Beginners’ Guide To Charcoal Drawing: Everything You Need to Know

a young girl making a charcoal drawing

Table of Contents

Charcoal drawing is not just for professional artists and those with a great deal of natural talent. Anyone can learn how to draw using the right tools and perseverance. 

Start your charcoal drawing with commercial toned paper or tone it with a vine charcoal stick. Make a quick sketch, then fill it in with your charcoal pencil - blending and highlighting as you go. Finally, protect your artwork with a fixative to prevent dust and smudging.

This article will give you the beginners' guide to charcoal drawing, including materials needed, best practices for beginners, and how to fix your mistakes if they happen along the way.

What is Charcoal Drawing?

Charcoal drawing is one of the many techniques that people use to create art. Compared with other media, drawing with charcoal is much more forgiving, allowing you to correct your work with a few strokes of the eraser. 

It is easier to manipulate, tone, and blend by controlling the pressure of your charcoal, fingers, or paper stump on the paper. Once you master how to draw with charcoal, you can make fantastic art ready to exhibit.

Draw with Charcoal: Important Terms to Understand

 Hand Sketching on Easel

To understand this tutorial better, familiarize yourself with the terms frequently used here. All these are related to each other, and their primary purpose is to give your drawings a realistic three-dimensional effect. 

It defines the skin tone on your portraits so that even if you don't use colors, your viewer "sees" the nuances of a person's face. Using these techniques lets you highlight the fur on your animal drawing, the changes in lighting on your still life, and the texture of your flowers.

  • Tone

Artists create tone by controlling the pressure when applying charcoal to create lighter and darker tones to the paper. 

You can add tone to a white paper using powdered charcoal with a brush, then spread it more evenly with tissue paper. This technique creates a light tone. On the other hand, to create darker tones, you apply charcoal directly on paper, then smooth it with tissue paper or artist chamois.

  • Value

Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of a color. The more black and white (or gray) in a tone, the higher its value will be on a 0-100% scale. The pure black has a tonal value of 0%, dark gray has 50%, and white glow has 85%.

  • Shading

Shading refers to creating shadows on an object's form either through contrast (using different shades) or blending (by transitioning from lighter to darker areas). Shading and creating shadows also means rendering three-dimensional objects realistically via light sources coming from various directions.

  • Highlight Rendering

Did you know that you can draw with an eraser? Also known as reductive drawing, this technique means creating art with an eraser after applying a dark tone on your paper using willow or vine charcoal. 

We recommend using a kneaded eraser and an eraser pencil or pen eraser for highlights. This technique is an excellent exercise to learn value when drawing with charcoal and its impact on the finished artwork. We discourage compressed charcoal since it has a darker value, making it harder to erase.

  • Hatching and Cross-Hatching

Hatching means applying unidirectional lines to create darker parts of a drawing. On the other hand, cross-hatching involves drawing lines in a criss-cross pattern to create tones and shades. You can do this by putting one line on top of another at right angles, or you can cross them both (horizontally), creating an X-like shape.

This drawing technique allows you control over the darkness or the lightness of your shadows since you add them gradually by layering. You may blend them for a more realistic look or leave it as is for a rugged finish. To achieve the effect you're going for, use charcoal pencils or sharpened charcoal sticks.

  • Blending

Blending is one of the essential tips that art teachers emphasize when drawing with charcoal. It softens the charcoal to give your work a more cohesive artwork than a penciled-in one. You can use several blending tools to do this technique, though your fingers are the most commonly used (and sometimes very erroneous).

How to Sketch with Charcoal

Side View of Female Teenage Artist Sitting at Easel Drawing

Before going further, please understand that artists use different techniques and methods for charcoal drawing and what you may read here is not the same as what you've watched somewhere else. 

However, rest assured that these steps are to the best of our artistic knowledge, and these techniques have produced very favorable results.

1. Set out the tone of your paper

A toned paper makes it easier for you to draw as it sets the background of your charcoal drawings and eliminates light values that may affect its quality. 

Start with a lighter tone, especially if you want to add the sketch of your entire drawing. If you want a dark background, you can use vine charcoal directly on your paper, then blend it with a chamois cloth to even it out.

2. Start sketching

The sketch is the foundation for your drawing and will help you plan out the composition of your piece. Consider how much space to leave blank before you create highlights like facial features or clothing that surround those aspects - it's easier to manipulate these things after you've sketched them.

Sharpen your graphite pencil and draw lightly, adding fine lines as you go so you can easily cover it as you draw with charcoal. You may also use a sharpened vine charcoal or charcoal pencil, but don't be tempted to add more pressure to quick sketches so you can erase them easily if you need to, and it won't leave a mark on your paper.

3. Fill in your drawing

Once you have the tone and sketch for your drawing, it's time to fill it in using your charcoal pencils. For dark shades, use the 2B pencil and the H pencil for the mid-tones.

4. Blend and highlight

Blending and highlighting give your charcoal drawing dimension and will make it look more life-like.

For blending, you can use a paintbrush to soften your strokes, like when smoothing the skin. Your index finger covered with tissue paper is perfect for blending large areas, while a paper stump is excellent for blending in small spaces.

For highlighting, use either a kneaded eraser or a pen-style eraser. Some use an electric eraser, but it's mostly out of preference, not a necessity.

5. Finish your artwork

Charcoal drawing is very fragile, and it tends to fade over time because some of the charcoal gets blown off, especially if you don't frame it. Some clueless art enthusiasts may also touch it, causing it to smudge, thus damaging your art. 

You can choose from a wide variety of fixatives for charcoal to finish your drawing but be sure to check out its compatibility.

Here is a video showing the step-by-step process of drawing charcoal:

Choosing the Right Tools for Drawing with Charcoal

The best way to start making beautiful sketches using charcoal is first to understand what materials you need before jumping into it.

1. Charcoal

To draw with charcoal successfully, you must understand the different types of charcoal and its nuances. Once you're ready to go ahead and amp up your drawing skills, give colored charcoal pencils a try so you can play with hues and contrasts better.

Charcoal pencils come in different types with a wide range of hardness and blackness. Charcoal pencils become harder and are less prone to smudging as the H number increases. The opposite happens in B pencils as it becomes softer as the number increases. 

But according to most professional artists, beginners should be fine with an H and a 2B pencil when they draw with charcoal.

Also known as vine or willow charcoal, these softer charcoals come from the grapevine or willow twigs, respectively. Stick charcoal is a brittle material best for toning or filling large areas of your drawing paper. 

Artists prefer vine charcoal because it is less powdery, less intense, and less brittle. However, willow charcoal makes better homemade charcoal powder and is easier to erase.

Compressed charcoal is another medium you should try. It is harder because it has binders (wax o gum) incorporated into its makeup. 

As such, they maintain their form, are easier to use than vine or willow charcoal, and creates better details because you can shape them. They are sold in rectangular blocks, sticks, or woodless pencil form.

Charcoal powder is a fantastic medium to use for adding mid-tone values to your paper. Apply it with a paintbrush but be sure to work in an area with limited air movement because powdered charcoal is very messy. You don't have to buy charcoal powder, though, since you can easily make it from compressed charcoal and other forms of soft charcoal.

2. Paper

Contrary to a writing paper where you want to go with the smoothest ones, charcoal drawing paper needs texture, also known to artists as the tooth.

Many artists prefer toned paper when they draw with charcoal because it affects the finished artwork. Depending on the tone, you can have a grayscale or sepia effect

Others, however, prefer to work with white charcoal drawing paper and tone it with charcoal powder or vine charcoal. Choose one that has a suitable thickness to it, usually 100lb or more.

Watercolor paper is more durable than other types of drawing paper because it is made of cotton, especially if you want to use a different medium over it. It also has a good tooth and texture required for drawing with charcoal.

3. Blending Tools

Aside from your fingers, you can also use other blending tools to control the mess and the smudge.

Paintbrushes are best to use when applying charcoal powder or to blend your charcoal hatches on your drawing. Use a soft, fluffy one rather than stiff brushes to achieve a smooth transition.

For large areas you want to blend, tissue paper or artist chamois is your best choice. You can wrap it on your finger or crumple it to wipe over your charcoal.

Also known as blending stumps or tortillons, these are best for blending in tight spaces. You also have more control over it compared with the other blending tools. They also come in different sizes. 

Technically speaking, a tortillon is wound less tightly than a blending stump and has only one tapered end.

4. Highlighting Tools

To add details and highlights to your drawing, you need erasers. They come in different forms, each one with a specific purpose.

Pen erasers resemble a mechanical pencil, but instead of the lead, it has a stick eraser inside it. On the other hand, an eraser pencil resembles a pencil, only with an eraser instead of lead, and you can sharpen it to keep its tip fine. 

The kneaded charcoal is essential for every beginner and professional artist. To activate the kneaded eraser, pull it several times between each use. You can shape it for minute details on your charcoal drawings’ eyes, hair, fur, and feathers.

White charcoal is technically white pastel and is best for adding highlights and play on the light without erasing. You can also blend or erase white charcoal to soften it.

5. Fixative

Protect your charcoal art from damage from smudging, dusting-off, or if someone unintentionally touches it with the proper fixative.

A fixative allows you to continue working on your charcoal drawing while protecting the rest of it from smudging.

Apply permanent fixative only when you're sure that you won’t be tweaking your artwork.

6. Miscellaneous Tools & Supplies

Aside from the usual, you may also want to buy these additional tools and supplies to ease your drawing. 

Using an easel may be hard for a newbie, but it’s also an excellent way to train your hand to treat your drawing tools differently than your writing tools. 

A mahl stick may be made of wood or aluminum rod to help your hand rest while protecting your work from smudges and oil from your hand. 

A drafting tape is a low-tack tape that keeps your artwork in place without causing any damage to the paper. 

Common Issues When Using Charcoal

Art teachers share a few tips to solve the issues you may encounter when using charcoal as a medium for drawing. If you want to improve your technique, you may enroll in any course offered in these online drawing classes.

1. There are smudges on my charcoal drawing.

Smudges are bound to happen to newbie artists when using this medium for the first time. To avoid smudging, practice holding your charcoal at the tip so that your drawing hand doesn't touch your paper. You may also try using an easel. 

However, if you prefer working on a table, you can use parchment paper to prevent your hand from coming in contact with the charcoal without affecting the drawing underneath.

2. My charcoal drawing has a sketchy finish.

Blending is an essential technique to employ to avoid a sketchy finish for your drawings.  Use the blending tools we have listed here and see how your art improves your tool's simple stroke.

3. My charcoal drawing looks faded.

Dusting off is the usual result if you leave your drawing unfinished for a long time, making it look faded and dull. If you can't work on your project for a considerable time, use a workable fixative. It protects your work from fading but still allows you to work on your project if you have time.

4. My drawing is too black.

There are different types of charcoal, and you should know what to use to make great art. As a medium, black charcoal can cover a wide range of tones by altering the pressure while drawing. 

To achieve an even tone, work in layers instead of going heavy at once, especially when working with figure drawings. Blend as you go to see its effect.

Conclusion

Charcoal drawing is one of the most satisfying and rewarding hobbies. It can also be a great way to express yourself creatively, relieve stress, or keep your brain active as you age. With practice (and these tips), anyone can learn how to draw using charcoal pencils. 

Whether you're looking for new creative outlets that will help you find balance in life or just want something fun on which to spend time while sitting around waiting for inspiration, drawing could fit the bill nicely. Let's get started!

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