Charcoal is a dry art technique often made from natural or organic resources like wood. Some vine charcoal is literally made by burning willow. Just like graphite pencils, charcoal can be used on a smooth surface. However, for best results, charcoal should be used on textured paper.

Some vine sticks are made from literally burning willow.
Charcoal is an art medium that is made from natural sources like wood. Photo on VisualHunt

The Freedom Charcoal Offers To Novices

Learning to draw with charcoal is very fun as the key to this style of art is to make big, bold, sweeping movements across your surface, and it doesn’t matter how messy it gets! The various types of charcoal are great for creating highlights and shadows to give the illusion of basic forms and light.

The technique comes in either sticks, which you can break down as you so wish, or in pencil form. As you can imagine, the raw sticks of charcoal offer you more flexibility as you can either draw straight onto your surface, scratch the pigment off of them to blend on the paper, or rub them on their side to create large blocks of colour.

Keeping On Top Of The Mess

While charcoal drawings are intended to look rough and ready, one thing to remember is that you too will get a bit messy - it has that in common with pastel and chalk drawing. If you don’t want to end up with dirty prints all over your clothes, house or, worse, your piece of art, then make sure you keep some cleaning wipes close by and regularly wash your hands.

It can be so disappointing to create a wonderful piece of art that you are really happy with and then ruin it with silly mistakes like leaving grubby fingerprints on it! A blessing is that charcoal doesn't require much, if any clearing up afterwards like paints and clay. You just put your charcoal pencils or sticks away ready for the next drawing session - no having to wash up endless paintbrushes in the sink!

Be careful not to leave dirty fingerprints on your sketch.
Charcoal is a low-maintenance medium but it might leave your hands a bit messy! Photo credit: Scott Woods-Fehr on Visualhunt

Important Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Start

Before you begin to sketch with charcoal, you will need to think about a few things like what you want to draw, what equipment you will need and what surface you will use.

There are three types of charcoal: pencil, vine and stick.

Pencil charcoal offers a finer point and is cleaner to apply, plus pencils come in a range of styles from hard to soft, just like normal pencils. Vine charcoal, meanwhile, is a soft form of the medium that will create very solid black lines, getting inside the grooves of your textured paper.

The last, however, offers the deepest black but it can also come in other colours too. You can find hard or soft charcoal sticks and use them to create the darkest shadows of your piece.

Creating Highlights Using Charcoal

Charcoal is great for drawing large and fast pictures. Many artists taking part in life drawing classes choose to use this as a medium as they can use the powdery, textured finish to reproduce the appearance of curves, shape and light and dark. As an organic material, it is really well suited to creating images portraying nature.

To get a sharp edge in your sketch, hold your charcoal as if it is a normal pencil. By applying more pressure, you can produce darker and more solid lines.

To sketch quickly and fill in the blanks of a large surface, hold your charcoal on its side and slide it left and right, up and down. Depending on your chosen paper, you will end up with blocks of textured colour and maybe even some darker bumps. If you want a smoother and deeper finish to the area, take you can gently wipe the paper with some fabric (a chamois is best).

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Sketching With Charcoal

Start off your drawing by sketching in rough lines to create initial shapes and forms with your sticks. It doesn't matter how the picture looks at this stage, it will help you to get a feel for the size and shape of your subject. Then, continue to build up the dark tones.

Using a chamois to smudge and blend areas gives you some nice mid-grey tones, which you can then build up again with your darker greys and blacks. Once you have a good range of shadows on your piece of work, it is time to create highlights. It may sound a bit strange, but you have to get the darker colours down first before you bring in the lighter ones.

If you squint your eyes, you can see roughly three shades: light, medium and dark. Using a rubber (a soft, kneaded one is best), you can tone down the areas where you want light to come in, which will really make your image come to life. Just like you can use white paint for highlights when drawing in ink, the rubber is your friend for charcoal art. Combine your charcoal sticks with the pencils to create a mixture of sharp and rough markings.


You can create very life-like images with charcoal.
You can create highlights and definition in charcoal drawings by applying pressure and using a rubber to take colour away. Photo credit: Neil Tackaberry on

So when we said that you could create highlights with charcoal, that was a small white lie! You will need a secondary tool like a rubber (or another medium like white chalk) to add this definition in to your shading.

Choosing And Sticking With The Best Brands

You can research the best brands of mediums online or ask someone who has experience using them, but the best way to decide which is right for you is to actually try them yourself. Get a good feel for what they are like to hold, their smell, how smooth the application is and so on. Even the tiniest elements can make a big difference in how happy you are drawing with them.

If you feel comfortable using a particular brand, then you will be more confident and this will be reflected in your drawing.

Canson Mi-Teintes, Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500 Series and Fabriano Tiziano are popular choices of charcoal, while good pencil forms are often from firms that also make coloured pencils or crayons Conte and Faber-Castell Pitt, Grumbacher, Winsor & Newton, Derwent and Coates.

The Benefits Of A Simple Medium For Beginners

One thing to remember is that, as its name suggests, charcoal is a simple and often monotone material. Yet, it can still be used to produce some fantastic pieces of work. Impressive drawings have been created by artists all over the world displaying landscapes and portraits in both traditional and contemporary styles.

If you want to see just how far the technique can be manipulated, search 3D charcoal drawings on your Internet search bar to find clever images that quite literally jump out at you.

You wouldn’t have believed it possible to create such life-like drawings with just your hand and a piece of charcoal!

Another big draw is that charcoal is cheap to buy and is a low-maintenance medium. All you need is some paper, your charcoal pencils or sticks, a chamois and a rubber and you're ready to get started!

Some artists choose to lock their final image in place with a specialist a fixative sprayYou can find this product in most art shops.

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