Learn to Draw Using Charcoal

Getting started with charcoal can be a daunting task. Charcoal can be messy and there are so many different types of charcoal to choose from. Where to begin? What paper should you use? In this post find out the best way to create beautifully detailed charcoal drawings with ease by following a few simple guidelines and working with the correct charcoal materials from the start.

Where to Start?

Charcoal requires even more tooth than graphite pencil so you will need to obtain some paper that has a deeper texture (tooth). I suggest you buy a large pad of paper specifically designed for use with charcoal. A pad that measures 18 inches by 24 inches is a great size for charcoal drawing.

Draw large elements first, draw details last.

The workflow with charcoal will be similar to that of graphite pencil in that you should work from light to dark in both technique and materials. In other words, you should not only press lighter at the beginning of the drawing, but also choose a variety of charcoal that will help you limit the degree of darkness within that drawing when starting out. You should also focus on the larger elements of the subject matter and worry about details later. For instance, if you are working on a self-portrait you would not draw a detailed eye until you have all of the parts of the face lightly sketched out in charcoal. Only when you can be assured that elements will not be moving, that is the time to start drawing details within your charcoal drawing.

Vine & Willow Charcoal

Every charcoal drawing should begin with light marks drawn with either vine or willow charcoal. Vine and willow charcoal, though technically different materials, are both a soft, velvety type of charcoal that allows you to make changes very easily to your initial drawing. You should also be willing to take a more hands on approach when using the charcoal and I mean this literally. I want you to push, smudge, and blend the charcoal around the paper with your fingers. For very large areas you can even use a tissue or paper towel to help push around the charcoal powder evenly.

Compressed Charcoal

As your drawing progresses and you find yourself not needing to make any more large scale corrections it is time to use some compressed charcoal. Compressed charcoal is usually fabricated as rectangular bricks and is incredibly dark. It’s the darkest material you will ever encounter and the last stuff you want to accidently crush into your bedroom carpet so take heed. The compressed charcoal should almost always be used on top of existing layers of vine or willow charcoal. This will help it blend into your drawing and not stand out and look like it doesn’t go with the rest of the drawing. The compressed charcoal is however, essential to getting those beautiful, dark tones that make your highlights have a luminous quality within the drawing.

Charcoal Erasers

Because a charcoal drawing smears very easily you are going to want to use a kneaded eraser. A kneaded eraser works differently than a most other rubber or plastic erasers and will not leave little pieces of eraser on your paper. A kneaded eraser works by absorbing charcoal pieces into the eraser itself. You’ll notice the kneaded eraser getting blacker as you erase with it; that’s because it is absorbing the charcoal particles. You can mold the eraser so that you get a cleaner area to erase with. When the eraser gets really dirty you can clean it buy pulling it apart and putting it back together repeatedly. This will provide a much longer lifespan to your eraser and should be done anytime your eraser gets covered in charcoal. Since the kneaded eraser does absorb charcoal however, there will come a point at which the kneaded eraser cannot be cleaned any longer and will need to be replaced. Under normal amounts of erasing it will be many drawings before your reach this point.

A kneaded eraser is great for use with the majority of your charcoal work but it fails when trying to accomplish small scale erasing. I always keep an eraser stick handy, which works like a mechanical pencil. You click the top to extrude a thin white vinyl eraser. This eraser will leave bits and pieces on your paper and is very aggressive towards the paper so only use in for extreme details when your drawing is near completion.

Charcoal Pencils

When it’s time to add some of the smallest details to your charcoal drawing you can use a charcoal pencil. Charcoal pencils look just like regular pencils, but contain compressed charcoal. Knowing that they contain compressed charcoal and are sharpened to a point it would be wise to reserve them only for details towards the end of a fully developed drawing. Otherwise charcoal pencils can scratch lines into your paper and leave marks that are difficult to correct.

It’s All in the Details

There are some other tools that can prove handy at getting your charcoal to comply at the detailed level. Paper stumps, or sometimes called smudge sticks or tortillons are tightly rolled up pieces of paper that are useful for blending tiny areas of charcoal where your finger feels too big for the job. Sandpaper pads are also handy for sharpening up your vine, willow, compressed, or charcoal pencils. Most of the charcoal media wear down rather quickly, but just a few passes on a sandpaper pad and you will have restored a sharp point to your drawing tools. A sharp utility knife is also very useful to keep handy. You can cut the tip of an eraser stick for ultrafine erasing. It’s sometimes easier to sharpen your charcoal pencils with a utility knife rather than rely on a conventional pencil sharpener.

Go Big!

You will undoubtedly feel that charcoal is a little awkward to use and hard to replicate some of the tiny details you see in your subject matter. Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses and when it comes to tiny details charcoal can seem uncontrollable. Using proper tools at the right time will help you gain much control, but this is also the reason you should be working larger as compared to the size of your typical pencil drawings. This is why I recommend you buy an 18 by 24 inch charcoal pad of white paper.

Storage & Spray Fixative

Never leave a completed charcoal drawing in a pad of paper for the long term. Moving the pad from place to place and completing other drawings will smudge your drawing into oblivion. If you’re not framing and hanging your completed charcoal drawing, store the drawing flat in a safe area with a clean sheet of paper in between all of your drawings. Some artists like to spray fix their drawings. Spray fixing makes the charcoal particles adhere to the paper a little better. If you choose to spray fix your drawing you can do so when it is complete and should always spray in a flat, dry, well ventilated area. A garage is usually perfect for this assuming you don’t place your drawing in a puddle of water or worse yet a puddle of oil! Be careful, scout out your spraying area first.

To spray fix your drawing lay your completed drawing face up on a clean, flat surface. Spray over your drawing about 12 inches above the drawing. Try not to spray the drawing directly, but rather let the fixative fall onto the drawing. Make several passes back and forth until each area of the drawing seems covered. Keep track of where you are spraying because you will not be able to tell visually which parts have been sprayed. Let the fixative dry for 5 minutes and then repeat the process. You can give the drawing up to 5 light coats for maximum fixing. Make sure not to get too close to the drawing while spraying and definitely do not soak the paper. Keep an eye on the spray nozzle; sometimes a drop can develop and drip onto your drawing. Excessive spraying and drips will create permanent spots on your drawing.

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