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5 Basic Charcoal Techniques All Beginners Should Know

Charcoal is one of the most basic tools for drawing. Like the pencil, it has its own set of advantages and challenges. To get the most out of the medium, you can learn a few basic charcoal techniques for beginners to start sketching with confidence.

Charcoal Techniques

Generally, charcoal is great for sketching; it comes in a variety of weights that allow you to move your hand quickly over a page, blend with ease and translate fine details when necessary. 

To use the most common charcoal drawing techniques, you’ll need a few essential charcoal supplies.

First, you need a few types of charcoal.

Charcoal comes in two distinct forms: vine and compressed. It’s important to know the difference between them.

From left to right: vine charcoal, compressed black charcoal, and compressed white charcoal

Vine charcoal

Vine charcoal is a soft stick that’s very light; it practically weighs nothing and will move easily on the page. Because it’s so light, you’re won’t get deep darks. Instead, you’ll want to use vine charcoal for gesture drawings and for blending. 

Compressed charcoal

Compressed charcoal is more like a pencil — in fact, it often comes in pencil form! Here, the charcoal is packed very tightly. It’s hard to blend it and hard to erase. Compressed charcoal works best for fine details and for when you want a rich shadow.

You can also find white compressed charcoal, which works well for highlights and accents. 

Another essential tool is a kneaded eraser.

Kneaded eraser

This is an eraser with that’s reminiscent of Silly Putty — you can shape it with your fingers and use it in reductive drawings. To clean the eraser, simply pull it apart and smoosh it back together. You’ll feel like a kid again! 

5 charcoal techniques you need to know

Once you have vine charcoal, compressed charcoal and a kneaded eraser in your toolbox, you can start trying three easy charcoal drawing techniques. Then, you can combine them into more interesting compositions. Experiment on paper that’s got some tooth to it, but is in between being smooth and rough. 

1. Blending vine charcoal

Vine Charcoal Basic Charcoal Techniques

Vine charcoal works great as a base for your drawing; you can cover your composition with charcoal and smooth it into the paper with your fingers. Then, you can layer more charcoal on top or erase it.

2. Line drawing with compressed charcoal  

Compressed Charcoal Charcoal Techniques

Compressed charcoal is best left for fine lines, intricate details and achieving rich blacks. Because the charcoal is so densely packed, it doesn’t move as easily as vine charcoal. While you can sketch with it, compressed charcoal is not ideal for quick drawings where your hand needs to move at lightning-fast speeds. Rather, it’s best for works where you consider each and every line — especially since compressed charcoal is hard to erase. 

3. Drawing with a kneaded eraser

Eraser Drawing Charcoal Techniques

Have you ever tried to draw with an eraser? The kneaded eraser is perfect for it! First, create a base layer with the vine charcoal; then use your eraser to remove some of the pigment, creating an image with negative spac.e

This tool won’t remove lines as cleanly as a conventional eraser will, but it can pick up excess vine charcoal. I like to fashion it into a tip and use it like a reverse pencil. 

4. Layering vine and compressed charcoal

Charcoal Techniques

Start by drawing with vine charcoal as your base. Blend it with your finger. Then, draw your more precise subjects with your compressed charcoal. For a special accent, use white compressed charcoal. 

5. Combing all techniques into one composition

Charcoal Techniques

Here’s where charcoal is at its most powerful. When you combine vine, compressed and a kneaded eraser, you have the greatest control of your subject. You can approach this in a number of ways, but start by blending vine charcoal into your page. Then, using your kneaded eraser, “draw” your image by lifting the charcoal away. Finish the composition with the compressed charcoal by adding fine line and accent color. 

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in January 2018.

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