Introduction to Drawing With Charcoal

Posted by on Aug 26, 2013 in Painting | Comments


When it comes to black and white drawing, no other medium is as rich and satisfying as charcoal. The velvety darks and the ability to create loose, gestural marks are what make charcoal so unique.

Let’s take a look at the basics of drawing with charcoal.

Drawing Materials Laid out On Table

These are a few of the basic materials you need to get started with drawing in charcoal.

  • Vine charcoal (center) — This is an actual piece of charred willow, and comes in several softness/darkness varieties. Easily erasable.
  • Compressed charcoal — These usually come in bar form, and are generally much darker than vine charcoal, though they also come in several varieties of softness/darkness. Not easily erased.
  • Charcoal pencils — This is compressed charcoal in pencil form. It’s a little less messy, and can be sharpened to a fine point.
  • Erasers — While I prefer white vinyl erasers, others often choose kneaded erasers because of the lack of debris. I also like pen-shaped erasers for finer control.
  • Pencil Sharpener — A lot of charcoal pencils are wider than typical drawing pencils, so finding a sharpener with a wider hole is desirable.
  • Paper stumps — These are great for softening and blending charcoal, and for evening out your values.
  • Chamois – this soft leather square can also soften value fields, and is good for lightening areas of charcoal that have become too dark.

Now, follow this step-by-step tutorial and try drawing with charcoal yourself!

Step 1:

When you start a charcoal drawing, it’s best to work vertically on an easel or drawing horse. This allows the charcoal dust to fall away, and lets you see the whole drawing without any distortion or foreshortening like you might see if working on a flat surface.

Make sure to secure your paper or sketchpad to a rigid surface before you begin, such as a drawing board with clips, or you will be spending a lot of time holding your drawing still with one hand while drawing with the other.

Blank Drawing Pad Attached to Drawing Board

Step 2:

Lay out the basic shapes with a stick of vine charcoal. Because it can be erased easily, it’s great for rough sketching before more permanent marks are made. I like to start with quick, gestural lines that can be reshaped and refined later.

Beginning Sketch of Nude from Behind

Step 3:

With the edge of your compressed charcoal, start laying in values. Pay attention to where the light source is in your source image or subject. Don’t get too dark just yet!

Sketch of Nude from Behind, Shadows Added

Step 4:

Sometimes the strokes and marks of compressed charcoal are desirable, and sometimes they aren’t. With your paper stump, you can start smoothing and blending some of your values to get more even tones, as well as extend your marks a bit further without directly applying charcoal.

Pencil Shading Arm of Nude

Step 5:

Continue applying charcoal and blending/smoothing with the paper stump as you go. Notice how addressing the negative space around the figure helps establish the highlights along her back and hips.

Zeroing in on Negative Space

What is negative space, and how can we understand its use in art? View our recent blog post on Understanding Positive and Negative Space to learn more about the attributes of positive and negative space, and how to incorporate the principles of each into your work.

Sketch of Nude from Behind, Textured Further

Tip: Has anything gotten too dark? You can remove some of that value with your chamois, and lighten it up a bit, but without taking most of it away like an eraser would.

Hand Blending with Chamois

Step 6:

Pull back any areas that have gotten too dark with the chamois, or use it to blend and smooth the background values.  Here you can see the values in the legs and buttocks are lighter than in Step 5.

Sketch of Nude from Behind, Shaded, Blended

Tip: To create crisp hard-lined highlights and value shapes, use quick assertive strokes with your eraser. Be careful not to keep working over the area or it could smudge!

Eraser Creating Lines in Nude's Hair

Step 7:

Don’t overwork! Use your best judgment to determine when your drawing is finished. One of the best qualities of charcoal is how it allows you to leave some parts of a drawing unrefined and sketchy while developing other areas more fully. Think about where you’d like to keep your drawing loose and gestural, and where you want it more “finished.”

Finished Sketch of Nude from Behind

Now, go out and explore the possibilities of charcoal drawing! Just remember to wash your hands afterwards. It can get a bit messy!

For further instruction on drawing, check out our Drawing Classes!

What would you like to try drawing with charcoal?

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