Art Blog

Get Your Hands Dirty! The Essentials of Drawing With Charcoal

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

The best supplies for drawing with charcoal

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

Types of charcoal in a carrying case

Vine charcoal

Vine charcoal is an actual piece of charred willow and comes in several softness/darkness varieties. But despite the tonal ranges, 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, which makes for a less messy drawing experience. 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.

In addition to the two types of charcoal, there are other essential tools you’ll need:

Kneaded eraser

Charcoal drawing supplies

This is an eraser with that’s reminiscent of Silly Putty — you can shape it with your fingers and use it in reductive drawings.  While it does erase lines, isn’t as strong as your regular eraser. It’s not going to take up all the charcoal off your page.

To clean the eraser, simply pull it apart and smoosh it back together. You’ll feel like a kid again!

Other erasers

White vinyl erasers are ideal, and pen-shaped erasers offer finer control.

Pencil sharpener

Pencil sharpener for charcoal

Many charcoal pencils are wider than typical drawing pencils, so finding a sharpener with a wider hole is desirable.

Paper stumps (tortillons)

These are great for softening and blending charcoal, and for balancing 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.

drawing supplies

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5 basic techniques for charcoal drawing

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

Charcoal drawing

Secure your paper or sketchpad to a rigid surface before you begin, such as a drawing board with clips. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time holding your drawing still with one hand while drawing with the other.

1. Blending vine charcoal

Basic charcoal drawing 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

Basic charcoal drawing 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

Basic charcoal drawing 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 space.

4. Layering vine and compressed charcoal

Basic charcoal drawing 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. Combining all techniques into one composition

Basic charcoal drawing 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 lines and accent color.

Drawing the human body in charcoal

All media has subjects that suit it best. The human body is beautifully expressed through charcoal — particularly vine charcoal because it gracefully moves along the page to capture the fluidity of movement. 

Step 1:

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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. Start with quick, gestural lines that can be reshaped and refined later.

Step 2:

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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!

Step 3:

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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.

Step 4:

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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.

Step 5:

Drawing the human body in charcoal

At this point, check in with your drawing. Has anything gotten too dark? You can remove some of that value and lighten it up a bit with your chamois, which won’t take away most of it like an eraser would.

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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 the previous step.

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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!

Drawing the human body in charcoal

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.”

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20 Comments

Ryan Travis

Thank you

Reply
Paige Turley

I like this I don’t have all the things but I tried and it turned out pretty well . I love to place a light somewhere on the paper and start drawing letters and using my shading and blending skills I made a really nice affect . I love playing with my pieces of charcoal

Reply
Iphangishor

i love this but i want to know how that paper stump is made because if cant find it in my area

Reply
sarat. Chandra bajaj

Good work and good technique
I am impressed..

An art lover

Reply
Ben Bortier

I thank God for this wonderful program because, people with basic knowledge can learn even better things here.

Reply
Debbie

I have one that is getting old. How do you protect it? How expensive is it to get it protected?

Reply
...M...

You can buy both workable fixative, or permanent fixative if you’re completely finished working on it. All drawing fixatives should already have a matte finish so that the texture of your work stays intact.You can get a can (aerosol) online, in any art supply store or a craft store, like Michaels- in the art supply/drawing painting section of the store. It will prevent fading, smudges, and any yellowing of the paper. I think acid free paper, like Strathmore, doesn’t yellow over time. Hope that helps… M

Reply
...M...

Fixative usually cost between 6-9$ you can get it online at dickblick.com (hmm that sounds dirty-swear it’s not tho…)for $5.90.

Reply
Debb Womack

I use tiny and small paintbrushes, a shaper for clay work,erasers that fit atop a pencil, a pencil that has an eraser instead of graphite, sandpaper and charcoal pencils. For brands I use Generals, Derwent, Caran D’Ache, Gretacolor, Conte and Downer Raley. The variations of say “the softs” allows for multiple degrees of light shades. I also use a compressed 3″ stick of hard charcoal that I rub on to the sandpaper. I then paint the charcoal on to a light drawing from the sandpaper. I use the shaper and erasers to remove some of the charcoal “paint.”

Reply
gail lankshear

wow… very informative….

Reply
SIVUYILE

THANK YOU VERY UCH. I AM NEW ON CHARCOAL

Reply
Shar

Great article! Charcoal and graphite are my two favorite drawing media 🙂 Do you use charcoal pencils, and if so what are the differences between the solid charcoal and the pencil? Also what is the best type of fixative to use that is non-yellowing, and that won’t damage the artwork? Here’s an example of my drawing with the charcoal pencil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skTJULsh2qo
I’d love to know what you think!!
-Thanks

Reply
jdoys

nice !

Reply
Kai'

When I was in art college [back in the early 80’s] we were given to money saving tips for charcoal drawing.
1 – When drawing outdoors, use bread as an eraser because it could be fed to any seagulls hanging around. Update it to biodegradable but check before giving it to the birds to eat, many places ban feeding them because of the mess they make.
2 – Cheap hairspray makes a good fixative.

Reply

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