pencil vs. charcoal cartoon |

Charcoal vs. Pencil

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.

pencil vs. charcoal cartoon |

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 Characteristics

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:

This TomBow eraser rocks! It’s the thinnest eraser on the market allowing me to erase out and tighten up the tiniest details.

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.




  1. Great article! Charcoal and graphite are my two favorite drawing media 🙂 Do you use charcoal pencils, and if so what are the differences between the solid charcoal and the pencil?
    I’d love to know what you think!!

    1. John Morfis says:

      The solid brick of charcoal and the charcoal pencil are both compressed charcoal (very dark) but the charcoal pencil seems to have a little wax added like a regular graphite pencil. For this reason I would only use it sparingly on small areas because overuse will cause a waxy buildup on the paper’s surface. Your drawing example has a lot of impressive details but I think you’re ignoring the “big picture” forms. Remember the head is like a sphere so the values need to change accordingly.

      1. Thanks for the reply; I’m always looking to improve! I have noticed the waxy buildup, which also makes it harder to build layers onto the paper. Also, by “big picture” forms are you referring to incorrect shading of a sphere? I appreciate your help, thanks again 🙂

        1. One more thing: I have used several charcoal spray fixatives which have lessened the values of my art, taking away from the intended result.. I have also heard that these fixatives are yellowing over time. Do you recommend a particular brand, or a specific way to preserve the artwork? -Thanks again for the amazing article!

          1. John Morfis says:

            Professionally I’m an oil painter so I never come across these issues, but I’ve asked serious pastel artists in the past what they fix with and they typically told me they didn’t for the reasons you just mentioned. They would frame behind glass (or similar) and have a small space between paper and mat. So the mat is in fact floated so any extra powder that fell wouldn’t muddy up the mat; it falls in between the mat and the drawing paper.

          2. Gread advice.. that definitely makes sense! Thanks for all your help again, and best of luck with your artwork.

  2. Lauren Woodley says:

    I think the advice to not smudge is a really important. As you say, it could really deter away from the content of the picture, so doing your own exercises to help you get used to the medium will help you to be more effective. It’s helpful that you shared some of those too so that we can easily access the practice. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Sornambika kirubashankar says:

    Hi I am a budding artist and I would like to know that mixing up charcoal and graphite pencil to get a realistic look would be fruitful that is ,I can use graphite pencil for small details and charcoal pencil for darker areas and shading

    1. John Morfis says:

      Before you try mixing the two try simply using a broader range in either medium. Graphite can get quite dark if you use all the way up to an 8B pencil or more. And don’t forget that you can get really light values with vine/willow charcoal and a light touch. And of course compressed charcoal will get super dark. Keep things simple when you’re learning. I have seen a few drawings combining both graphite and charcoal that look good but in my own experience you have to be careful. I have found the glossiness of pencil and the matte finish of charcoal to be a discorded and a distracting combination when drawings are viewed in person. This is something you won’t see if just looking at photographs of drawings, especially online.

      1. sornambika kirubasankar says:

        thank you for your valuable comments. I am currently drawing pencil portraits of my friends and i am also using a wide range of pencil,even B9 but i couldn’t get the darkness i wish so please suggest me some tips. I would also like to send my finished portraits and paintings to you and i am eager to hear your comments if you wish so

        1. John Morfis says:

          There is a limit to how dark pencil can get but as long as you balance out the values with enough light values you should be able to create beautiful pencil drawings. The brand of the pencil also can make a difference Sornambika. If you want help with your drawing/painting… simply find an applicable page on the website and leave a comment. In your comment you can use a link to an image of your artwork. You can use Imgur for instance. I’ll be happy to help.

  4. Kate Hansen says:

    My brother loves sketching, but he’s always just sketched with pencil. I didn’t know that it was possible to use charcoal as a medium, but I bet it gives a different look compared to using graphite. I like how you mention that it is best to use charcoal for larger sized drawings since it is hard to use charcoal for small details. I will have to pass this onto my brother and see if he is interested in starting to use charcoal.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Hi Kate. Charcoal does give a different look and the working properties are quite different. Thanks for your comment!

  5. … accidentally “by” gray or colored paper – I’m sure you meant “buy” gray or colored paper!!!
    Thanks for a great comparison.

  6. Jennifer Saylor says:

    Hi. I’m just learning to draw. I’m starting with very basic shapes first and then moving on to animals, people and landscapes. Ultimately I want to make a large charcoal canvas painting for my living room. Is charcoal on canvas even a possibility? In your opinion should I get the basics of drawing down with graphite first and then move on to charcoal or should I just start learning with charcoal from the start?

    1. John Morfis says:

      Anything is possible, but charcoal doesn’t hold up over time very well uncovered so anything you want to hang up and preserve for a long time should be behind glass. Charcoal allows for rapid value/fills but at the expense of precision. Pencil is just the opposite…it’s precise but very slow to add values. (All advice aimed at beginners of course)

      If it’s charcoal you want to use in the end, start using it. Get yourself a good white charcoal pad and have at it! Get used to sharpening vine charcoal and using it, because charcoal pencils contain compressed charcoal and are sometimes impossible to change or erase. Don’t bounce from one medium one week to another the next, one type of subject matter to another the next…you’ll just become another dabbler that doesn’t really make any progress.

      And by the way, once you get your chops down and want to create some works in charcoal for your home, consider working on some high quality watercolor paper, which can easily be framed behind glass. I detail some more recommendations on papers here: paper for charcoal Best of luck to you Jennifer!

  7. Mimi Richman says:

    Thank you for providing this information. It is quite beneficial to beginners. How do I protect my pencil drawings in a sketchbook from smudging?

    1. John Morfis says:

      There’s several things you can do.

      • If it’s an amazing drawing, cut it out of the sketchbook so it won’t smudge.
      • If you want to keep the drawing in the sketchbook you can spray it with fixative
      • You can also place a sheet of acetate in between the pages.
  8. As a beginner, I found your article extremely helpful and funny. I love that you said that you don’t care if you upset some people. Being triggered by something is how we know that we have work to do on ourselves. Thank you for posting this.

  9. Roberta Braun says:

    Hi I’m a beginner just trying to pick up drawing. I have used only graphite pencil and colored pencil mostly still life’s but need to learn depth and shading etc. in my area I see intro to drawing but it is all charcoal. Or drawing with colored pencils. No intro with graphite. Wondering which of my options might progress me further. Thanks.

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