Tools and Writings for Oil Painters, Draftsmen and Artists


Graphite or charcoal : is this the real dilemma?

Some will say : it is a matter of preference. Others will be led by their pragmatism : they will use everything at their disposal and be proud to be called “multimedia” artists. But in the end, between graphite and charcoal or other media, it is not only a matter of choice. It is a matter of “values”. It might well be that graphite is the language of dreams and charcoal the striking voice of reality.

In other words : each pencil and paper choice will set a different “perspective” or window on the world, with its own properties and behaviours. One must not underestimate these differences and accord each choice with one’s personality and goals.

To you beginner : what is stated here about graphite and charcoal is only a reflection of my own personality and shouldn’t be taken for granted. If there should be one task I want from you, it is of finding a better perspective than mine.

The advantages of graphite for drawing

1. Familiarity with the medium

Most of us are already familiar with graphite for drawing, especially those of you living in North America since we rarely use pencils for writing in Europe. Drawing graphite is basically the same although it is of better quality. But beware : familiarity with the medium might be its worst advantage as writing doesn’t imply the same movements than drawing.

2. Variety of grades

Graphite drawing pencils come in a variety of different grades from soft to hard allowing you to render dark to light values accordingly. However, in practice, I find three or four grades of graphite are enough for rendering almost anything.

3. Robust lead

In my experience, graphite leads are much more robust than charcoal ones and break very rarely. In contrast, charcoal leads are very brittle and sometimes are already broken inside their wooden casings when sold in art supply stores.

3. Easy sharpening

What is really nice about graphite pencils is that they can be sharpened very easily into a fine point or long needle. This will prove invaluable for making detailed work. It will also save you a lot of time compared to charcoal where much more time and effort has to be invested for getting the same result.

5. Less dust and smearing

On the whole, graphite is much less messy than graphite when it comes to sharpening and drawing. I suspect this is one of the main reasons beginner drawing courses recommend them.

4. Smooth light gradations

One of the advantages of graphite pencils for drawing is that they allow very smooth light gradations without much effort.

4. Less expensive and more available

You won’t bust the bank by purchasing them and they’re available everywhere. Charcoal pencils are only found at art supply stores.

The drawbacks of graphite for drawing

1. Graphite doesn’t allow very dark realistic values or blacks

Graphite isn’t as dark and rich black as charcoal. This will prove necessary for handling realistic shadows. Let’s not forget that here on earth, some shadows made by the sun can be very dark.

2. Beware of graphite shine

Graphite has shine in areas where too many layers were pushed into the paper as in the shadow. I find this very undesirable as it interferes with our judgment of values and is unpleasant to watch. On the other side, charcoal has no shine whatsoever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *