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How to Work With Charcoals

How to Work With Charcoals main article image
Posted on July 15, 2022 by Lyndsey Drooby
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Drawing with charcoals is a pleasant way to enhance your sketches or to create a complete work of art. Charcoal is a smooth and brittle material that can be found in both hard and soft varieties. The overall properties are similar to chalk pastels. Charcoals offer a quicker sketching experience, most particularly with lighter and less dense charcoal pieces. 

Charcoals offer a lot of depth as your hand pressure or the style of charcoal you use can vary in different shades of grey to black. Deep shadows and dark black areas that charcoals can help you create can result in an intense piece of art. 

This article will dig into the types of charcoals you can use in drawing and how to apply them to your experience in drawing and skill-building. 

Types of Charcoals

Drawing charcoals come in three different forms: pencil, vines and sticks. You can give each form an experimental try to see which one you prefer, or you’ll realize that more than one style of charcoals will come in handy on a drawing. Draw lines, scribble in some shading to see how each type of charcoal behaves on the paper. 

Pencil Charcoal

Ranging from hard to soft like drawing pencils, the biggest advantage of charcoal pencils is getting fine points and lines. The drawing is cleaner and can get dark when you apply more pressure when drawing. Pencils work great when working with small drawing pieces. 

Vine Charcoals

Vine charcoals are burnt willow sticks. They are very soft and will fill in the small grooves of quality drawing paper, creating a solid black marking. Vine charcoals have a silvery cast to them, so even though you will see black on the paper, you won’t have the darkest black that you would see with stick charcoals. You will get soft lines and ease of blending. 

Stick Charcoal

Lastly, stick charcoals also come in a range of hard and soft, and in different colors. Since they are pressed together, this is the type to use to get the darkest black and defined shadow and shading in your sketches. 

How to Hold Charcoal

When you want to get a hard and sharp edge in a sketch, hold the charcoal like you would a pencil. Applying more pressure will make a darker and solid line. Works with any form of charcoal. Keep in mind to adjust to the feel of working with vine charcoal, it can be very delicate and softer hand pressure is needed to draw with it. Pieces can snap easily. 

Filling in Large Areas

To fill in larger areas on paper, hold the charcoal on its side and apply pressure as you slide or drag it across the paper—left, right, up and down. Depending on the paper you use, if it has grooves, you may notice dark bumps appearing as the charcoal makes its way into those. 

Holding the charcoal on its side, start to fill in the large area by applying pressure to the charcoal as you slide it left and right, up and down. Depending on the tooth of your paper and what is underneath your paper, you may get quite dark or you may have little toothy bumps appear. Changing the direction you are rubbing on the paper will help you get a smoother finish.

For a smoother, darker finish on a larger area on the paper, take a cloth like a chamois or cotton and wipe the paper. You can repeat the action until you’re satisfied with the result.

Sketching with Charcoal

After getting the feel of charcoals and experimenting with the different forms, you can jump right into sketching and discovering how the charcoals flow and work with whatever subject you’re drawing. 

First Step

Get a piece of paper and using the side of the charcoal stick or vine charcoal, to draw the basics of the sketch. You want lines and areas of darkness to get a feel of the size and shape of the subject. It might look messy, but don’t worry. If your subject is a person, you might have a scratchy stick figure drawing at this point. 

Second Step

Continue using the sides of the charcoal pieces and the point to refine the detail and make some dramatic lines. Let it flow and don’t worry about what it looks like in the end right now. Keep going. It still doesn’t have to look perfect. 

Third Step

The idea of a charcoal sketch is to not leave it on a completely white background. You wouldn’t leave any bare white canvas left on a painting, so this same thought applies. 

Take a piece of cotton a soft piece of fabric or a chamois and wipe the drawing down. Those dark areas and fine lines may get lost but you’ll be working on those again. Rubbing or wiping down the sketch will produce a grey background and will allow you to have a great emphasized background in the end with the use of a kneaded eraser. 

Take your charcoals now and go back and add to those dark areas again. 

Fourth Step

You’ll notice you have a range of black throughout the piece now and it may look like a dark cloud with even darker shapes. Take a kneaded eraser and pull away some of that charcoal to add highlights. A kneaded eraser is just that, you can roll it and form it into any shape so you can erase any small space to add light. Gently sweep it across the area. You’ll notice how much charcoal actually rubs away. If you notice the eraser getting too black, re-knead the eraser and shape it once again to continue your highlighting work. 

Fifth Step

Now you have darks and lights in the sketch. There is one more step to add more value to it. 

Squint your eyes and see where the darkest areas and the lightest areas are. Look for a range of grey tones. What you can do is make sure you have a dark background against a light area around the subject, and a light background behind a dark area of the subject. To the eye, this is a push-pull effect. If anything looks off, you can use this step to revise any of those areas and go back to work on the previous steps until you’re happy with the final look. 


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