How to draw with charcoal : What makes charcoal drawing so fascinating?

If graphite’s use in art seems relatively recent (17th century), charcoal’s seems to be much more deeply ingrained in the past. Look at the beautiful drawing of a bison in the cave of Niaux here below to get an idea of the virtuosity of our prehistoric predecessors. Raw, coarse, obscure, velvety, unforgiving, shamanic, spiritual, charcoal is certainly a god of the underground. No wonder it has been used so often to depict awe-inspiring religious scenes in the history of drawing.

Of course, our modern world has done much in the way of demystifying charcoal and making it “just a residue of burning wood”. But is it really just that? For us artists, it seems it can only be a sacred tool. After all, is the charcoal drawing done today, with all its apparent meaningless intentions, very different to that drawing of a bison? I think not. We have the same urge of getting in touch with our deep and shadowy soul. So let’s have a look at charcoal in more detail and see if we can bring back our roots to the surface.  

A few remarks on this useful article. It is not true as it is said that graphite is for detailed exact work and charcoal for expressive work. Charcoal is actually better adapted to exact and very realist work, it just takes more time to master. And it doesn’t have as much drawbacks than graphite.

This charcoal drawing is a at least 14000 years old. It might be that charcoal drawing itself is much older than that. What does that tell you about charcoal as an art? It has been here for so long that it will probably be here for ever.

The truth is something that burns. It burns off dead wood. And people don’t like having the dead wood burnt off, often because they’re 95 percent dead wood.” Jordan Peterson. Once you’re done, save the burnt wood for drawing.

How to draw with charcoal n°1 : What's the best advantage of charcoal for drawing?

Charcoal is a lot darker than graphite. If you’ve used graphite a lot, this will immediately pop to your eyes as soon as you draw with charcoal. But if you don’t have any experience, you might not notice how this at all. In fact, charcoal will get you much closer to those realistic rich black shadows that are seen in nature.

An interesting experiment you can conduct is to fill an empty square with a soft charcoal pencil. Make the fill as dark as you can without damaging the paper. Then repeat the same experience with a soft graphite pencil. You will see how desperately long it takes to build the graphite compared to charcoal and how lighter the end result is.

The video presents one of the darkest pencils I know. But you don’t have to use this one to get very dark. You can use General’s charcoal pencils. Also don’t forget that the Primo pencil is thicker than other pencils and won’t sharpen in usual pencil sharpeners. This video is great because there is a comparison between several brands of charcoal and graphite pencils.

How to draw with charcoal n°2 : Should I use charcoal sticks or charcoal pencils?

Vine or willow charcoal batons, the ones closest to what artists used in the past, don’t have any binder added which makes them it very messy and difficult to control. They can be erased very easily but at the same time they generate a lot of excess charcoal (debris) and don’t stick to the fabric of the paper. While I encourage light drawing for preliminary stages of drawing, I still think mastery of vine charcoal is too difficult for the beginner. That also applies to sketching.

Therefore, I recommend compressed charcoal in pencil form such as General’s charcoal. The binder in them makes them much more adherent to the paper surface. They need to be sharpened regularly with a pencil sharpener to allow control of the marks made on the paper. Some artists prefer sharpening them by hand into “a needle”, which in my view is a waste of time because there are pencil sharpeners that do the job just as good.

The brand most artist use in the US. In Europe these pencils are very hard to find. The best way to get them is on the Internet. I used to buy mine at Sennelier or Boesner shops at very expensive prices. You can find them on Amazon but the cheapest store I’ve found yet is this French store : Les Papiers de Lucas.

This is also a General brand pencil. I’ve found it to be very similar to the General’s charcoal. In Europe, they’re very hard to find and more expensive. You can buy them on Sennelier but your best bet is try to buy the 6 piece Primo Euro Blend charcoal kit which has a B, 3B, HB and a white pencil.

This brand is very fashionable in the American ateliers in Italy. In my experience, B and HB Nitram are harder, warmer and less dark than General’s Charcoal (2B, 4B and 6B). H Nitram is so hard that it barely makes any difference on the paper. In my view, Nitram sticks are more suited to the refined parts of the drawing and can be combined with General’s pencils.

In this video, the artist demonstrates how Nitram charcoal blends more nicely than vine or willow charcoal.

How to draw with charcoal n°3 : What grades of charcoal should I use?

Charcoal doesn’t come in a diverse variety of grades like graphite does. You usually find three grades of pencils in each brand : hard, medium and soft. These grades are not consistent from one brand to the next. For instance, Nitram’s H stick is harder than General’s Charcoal Hard pencil. You can use that to your advantage by combining different grades.

Soft charcoal is used for block-ins and massing in shadows and dark values. Hard pencils are used to refine the drawing and give it a smoother look.

How to draw with charcoal n°4 : What's the best pencil sharpener for charcoal pencils?

If you have had a lot experience sharpening charcoal or pastel pencils, you will know that there are pencil sharpeners that will invariably break and eat pencils. Considering the price of a charcoal pencil, this can be very annoying. You can be tempted to sharpen the pencil yourself with a razor blade or an X-Acto knife. While there are a lot of artists in ateliers that do that, I find it to be extremely messy and the results mediocre. I have found a pencil sharpener that’s very reliable and that rarely breaks my pencils.

Those seeking a good pencil sharpener should buy this one. It is a little expensive but it will last you a long time. I am not a great fan of sharpening my pencils with a blade or razor because it takes a lot of time and doesn’t really improve the pencils’ possibilities.

How to draw with charcoal n°5 : What paper should I use for charcoal drawing?

You should choose your charcoal drawing paper very carefully. Most papers just can’t handle charcoal. While you should experiment a lot, I’ve added here below a video where the artist Nelson Ferreira runs charcoal tests through a very exhaustive set of papers. The ones I’ve tried so far are Canson mi-teintes and U-ART 800.

As you will see, for the charcoal to hold to the fabric of the paper, you will need some structure or tooth in the paper. Smooth papers used in other media such as graphite are not suited to charcoal. 

According to the artist, here’s a list of papers from this video that will prove performant for realistic charcoal drawings : U-Art 800Canson Mi-Teintes, Clairefontaine Pastelmat, ArtSpectrum Colourfix (Australian). The first three are available in a lot of European art supply stores.

How to draw with charcoal n°6 : How do I manage charcoal dust and smearing on my drawing?

Charcoal is very messy compared to other media. As you’re drawing, charcoal sheds a lot of unwanted debris to the side of the shape being drawn. Some charcoal are worst than others : vine and willow produce more debris than charcoal pencils. Soft charcoal tends to be messier than hard charcoal.

To make sure you don’t have charcoal everywhere, you’ll have to get rid of the dust regularly. I usually do this by blowing but this is not ideal since bits of saliva ending on your drawing risk damaging the paper. The best is to have a mini vacuum-cleaner and hold it gently on top of your drawing to take the dust away. Be sure not to vacuum too close to the drawing otherwise you will damage it. If you’re drawing upright, I recommend having a cardboard box under your drawing sheet to catch the particles that fall down.

For those sharpening their charcoal sticks, I recommend wearing gloves and sanding in an isolated area where dust can’t reach your drawing. Also breathing charcoal dust is not good for your lungs so I recommend wearing a mask against fine particles (FFP1).

How to draw with charcoal n°7 : How can I make light gradations with charcoal?

Charcoal is very dark right off the bat. Beginners struggle a lot with this and usually give up on charcoal as being unsuited to making lighter gradations. While this is partly true, there are two ways of dealing with the problem.

The first way is by practicing the skill over and over : you should be able eventually to get lighter gradations by diminishing the pressure on your pencil. This is not an easy thing to do. That’s why I recommend reading my article on drawing lightly and my articles on practice.

The second way is combining charcoal with white pastel. Mixing white with charcoal on toned paper will allow you to produce all shades of gray by fine layering. This will allow you to produce very realistic drawings.

A note about this article on charcoal drawing

I have tried to illustrate this article on charcoal with the best references : book extracts, Internet articles and videos. I have  selected and ordered them carefully. I’ve also positioned the videos at the marks that deal with the specific subject I’m writing about. Just press play and you’ll see what you need to. Whenever needed, I will post videos myself. It is to be said for all resources that I have selected them for their technical usefulness and not for the quality of the artwork itself which is a judgment you will make on your own. I hope all this will give you a wide range of perspectives on the advantages and drawbacks of charcoal.

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