How to Get Started Drawing with Charcoal

Ha Duong
Nov 20, 2018 7:19PM

Courtesy of The Art Students League of New York.

Courtesy of The Art Students League of New York.

Soft sticks of black charcoal are often staples in introductory drawing classes. The smooth, brittle material is both forgiving and challenging, and so it’s ideal for honing drawing skills. Manufactured in various densities—from vine charcoal for swift, light strokes to compressed charcoal for thick, intense marks—charcoal is useful for exploring light and contrast, and it enables artists to develop rich tonal values. At first, however, the material can be difficult to harness. Below, we share tips from seasoned art instructors to help you master the medium.

Don’t go too dark

Heather Hansen
EGLA-3 10.1.15, 2015
Ochi Projects

While artists enjoy using charcoal for the rich lines and shading it produces, its darkness can be difficult to manage. Beginners to charcoal often use too much pressure when applying it to paper, and unintentionally leave marks that cannot be easily softened or erased.

To help her students develop a more sensitive, delicate hand, Brooklyn-based artist and drawing instructor Allison Maletz kicks off her drawing classes with a grayscale exercise. Students must use charcoal to draw a scale that shows the gradations from black to gray to white. Rather than creating the scale in order, she advises her students to fill in the blackest black first, but to then jump to the center of the scale, creating a medium or middle gray there. Then, students can slowly work from the center outwards, towards black and white. By working in this order, students are less likely to make an imbalanced scale that’s overwhelmed by darker values, and gain control of lighter values. And the same concept can be applied when approaching a drawing.

Vine (also known as willow) charcoal can also be very helpful when learning to get a handle on the material. Mariana Zanina, a private drawing instructor and teacher at the Art Students League of New York, recommends making your initial sketches or outlines using vine, and slowly building up value with other forms of charcoal. As vine charcoal isn’t very densely packed, it’s also helpful for beginners, because you can easily wipe away mistakes with your finger or a paper towel.

Maletz also advises students to use vine charcoal or a charcoal pencil in order to keep their sketches light, then only adding bold marks with compressed charcoal once they’re confident in the placement of their objects on the page. Keeping outlines light allows artists to anticipate how their drawings may evolve. “Don’t think about the outlines as outlines, think about them as edges instead,” says Maletz. “The edge of the object could be a highlight, in which case you wouldn’t want a dark outline.”

Experiment with materials to find what works for you

Courtesy of The Art Students League of New York.

You should experiment with various types of charcoal—compressed, vine, pencil—but you should also familiarize yourself with the range of tools and materials that artists often use with it.

Kneaded erasers—a soft, moldable, gum-like eraser—can help you pick up charcoal particles, create highlights, adjust details, and do some light blending. For smooth blending and creating gradations, you may want to try paper towels, a chamois cloth, blending stumps, and, of course, your fingers.

Considering charcoal’s propensity to grab onto surfaces, you may also want to try out different paper weights and textures, which can dramatically alter your results. The advantage of using rough textured paper, Zanina notes, is that charcoal will take to the surface easily, making the material easier to manipulate as it rests on the page. Any paper with a visible texture suffices, like Canson Mi-Teintes, Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500, Fabriano Tiziano, or any pastel paper.

Alternatively, Maletz recommends using charcoal with soft, smooth, hot-pressed newsprint, as opposed to regular paper. Though newsprint’s cheap quality won’t allow you to erase as easily as high-quality textured paper, its even surface gives you room to practice blending and control. “The smoother the surface, the softer or more delicate the gradations will be,” Maletz explains. “As a beginner, working on a textured paper [can become] a distraction.”

Despite the many options, Maletz insists that what really matters is that students experiment with different materials and explore which combinations best conveys their vision. “The reason that all the different art supplies exist is that all of us have different opinions, and that’s okay,” Maletz muses. “Every single artist has to find their own personal expression.…You need to find what works best for you.”

Step away from your work often

Courtesy of Allison Maletz.

Maletz notes that many new students struggle with getting the subtle gradations that charcoal is prime for creating. Sometimes, while drawing draped fabric or creased skin, their work will resemble a melange of isolated shapes, like camouflage, with “clumps of different values” rather than one cohesive form. In addition to learning how to get a handle on blending with charcoal (which can be done with the help of tools, mentioned below), it’s helpful to take a step back from your work every so often.

Considering the material’s fine, powdery nature, you may find yourself keeping your face close to the page. Doing this, however, can make it hard to see whether your details come together cohesively.

“Seeing [your work] from far away allows you to see the big picture,” Maletz offers. “When you’re right up on something, you can see the details, which are wonderful, but that’s not really important until the very end of the drawing.” She tells her students to step far away from their drawings every two to five minutes, hanging them against a wall or propping them up on an easel. This is especially important in classes where students draw on a flat desk, as angles and proportions can easily be distorted.

Although stepping back so frequently may seem cumbersome at first, getting this distance from your work will allow you to identify flaws very quickly, and give you the time and space to make edits early on.

Keep your paper clean

Kelli Vance
Self Portrait in Pink, 2015
McClain Gallery

Mariana S. Zanina, Crystal, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.

Given charcoal’s diffuse consistency, it gets everywhere—your fingers, wrists, forearms, and your workspace—which makes it easy to accidentally add unwanted smudges to your paper. If you’re concerned about these spots and smears taking away from the overall impact of your drawing, be conscious of where you place your hands, arms, and materials as you draw.

Beginners struggle with smudging, Zanina says, “because they tend to lay their hands on the paper when they draw on the side of their arms.” To prevent this from happening, she suggests placing your pinky against the paper, to lift your arms away from your work.

If that gets tiresome, Maletz recommends putting extra pieces of paper under your arms to keep them from smudging everything underneath. Maletz notes that students should wash their hands frequently throughout the process; when working with charcoal for a prolonged time, the oils from your hands can also easily stain the paper.

To preempt any possible messes or mistakes, once your drawing is complete, you can use a fixative spray or hairspray to ensure that the charcoal doesn’t move around.

Ha Duong