 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 27 Jan 2017, 8:48 AM

It's a tough choice to make - black or the rainbow. You'd assume that an artist would go in for the latter, right? But one look at the works of charcoal artists in the region will tell you otherwise. They confess their weakness for the dark and rich charcoal, and their obsession with lights, tints and shadows. Deep thoughts, hidden emotions, and strong desires all find an expression in the medium. Call them charcoal addicts or lovers of all things black - these UAE-based artists refuse to switch their charcoal blocks for colourful palettes. Take a peek into the 'dark' side of art.
Sonu Sultania

"It is a wild, versatile medium. Its richness lends a unique experience to the process of painting - and because it is bold and dramatic, it allows me to be more expressive," says Sonu Sultania, who has been romancing charcoal for four years now. "I like working with a variety of mediums, but when it comes to instinctive drawings, I always reach out for my sticks of charcoal." 
On a few occasions, Sonu says she has created a 'convincing' artwork within minutes; other times, it has taken her hours, even days to achieve the same results. "The amount of details in the subject and the desired results are the two determining factors." 
Sonu sees the medium as one in which shading and smearing can work both as an advantage and disadvantage. "You can achieve unlimited light and dark tones with it, but it is also very tough to make changes once you've added a dark tone to the work."
Proper care of a charcoal drawing is very important, she believes. "There are fixative sprays available in the market, but I feel at times it is not a wise idea to use those, for it can change the look and surface of the drawing. Also, it can change how light interacts with your work. Store it and frame it well, and it will last for many generations to come." 
And how much does one have to pay for a charcoal artwork? "Art is very subjective - I don't think there can be a fixed price range. It depends on the intensity, uniqueness, and detailing of the work."
Anju Rajan

Ask Anju Rajan why she loves to work with charcoal and she quotes Canadian photographer Ted Grant: When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But, when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls. "My forte lies in portraits and working with human emotions, which explains why charcoal is the perfect medium for me. It helps me bring out the essence (soul) of my subjects," she says. 
She feels that working with just black allows an artist to concentrate more on the subject or character. "At times, colour can be distracting. Black gives both the artist and viewer a chance to understand the subject matter on a deeper level and  evoke a myriad of emotions." 
Does it not get limiting? "I have always found a certain beauty in black-and-white photographs, sketches, ink drawings, etc. Charcoal is a very bold and expressive medium and, at times, I do add a splash of colour to my works." 
On average, it takes Anju anywhere between three nights to a week to finish an artwork. The risk of making a mess is the biggest challenge of working with charcoal. "At times, I end up with black hands, face, and furniture - with my kids rolling their eyes at the mess I've made!"
Anju has been working with the medium for a year - and for anyone looking to work with it, she recommends a careful selection of the theme. "Mostly, I work with charcoal blocks and soft and hard charcoal pencils." The eraser pen is her most trusted tool, followed by white charcoal for highlights. "I use graphite pencils to design and draw basic layouts."
As for the price tag, Anju shares, "The price is influenced by factors like size, subject, artist's reputation and the current market trends."
Minisha Bhardwaj

"It is quite liberating to work with just black. It allows me to have control over what I am trying to portray. Black on a white base gives the colour a chance to speak for itself, whilst staying true to its original bold nature," says Minisha Bhardwaj, who has been working with charcoal for two-and-a-half years now. "Colours are used to attract (and direct) the eyes of the viewer to certain elements of the artwork. Black allows one to do that without any distraction."
She confesses she's addicted to charcoal. "It may be the most primitive of mediums, but I love its warmth, depth, and versatility. It's tactile, mysterious, and classy." Even when it can take anywhere between two and 20 hours for her to finish a piece, she states that there is no other medium as rich and satisfying. "It is for the artist with patience. Charcoal dust can settle on the hands or body and make it difficult to keep the white areas of the artwork clean. But I like the challenge. It is a powerful, yet malleable medium."
She uses charcoal (sometimes graphite) dust, sticks, and willows to create her works. "To create different textures, I use Q-tips, cotton balls, and makeup brushes. I begin by rubbing the tools onto the charcoal sticks and then I 'paint' the charcoal onto the surface. I also use my fingers to blend. Sharp erasers pull charcoal out of the dark areas and soft erasers provide more subtle highlights. I use compressed charcoal for deep blacks and homemade willow charcoal for a softer shade." 
Pricing is a tricky factor to her too. "Works in charcoal can range between Dh500 and Dh15,000, depending on the size of the artwork and details rendered."
Victor Sitali

"I look at working with charcoal as just another medium in art. Yes, you get to use only one colour, but that does not limit your creativity. Rather, if you use it well, you can create extremely clear and powerful images," says Victor Sitali. He started working with the medium only last year and says his decision was inspired by the works of Casey Baugh, an American artist. "I really admire his work and follow them closely. His portraits are so real that one could confuse them for photographs! Also, I feel that with charcoal one needs to be extremely patient. You may not be able to master the medium right away, but keep at it and you will fall in love. I keep experimenting and getting better with every piece, which is a wonderful feeling." 
Victor uses Strathmore artist paper and graphite charcoal and spray. While it can take longer, he says he has been able to complete a few works within an hour each. "Layering is a big challenge for me. If you can get it right while the work is in progress, you can produce a precise, perfect portrait."

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