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

Einstein; Charcoal on paper.

TYPES OF CHARCOAL

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.

PROS AND CONS OF CHARCOAL

Pros

  • 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.

Cons

  • 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.

TIPS FOR THE BEGINNER

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.

RECOMMENDED CHARCOAL ACCESSORIES

  • 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!

Wendy V. Blacke

Artist. Mother. Space Vampire. Horror Buff. Knitter. Makeup Enthusiast. Matriarch. Bookworm. Writer. Lover of oddities and genuine weirdo.

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