What the heck is “White Charcoal”?

We had an argument at the studio yesterday. It preceded the opening of our exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, where we had some class demonstration drawings and lecture diagrams on display. We were printing exhibition labels for the artwork, and the argument was about what to call a white pencil.

I’ve been working on gray paper for most of my drawings lately, which requires the lighter values to be “heightened” with white… But what kind of “white”? My tool of choice to date has been General’s Charcoal White – a dense and chalky substance, available in pencils or sticks, that does the job nicely. But what is it, exactly, and what should it be called on our exhibition labels? “Graphite and what on gray paper”?

When I asked how I should refer to their product on our exhibition labels, the representative replied curtly. “Just call it white charcoal.”

Rage.

I’m afraid this is where we descend into pedantry. Artists typically refer to this product as “white charcoal”. To an extent, this makes sense – it’s powdery like charcoal, and it’s made to be used along with charcoal. There’s just one problem: it’s not charcoal. It’s not even close to being charcoal. In fact, the practice of referring to the stuff as “white charcoal” has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and I cringe every time I hear it. It’s just sloppy speech and I refuse to use the term – particularly on exhibition labels. Hence the argument.

But if it’s not charcoal, then what is it? General’s offers no help at all. I called the company for clarification and all they said is that the composition of their products is “proprietary” and can’t be shared. When I asked how I should refer to their product on our exhibition labels, the representative replied curtly. “Just call it white charcoal.”

Rage.

What complicates matters here is that “white charcoal” does legitimately exist. It’s a Japanese variety also known as “Binchōtan”, and while it isn’t as dark as conventional charcoal, it isn’t exactly white, either. At best, it’s a light gray – like the color of ashes.

Japanese "Binchōtan" or "White Charcoal".

Japanese “Binchōtan” or “White Charcoal”.

In any case, “Binchōtan” is not widely used for drawing, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what General’s Charcoal White is made from – which isn’t the color of ashes at all, but rather gleams like the driven snow.

Some artists refer to this and similar white pencils generically as “pastel pencils” and that might be a better fit – except that I frequently use a soft white pastel on drawings to achieve values lighter than what the General’s Charcoal White pencils can deliver. Referring to the pencil, then, as any kind of pastel would be wordy and confusing: “Graphite and pastel pencil and pastel on gray paper” Huh?

So what do I call it? For sheer lack of a better option, I’ve taken to calling it a “chalk pencil”. It’s unclear if it actually contains any chalk, either, but it’s the best I can come up with. It definitely seems chalky, and it’s better than calling it charcoal, but really I’m at a loss.

If anyone out there has a better idea, I’m all ears. But until then, “chalk pencil” it is – which is what we put on the labels.

Comments

  1. Jae

    My first thought is a white conte pencil, that’s what I was given to use as highlights on gray paper.

  2. Kristi

    I loved this post, and when you said ‘rage’ I laughed out loud, I totally get it. I teach college level drawing and have for the last 15 years and I am constantly having this conversation with my students. There are several things in the art world that defy logic and I find it both endearing and frustrating at the same time. There were some good links in the responses that gave some more insight into the chemical properties but I think your solution for labeling works.
    Cheers! 🙂
    Kristi

  3. Rita

    Hello: I’m an extremely novice artist trying to figure out how to draw white whiskers (on a black cat.) It’s a pain in the butt. I bought both the General’s “charcoal white” and compressed “white charcoal.” Neither produced the results I was hoping for (a smooth white line. I suspect it was because I am still struggling with values. Anyways, I got frustrated and just took the compressed charcoals (black hard, medium & soft, and then the white) and played with them. The results were interesting (surely different from #2 pencil!) so I’ll continue my explorations with the “stuff.” 🙂 Thanks for the page and the insights posted here.

  4. Thomas Stubbs

    I have to explain to my classes that White charcoal is a shameful misnomer made by a company notorious for massive inconsistencies in their products. I tell my students to test the media out before purchasing as some of the charcoals are marked medium yet are extra hard. As for the misnomer Charcoal white the name piqued my interest into finding out what this stuff is made of and here I find that they will not divulge their proprietary make up of their “White Charcoal” substance. If the nomenclature is that stupid then they should at least give us the info on the pigments being used rather than having us serious artist speculate and hope that the product is not made of the whiote stuff from bird droppings. My main concern is the permanency of the material. My biggest concern is if they are in fact using Zinc oxide, which is a really bad pigment. I’m OK with Calcium carbonate and /or Titanium Dioxide but I’d like to be sure, because I do not want to spend valuable time on good quality paper with bird dropping white. Thomas Stubbs

  5. Eric Smee

    I just wanted to say, I thought I was the only one bothered by the name but now I don’t feel so alone, thank you

  6. Sam Odermatt

    Artists charcoal is normally charcoal but is also any organic powdered material held together by a binder.

  7. Emily

    I work in an art supplies shop, and someone asked me the other day what white charcoal is. Which is how I’ve come to be commenting on your article…

    I’m inclined to suspect that kaolin has something to do with it. I think lime would be too harsh for fine art use. Might damage the paper.

    I’ll ask about and keep an eye here, too. Great article!

  8. Nicole

    LOL. Thanks for this. I was typing out a message to a friend in regards to a drawing I was working on when it suddenly occurred to me that “white charcoal” is a bit of an oxymoron, from a colour standpoint. Research led me to the Japanese white charcoal (definitely grey) also, and then to your article. On-point sir. I shall now also be calling it chalk. Because honestly.

  9. Rita Scott

    Informative article.Thanks for sharing.

  10. Jack Flynn

    Are there different hardnesses (if that is a word) of this stuff? I’ve used only the General’s sticks (not the pencils) and used up all the ones that were soft. Now all i have are the ones labeled #958 and they are harder than the others. Did i acccidental buy some softer ones? Does anyone know? I cant find any that are labeled differently than the #958

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      Jack, the chalk pencils are available in just one “hardness” (at least as far as I know), which suggests the sticks may be a different animal, but I can’t say for sure. I wish I could be of more help here. If anyone else knows, please chime-in.

  11. Todd Cooper

    I use it a lot. I used to say “charcoal and whatever that white stuff is.”
    Now I just say “charcoal & chalk.”

  12. Pedro Paulo Altieri

    This is killing me.
    Anyway, the pencils that are sold as “white chalk”, like Koh-I-Noor’s Gioconda, achieve the same results as General’s White Chalk? ‘Cause I’m from Brazil and they don’t import any General’s product here.
    I’m stuck with koh-i-noor, Conté’s Blanc and such.

    1. David Jamieson Post author

      Pedro, it’s hard for me to say for sure since I’ve not used either of those pencils recently – I just don’t remember what they’re like. But I’d say that any pencil that is “chalky” (i.e.: “dry”) and not “waxy” or “oily” should be worth a try.

  13. Jason

    Ha, same conundrum led me here. I too, refuse to call it charcoal.

  14. Natasha Rodney

    I from a very remote, area of a developing country that I do not know anything about white pencils. All I’m aware of is that I love to draw. Hope one day I get to use white/charcoal pencil. I know of a white substance used commonly in my area and that is lime ( calcium oxide). That’s what I picture when I read about white pencil.

  15. Eli Griggs

    I recently used a General’s white “charcoal” pencil on paper, as a ground for a small silver point; it worked well.

    My guess is, it uses kaolin as a main ingredient, with a gum arabic binder.

  16. Mathias

    I just discovered your blog (if I may call it that) and your articles are entertaining, well written and interesting. Keep it up, hope you find out what the chalky substance is!

  17. Israel

    hello I would like to know where I can get the white charcoal pencil, I’m going crazy to find, thanks.

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