An Artist's Guide to Tea and Chocolate

This is a vine charcoal drawing I did on loecation in Deer Isle, Maine that I'm thinking about turning into an oil painting. It's restrained and sparse  In reality there was also a background- an unbroken line of trees that stretched off to the right side of the drawing. It didn't fit with the shimming atmosphere I was aiming for, so I eliminated it. 

There's an amazing flexibility to working in vine charcoal- with just flick of a finger you can change a whole hillside. It invites you to make alterations in  the idea you started out with. Honestly I'm not sure I'd have been able to be so radical with my "surgery" of this place had I been working in another medium. Sometimes vine charcoal seems so subtle and light that it reminds me of drinking a delicately flavored tea.

Below is a photo I took of my palette earlier this week as I was just starting to go into painting a big passage in the sunset of one of the six foot wide paintings in my studio. Oil pigments are essentially greasy colored mud, elegant to be sure, but still mud. It's heavy and often thick. It's flexible alright, but compared to charcoal you think twice before trying out major changes to your composition.

These puddles of oil paint were headed for my canvas, but lying on my palette they reminded me of nothing more than Hersey's chocolate. That's a dark chocolate at the left and milk chocolate at the right. Everynight my wife and I eat a square of dark chocolate. She chews hers and consumes it within a minute. I'm more likely to let is slowly dissolve in my mouth, gradually melting from a solid to a sweet syrup. I like the bulk of on my tongue. If we could eat our oil pigments (we can't, don't try it), I think they've have dense textures like this.

Orchestrating color is really at the heart of my painting. Oil paints are unmatched for subtle shifts of intensity or sliding smoothly from one hue to another. Without oil pigments I'd be completely lost. But an oil painting needs to be constructed, almost like laying bricks in cement. You need a firm idea of where you'd like to go.

Drawing is different- you're making forms with only the most minimal of means. It requires none of the bulldozing to make changes that come with oil painting. Above is another drawing from Maine, this one from Mt. Desert Island's Otter Cove area. Just this morning I went back into it and changed the patterns in the water all around. It took a few minutes, only a little longer than to steep a tea bag in my cup.


  1. Hi Phil,

    I love the way you've captured the personality of the day in these. It feels like the sunlight is shifting and the sea is moving. Good job!


  2. Love both of these drawings Philip. Vine charcoal is such a luscious forgiving medium and you are right-it does somehow give permission to move and smudge things around-to dig deep into your subject. It can be a whisper or a shout- whatever you need!

  3. Thanks Gail. Just plunk me down at a shoreline anywhere and I'm happy. If it's in Maine, so much the beter.

  4. Deborah, thanks. I love your phrase " it can be a whisper of ra shout." Apt! I think everybody has to play around a bit with drawing media before they find the material that works best for their personality. Vine charcoal to me just feels so much like painting it's a natural choice. Unlike painting, it's breathtakingly fast.


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