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Drawing with Graphite vs Charcoal

Updated on March 23, 2009

I love 'em both!

I love drawing...I have a passion for it...though I haven't drawn all my life, I feel like I have. The biggest problem is figuring out what I love drawing WITH the most. It's like a kid being let loose in FAO Schwartz to play with whatever she wants to. I love finding new things to draw with and figuring out how to use them. Graphite pencils were what I "cut my teeth on". And then I discovered colored pencils - of which there's a great variety. Then I tried pastels, charcoal and conte crayons. I've dabbled in painting, but really haven't felt the "connection" with them like I do these dry mediums.

Though I use pastels and colored pencils, in this lens I'm only going to discuss graphite pencils and charcoal. I really love the challenge of making a colored photograph come to life by the use of one color (black), using dark to light values to convey skin tones, highlights and shadows. I will discuss the history and some technical stuff for both, and then I'll talk about my opinions and preferences...and I'd like to hear about yours.


The History and Other Interesting Tid-bits

Did you know that the core of a pencil is not really lead, though we call it that? Lead was used in early styluses. The core of a pencil is actually made from nontoxic graphite. Graphite started being used following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. Graphite left a darker mark than lead, but was so soft and brittle that it required a holder. At first, sticks of graphite were wrapped in string. Later, the graphite was inserted into wooden sticks that had been hollowed-out by hand! The wood-cased pencil was born.

Interesting tid-bit: The first mass produced pencils were not painted. They wanted to show off the wood casings, but soon they started painting the casings. And the reason that most hexagon shaped pencils are yellow is because in the 1800's the best graphite came from China and the color yellow represented a regal feeling associated with China.

You can now get artist graphite pencils in a full range of densities ranging from 9B (softest) to 9H (hardest)...with the softest making the darkest marks. You can also find it in large chucks for covering large areas.


The History and other interesting tid-bits

In early years charcoal was used as a preliminary tool to sketch quickly. It was much too easily smudged and was very messy, so it was normally painted over or drawn over with other media.

Charcoal can be obtained in sticks, pencils, chunks, vine and compressed charcoal. Most artists prefer vine or willow charcoal - which is made by burning wood into soft, medium and hard consistencies. It's easy to use and is versatile. Willow charcoal can come thin or very thick.

Compressed charcoal is not as messy as the uncompressed vine and willow charcoal. It is made with charcoal powder mixed with gum binder compressed into round or square sticks. It comes in different hardnesses like graphite.

You can also get charcoal in pencil form with a variety of hardnesses as well - better used with a thicker, sturdier paper. These can be bought individually or in sets.

And lastly you can get charcoal in chunks for covering large areas.

My Preference - the pros and cons of graphite

What I like and dislike about each

This is where I give my opinion...I like them both. It's like trying to choose which of your children you love more. It's impossible!!! However, I will try to give my opinion of the pros and cons of each.

* The Pros of Graphite: This was my first drawing usually is for most artists...Graphite has such a smooth even feeling and it is so much easier to get the detail desired in some works of art, especially portraits. I think graphite blends well. Whether using a blending stump or just using a gradation of hard to soft in order to blend, they can easily make your subject have a life-like or photo-like appearance. Pencils are also easy to hold and use without being messy. They are easily transportable and don't require much else when you want to head out to the park to draw or sketch.

* The Cons of Graphite: There aren't many to me. If using a kneaded eraser to pick out highlights, graphite is not as forgiving. If you make a mistake or get pencil marks on your paper where you didn't intend to, it can be difficult to erase it. And one other thing that I'm not as crazy about is that it's hard to get dark areas as dark as I want without becoming shiny.

My Preference - the pros and cons of charcoal

What I like and dislike about each

* The Pros of Charcoal: I love the "feeling" I get when using charcoal. It's goes onto the paper so easily that you feel you can freely swipe your paper and draw the world! (Boy, did that sound corny?) I like the vine and willow form of charcoal, personally. You can use your sanding block to make it nice and sharp or use the side for a broader stroke. It's really easy to manipulate. And one of my most favorite things about charcoal is the darkness you can achieve with it. When I want a dark black, it obliges me without becoming shiny like graphite.

* The Cons of Charcoal: Charcoal is very sensitive. When I'm drawing with graphite I can easily work without worrying about smudging my work. My hand can rest about anywhere on the paper, if I'm careful. However, Charcoal isn't as forgiving. I feel that my hand is doing acrobatics to keep from smudging anything. Almost like "Twister for fingers". And I'm always worried about my 10 year old getting too close to my artwork and brushing against it or touching it.

In Conclusion

In the end, I really enjoy both of these tools when drawing. They are so different and are both fun to work with. I think determining which one I want to work with has to do with either my mood or the subject that I'm drawing. (And sometimes the size of the artwork. - because graphite is easier to get detail done and charcoal is best with larger and free flowing work - as in the dog I'm drawing in the picture above).

Are you an artist and have a preference? Or are you an art fan and know which you like better? Tell me what you think.

What's Your Opionion? - Which do you prefer & why?

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Beautiful work. Try the carbon pencil if you haven't already, it's a mixture of charcoal and graphite.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I put a piece of tracing paper under my hand - while I am drawing - it minmizes the smudges

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      the shiny graphite thing drives me mad as well!!

    • Darla Dixon profile image

      Darla Dixon 5 years ago

      Love your work!

    • efcruzarts profile image

      efcruzarts 6 years ago

      nice lens infos for charcoal pencil

    • CherylsArt profile image

      Cheryl Paton 6 years ago from West Virginia

      I'm an artist, and use mostly color pencil when I draw, but wanted to check out some info on charcoal. Thanks for the tips.

    • Morgannafay profile image

      Morgannafay 6 years ago

      You have some wonderful graphite and charcoal drawings by the way. I love to draw with both. I also like to draw with both on the same drawing. Graphite goes over charcoal beautifully, but not the other way around. I'm just getting into the carbon pencils too, but I haven't worked with them enough yet to get a comparison on those.

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 7 years ago from Nashville, TN

      My preference is both with a little carbon pencil mixed in here and there. I love the realism and texture and depth it gives when combing these three pencils. Lensrolling over to my "How to Draw: Drawing toolkit" lens

    • jnstewart profile image

      John Norman Stewart 7 years ago from Cottonwood, CA

      I tend to like graphite better because I feel more in control of it. Charcoal tends to be free though, but messier. Nice lens. Have a Happy New Year!

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 7 years ago from Nashville, TN

      I love to use carbon with my graphite and charcoal. Between the three, it is great. I have tried using just one medium a drawing, and I just cannot seem to do it. I always end up using all three.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Very nice comparison! I like both of them as well. What I love about charchoal is that I can create dramatic light and dark contrast and a very paintierly drawing much more quickly. But most of the time I prefer graphite, which allows me to work on details easily. I am the kind of person that enjoy working on a single piece for 5 or 6 hours and its details.

      My favorite drawing media is-- instead of graphite pencil-- pen, with which you can create tone in the same way you do with a graphite pencil-- I mean, hatching. Of course you can't do blending in a pen drawing. Also with a pen you can get really black areas that a graphite pencil can never create, kind of compensating one of the disadvantages of graphite you mentioned.

    • mellancaster profile image

      mellancaster 7 years ago

      Wow our lenses are very similar: both started in our 30's, both have name "mel" both had relatively no experience, and both just love to draw! It is very eerie how similar we are. My lens is Learning to draw a beginner's quest

    • Joy Neasley profile image

      Joy Neasley 7 years ago from Nashville, TN

      wow. I love the drawing with the dog above. I also love both Charcoal and graphite. People are always asking me when I am going to add color. I tell them maybe when I have perfected my drawing with graphite and charcaol (which we know is a lifetime endeavor). I prefer the challenge of the black and white. It seems to be more of a challenge to draw and create a realistic image.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Very nice charcoal work.

      Great lens. Rated it 5 stars.

    • melmail44 profile image

      melmail44 8 years ago

      [in reply to Lonnie] Thank you, I will be showing more. It won't compare to yours, but I am certainly inspired!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      Thank you for stopping by my lens! You also have great art work! Looking forward to seeing more of your art.