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Working with charcoal messy? 5 simple tips to keep it clean

Can working with charcoal get messy? Eh… well, the answer is: yes! Your hands can get quite dirty, and your work area might get covered in charcoal dust as well. I’ve heard from people that they’d love to start drawing with charcoal, but they’re hesitant because they don’t like the mess that seems to go along with it.

However, it’s actually quite easy to prevent the mess. So let me give you 5 simple tips to keep it clean.

1. Use baby wipes to clean your hands

Contrary to many other art supplies, such as paints or inks, charcoal is actually really easy to remove from your hands. All you need is to wash them with water. However, I don’t have running water in my studio area, so if I first have to open a door and touch other surfaces in order to go to a sink, things can get messy along the way.

That’s why I always keep a pack of baby wipes next to my easel when I work with charcoal. When I want to take a break, or when I’m done drawing, all I need to do is take a baby wipe to quickly clean my hands before touching anything else in the room. Yes, it’s that simple. 😉

2. Cover your easel and work area with paper towels

Another easy thing to do to prevent a charcoal mess, is to cover the surface right below your drawing with paper towels. When you’re working on an easel with your drawing in an upright position (which is the best way to work), usually some of the charcoal will fall down and cover the surface beneath your paper.

So all I do is I take a piece of paper towel that is the same width as my easel, and cover the area below my paper (A). Then I use tape to make sure it doesn’t move. I also have a tray on my easel (B), where I keep my charcoal supplies while working. I cover the bottom of that tray with paper towels as well, to keep that area clean. When I’m done working with charcoal, I can easily remove the paper towels from my easel and dispose of them.

Below is another image, showing what this paper towel setup looks like from above. It works really well, and is easy to replace when necessary.

3. Use Swiffer dusting cloths to clean charcoal dust from your work area

These are disposable wipes that I use to clean off my table if there is any charcoal dust on it. I used to use baby wipes for this purpose, but those are wet and when I use them to wipe my table it will wet the charcoal too, which creates an even bigger mess. You could use paper towels instead, but the Swiffer cloths use electrostatic forces to attract and retain the charcoal particles. This works surprisingly well and makes it really easy to keep your work area clean, without creating a mess.

4. Use a mahlstick to keep your hand off the paper when you’re drawing

When we’re drawing with charcoal, especially when we are working on the details, it can happen that we accidentally place our hands on the drawing and smudge through the charcoal. This can ruin your drawing, and make your hands really dirty as well.

Normally when I draw with charcoal I make sure to keep my hand off of the paper, but when I need to work on the details I need a bit more support for my hand. In those cases I like to work with a mahlstick. This is a stick with a soft ball at one end. I place the ball on my easel, next to my paper (make sure not to place it onto the paper itself). Then I keep the other end in my left hand, so that the stick creates a base for my right arm to lean on as a support for my right hand (my drawing hand), without having to rest it onto the paper.

This works really well, not only to keep stable when drawing details, but also in order not to touch the paper and smudge the charcoal.

5. Keep a handheld vacuum in your studio area

Even with the measures mentioned above, sometimes I still find some charcoal dust on the floor or on my easel when I’m done drawing. You know how that goes: some of that nasty charcoal dust just seems to ‘materialize’ when and where you expect it the least. 😉

Taking out my regular vacuum cleaner is a kind of a hassle, so I make sure to have a handheld vacuum in my studio. That makes it a lot easier to quickly remove any remaining charcoal mess after I’ve been drawing for a while.

So these are 5 simple ways how I keep clean when I’m drawing with charcoal. And how about you? What is your feeling towards charcoal? Do you love to get your hands dirty, or are you afraid of the mess? And what do you do to keep things clean? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Let me know in a comment below!

Online portrait class The Many Faces of Charcoal

The Many Faces of Charcoal is an online portrait class in which you’ll learn to draw expressive faces using a variety of charcoal drawing techniques. If you’re into working with charcoal, or a total newbie but curious to working with this fabulous medium, this is definitely a class for you! Click the button below to learn more about this class. 🙂

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This Post Has 26 Comments
  1. Do all of the things you mention but also wear thin vinyl gloves you can still smudge the work with them on and of course hands stay clean

    1. Thanks for your tip Steph! I personally don’t always like to wear gloves, but they can be very useful indeed. 🙂

  2. Liked reading your tips for working with charcoal. I was always worked with the paper tacked on the wall in the studio and put newspaper on the floor to catch the dust and I would spray it a bit damp first. I also used the same for working with my pastels too. but my studio id the garage with a nice coat of floor paint and it cleans up nicely . If I used my drawing table I used a bit of newsprint to catch dust on my lap and floor.

  3. Those are some great ideas for working with charcoal. Frankly, I was surprised to find that it’s even less messy than when I use soft pastels.

    1. Yes, with soft pastels you have to deal with the color pigment as well. Glad you found the tips useful Vickie!

  4. Thank you for the ideas about dealing with the mess of charcoal. I like charcoal and am currently taking The Many Faces Of Charcoal course. I am a beginner ( at a very advanced age) . At this point I have more luck with charcoal whereas acrylic paint always seems to ruin my sketch.

    Thank you again. I really like your teaching style.


    1. That’s wonderful to hear, Stephanie! Yes, I too find charcoal so much easier to work with. It’s really versatile and forgiving. Enjoy the class! 🙂

    1. Yes, that’s a good tip Debra. Personally I don’t really like to wear plastic gloves and I would prefer to get my hands dirty. 😉 But I’m sure many other people will prefer the gloves!

  5. Drawing with charcoal is well worth the mess to me! I am loving this new class and the softness and texture that can be created with this medium! Juna, you have created another amazing class! Looking forward to the next weeks class, Karen

    1. Thank you so much Karen!! Yes, isn’t it awesome what you can do with charcoal? I’m really happy to hear that you are enjoying the class. See you next week for the next lessons! 🙂

  6. Dank je wel voor je mooie blog. Zelf werk ik met een natte doek onder mijn werk, die vangt de houtskool op en het dwarrelt dan niet, dat is echt fijn. Voor het hoesten drink ik veel water en ik werk met mijn mond dicht, de neus spoel ik na het werken met zout water. Dat ging goed gister en ik heb vandaag niet meer last dan anders van mijn gezondheid.

    1. Goede tips Erni, en ik ben blij dat je op die manier toch met houtskool kunt werken! 🙂

  7. Thanks Juna! I’ve always believed that the mess of charcoal was unavoidable. No teacher or instructor ever told me otherwise. And it all is just simple, common sense…

    1. Yes, just a few simple precautions can make a big difference in working with this awesome medium. Thanks so much Malik for stopping by! 🙂

  8. Thanks Juna for these fabulous tips on charcoal!!! I’m one to not like the mess and like the charcoal pencils I have that are coated, but the swiffer and mahlstick are brilliant and will have to give them a try the next time I use charcoal. Thanks again =)

    1. Great that you found the tips useful Kandy! Charcoal is just too wonderful of an art medium to not use it. But it’s great if we can keep it a bit clean, lol! 🙂

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