Drawing pencils are often considered sturdy, reliable and precise. Charcoal, on the other hand, is a wild counterpart: it’s bold, daring and dramatic. It’s much darker than any pencil and has a richness, making drawing with charcoal completely unique experience.

Charcoal is also a versatile medium. While you can create extremely realistic, sensitive drawings with it, there is something about picking up that dusty stump of charcoal that frees us to go big, expressive and gestural.
Charcoal of All Kinds: Charcoal comes in several different forms.

  • The compressed stick, which can can be hard, produces a grayer shade, or soft and very deep black.
  • A softer charcoal is easier to smudge: it’s the one that will get all over your hands, your paper, and probably your clothing and face too!
  • Pressed charcoal also comes as a pencil. This is useful for detailed drawings because it can be sharpened to a fine point. It is also much less messy!
  • Willow or vine charcoal comes actually as a willow stick: it is long, cylindrical and wiggly. Willow charcoal is also very soft and produces a velvety, dove grey. It has a great texture to draw with, but is also very smudgy.

charcoal pencil and vine charcoal

Why I love Charcoal:
Charcoal is used much the same way as a pencil. It’s a tool for drawing, shading and blending, but there is something psychologically different about using charcoal. It lets you get more expressive and work larger without getting stuck in details. Charcoal sticks especially can force you to focus on large shapes and general contours because of their blunt ends.

charcoal figurative drawing nude

Charcoal Drawing Techniques:

  • Charcoal can be used in the same way you use a pencil to draw and shade anything, but it’s best suited to to more expressive types of shading like hatching.
  • Charcoal can also be used to do the preliminary drawings of a painting on canvas.
    • Once you’ve blocked in your shapes and values, spray with a workable fixative and start painting. Turning your charcoal stick on its side and filling in major areas of a subject is a great way to train your brain to see shapes rather than contours.
  • One of my favorite thing to do with charcoal, however, is gesture drawings. It’s the perfect tool for executing the large, sweeping strokes needed to capture a gesture.
    •  Use a nice chunk and a big pad of cartridge paper to get the most out of your drawings.

It is always a good idea to have a variety of drawing tools to choose from. The pencil is great for detailed renderings, but when it comes to expressive drawings I always reach for may stick of charcoal!
Do you prefer drawing with pencil or charcoal?


Guest artist/author Miranda Aschenbrenner is a  fine artist who specializes in graphite drawings. You can visit her blog to learn more about her art tips and drawing techniques. http://www.learntoart.com/

Thank you Miranda for another great guest article! ~Lori

PS. Let’s meet on Twitter and Facebook and Google Plus…and here is my website to view my paintings. ~Lori

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