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The Exercise of Drawing in Charcoal

Updated on August 5, 2019
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.



Many novice artists steer clear of charcoal because it is so soft, easily broken, and hard to control. However, with a little practice, you will find the benefits of charcoal for drawing. Here are a few reasons I like to work in charcoal and hints to make it easier to understand.


Why Draw?

Drawing helps us to analyze and solve problems. It causes us to face taking risks. Your first lines in a drawing aren’t going to be perfect. That’s why we usually put them down lightly, knowing we will change them with several more lines that are more accurate. We are visually tapping into imagination and problem-solving design elements that all people have inside them. If you can doodle, you can draw.

“I’ve been 40 years discovering that the Queen of all colours is black.”

— Auguste Renoir

Value is Key

In a value scale, there are 5 values from darkest shadows to the lightest highlight. If you want to you can break it down further to 9 values. The odd number is really important because your middle tone will be found in the middle and should be 50% dark 50% light. That makes sense. When working from a color photo it is sometimes helpful to eliminate the saturation in a photo program like Photoshop, so that it appears black and white. It helps you see the dark and light tones easier. Red often appears lighter than it actually is and blue sometimes appears darker than it actually is in black and white. Those are just some things to consider.


Charcoal vs Graphite Pencil

I realize that many pencil artists don’t like charcoal because it can be messy and hard to store. For that matter, so can graphite pencils. The problem with graphite pencils is that they photograph so poorly. You worked for hours and days on one drawing, seeing it as dark and rich but when photographed or scanned it appears silvery grey and not black at all. Charcoal isn’t like that. The black stays black forever. Photograph it, scan it, and you get a lovely deep rich black and white image. After that storing is such a huge problem. Most of my charcoal drawings are for exercise and not for permanent display anyway. But those that are keepers, I keep in large plastic sleeves that keep it from smearing or contaminating anything it’s near with black smudges.



Most drawing paper works fine with charcoal. I remember working on butcher paper as well. However the best charcoal drawings I get when I use toned paper. I love using a soft grey paper with a little tooth that is midway between white and black. The tooth in the paper is a little texture. You don’t want too much texture as in pastel paper because the charcoal cannot fill in the spaces very well and makes it look grainy. When working with a 5-value system, white is one and black is five. In between that are shades of grey. When you use grey paper the middle grey is already taken and all you have to do is block in the darkest darks and lightest lights.

I like using charcoal white. Some people call it a white Conte crayon, but whatever the name it works really well. The only problem is that the white cannot go over the black. They should never crossover. They don’t mix well and instead create a terrible muddy grey that wrecks the whole image. To keep this from happening I always clean up the area where the white will go with a kneaded gum eraser first and put the white on last.

“Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.”

— Paul Klee

Build Up The Shadows

Starting with the lightest of the charcoal pencils, the HB Charcoal Pencil, I remap the face that I already blocked in with the soft vine charcoal. There is a reason for this. The vine charcoal is very easy to erase with a kneaded gum eraser, whereas the darker charcoal pencils are harder and harder to lift from the paper. Once you have made sure the drawing has the right dimensions and is following the reference well, you can retrace the face with the HB making corrections where needed. You can still lift the HB marks from the paper if one goes awry but not as easily and the vine charcoal.

Next, switch to the 2B, which has double the amount of charcoal to clay ratio. The marks will be darker and more permanent. This is where I block in the deep shadows like under the nose, in the hair, the pupil of the eyes and the corners of the mouth. Then I go to the 4B pencil to get even deeper and darker black marks, making sure I don’t cover up any areas that need to stay white for the highlights. Clean them up with your kneaded gum eraser first before laying in the white. Go light with the pencil at first and build up the white to very thick in the whitest highlights, like on the ball of the nose, the forehead and the glint in the eye. If the light is from above, resist the temptation to lighten the chin very much. The reason is that highlights bring the thing forward. The chin needs to stay down not come forward more than the nose and forehead if you get my meaning.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Beyond that is practice. Identify the areas you feel you need help or work in and practice those areas over and over. The more you work on them the stronger you get at seeing the subtleties of those items: it could be ears that give you trouble, or noses, or hair. I found hands were my downfall and I forced myself to draw 100 hands, one per day for 100 days. At the end of three months, I felt more confident and more at ease drawing hands. Try it and see how you do.


Have you ever tried Charcoal for drawing?

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My friend, Lu.
My friend, Lu. | Source

Sharpening Charcoal Pencils

You don’t handle charcoal like it’s a regular pencil. It is too soft for that. You can’t choke up on the point and noodle with it. You are supposed to sharpen it so that a large part of the charcoal (half an inch or more) is available, hold the pencil at the end and draw with the side of the sharpened edge, not the point. Holding it at the end keeps you from putting too much pressure on the soft charcoal and breaking it. This way it cannot be sharpened with a conventional pencil sharpener. You have to get an Exacto knife or razor to sharpen it with and then make a point using sandpaper. Pulling the pencil gives you a nice thin line while brushing the pencil sideways gives you a soft wide mark. Try it.

A study in nail polish bottles.
A study in nail polish bottles. | Source

Final Thoughts

I love this process of drawing and exercise. I like to draw every day to keep my skills sharp. Like any muscle, it will grow weak and flabby if not used often.


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