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5 reasons why I love charcoal

Charcoal is one of my most favorite drawing mediums. I’ve been using it since a couple of years, and I’ve come to love it more and more. Why? Let me give you five reasons why I love charcoal.

1. It’s an ancient drawing material, used for thousands of years

I love the fact that charcoal is such an age-old drawing material. It’s been used for thousands and thousands of years, as the ancient cave drawings that most of us are familiar with show. These cave drawings have been found all over the world: from Europe to Australia and Southeast Asia.

The walls of these caves are decorated with drawings made from charcoal, but also different types of earths and bone were used. These pigments were mixed with saliva or animal fat to act as a binder, so that they stuck to the cave wall.

We don’t know why these drawings were made, if they had some ritualistic meaning or if they were just decorations. But it’s amazing that tens of thousands of years later we are still able to admire them. Look at these incredible drawings of rhinos and horses that were found in the Chauvet Cave in France (image below). These are the earliest known European figurative cave drawings, made over 30,000 years ago.

2. It’s a natural material, safe for our health and environment

Another thing that I love about charcoal, is that it’s a natural material and relatively safe for our health and environment. As a drawing material, charcoal in its purest form is made from branches of the willow tree, or sections of grape vine. These are burnt to a precise degree of hardness, eliminating the oxygen inside the wood. The more processed forms of drawing charcoal, such as compressed charcoal, use natural gums as binders, which are also generally safe for our health and the environment.

One thing however that you do need to be aware of, is the dust that can be produced when drawing with charcoal. Especially the variants without any binder, like willow or vine charcoal sticks, can produce dust when we draw with them. Important is that you don’t blow off the dust with your mouth, because you could inhale the charcoal particles. Instead, if you need to remove any dust it’s better to tap your finger to the back of your paper, or use a soft brush or a rag to carefully wipe it away.

3. It’s really inexpensive

I also love the fact that charcoal is such a ‘basic’ material, which is not expensive at all. You can buy a pack of thirty willow charcoal sticks for less than 5 euros or dollars. Compressed charcoal and charcoal pencils aren’t expensive either. Add to that a kneaded eraser and a knife to sharpen your supplies, and you’re all set to create awesome drawings. No fancy tools or expensive supplies necessary!

4. It’s a great medium to learn to work with tonal values

Charcoal is also an ideal medium to learn how to work with tonal values. Tonal value, or simply ‘value’, in art refers to how light or dark something is. The lower the value, the darker the object. If an object is light, it appears to be closer, and if it is darker, it seems to be further away.

Tonal value is one of the most fundamental concepts in visual art, because it can be used to create depth and a 3D effect. Light and dark, or light and shadow, are the elements that give for example a face in a portrait its depth, its structure. That’s because the lighter parts of the face seem to be protruding, while parts that are dark seem to be pushed inward. The tip of the nose for example is usually light, because it is sticking out.

Learning to work with tonal values in art is essential. It’s even more fundamental than the use of color. That’s because tonal values create the structure of your art piece. If you know how to work with tonal values, you can use any color and still be able to draw a realistic face. That’s also the reason that learning to work with tonal values is the first subject that we focus on in my in-depth portrait course Drawing in the Soul.

Now, what does this all have to do with charcoal? Charcoal is a great medium to learn to work with tonal values, because it doesn’t have any color. Color can be distracting when we want to focus on tonal values, because it’s not always easy to see exactly how light or dark it is. If we eliminate the color, it’s way more easy to see the relative lightness or darkness of what we’re drawing. Charcoal doesn’t have any color, it’s just black or some type of grey. The light is created by the white of the paper. And that’s really all we need to create stunning portraits, with a lot of depth and realism.

5. It’s very versatile: many different techniques and ‘looks’ possible

And finally, what I love about charcoal is its versatility. You can use many different techniques and create different looks with charcoal.

For example, you can use the basic willow or vine sticks flat on the side, to create broader strokes, with a lot of texture as well. Or you can use thinner pieces as a kind of pencil, for thinner lines. And besides the willow and vine sticks, charcoal comes in a variety of forms, such as pencils, compressed sticks, or powder. You can smooth charcoal out with a rag or paper stump, for a soft look, or create all kinds of textures. Combine that with tools like brushes, rags, and erasers, and with different types of papers and other substrates, and you can imagine how versatile this simple medium actually is! And with all these different applications you can create different looks, from super soft and smooth, to expressive and raw with a lot of texture. It’s all up to your imagination! 🙂

So these are just five reasons why I love charcoal, but actually I could name many more. It’s easy to take with you, for example on vacation. You don’t need many tools, and it’s light weight as well. It’s also a very forgiving medium, because you can easily erase it and change anything you want. And unlike paint, there isn’t any drying time involved either…

I could go on and on. Charcoal really is one of my most favorite art supplies of all times! And what about you? Do you like working with charcoal? Have you used it before, or are you new to this medium? Let me know in a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think of charcoal!

All about charcoal

If you would like to take an in-depth class on charcoal, then I recommend my charcoal portrait course The Many Faces of Charcoal.

In this comprehensive online class you'll learn to draw expressive faces using a variety of charcoal drawing techniques. We're going to make projects in different styles and work with various types of charcoal – from vine & willow charcoal, to compressed charcoal, charcoal pencil, charcoal powder, and more!

Click here for all info.

If you would like to take an in-depth class on charcoal, then I recommend my charcoal portrait course The Many Faces of Charcoal.

In this comprehensive online class you'll learn to draw expressive faces using a variety of charcoal drawing techniques. We're going to make projects in different styles and work with various types of charcoal – from vine & willow charcoal, to compressed charcoal, charcoal pencil, charcoal powder, and more!

Click here for all info.

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This Post Has 35 Comments
  1. Beginner question – How do you store your charcoal sticks? Especially if you want to draw outside?
    I keep breaking mine and end up trying to draw with small pieces rather than the whole stick.. can’t figure out how to store them without breaking. Have soft pencil cases and that don’t seem to work, so when I reach in to get a charcoal stick all I get is dust. Messy and broken charcoal. 🙁 Any Advice?

    Thank You!

    1. Good question Sonal! When I take charcoal sticks with me on a trip or on holiday, I wrap them in some paper towels and then store them in a simple hard plastic box with a lid. You know, the type of boxes that you use to store food in etc. I do the same also with pencils, because those can break too on the inside (the lead can break). Hope this helps! 🙂

  2. I dont know why..but i have never thought about trying art with charcoal!
    It always seemed to require some more artistic talent than i possessed. But, thanks to your introduction to charcoal, i am excited to try it now. Although i cannot afford to take your course at this time, i just wanted to say thankyou for giving me something new and exciting to try while in social isolation.

    1. I’m really glad to hear that! Yes, I find charcoal actually a lot more forgiving than many other media. So, have fun experimenting with charcoal! 🙂

  3. Have not had a lot of experience with charcoal, but I know it can take you places with art. More so, because this course is also about portrait drawing makes me more excited to learn the ropes of playing with charcoal. I’ve had a dabble in a real class on charcoal, but it was more to do with perfecting the drawing (drawing to exact sight size) so much so that I was too busy perfecting the drawing rather than enjoy the use of this medium. Love what I have seen so far, so am really looking forward to the tutorials. Thank you, Juna. 😊

    1. Yes, the main focus of The Many Faces of Charcoal is exploring various techniques of working with charcoal. It’s going to be a lot of fun, not in the least because it’s such a forgiving medium. Charcoal to me really is an invitation to play and explore and I’m sure you’re going to love it too! Enjoy the class Esther! 🙂

  4. Houtskool is mijn favoriete medium om mee te werken. Bovendien ben ik gepassioneerd door de menselijke figuur in al zijn facetten met in het bijzonder portret. Ik heb mij ingeschreven in deze cursus om de verschillende technieken te leren. Ik ben heel benieuwd en – na het bekijken van de gratis mini les – ben ik alleszins overtuigd veel te kunnen opsteken van deze cursus ….. kan bijna niet wachten om van start te gaan !!!

  5. i am just learning to draw and the reason i love charcoal is because it lets me make corrections quickly which lets me stay in flow!!!!

  6. Poštovanje..
    Trenutno nemam ugljen ali ću ga nabaviti uskoro! Hvala vam mnogo! Divim se vašim portretima! Nadam se da ću uskoro imati vlastite radove! Svako dobro želim vam od <3

  7. Ik ga het nu proberen
    Ik ben na je gratisproefles helemaal blij geworden wat ik in korte tijd heb bereikt met houtskool.
    Zo dat ik er graag meer over wil weten en vooral mee werken ik heb er zin in

    Groeten Marian

    1. Wat fijn te horen Marian! Houtskool is echt geweldig om mee te werken en je kunt er zo veel mee doen! 🙂

  8. I’am a beginner with charcoal and I just can’t wait to start learning everything about it and start drawing. I hope it’s going to be as easy as it looks by watching your videos but one thing is for sure, you truly are an inspiration and I’am totally filled with so much gratitude to be able to start this journey with you…
    Thank you


    1. Thank you so much Angelinda! Charcoal is so versatile that you can work with very easy techniques, but also more challenging ones. In The Many Faces of Charcoal we’re going to explore a variety of techniques, and my invitation is to just try everything out, play, practice, and have fun! We’re going to have a great time in this class! 🙂

  9. Hi Juna,
    Thank you so much for your write-up on the reasons why you love Charcoal. I too love it. Initially, I felt I didn’t like to use it because I had no control over it and it was messy. However, I soon got over that when I tried your first class with Drawing from the Soul and other online classes. Watching you and others make such meaningful marks, I just had to try and I soon fell in love with it. I care less about the mess and more about what I can do. The beautyof it too is that you can make a fairly quick sketch or an intensely detailed drawing depending on where the spirit of it takes you.
    It is indeed quite amazing . As I have just started in the last few months, I have miles to go to say I have accomplished a lot with Charcoal but I am finding the journey so fascinating and intriguing. I love your classes by the way. I hope to be able to take another very soon. Blessings, Linda

    1. So happy to hear that Linda! And I totally agree. Charcoal is so versatile, you can do so much with it and create many different looks. Yes, it can get a bit messy, but I’ve written an article here some tips on how to keep it clean.

      I’m really glad to hear that you love my classes and it would be awesome to have you in another one in the future! 🙂

  10. Cant wait for you classes on many faces of charcoal… excited to expirement with it…..actually will be my first time playing with charcoal but has been always my secret desire to do…never ever had the guts to even try cause the whole process seemed very intimidating to me…but….watching your free video course made me dare and hope that with your instruction i might be able to create something ….
    Thank you!!!

    1. You’re going to love working with charcoal, Elena! You’ll see that it’s such a fun and forgiving medium. I’m looking forward to having you in this class, I can’t wait to start this new round of The Many Faces of Charcoal! 🙂

  11. I’m a total beginner! Just started drawing and FINALLY found something I enjoy doing. Lost my husband to brain cancer in 2013 and although I’m finally able to breathe again after 5 1/2 years, could never seem to find anything I enjoyed doing. Can charcoal be used for sketching then painting? Or are pencils better for sketching faces or portraits?

    Thanks so much!

    1. I’m so so sorry to hear about your husband Robin. <3 But I'm really glad that you found art. Yes, it can be so healing and such a beautiful way to express something from within. That's really precious!

      Regarding your question: yes, certainly charcoal can be used to sketch and then paint. In fact, many artists do that. If you don't want your charcoal to come through the paint, you have to keep your sketch light. Otherwise the charcoal will mix into your paint layer. But to prevent that you can also apply a coat of fixative before you start painting. On the other hand, you could of course also experiment with letting the charcoal layer mix into your paint layer. Maybe that gives an effect you really like! There are no rules, so you can just experiment, see what happens, and find out what works for you. Enjoy your art journey! 🙂

  12. Hi Juna – Am really looking forward to learning all about the techniques of using various types of charcoal. I have played with some before, but your style looks very free and expressive and I would love to achieve even a little of that!

    1. Yes, you can do so much with charcoal! Lots of different techniques. I’m sure you’ll like it a lot! 🙂

  13. Love Juna and her beautiful portraits. Trying to get even close to her own creation.

    Thanks a million in advance. Just awesome and so pleasing to ones Soul to observe.


  14. I have worked with charcoal some and have found it very enjoyable. I live in a small studio apartment and love that I don’t have to get out a lot of supplies. I enjoyed your classes in LF 2016 and look forward to your charcoal class.
    Linda Larson

    1. Yes, that’s definitely something I love about charcoal too Linda! I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed my lessons in Let’s Face It and look forward to having you in The Many Faces of Charcoal class! 🙂

  15. Have only drawn with charcoal once and that was in your Drawing in the Soul course. I loved that course and the way you teach. I’d love to join the charcoal drawing class, if not this session then perhaps the next one. Thank you.

    1. Great to hear from you Debbie! And so glad to hear that you enjoyed Drawing in the Soul! I’d love to have you in class again – whenever it suits you best! 🙂

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