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Drawing with Charcoal

February 21, 2010

drawing-with-charcoalIf the pencil is sturdy, reliable and precise, charcoal is like its wild counterpart: bold, daring and dramatic. Blacker than any pencil and rich in texture, drawing with charcoal is an altogether different experience.

Don’t get me wrong: charcoal is a versatile medium and you can achieve extremely sensitive, realistic drawings using it. There is just something about taking up that messy stump of charcoal that frees us to get big, expressive and gestural.

Types of Charcoal

Charcoal comes in a few different forms. You can get pressed charcoal that comes as a compressed stick. These can be hard, producing a grayer shade, or soft and very deep black. The softer the charcoal, the easier it will be to smudge. This is the kind of charcoal that will get your hands, your paper, and quite possibly your clothing and face dirty.

This pressed charcoal also comes in pencil form. This can be useful for detailed drawings because you can sharpen it to a fine point. It’s also much less messy!

A third type of charcoal is willow or vine charcoal. This comes in the form of an actual branch: it’s long, cylindrical and wiggly. Willow charcoal is very soft and produces a delicious dove grey. It has one of the nicest textures to draw with, but is also very smudgy.

Why Charcoal?

Charcoal functions in much the same way as a pencil. You can draw, shade and blend. But there’s something psychologically different about using charcoal. It allows you to get more expressive and work bigger without getting caught up in the details. Charcoal sticks especially, because they don’t have a fine point, can force you to focus on large shapes and general contours.

 What to Draw

You can draw and shade anything in charcoal the same way you would a pencil. Charcoal also lends itself well to more expressive types of shading like hatching.

My favorite thing to do with charcoal, though, is gesture drawings. Charcoal is perfect for making the large, sweeping strokes needed to capture a gesture.

It’s always nice to have a variety of drawing tools to choose from. The pencil is perfect for detailed renderings, but when it comes to expressive drawings I always reach for the charcoal!

Please share your experiences! Do you prefer pencil or charcoal? Does it depend on what you’re drawing?


From → Drawing

  1. I have to admit to myself that I’ve always loved much more than anything. in the past I have taken some art classes that required the use of charcoal and had lots of troubles. just this summer time I have gotten back to experience with vine charcoals. The difference I found this time was that while drawing bodies or faces I had problems, but when drawing still life, I have better chances to achieved something better.

    It’s messy, and as you explained, body and clothes can get dirty, I dislike that part but for some results it works good.

    • Henry, glad to hear the charcoal is starting to work out for you. It definitely takes a different technique than pencil or ink. Keep it up!

  2. I prefer charcoal because it is so versatile. You can get the very dark black like you mentioned but you can also get very light. You can blend and get very soft, too. I use it for detail work, though, and I prefer the charcoal pencils which I can sharpen (and not get my hands so messy!).

  3. Kat permalink

    Hi Miranda

    I’ve used charcoal before on a whim, and ended up impressing myself immensly! Even though you mention that charcoal is very good and more suited to “gesture” type drawing, I managed to render a pair of ballet shoes almost super-realistically! I will admit that doing fine, sharp edges can get difficult, but that’s where the pressed “pencil” form of charcoal comes in handy, and the eraser to lift the highlights out.
    Anybody that struggles with blending and shading – just try charcoal once, and you will be blown away by the ease of use!

    Thanks for a wonderful website!!!

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