Charcoal Drawing Tips & Techniques

Drawing pencils are often considered sturdy, reliable and precise. Charcoal, on the other hand, is a wild counterpart: it’s bold, daring and dramatic. It’s much darker than any pencil and has a richness, making drawing with charcoal completely unique experience.

Charcoal is also a versatile medium. While you can create extremely realistic, sensitive drawings with it, there is something about picking up that dusty stump of charcoal that frees us to go big, expressive and gestural.

Charcoal of All Kinds: Charcoal comes in several different forms.

  • The compressed stick, which can can be hard, produces a grayer shade, or soft and very deep black.
  • A softer charcoal is easier to smudge: it’s the one that will get all over your hands, your paper, and probably your clothing and face too!
  • Pressed charcoal also comes as a pencil. This is useful for detailed drawings because it can be sharpened to a fine point. It is also much less messy!
  • Willow or vine charcoal comes actually as a willow stick: it is long, cylindrical and wiggly. Willow charcoal is also very soft and produces a velvety, dove grey. It has a great texture to draw with, but is also very smudgy.

charcoal pencil and vine charcoal

Why I love Charcoal:

Charcoal is used much the same way as a pencil. It’s a tool for drawing, shading and blending, but there is something psychologically different about using charcoal. It lets you get more expressive and work larger without getting stuck in details. Charcoal sticks especially can force you to focus on large shapes and general contours because of their blunt ends.

charcoal figurative drawing nude

Charcoal Drawing Techniques:

  • Charcoal can be used in the same way you use a pencil to draw and shade anything, but it’s best suited to to more expressive types of shading like hatching.
  • Charcoal can also be used to do the preliminary drawings of a painting on canvas.
    • Once you’ve blocked in your shapes and values, spray with a workable fixative and start painting. Turning your charcoal stick on its side and filling in major areas of a subject is a great way to train your brain to see shapes rather than contours.
  • One of my favorite thing to do with charcoal, however, is gesture drawings. It’s the perfect tool for executing the large, sweeping strokes needed to capture a gesture.
    •  Use a nice chunk and a big pad of cartridge paper to get the most out of your drawings.

It is always a good idea to have a variety of drawing tools to choose from. The pencil is great for detailed renderings, but when it comes to expressive drawings I always reach for may stick of charcoal!

Do you prefer drawing with pencil or charcoal?

*****

Guest artist/author Miranda Aschenbrenner is a  fine artist who specializes in graphite drawings. You can visit her blog to learn more about her art tips and drawing techniques. http://www.learntoart.com/

Thank you Miranda for another great guest article! ~Lori

PS. Let’s meet on Twitter and Facebook and Google Plus…and here is my website to view my paintings. ~Lori

Here are a few other articles you might enjoy:

6 Tips for a Stress Free Sketchbook
Photo Realistic Drawing Tips
 
5 Websites to Help You Draw

About Lori McNee

Lori McNee is a professional artist who specializes in still life, and landscape oil paintings. She is an exhibiting member of Oil Painters of America, Plein Air Painters of Idaho, serves on the Plein Air Mag Board of Advisors, and is an Artist Ambassador to Arches/Canson/Royal Talens. As the owner of FineArtTips.com, Lori blogs about fine art tips, marketing, and social media advice for the aspiring and professional artist. As a social media influencer, Lori ranks as one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women on Twitter, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and named a #TwitterPowerhouse by The Huffington Post. She is a keynote speaker, has been a talk show host for Plum TV, writes for F+W Media publications including Artist’s Magazine, Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market, Photographer’s Market. Also, Zero to 100,000: Social Media Tips & Tricks for Small Businesses.

Comments

  1. I love your pencil art…
    And these are very useful tips for me..

    • Thanks for taking time to comment here. It is great to see you & glad you found this article useful!
      Best – Lori

      • Hi Lori, I saw your art work and found it so fabulous and so live… I also like to make pencil sketches only and some how getting some achievement there. however I have not made any sketch since 2006 due lack of timing plus not letting me do sketching by my parents. I would like to take some more tips about pencil & charcoal sketching.

        • Hi Rupendra, I plan to post some more about drawing and sketching tips soon. This subject is the most popular on my site, but I haven’t had time to write about it! I will soon….thanks!

  2. Pencil! Tho most ppl that know me say my charcoal works are better, to me the good ol graphite pencil will be always the best! I dont smudge it, and its like the whole drawing becomes your signature, when i do a portrait on charcoal,as good as it seems, it doesnt look so “personal” as my pencil drawings ;)
    You can compare them on my site and tell me your opinion ;)
    http://danielsanart.com/

    Thanks for the tips ;)

    • Hi Daniel. Thanks for stopping by this blog for a visit. I agree with you about the pencil vs. charcoal. As I was developing as an artist, I specialized in graphite wildlife drawings. I found the pencil easier to control and less messy than charcoal. Maybe I didn’t give charcoal enough of a chance, that said, I did enjoy gesture drawing with charcoal over the pencil though…charcoal is a looser medium and lends itself to this type of drawing.

      I looked at your site and I have to agree that your charcoal drawings are stronger than your pencil works. In my opinion, there is more depth and richness of character. You have motivated me to give charcoal another try!

      Thanks for sharing your site with us-
      Lori :-)

      • Hi! thanks to you, Im glad you saw them . Great, i cant wait to see your charcoal works ;) Ill keep watching your blog, its so rich and useful :)
        Have a good day!

        • Thanks again Daniel. I appreciate your nice feedback…let’s keep in touch!
          Lori

          • i still dont understand how to use charcoal sticks and what they are used for

          • Hello Dustin-
            Charcoal is a ancient medium that was used by the first known artists – cave dwellers. They would use the chunks of charcoal from the fire to draw on the cave walls. Today, people use the charcoal sticks for drawing. The sticks allow for a looser stroke than a charcoal pencil will make. Also, the artist can smudge it and use the side of the stick for different effects.
            I hope this helps a little…
            Happy drawing-
            Lori

    • I agree with you on pencil- it’s totally best used without smudging techniques. I do, however, feel that charcoal is a better medium for me personally because of the realism of it. I can get a lot of detail out of pencil and ink, but if I want life-like and extreme contrasts between light and dark- like getting the shine on a person’s nose or cheekbone just right, then I go for charcoal all the time. One of my first charcoal portraits was a picture of Marilyn Monroe, and when I set it out at a distance in a mid-level lighting area, the picture almost took a 3-dimensional form and I felt like I was looking at a bust instead of just a picture. After that, I was hooked.

      • Hello Brian, I tend to prefer graphite over charcoal myself because it is easier to control. I do agree with you about the greater contrast that can be made using charcoal. I would love to see your charcoal portrait. Have you heard of powdered graphite? I have seen wonderful results and want to give it a try soon.

    • Hi Daniel, I saw your art work and found it so fabulous and so live… I also like to make pencil sketches only and some how getting some achievement there. however I have not made any sketch since 2006 due lack of timing plus not letting me do sketching by my parents. I would like to take some more tips about pencil & charcoal sketching.

      you cane see few are here & let me know how are these…
      https://sites.google.com/site/makeasketch/gallery-2

  3. Hi Lori,

    I am a would-be painter, but I still lack some basic skills in painting. Your tips are so useful. Your site is a huge inspiration. Thanks

  4. Pencil!!! I’ve found graphite always messy & hard stick on to paper… i really wonder how people create magnificent portraits with charcoal.. some of my effort with pencil can be seen here..
    http://nikhilroynikz.wordpress.com
    :)

    • Beautiful work, Nikhil! Thanks for sharing. I have never been successful with charcoal either. I love the pencil…in fact, I am planning to return to that medium soon.

      Happy creating-
      Lori

      • Thank you very much for visiting my blog … I’m an engineer by profession and do artwork only in my freetime… i have an affection towards making portraits and oil painting….but due to time constraints i’ve shifted to pencil shading…

        By the way, i visited you website…. ur landscapes are magnificent… i loved the way you paint reflections (especially reflection of sky) in water…

        Regards,
        Nikhil

  5. Fantastic work! I too love charcoal even though I am not nearly as talented as you. Let me know what you think of my work http://www.itutorblog.com/2011/04/charcoal-and-pastels-a-peek-into-my-sketchbook/

  6. Great work posted here. I recently finished a charcoal and graphite portrait but I am not sure about mixing the grey of graphite with this really dark of charcoal. I love the darks but also love the control that you can have with graphite– but the graphite has a little shine next to the texture of charcoal. Is this something that I should mix or is it one or the other? Also how much workable fixative is it possible to use when building darks? Thanks.

    • Hello Jesse,
      Mixing the two drawing mediums will make it difficult to even out the shine. I am not aware of a product that will help even them out. Here are some general guidelines for using a spray fixative.
      Make sure your drawing is free from dust. Shake the can will help the fixative flow smoothly through the nozzle without drips and blobs. You can use 2-3 coats and let them dry in between. Follow the instructions on the can.

      Good luck-
      Lori

      • Thanks, I was a little confused when I read “pencil” in some instructions and thought the meaning was graphite instead of charcoal pencil. I’ll keep trying.

  7. hey im alisha im 17 years old. ive been drawin with pencil since i was 3. i just recently tryed charcoal pencils. it is so much easier than pencil. but i still have some more learning to do.

  8. I love working with charcoal pencils. I have actually made a real nice drawing using charcoal pencils. Not only did I get some great values, but I can capture finer details, all without the charcoal stuff on my fingers.

    I have worked with pencils, but they don’t get the dark shades that I like.

    • Hello Kiki,

      Yes, charcoal really makes beautiful darks. I can get pretty dark with a 6B pencil, but not the rich, deep value. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am glad you stopped by!

      Cheers-
      Lori

  9. I am interested in your use of charcoal, and in particular your use of fixative. I have a problem when using fixative in that spraying the drawings changes the tones of the picture, creating a dull and sunken appearance. I use the fixative while building up the drawings, and as a final layer of protection.
    Can you offer any advice on the use of fixative?
    Thanks.

    • Hello Michael…yes, fixative can alter the way a drawing or pastel looks. Be sure and hold the can about 3 feet away when applying a light mist. 2 or 3 light coats in opposite directions work best. One tip, is to apply the fixative right before the final layer of the drawing. Some artists do not use fixative due to the sunken intensity it causes. I have not found a good way around this!

      I hope this helps,
      Lori

  10. Hi,
    your drawing is owesome.
    i like to draw the pencil sketches, but i cant use charcoal i use only pencil in drawing sketches. so plz help me how to use charcoal?

    • Hello Sanket,

      Good luck with charcoal. Just like with pencil, it just takes some practice. You might like it in pencil-like form first, rather than charcoal sticks – they are messier.

      Lori :)

  11. Hello Lori,

    I love your paintings…I like charcol paintings but not sure how to do it and also here is none of the charcol painting classess so can you please let me know how can i start.

    Thanks in advance.
    Reagrds,
    Shweta

    • The best way to start drawing is to just do it! You can start with easy objects like a sphere,(a ball), a cup or a shoe. Then work your way up to more difficult subjects. Good luck and have fun!
      Lori

  12. I love using charcoal the rich tones and no glare as you get from pencil give amazing results.

  13. I want to use my charcoal to draw a person, but I don’t want it to spread/smudge. Is there a spray or something I can put on it to make it not Spread/smudge?

  14. I couldn’t say which I prefer to use. I am self taught pencil ‘artist’, I practice very detailed drawing and shading. recently I decided to try expressive and abstract art. So I picked up my willow charcoal and just went for it (I used soft pastel too), I have never felt more free.
    I am very obsessive when it comes to art, there is so much going on in my head that my art is never quite good enough. I love the deep and intense look (and feel) of pastel and charcoal. You can get that from pencil drawing but its not done as freely.

  15. In my experience, charcoal has always been a great medium for showing some strong emotions. As you said, it is a lot looser than pencil itself, and I think that’s what makes me feel a strong sense of freedom when I pick it up.
    Of course, I sometimes get really messy with it but that’s all part of my experimentation. Though I do have problems with it, for example: when trying to use it to show the small subtle waves of an ocean scenery. It starts looking more like Lava than anything else.

    • I like that thought…charcoal is great for showing strong emotions. I would agree. It is a challenging medium and very messy for sure! Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts.
      Lori

  16. Charcoal! It is hard to control, but power without control is never power anyway.
    I love its mess, drama and darkness. Nowadays I am trying new colors too. But the black is unique and my first love always.
    Lovely article. Best wishes ;)
    You can see some of my drawings here;
    http://artsfeeling.blogspot.com/

  17. christine says:

    Hi Lori,

    What tips would you say can you give a first timer? I’ve always wanted to try charcoal drawing but have no idea where to start and what basic tools to use. I mostly like to draw nudes or the outlines of a human body. Your insight on this would be greatly appreciated

    Thanks very much,

    Christine

    • Hello Christine,

      I would first buy a large pad of inexpensive newsprint paper at an art store. Also, try a range of different charcoal sizes and textures. Just enjoy playing and be free. You might also like to try Conte crayon too. Charcoal and Conte are perfect for drawing nudes. I love to vary the pressure of the stroke to follow the human body’s form. I hope this helps!

      Happy drawing,
      Lori

  18. Hello,
    Do you ever use brush for charcoal drawing?

  19. Tips which I found here are too helpful for me. I love charcoal as medium of drawings, And I am trying to get more perfect in this field.
    Thanks Lori for your great Information along with some tips and I assure It will be too important for beginners like me……
    I hope that you will critics my drawings at http://www.facebook.com/RakeyshsDrawings
    Thank you,
    Rakeysh

  20. hello,
    Do u use blending techniques and if yes what do you use for blending?

  21. Hi Lori,

    I am just starting drawing and i had a couple of questions

    1) Would you recommend learning with pencil before learning charcoal?

    2) Is charcoal largely used to do portraits? I personally have an interest in landscapes, seascapes, abstract and drawing historical architectural sctructures – is charcoal a good medium for those?

    • Hello Mvayani,

      Pencil is easier to control than charcoal. But, charcoal is great for quick, gestural drawings. I would suggest giving both a try and deciding what you like best. I personally think you might enjoy using the pencil for the subjects that interest you. You will have better control over the details, especially the buildings. You might also like to try powdered graphite for covering large areas.

  22. Emily Cross says:

    I love to draw and recently got 3 Derwent charcoal pencils, light, medium, and dark. Do you have any tips for shading with them? I have used them a few times and I prefer using a blending stick to blend, is this a good technique to use? Should I shade at all with a blending stick or just shade as I would with a softer graphite pencil?

    • There is no right or wrong way to blend. The ‘purists’ don’t like blending with stumps though. They like a gradation with the pencil shading. That is just food for thought. I’d try it both ways, and find your own technique that works for you!

  23. Hi Lori! Iam an artist from india,
    I love working with charcoal and graphite, and I generally do portraits..
    Have you ever tried working with charcoal over different mediums Lori? I need to work on a large piece and I was wondering what the best medium would be for something as big as 8 feet by 12 feet using charcoal? Please suggest me some tips please? Canvas isn’t working for me even after application of gesso and sanding it.. Charcoal just slips.. Iam thinking wood.. But I don’t know how to go about it..Pls suggest, thank u Lori!
    Sumanth

  24. Arturo Jose Magsaysay says:

    Hi Lori, I went to see your work on your website, amazing! I am an instant fan…I myself have a passion for art and I have been playing around different mediums like pencil, charcoal, pastel, markers and watercolor in doing caricatures and portraits. I’ve been going thru youtube videos trying to learn new techniques and I have seen really good videos but the thing is most of the time I have no idea what specific kind of medium are being used and I do ask but never get a reply and so I keep searching on the net and I found this site which is pretty cool that you do give knowledge and tips. I am currently trying to learn how to make a portrait using dry brush with charcoal powder and I can’t seem to get the charcoal to actually stick on paper especially when I need real black for dark areas like hair for example, am pretty sure I am using the wrong kind of charcoal and maybe paper and I was hoping you can give me any advice? would really help a lot to have someone to talk to about stuff like this cause I don’t have that much friends who are artists and I am just learning and experimenting by myself. oh and by the way I have a facebook page I wanna share as well where I upload my work
    https://www.facebook.com/pages/ArtWorks-by-Arturo-Jose-Magsaysay/103701599721302?ref=hl
    thank you Lori.

    • Hello Arturo, thank you for your kind comment here. I do appreciate you tracking me down. So many artists are like you who experiment alone. The computer is a great way to connect and learn. You are welcome to share your art on my FB page, https://www.facebook.com/FineArtTips
      There are different types of charcoal. You might want to try a softer charcoal pencil – 6b, 4b will give you a darker stroke. Also, you can spray the layers with fixative and work on top of that for added depth.
      Your drawings are great! I love the little white dog… Many thanks for visiting here.

  25. Hi! may i know what kind of pencil may i use for charcoal drawing.tnx

  26. very nice work ma’m.
    GOD BLESS YOU.
    thanks,
    harmeet http://www.artonline.asia

  27. Just the post I needed, thanks Lori and co. I have been drawing portraits with pencils for the past 2 years. I have seen many charcoal portraits and I think they are awesome. I tried using one and my problem is, it becomes all powdery on the paper and blows away most of the shades at the slightest paper movement. I don’t know how to get the shades to stick to the paper till am done and ready to use a fixative, since i don’t use a workable fixative. You may visit and check out my pencil (graphite) portraits so far awiba.wordpress.com. Thank you.

    • Wow, Stephen! Your drawings are beautiful. Thanks for inviting me to visit your site. I would suggest giving the workable fixative a try. It should minimize your frustrations and allow for richer tones.
      Thanks for the comment,
      Lori

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