How To Use White Charcoal Pencils & Create Magic With Them

A white charcoal art - Image by Mark Crilley

A white charcoal art - Image by Mark Crilley

White charcoal pencil is a medium that charcoal artists use to create highlights, draw on black paper, blend to lighten darker colors or create contrasts on your charcoal drawings. 

Understanding how to use white charcoal pencils can pave the way to making the most of it and create magic for your artwork.

What is White Charcoal?

White charcoal comes in a rectangular block form similar to compressed charcoal and a pencil form. However, the compressed and pencil forms share the same composition, such as chalk (calcium carbonate in some references) and binders, usually gum arabic. 

It is similar to soft white pastel, though the chalk concentration and binders' concentration determine the end effect. Check out compressed white charcoal as an option for white charcoal pencils. They work just as well, though you may have to sharpen them more than you would the pencil version.

How to Use White Charcoal Pencil?

As previously mentioned, you can use a white charcoal pencil in several methods:

1. Create Light Effects

Charcoal drawing of a sphere - Image by Jeffrey Gillette

Charcoal drawing of a sphere - Image by Jeffrey Gillette

Artists use white charcoal in lighter colors to create light effects for outdoor scenes, buildings, etc. To blend nicely into your artwork's background, apply gentle pressure over the top while blending these areas to allow them to fade gradually. 

To improve your drawing skills in creating highlights, you have to understand how light behaves first. Light behaves differently according to the source, the reflective quality of the surfaces, and the general makeup of your model. 

A simple sphere casts a less complex shadow than a more intricate subject. Follow these steps to understand how light works on your subject.

  • Select the surface to set up your subject

A matte surface limits the reflection, so you'll only have to deal with the cast shadow. On the other hand, a shiny surface reflects more light, so the shadow created is more complex.

  • Turn on your light and decide where your light should originate 

This light placement determines the angle and amount of shadow cast by the object. The color of your model also influences the light cast on it. 

  • Identify the three primary shades on your subject

The highlight, mid-tone, and core shadow are the three primary shades you need to identify in your drawing. The highlight is the part with the lightest value on your subject, and it is usually tiny, while the core shadow has the darkest value but is not necessarily the largest. Usually, it is the mid-tone that occupies the largest space for your shadows. 

  • Block the parts where your shadows go

By doing this, you can add the correct tonal value to your charcoal drawings to get the best definition. You can erase the area to highlight using a kneaded eraser or eraser pencil, then color in using your white charcoal. Increase the lighter values by applying more pressure.

Challenges in Creating Light Effects

 Identifying the shadowed and light parts of a drawing - Image by RapidFireArt

 Identifying the shadowed and light parts of a drawing - Image by RapidFireArt

  • Identifying the light parts in your drawing

Visualizing the light parts of your drawing is hard, especially if you're working from imagination. To help you with that, lightly draw a light source where you want it above the subject.  

From there, draw two lines from the light source to your object, then imagine where your shadows are. Remember to always factor in the reflected light.

2. Draw on Black Paper

A drawing of a cat on black paper - Image by Kristy Partridge

A drawing of a cat on black paper - Image by Kristy Partridge

Black drawing paper is an excellent paper to use for your artwork as it creates a stark background that brings the artwork into focus. However, it is also very limiting to the medium you can use on it. 

Another issue you have to contend with is the conditioning of the mind since most artists work on white paper using a black pencil or pen.

  • Make a light sketch of your drawing

Start by lightly sketching your design onto a black drawing paper with white charcoal or white trace-down paper.

  • Add in your details in layers

You don't want to rush your drawings so add your details in layers to create a better image. This way, you don’t have to erase large areas if you make mistakes. 

  • Blend the edges

As in black charcoal, you also need to blend your white charcoal drawings to smoothen out the edges and give your project a better finish.

  • Add highlights and contrasts

As mentioned earlier, treat your drawing inversely. Meaning, add lighter values to it by providing less pressure and dark values by pressing harder on your white charcoal. It also adds high contrast to your drawing without losing the details.

Challenges of Drawing in Black Paper

A portrait on black paper - Image by The Virtual Instructor

A portrait on black paper - Image by The Virtual Instructor

  • Inverting the image in your mind

Conceptualizing a subject is hard enough; reversing it is much harder. To create shadows in this art form, leave the paper black or erase it and pencil in to add highlights. 

It helps to have a reference image while you draw, so you don't have to imagine. You can then work on the lighter parts with your white pencils.

  • Switching between white pencils. 

If you're using a charcoal pencil, you can switch between grades to get the intensity you want on your drawing. When using white pencils, you don't have the same convenience. However, you may still need to switch pencils as you go since different brands have different whiteness levels.

To help you with that, make a swatch of your white pencil, applying the slightest pressure first, then go with the most pressure you can without breaking it. Use this swatch to compare the finish of your pencils and the pressure you should use.

3. Lighten Dark Colors

A drawing on an elephant on toned paper - Image by Miroslav The Pencil Maestro

A drawing on an elephant on toned paper - Image by Miroslav The Pencil Maestro

Artists can also use white charcoal to lighten dark colors. When working with colored pencils, colored charcoal, or black charcoal, you sometimes need to lighten the hues to make them less intense.

It also helps smooth the transition of dark values to light values, especially when you have lots of light to consider. You can lighten dark colors using the lift-off method or the color-over method.

  • Pick the method that works best

Erase a portion on your charcoal drawing and fill it in with a white charcoal pencil for the lift-off method, or add it directly on top of the black charcoal drawing for the color-over process.

  • Blend to smoothen the transition

Blend the white charcoal into the black charcoal to smoothen the shift from dark to light. Add more white if needed, then blend again.

Challenges of Lightening Dark Colors

A few swatches showing the interaction of charcoal with white charcoal - Image by Yong Chen

  • The white charcoal will mute out the black charcoal 

The black may become too muted to stand out when you apply too much white charcoal. To avoid this issue, apply in layers instead of adding everything in one go. Test out the result by looking at your drawing from a distance to gauge the effects.

  • Paper gets too saturated

It may have trouble adhering to the paper, especially if it gets too saturated because you added too many layers of charcoal. Resolve this issue by using drawing paper with a little bit of texture. Don't use paper that's too smooth when using charcoal since it won't hold.

4. Create Contrasts

A woman walking on the street on a rainy night - Image by Swati's Creative Art

A woman walking on the street on a rainy night - Image by Swati's Creative Art

When drawing a portrait of someone with blonde hair and blue eyes, the white lines on their face will stand out nicely against darker colors in the background. 

It directs the audience's eyes to a particular part of the drawing before considering the whole drawing. Contrast is beneficial if you're working with toned paper since the black doesn't stand out as much as it does in the white paper. 

To practice your charcoal drawing techniques, especially on creating contrast and shadows, follow these steps:

  • Start with a high-definition photo

Take a photograph of your subject in color and black and white using a high-definition camera so you can compare the difference between the two images. This step enables you to determine how much contrast to work on your charcoal drawing.

  • Identify the darker portions of your drawing

Block the darker portions on your drawing, as you have done when adding highlights. Your goal here, though, is to identify which parts to darken to provide a contrast with your background, especially if using toned paper.

  • Blend to even out the sharp edges

Blend the dark value into the lighter value to create a high contrast that doesn't look too sharp or cartoony.

Challenges of Creating Contrasts

A figure drawing showing how contrast works - Image by Proko

A figure drawing showing how contrast works - Image by Proko

  • Careful planning where to add the contrast

Contrast is important in separating the drawing from the background, and the direction of the light is crucial to know where the most profound contrast should be in your subject. 

While highlights and shadows emphasize the planes and contours, contrast emphasizes the whole image.  Smooth around the edges to help the transition for a softer finish.

White Charcoal Pencils FAQ

1. Is white charcoal really charcoal?

White charcoal is not charcoal per se but a mixture of chalk (calcium carbonate) and binder, usually gum arabic. However, this is not a confirmed fact because manufacturers do not list its components in the packaging.

If searching for “white charcoal” over the internet, you might stumble upon what the Japanese call binchotan, white charcoal used by cooks, not artists. Artisans make the ash-gray charcoal from white oak after removing the bark. 

The wood is then placed in a kiln and burned using specific temperatures and smothered with a mixture of earth, sand, and ash after taking it out of the kiln. 

2. What is white charcoal art?

Many artists love working with white charcoal pencils because they love the challenge. The stark contrast between the white of the pencil and the blackness of the paper provides a dramatic effect that you can't achieve by toning your white drawing paper with charcoal powder or compressed charcoal. 

The advantage of using it for artwork is less dust and a more lasting art even if you don't apply a fixative to it.

3. What can I use instead of a white charcoal pencil?

You can use soft white pastels instead of white charcoal pencils because they have the same composition. Before using it on your artwork, try the white pastel on a piece of paper to rule out a waxy finish, owing to the wax or mineral oil added to it.

4. Can you use white charcoal on white paper? 

Yes, though not directly on white paper, unless you want to mute the effect of the charcoal upon applying it, which defeats the purpose. The best way is to overlay it over the black charcoal to add highlights, details and soften the intense colors.


It is crucial to know how to use white charcoal pencils to make a stunning work of art. You can utilize it in various ways: draw on black paper or add different effects like highlights, blend colors with lightening dark shades, and contrast two objects. 

The main thing you need to understand about this medium, if used correctly, will transform your charcoal drawing to make it stand out. With these tips under your belt, we hope you'll find yourself crafting some jaw-dropping masterpieces!

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