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drawing with charcoalOne of the first techniques taught to students attending art school is drawing with charcoal. Charcoal has a unique look and texture when applied to paper that is perfect for allowing a beginning artist to perfect their technique and practice their craft. And while there are many different types of pencils, chalks, and crayons used by artists when sketching charcoal often remains a favorite for many people, due to its versatile nature. If you’re just learning how to draw, consider expanding your mediums to include charcoal and explore the many possibilities it presents.

Drawing with Charcoal

New artists are often encouraged to begin drawing with charcoal as soon as start life drawing. This is because charcoal is ideal for making a variety of different lines very quickly. You can smudge charcoal with your fingers or some paper to shade it, remove small sections quickly for highlights, or use an edge to create a hard line. Because new artists often have to practice drawing the same lines over and over again, using a versatile tool like charcoal allows the artist to produce a variety of effects to get the desired style quickly and without needing to take the time to select and reselect materials. Charcoal also applies to the paper with little pressure, so the artist is able to work quickly and for long periods of time without fatigue. If you’re taking a course in drawing for the first time, you may want to invest in some charcoal as your drawing medium to accelerate your learning process.

Selecting the Charcoal and Materials

Just like other mediums, charcoal comes in several different varieties. Each has its own attributes; which one you ultimately choose will depend largely on personal preference.

Hard or Soft

Just like pencils, charcoal comes in a variety of different hardness ratings. The harder the charcoal you use, the lighter the line it will produce on the paper. Some people prefer to use very soft charcoals for their ability to blend or make deeper lines, while others prefer to use a medium rating that lies between hard and soft.

Pencils are rated for hardness with a number and letter – H for hard and B for soft. 3H is often the hardest, and 3B the softest. HB is the center rating that is between the two extremes.

In charcoal, HB is the hardest, while 6B is the softest. Keep in mind that softer charcoals will produce darker lines and be easier to smudge, but harder charcoals will make a cleaner, sharper edge. Depending upon your preferred style and technique, you may find that you have a preference for one over another. For example, if you prefer to cross hatch, you’ll get better results from an HB charcoal, but if you like to smudge with paper and highlight with an eraser, you’ll find it easier to use a 4B to 6B charcoal.

Vine Charcoal

Charcoal doesn’t have to be compressed into a stick or placed in a pencil, sometimes you can use a piece of charcoal that is made from burned sticks or other items.

Vine charcoal is a popular drawing medium that is sold in long sticks. It’s made of charred pieces of grape vine and has a long, thin and slightly curving shape. Vine charcoal is a little bit harder than compressed charcoal, as well as being more delicate. It’s perfect for creating very light, fine lines and shading throughout a drawing.


Working with charcoal can get dirty, particularly if you are using the softer varieties. For this reason, many people choose to use a holder made of either plastic or metal for the charcoal. This is also ideal for making your charcoal piece a little longer, which can extend its life, while making it easy to hold.

Kneaded Eraser

There are numerous types of erasers that work well with charcoal, but the kneaded eraser is one of the best. A kneaded eraser is very soft, and can be molded and manipulated by kneading it like dough or clay. It can be used in two different ways; as a traditional eraser to remove a section of the charcoal and create a highlight, and as a smudging tool to blend some of the charcoal into lighter, finer areas.

Paper Cone or Rolled Paper

While charcoal can be smudged with your finger tips, or with a kneaded eraser, you may find it helpful to have a paper cone or a piece of rolled paper at your disposal as well. The paper cone is used to smudge and blend the charcoal, but unlike the eraser will not remove any from the page. This is perfect for creating shadows and shading without having to add additional marks to the page.

Chalk or Conte Crayon

While removing a section of the charcoal is a great way to create a highlight on the page, it isn’t the only way. Some people prefer to add highlights to the page using a different, complementary medium, rather than removing some of the charcoal. To do this, they often use a piece of white chalk or a Conte crayon. Conte crayons also come in black, and can be used to supplement or complement your charcoal drawing as well.

Drawing Paper

Most new artists find that drawing on newsprint is the most economical way to produce the quantity of drawings they need to in order to perfect their technique. Newsprint is also a good paper for working with the charcoal medium; it allows the charcoal to produce a variety of marks, but also smudges very easily because the paper is so smooth.

In addition to newsprint, you may also find that charcoal paper works well for you. Charcoal paper has a very fine-ribbed texture that takes the color of the charcoal well. It also smudges easily, but creates a harder, more brittle line drawing than a smoother paper will. Plain white paper is also a good alternative for those that are just starting out.

You may want to experiment with different papers using charcoals of varying hardness until you find a combination that works for your style.

Work Area

Charcoal drawings are fairly dark, particularly when you are learning to smudge, which can make details and highlights difficult to see in shadow. Make sure that your work area is well lit so that you can make out the details easily.

Keep in mind that the best technique when learning to draw with a new medium, such as charcoal, is to work on a vertical surface. You are less likely to drag your arm or the side of your hand through your drawing when working vertically rather than on a horizontal surface. This is particularly helpful when working with charcoal, simply because it smudges and smears so easily that any brushing of your hand across the surface will result in smudging. Using an easel is an ideal way to get the practice you need without unnecessary smudges.

Steps for Drawing with Charcoal

Once you have your materials, and the subject that you intend to draw, try using some of these tips to get the most out of your drawing session.

Identify Geometric Shapes

Anything from people to fruits and vegetables can be broken down into basic geometric shapes. When you begin to draw, sketch in these shapes lightly, making sure they stay in proportion to one another. By working lightly, you can erase easily if your shapes are not lining up properly.

Be sure to sketch the entire figure or scene at one time. You will go back in and work the individual areas with detail later.

Create Your Contours

Of course while objects and people can be reduced to shapes, you will need to go back in and create more realistic contours or edges. Take your time, and clean up the edges or overall shape of each object or area of your drawing to help it become clearer.

Add Your Shadows

At this time, you will want to begin working with light and dark. Try smudging your charcoal into the shadows of the design. This is what will give your drawing that three dimensional shape that helps to bring it to life. Remember that when working with charcoal, you only need to apply a little, and then smudge. Using a paper cone will help you spread your charcoal over a larger area, as well.

Add Your Details

Now is the time to go back into your drawing and add the little details that will help complete it and make your people or objects recognizable for themselves and not as mere generics.

Start Drawing

Drawing with charcoal is an easy technique to pick up, simply because the medium is so forgiving. It’s a good medium for beginners to learn before moving on to others such as paint. Once you get acquainted with charcoal drawing, you may want to take a course in anatomy to learn to apply it more effectively, as well as courses in painting and mixed media to allow you the freedom of applying what you learned in new and different ways. Start drawing with your charcoal today and see what new worlds you can open up.

Page Last Updated: May 2014

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