The Finer Points: How to Draw Surface Details With Charcoal

Part of the fun of drawing is the ability to capture detail. Your favorite object, landscape, and even person probably has some characteristic that makes you think, “I’d love to draw that!” And, when you’re drawing from life, you’re going to be faced with something that has a lot of detail.

We’ll learn some easy tips for capturing the most interesting parts of what you’re drawing!

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Take your skills a step further, and try your hand an an expressive charcoal drawing with the Bluprint class Traditional Portrait Drawing Techniques. You’ll get step-by-step expert instruction, including the ability to receive feedback on your work, to help you create gallery-worthy charcoal portraits!

Discover Amazing Portrait Techniques!


whole detail of drawing

I’ve set up a little still life that includes some of my favorite ceramic pieces, including a milk vase that has a lot of little details. For the purpose of this tutorial, I’m going to focus on the vase.

start of drawing

If you’ve ever read my other charcoal tutorial, you’ll know that I work with a combination of vine charcoal (soft, easy to blend) and compressed charcoal (great for outlines but less forgiving). I always start with my vine because it’s easier to erase if I make a mistake. In addition, I’ll also be using a kneaded eraser and a conventional rubber one, as well as a white charcoal pencil for the finishing touches.

vine outline
Vine drawing 2

Step 1: Draw an outline with vine charcoal.

Our first step is to create a contour drawing of the vase using vine charcoal. At this point, we’re not concerned with shading, and just want to draw the outline to figure out placement of details. Look as carefully as you can and record the overall shape of the object and what the defining details are.

We see that the base of the vase is made up of tiny lines that are deep and cast a lot of shadows. While there’s other stuff going on at the top, they are less striking. In order to really draw this likeness, we’ll need to pay closest attention to what people will recognize first.

Vine shading
vine shading
Vine shading progress

Step 2: Carefully shade your drawing with vine charcoal.

Once you have the drawing figured out (don’t rush this step!), it’s time to shade. Start with the lightest areas and work up to the darker tones. Use your fingers to blend and your kneaded eraser to fix and mistakes. Often, I’ll draw with my kneaded eraser into parts I’ve previously shaded.

compressed charcoal

Step 3: Define the details using compressed charcoal.

So you’ve been paying attention to the where the dark darks and light lights are, but now it’s time to really bring them out. Here’s where our trusty compressed charcoal comes in handy. It will give you the hard edge you need to really define the object’s idiosyncrasies and tighten up the overall drawing.

However, be sure to start lightly. As I mentioned before, it can be unforgiving and mistakes are harder to erase. I work from light to dark with the pencil and use it to define any fine lines I wasn’t able to achieve with the vine charcoal.

Cleaning with eraser

Step 4: Refine with your eraser.

Part of a charcoal drawing is erasing because it’s inevitable that there will be smudges. Probably more than one! So, you’ll want to erase to clean up the drawing and also to bring out any highlights or crisp edges. The kneaded eraser will also help you blend any areas that might look uneven.

white charcoal pencil

Step #5: The grand finale — your white charcoal pencil!

You’ve defined and refined, but what about those highlights? Think they could be brighter? Yes! To achieve this, we’ll use a white charcoal pencil to sparingly touch on some of the very lightest parts of your drawing. I wouldn’t recommend it as a crutch, but as a way to accent what you already have.

Entire drawing

So there you have it! Drawing small details can take a while and requires patience, but going slow will help you create a likeness of some of your favorite objects.

What are you going to draw?

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