Burned Wood and Cave Walls: A Guide to Charcoal Drawing Materials and Techniques

From the time that prehistoric man first took burned wood and drew on cave walls, artists have turned to charcoal for its unique feel, versatility, and rich, deep blacks. Few mediums lend themselves to such direct and powerful expression.

Charcoal is also very inexpensive to use. Masterpieces have been created with little more than a sheet of paper and a stick of charcoal. There’s something very satisfying and rewarding about making art from such simple materials.

While I first learned about charcoal in college using just the cheapest Alphacolor sticks and an eraser, over the years I’ve learned the ins and outs of this beautiful medium. Like paint, there are many options when it comes to materials and techniques, each with its own particular effects and charms. Knowing the options can help you choose the right tool for the drawing at hand.

Types of Charcoal

Charcoal comes in two types: vine charcoal or compressed. Vine charcoal is made from fine grained wood like willow and usually found in long, thin sticks. It’s graded as soft, medium, or hard. Vine charcoal goes on lightly, tending more towards grays than deep blacks. The softer grades smudge and erase beautifully but tend to powder or dust off the paper making it a bit more fragile. It’s ideal for initial stages in a drawing or for areas that will remain lighter in value.

Compressed charcoal is made by grinding charcoal and compressing it into sticks with a binder like clay. Compressed charcoal gives rich, deep blacks, goes on smoothly, and tends to adhere to paper more instead of dusting off. Compressed charcoal can be a very bold, intense black and often takes some practice to learn to develop a softer touch. You can find compressed charcoal in square or round sticks and often in different grades similar to pencils (HB, 2B, 4B, etc.) with the softer grades (3B and up) being very black. I love the Conte round sticks of compressed charcoal, but also regularly use the inexpensive square Alphacolor Char-Kole sticks and the softer, round sticks from Richeson or Yarka. Laying a stick of charcoal on its side is a great way to fill in large charcoal areas or to focus on large, sweeping gestures, while the sharp edges are excellent for fine lines and details.

Combining vine and compressed charcoal in a drawing can give you the entire range of value from the lightest gray to the deepest black with every subtle transition between.

In addition to sticks, charcoal is also available in powdered form and as charcoal pencils. Powdered charcoal comes in handy to lay in a middle grey tone across large areas of the paper. You can dust it on or even apply it with a soft brush or cloth.

Charcoal pencils can be useful for fine details towards the end of a drawing, or when a more linear effect is desired. The pencils can be difficult to sharpen and often break in a pencil sharpener. Instead use a razor blade and some sand paper to carve the charcoal pencil to a point. I prefer Ritmo charcoal pencils for their smooth feel and ability to sharpen to a good point, and recently I’ve become a fan of the waxier Giaconda Negro pencils from Koh-i-noor. I often use charcoal pencils on gessoed canvas do the preliminary drawing for my oil paintings. Mistakes can be erased or simply gessoed over prior to adding paint.

Charcoal works well with other drawing media too. I’ll sometimes add other crayons and chalks like Conte Crayons or Nupastels. Both have rich, waxy blacks that don’t dust off at all but are difficult to erase. Nupastels and other soft pastels also offer a wide range of vibrant colors if you’re inclined to experiment.

Combining pencil with charcoal is often overlooked but can yield beautiful results. The graphite pencil provides soft, subtle grays while the charcoal lends the deep blacks graphite doesn’t. Graphite drawings are smooth and slick so sometimes charcoal doesn’t readily adhere to the surface. A light spray of workable fixative helps. Resulting drawings done in this manner can have an extensive and subtle range of values.

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