A Beginner’s Guide to Simple Charcoal Techniques

Many artists begin their creative journey by drawing in charcoal. It’s a quick, versatile medium that lets artists learn the ins and outs of drawing at high speed and at a very low cost. Still, there’s a lot many don’t know about drawing with charcoal, which is why we’re reviewing the common charcoal techniques that’ll come in handy whenever you use this medium.

types of charcoal and their use

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Types of charcoal and their use

There are two types of charcoal: the vine and the compressed one. Usually both types are needed to create a well-rounded drawing, and you can see how they look and interact in the sketches above.

1. Vine charcoal

The vine charcoal is comes in stick form, it’s soft and it blends and breaks easily. It’s mainly used to cover large areas quickly, such as backgrounds or to module the soft transitions of the skin or glass. When blended, a lot of it comes off and usually requires a subsequent layering. Compressed charcoal can be layered over the vine charcoal, but not in reverse.

2. Compressed charcoal

The compressed charcoal comes in stick and pencil forms. It can be black and white. It’s a lot harder to break and to blend, and it has several degrees of softness, usually written on pencils (like soft, extra soft, medium, etc.). The compressed charcoal is great to create the darkest passages, to outline the details and to draw high-contrast images.

3. White charcoal

White charcoal is often used to make the highlights and light tones when drawing on toned or colored paper. Don’t layer white charcoal over black, as the color looks dirty and smudged. Rather, place the lights on completely clean areas and blend selectively.

4. Kneaded eraser

One of the most essential techniques is to layer the vine charcoal and to create soft, light passageways with the kneaded eraser. You can make the highlights, lighten up a specific area or create a texture with this pliable eraser that leaves no residue and maintains a soft edge. Examples include the creation of individual hair strands or grass blades, or wood texture.

5. Layering charcoal

Compressed charcoal can be layered over the vine charcoal, making details over the generally toned areas.

Blending tools, fixatives and techniques

charcoal drawing tools supplies


Drawing with charcoal is best on paper that has some tooth to it so the charcoal adheres to it well. Therefore, avoid drawing on smooth papers. You can even use the pastel colored papers that have texture and accept the multiple layers of the medium.


Blend charcoal with a chamois (soft fabric) or a paper stamp. Many artists also use a piece of paper or their fingers instead. 


Sharpen your charcoal pencils and sticks with a craft knife instead of a regular pencil sharpener, which dulls very quickly.


Erase it with a kneaded eraser for soft edges and lights, with a gum eraser for hard edges and rough mark-making.


Fix charcoal between the layers with a workable fixative. Apply the final fixative for dry media over the finished piece. Don’t inhale it, and spray in a well ventilated room or outdoors.

Charcoal drawing techniques step by step

Drawing in Charcoal step by step

Step 1:

First, draw the general placement of the features and set up the overall contrast of light and dark using the vine charcoal and toned, gray paper.

Step 2:

Use a paper towel that is durable and leaves no residue to blend the entire picture. Create the overall softness, on top of which you’ll layer more pigment multiple times. Keep the lightest areas free of any shading or smudging. Apply a workable fixative before adding more layering.

Step 3:

Begin adding more precise details using the compressed charcoal. If areas are too small, use the charcoal pencil instead of a stick (although the sticks can be turned to a rather sharp point, too). Blend some edges, but not all. A workable fixative is optional at this step.

Step 4:

Work subtle transitions and create some texture in the background; continue layering and blending the vine charcoal in the softer details and using the stick to define sharper and darker edges. When you’re finished done with the black charcoal, add the lightest areas (like some hair strands) and highlights (on her nose, forehead, lips and cheeks). Apply the final spray.

FREE Class: Draw Better Portraits in Charcoal

portrait drawing class

Master simple charcoal drawing techniques that will bring your portraits to life in these online video lessons you can watch anytime, anywhere.Enroll FREE Now »

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