Do you prefer to work in charcoal or graphite pencil? Today I discuss some of the pros and cons to each medium. Heck! Maybe I’ll even motivate you to try something you haven’t tried before.
Similarities Between Charcoal & Pencil
Both Charcoal and pencil are dry drawing media that require a minimum level of paper tooth (texture) in order for them to adhere to the paper in which they are drawn on. Pencil and Charcoal are dark media in which an artist generally works on white paper and adds marks to make areas darker. Both media comes in a variety of types allowing artists to control just how dark or light they want their marks to be. Both charcoal and graphite pencil represent an inexpensive way to begin the artistic process.
Graphite Pencil Characteristics
Graphite pencil is typically more suitable for smaller drawings over charcoal and is therefor easier for drawing smaller details or in sketchpads on the go. For this reason I don’t recommend beginners trying to complete pencil drawings much bigger than 11 by 14 inches. It’s better to put time and effort into a smaller pencil drawing, something you can feel proud of. It’s important not to push the limits of your pencils and force them into a behavior in which they are not intended. An example of this would be using an HB pencil over and over again and pressing harder and harder to gain your darkest values. This will result in a waxy build up and you’ll never reach that darkest value any way. A better approach is to use your full assortment of pencils; layering them one on top of one another. You should achieve your darkest values by layering various pencils in order, beginning with the harder pencils and finishing with the softer pencils. Refer to The Pencil Scale to brush up on the differences between H pencils and B pencils.
Smudging can often look terrible in a pencil drawing and I know I’m probably angering some people right now, but I don’t care. Smudging is the first thing most young artists start doing as a corner cutting method. Whenever faced with a task it usually doesn’t take long for humans to get complacent, lazy, and resort to some kind of thoughtless rhythm. The problem is that most young artists choose to smudge their pencil out of impatience with no concern of pencil quality. A small amount of pencil smudging is okay but it is almost always abused and relied upon by beginner artists so I discourage it completely.
When learning to draw in pencil, don’t smudge.
Visually, a non-smudged pencil drawing has a subtle but beautiful texture that unifies the drawing’s surface. The paper’s tooth interacts with the pencil allowing the drawing to sparkle and have visual interest from near and far. A smudged pencil drawing on the other hand obfuscates the paper’s texture and is typically ripe with unsightly fingerprints and messiness.
Get into some good pencil shading habits by learning to shade without relying on smudging. Check these value scale exercises. They’re the perfect warm up for aspiring artists looking to develop good drawing technique.
Charcoal is a little more complex in that the materials have different names to distinguish their capabilities and not just a simple pencil scale consisting of H’s and B’s. You will always want to begin your charcoal drawings by using either soft vine charcoal or soft willow charcoal.
Charcoal is a very powdery material that requires paper that has a more textured surface than regular paper used with pencil. I have never been satisfied using the same paper for both my charcoal drawings and my graphite pencil drawings. Paper good for charcoal is always too rough for pencil and makes too much of a noticeable texture and paper good for pencil is far too smooth to hold on to the microscopic charcoal particles.
Get a quality pad for each medium.
After working in charcoal for over two decades I have concluded that it is just fine to smudge charcoal. In fact, that’s where I think charcoal can be very attractive to young artists. You can really dive in and connect with the medium; it’s super hands on – quite literally actually! As long as you are using soft vine or willow charcoal on quality paper you can change your drawing with ease. This is very advantageous for new artists looking to learn. With charcoal you can make large scale, rapid changes which allows the learning artist to explore and fix mistakes in shorter amounts of time.
A downside to charcoal is it tends to be messy. That black powder can really get everywhere so choose your drawing locations wisely and keep track of where you place your supplies. Charcoal also makes it difficult to draw small details. Knowing this fact, simply don’t use charcoal for tiny drawings. I have always required my students to complete charcoal drawings on paper that is typically 18 by 24 inches.
A Biased But Experienced Conclusion
When I make my conclusion here I am drawing on years of experience working with over a thousand budding art students and from my own drawing experiences as well.
I think graphite pencils are great. They are clean, easy to travel with and comfortable to hold. It is, however so much faster to get good results with charcoal vs. graphite pencils. Not that I want you rushing through your artwork, but I do want you to maximize the results you get in whatever little time you have available. In my experience the majority of students starting out get better results using charcoal. Maybe this is because charcoal is faster to work with or perhaps it is easier to achieve a larger range of value. There is no doubt to me however, that students produce better looking drawings in shorter periods of time when they use charcoal properly as compared to graphite (pencil). Charcoal drawings are also easier to photograph which is a little bit off topic but very important when building an art portfolio and something many high school aged students end up doing.
By sticking to mostly charcoal I have actually coached students through building their high school art portfolio in only a matter of a few months! A high school art portfolio typically consists of about 10-20 complete works of art and is used to gain acceptance into college level art programs. That simply would not be possible with graphite pencil.
If you are new to learning how to draw, use graphite pencil for a few drawings and then get your hands on some charcoal supplies; you won’t regret it.
The Best Charcoal & Pencil Brands to Buy
I get a lot of emails asking questions about drawing materials. I’ve used almost every brand and type of drawing tools out there and can tell you that the right tools do make a difference. Below are my favorite brands of graphite pencils and charcoal pencils. These are the exact tools I use for my own artwork and recommend art students use as well! I’ve never seen a combination kit that I felt was worth it.
Those kits that claim to have charcoal and/or graphite pencils all in one always contain a fair amount of crappy tools. I prefer to buy the best drawing tools individually so I can work with the best!
Don’t be cheap. Charcoal really needs highly textured paper and graphite pencils need slightly smoother paper to work most efficiently. Make sure you buy a separate pad that is appropriate for each drawing medium.
The Best Types of Drawing Charcoal
You really need 7 tools to draw effectively in charcoal. I’m listing links to all 7 tools that I use and recommend below. The good thing is these tools last an incredibly long time. What seems like an initial expense really gives hundreds of hours of drawing time.
Most of your charcoal drawing should be done in vine or willow charocoal which is soft and erasable. I like Winsor & Newton’s.
Eventually you’ll want to add darker values to your drawing and will need compressed charcoal to do this. BEWARE..there are many really hard, lousy brands of compressed charcoal that can ruin your charcoal drawing with a waxy layer. My go-to brand of compressed charcoal for the past 20+ years has always been Alphacolor.
Naturally you’ll need erasers. I like to use a kneaded eraser most of the time and an eraser stick for the smallest details.
Don’t waste your time with regular drawing paper. Charcoal drawing requires the paper to have a significant tooth to it (texture). Strathmore 500 charcoal paper is the gold standard for a standard size drawing pad. You’ll need a big pad, so get the full 18 x 24 inch sized pad. Careful though, I’ve known a lot of students to accidentally buy gray or colored paper.
For detailed shading use a charcoal pencil. I’ve tried many of them and the General’s extra-soft is my favorite. The rest seem too scratchy or waxy. I also keep handy a small blending stump for when my giant meat hooks (hands) are too big to blend an area.
My Favorite Graphite Pencils
Graphite pencils are a lot simpler than charcoal. I really like the Mars Lumograph model of pencils made by Staedtler. While I buy them individually this starter set I’m linking to below has everything you need to make amazing drawings in pencil!
For erasing graphite I keep two erasers handy. Here’s my favorite erasing tools:
Naturally you’ll need some paper. Again I like the Strathmore brand of paper when buying a pad. The 400 series of paper is more than good enough and you probably don’t need quite as large a pad compared to charcoal. The 14 x 17 inch pad should certainly suffice!
If you need any more advice, please ask a question below.