Charcoal is a fantastic drawing medium and many artists – myself included – love using it, for all sorts of reasons. It’s easy to work with, and very forgiving. You can create wonderful textures – very rough or very smooth, and everything in between. And you can create all sorts of different looks: from dark and dramatic, to light and airy.
The possibilities of this versatile medium are endless. However, when you’ve never worked with charcoal before, it can feel a bit daunting or awkward to just pick up a piece of charcoal and start working. Where to start? And what exactly do you need? With a new round of my charcoal portrait class The Many Faces of Charcoal starting soon, let me give you below 3 tips to get started with charcoal drawing.
1. Experiment with different types of paper
You can use charcoal on many different types of paper, with different types of texture (‘tooth’).
If you use paper with a bit of a rougher tooth, the charcoal will stick better to the paper and is therefore easy to apply. The texture of the rougher paper can also be visible in the drawing, which can be something you like or don’t like, depending on the look that you’re going for. Examples of drawing paper with more tooth are newsprint paper, charcoal paper, and pastel paper.
You can also work on smoother types of paper. The charcoal will not ‘grab’ to the paper as easily as with rougher paper, but that also means that it’s very well suited for working with erasers. An example of smooth drawing paper that works well with charcoal, is Bristol paper.
Personally I also love to use charcoal on watercolor paper. Especially the smoother type, called ‘hot press’ watercolor paper. This paper has enough tooth to take on the charcoal easily, but it’s not highly textured. And since I also use watercolor paper for other types of mediums, like acrylic paint, pastel, and more, I always have it at hand and I don’t have to buy it specifically for charcoal drawing.
2. Use different types of charcoal for different purposes and effects
When we talk about charcoal as a drawing medium, there are actually different types of charcoal that we’re referring to.
Charcoal can be used in its most basic form, just a piece of willow or vine charcoal, to create soft marks which blend well. But you can also use compressed charcoal, for a darker look, or charcoal powder or pencils.
In this article you can find more detailed information on the different types of drawing charcoal that exist, and the various purposes they can be used for.
3. Use other tools for additional effects
Charcoal drawing is not just about working with charcoal. You can do much more with it if you use it in combination with other tools.
An essential tool for charcoal drawing is an eraser. Not so much in order to correct mistakes – although you can use it for that purpose as well of course. But more importantly, you can use erasers to create the lighter tones and highlights of your drawing. You can use a kneaded eraser, which can be molded into any shape you want, to take off parts of the charcoal. Or you can use harder erasers in thinner pencil shapes to create interesting line work in light tones.
Other tools that you can use for charcoal drawing, are rags or a chamois to blend and smooth out the charcoal. And if you want to blend finer details, blending stumps or tortillons in different sizes come in handy. I have to admit I also use my hand or fingers for this purpose sometimes, although you have to be careful with that because the oils from your skin can be transferred to the paper and create stains.
Want to learn all about charcoal drawing, using different techniques, tools, and styles? Check out my in-depth online charcoal portrait class The Many Faces of Charcoal. In this class you’ll learn to create expressive faces using a variety of charcoal drawing techniques. We’ll be working with all forms of charcoal, from willow and vine sticks to compressed charcoal, charcoal powder, charcoal pencils, and more. And you’ll learn how to use these supplies in combination with other tools (like the ones mentioned above and more) and with other media as well. It’s a great way to get familiar with charcoal drawing and hone your skills!