Tag: advice

The Beginner’s Guide to Drawing With Charcoal

The Beginner’s Guide to Drawing With Charcoal

Drawing with charcoal as an artistic medium is very versatile, affordable, and is readily available in any art supply store. It is for these reasons that many artists (including myself) favor it for the purposes of drawing. Whether you’re using it for quick studies and sketches or complete works of art, charcoal does it all.

Like most artists, I started drawing with graphite pencils before I moved to drawing with charcoal. I had a set of pencils ranging from 6H (hard/light) to 6B (soft/dark) and everything in between. One thing I always struggled with was overworking my paper. Depending on the grain, paper can only hold so much graphite (which is smooth) before you aren’t making much of a difference with your strokes anymore. For that reason, it can be difficult to achieve really dark tones using graphite.

With raven blacks easily achieved with the stroke of a compressed charcoal stick, it’s easy to see why it attracts plenty of graphite artists who are in search of a less time-consuming way to enhance the contrast of their work. If you go to an art supply store to purchase charcoal, you might be surprised and overwhelmed to see that there is actually quite a selection available. At its most basic, charcoal is burnt wood, so what is the difference you are seeing on the shelves?

Einstein; Charcoal on paper.


Vine and Willow Charcoal sticks are usually made from the wood of a willow tree. They are usually different lengths, shapes and diameters, and you can usually still see the wood details of the branch. This type of charcoal is very soft and blends easily. It is perfect for areas where you need lighter tones.

Compressed Charcoal comes in long rectangular or squared bars and tends to give you the blackest blacks. It’s harder, smudges and blends readily, and is usually incredibly inexpensive. The down side is that they tend to be really messy. Prepare to walk away from your project with black fingers.

Charcoal Pencils are basically compressed, but in a wood casing so your hands stay clean. For most of my portrait work, I use Derwent charcoal pencils. They come in light, medium or dark tones and are readily available for a reasonable price. They’re relatively easy to sharpen but are a little on the fragile side, so care must be taken.

Tinted Charcoal usually comes in pencil form and in a variety of different tints. The colours are usually very earthy and range from different grays, to browns and yellows. They’re great if you want to achieve a sepia effect to your drawings.



  • Highly versatile and can achieve many effects used successfully for both portraiture and landscape work.
  • Quick to work with. You can place compressed charcoal on the side and sweep across the page for thick, black strokes that are effortless to create.
  • Blends easily. Use cotton swabs, facial tissue, or blending stumps to achieve different blending effects.
  • Drawing with charcoal provides a coarse texture. Some people don’t like it, but this is why I prefer charcoal over graphite. Graphite is very smooth, so it’s hard to layer. Charcoal is coarse so you can layer it effortlessly.


  • No room for error. If you screw up, some forms of charcoal do not erase easily.
  • Smudges easily. If you accidentally rest your hand on part of your drawing, your hand will pick up the pigment and smudge it to parts of the paper where you might not want it.
  • Needs a fixative. Because charcoal is so powdery and easily transferable, it’s important you spray a finished work with a fixative spray to seal it. Luckily, fixative is inexpensive, just make sure you spray it outside because it doesn’t have the most pleasant smell.
This Is Sparta
This is Sparta; charcoal on paper.


Tip 1 – If you’re considering drawing with charcoal, I recommend you try a variety of styles (vine/compressed/pencils/tinted) to develop your own preference. Charcoal is one of the least expensive drawing mediums to invest in, so try them all out!

Tip 2 – Don’t buy cheap. When you’re standing there in that aisle, looking at the drawing supplies, stay away from the really cheap-y stuff. I was completely turned off of charcoal as a teenager because I was using really crappy quality stuff. It was scratchy and really difficult to work with. Good quality supplies can make all the difference, and it doesn’t cost much more. Look for brands like Derwent or Winsor and Newton to ensure quality. Buying online is a great way to save money on the usual hefty markups found at stores like Michaels.

Tip 3 – Paper. I like to use smooth Bristol paper by Strathmore when drawing with charcoal, but most artists prefer paper with more grain. Most art supply stores will have paper that is formulated specifically for charcoal. Some art stores will sell sample packs of different papers, which I recommend for beginners so you can try different textures and see what you prefer.

Tip 4 – Experiment and practice. There are no rules in art. Experiment and push yourself to achieve whatever your goal is for your finished work. Try different styles, different strokes, and different techniques to find something that works for you.

Tip 5 – Don’t discourage yourself. Drawing with charcoal can be challenging and your first works could very well be disasters. You’re learning. It happens. If something doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to, don’t worry about it. File that drawing away and start a new one.

Tip 6 – Get support. Talking to other people who use the medium can be majorly beneficial when you are starting out. Whether you’re looking for encouragement or advice, the Internet is full of sources for artists to get better acquainted with one another. Feel free to contact me at wendyblacke@gmail.com if you need help with charcoal, or have any questions.


  • Sandpaper (fine grit) is an ideal solution to sharpen vine/willow charcoal and compressed charcoal blocks. Keep the powder left over for shading large areas.
  • Blending tools (blending stumps, facial tissue, cotton swabs, cloth). You may be tempted to use your fingers to blend. Don’t do it! The oil in your skin can cause the paper to yellow over time. This might not matter so much for little pieces you are practicing with, but it’s a bad habit to break if you start to rely on it.
  • Fixative spray should be sprayed on completed works to prevent charcoal transfer, smudging and fading. I use Grumbacher final fixative spray.
  • Kneaded erasers are a great addition to any drawing kit. Use them to quickly clean up your highlights or to lighten areas of your drawing.

Now get started drawing! You will find inspiration everywhere you look. Don’t be afraid to explore a variety of topics and subject matter in your work. If you have any questions about drawing with charcoal, you can always reach me at wendyblacke@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!

Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

With NaNoWriMo 2016 having concluded several weeks ago, I have tucked my keyboard (and my story) away for the month of December. During this most needed stepping-away, I have had ample time to reflect upon the experience and what I’ve learned post-Nano.

On the impossibility of the goal:
Writing 50,000 words in a single month is a daunting task. It’s almost self-defeating to look at it in all its full glory. When midnight strikes and November rolls 30 new days onto your calendar, staring that 50k in the face feels like looking up at Everest. It seems impossible. It seems like it’s something only people without kids can do. It seems like you will have no hope at all if you have a full time job. It seems like if you are successful, you will emerge on the other side a dusty sun-deprived hermit.

Like the ever-wise Vincent Van Gogh once said, “great things are done by a series of small things brought together”, and when you look at NaNoWriMo in the same light, breaking it down into manageable chunks makes it seem doable. A daily word count of 1,667 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

On inconsistent productivity:
I stumbled and I fell during NaNoWriMo. I didn’t end every single day with my 1,667 words packaged up with a neat little bow of celebratory self-praise. Some days were only a few hundred words, and even getting those out was a struggle. It was easy on these days to want to throw in the towel. That was, until I looked at my total word count up to that point and realized that each day was just a drop in the bucket, and that of course some days would be more or less productive than others. Other days I had over 2,500 words, which more than made up for some of the less productive days.

On unfiltered writing:
My previous writings have come from a place of agonizing perfectionism. The reason I’ve struggled with fiction writing in the past is because I spend so much time refining and perfecting each sentence as I write it, that I essentially never get anywhere.

During the month of November, I struggled to keep my inner-editor turned the other way, so that I could just let the words flow pure onto the page. With a hefty goal of 50,000 words in a month, I couldn’t waste precious time messing around with word choice and bogging myself down in the details. My focus was on getting the story out and recognizing that this was not its final form; that it was okay to be imperfect because that is what the editing stage is for.

It worked. It hurt sometimes to leave a sentence looking like garbage but at least I got the story out, and that was what mattered most.

On letting the story breathe:
I started out NaNoWriMo with a rough outline for what my story was going to be. I knew the genre, I had fleshed out the characters a little, and I had most of a plot skeleton just waiting for me to put meat on its bones.

I spent hours prior to NaNoWriMo planning things out, sure that without a plan of action I would flounder and fail.

It only took about a week for nearly my entire plan to derail as the story took on a life of its own. Most of the little details that I wanted to implement were scrapped as the story unfolded. Antagonists became protagonists, the mechanics of how certain things worked completely flipped, characters took on a life of their own and I was completely at their mercy.

On making yourself write:
One of the biggest questions I’ve seen on forums filled with writers, and one of the biggest questions I’ve stared in the face for most of my writing life is: “How do I make myself write?”.

It’s easy to get caught up in looking for some magical formula to cure what is infamously known as “writer’s block”. It sometimes feels like all the prolific writers of the world have a secret they aren’t telling us, but do you know what I learned? I learned there is no secret; you just have to write. It sounds too simple, and I balked at the same advice before I found it myself to be true.

The only way to write, is to write. You just sit down and you do it. You do it even when you don’t feel like it; even when you are depressed, tired, and sick.  You do it even when you don’t have enough time. Speaking of time…

On having the time to write:
One of my biggest excuses during my non-writing periods in life has been “I don’t have time to write”. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer, I bet you’ve said this a time or two. It’s a cop out. You know it. I know it. We all know it. Now, instead of saying you don’t have time, change your wording. Say, “I’m not making writing a priority.” Feels different, doesn’t it? I bet it rings true though, because I guarantee once you make writing a priority, you’ll find the time.

I spent about an hour a day on my novel during NaNoWriMo. I made getting my word goal a priority and by working on it for a few minutes here and there, I was able to reach it most days.

On keeping your story a secret:
One of my favorite books about writing is the aptly titled On Writing by Stephen King. Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to his work, one can’t argue with regard to King’s amazing work ethic. One of the biggest take-aways I’ve had from his memoir on the craft of writing is the closed door practice he enforces in his first drafts. That is, writing the first draft with no input from anyone.

This was one thing I was very protective of during my NaNoWriMo experience. It helped that I was, and am still self-conscious of my fiction-writing abilities. Even giving away a small idea of what my story is about has been difficult.

On stepping away:
Writing a novel brings you necessarily close to the work, which is why it’s important to take some time away from it before going back and judging/editing it. You’re still too close to the story to see it objectively right after completion. I decided to take a month away from my story to work on other things before going back to read it. In January, I will read the entire thing and start making some edits and then write the second draft.

On the experience:
This was the first NaNoWriMo that I ever seriously attempted, and I am both shocked and proud that I was able to complete my goal. The community is incredible. I had so much fun doing word sprints, connecting with other writers, and enjoying all of the positivity surrounding the challenge. I am walking away as a stronger writer with a finished novel that I can now spend time agonizing over and refining until it’s something that I would feel good about publishing.

Don’t be discouraged, either, if you didn’t quite reach the 50,000 words in one month. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that you can create your own goal. Even if you set a goal that you don’t quite complete, you’ll still have more words than you did when you started, and that is something to celebrate.