The Artist’s guide to the Top Charcoal Drawing Tools

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Welcome to the wonderful world of charcoal drawing! As an artist, you know that selecting the right materials is key to creating beautiful artworks. When it comes to charcoal as a medium, there are many types to choose from. In this guide, we’ll explore the unique properties of the top 5 charcoal tools that every artist should have in their toolbox. From delicate vine charcoals perfect for detailed studies, to soft charcoal pencils for precision, to bold charcoal sticks for expressive mark-making, there’s a charcoal to suit every artistic need. Discover what makes each one special, along with tips and techniques to use them to their full potential. Let’s dig in and demystify charcoal for the budding to experienced artist within you!

An Introduction to Drawing with Charcoal

Charcoal offers artists a dynamic range for drawing. The rich, black pigment can render deep blacks and delicate greys with ease. Charcoals are made from burnt willow or grapevine sticks, allowing you to literally be drawing with fire! Vine charcoals have a soft, crumbly texture that readily smudges for blending. Compressed charcoals are mixed with binders and molded into sticks, offering sharpened precision. Charcoal pencils conveniently contain charcoal in a wood casing similar to graphite. And charcoal powder provides a loose, grainy texture perfect for toning paper. With the right charcoal for your style and techniques, you can create stunning works of art.

Charcoals can be lifted and erased to lighten, making them very forgiving. A kneaded eraser is an artist’s best friend for lifting highlights and fixing mistakes. Charcoal’s softness also makes it easy to blend smooth gradients by smudging with your finger or a cloth. And rich, black charcoal pops against white paper or canvas providing high contrast. Your creativity can shine through this classic medium that has been used by artists for centuries.

Now let’s dive deeper into understanding the unique properties and best uses for the top 5 charcoal varieties:

1. Delicate Details with Vine Charcoal

Vine charcoal is the original, natural form of charcoal, sourced straight from willow or grapevine branches. It has an organic, crumbly texture almost like compressed ash or chalk. Vine charcoals are typically thin sticks that are soft and easy to break into smaller pieces. This gives you the ability to sketch with a sharpened point or use the broad side for shading larger areas.

Stabilo CarbOthello is a high quality vine charcoal that is smooth in application with good pigment intensity. It lightens well with erasing and has a nice tonal range from soft greys to black. Stabilo CarbOthello vine charcoals are blendable yet don’t over smudge, making them great for precise, delicate drawing.

With vine charcoal’s softness, it excels for quick gesture sketches, studies, and detailed blending. Try using broad, sweeping strokes to lay in shadow shapes. Then gently blend and lift areas for highlights with a chamois cloth or your fingers. The charcoal readily picks up onto paper, allowing for sensitive mark making and gradation in tones. Build up darker values gradually by layering. Vine charcoals are excellent for achieving subtlety in things like portraits, still life’s, and figure drawing.

Here’s a gorgeous example of vine charcoal used for an expressive portrait study:

2. Precision with Compressed Charcoal

Compressed charcoal is charcoal powder mixed with just enough binder to form moldable sticks. Compared to vine charcoal, compressed charcoal has a denser, smoother texture almost like graphite. It can be sharpened to fine points, allowing for crisp, defined lines and detail work. Compressed charcoal is darker in pigment and won’t readily smudge or blend. The sticks are also more durable and stable.

General’s Kimberly Compressed Charcoal is an artist favorite thanks to its velvety application, rich pigment load, and smooth sharpening. It excels for precision drawing as well as laying in deep blacks. You can easily achieve a wide tonal range with Kimberly charcoal.

The hardness of compressed charcoal makes it ideal for controlled, detailed rendering. Use sharp points for crisp edges or to hatch and crosshatch for toning large areas. Try experimenting with mark making techniques like pointillism dots and graduated shading. Since it doesn’t smudge easily, compressed charcoal works better for building up tones through layers rather than extensive blending. Give compressed charcoal a try for still life subjects, architectural sketches, or anything requiring fine details.

Here compressed charcoal brings life to this furry friend through clean lines and subtle value shifts:

3. Versatility with Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal pencils contain charcoal powder mixed with binder in a wood casing, similar to graphite pencils. This makes them extremely convenient as drawing tools. Charcoal pencils act like a bridge between vine and compressed charcoals. They have a bit more stiffness yet also blend smoothly. Charcoal pencils come in a range of hardness grades just like graphite, typically from soft to hard.

Cretacolor Noir Charcoal Pencils offer rich, black charcoal pigment with smooth lay down and wide range of hardness levels. Soft grades are very blendable while harder options allow for fine details. Charcoal pencils are portable to take on location for sketching. Yet they also provide great control for finished works.

The best part of charcoal pencils is their versatility. Softer grades can render wide gradients and shadows. While harder grades add crisp lines and detailing. Try charcoal pencils for quick gesture sketches as well as refined illustrations. The convenience of a pencil combined with charcoal’s smoothness and rich pigment make them a versatile choice. Charcoal pencils bring together the best aspects of graphite and charcoal in one.

Here a wide range of tones is achieved using charcoal pencils:

4. Tonality with Charcoal Powder

Loose charcoal powder provides a medium comparable to graphite powder or pastel. It has an ultra-soft, grainy texture and sits lightly on the paper. Charcoal powder is unadulterated charcoal pigment that readily transfers onto paper and can be swiped to tone large areas quickly. It’s also extremely blendable and easy to erase.

Winsor & Newton Charcoal Powder has a velvety application and toning effect. Just a small amount lifted with a brush can cover a lot of ground. You can also pour or sprinkle charcoal powder directly onto paper. Try rubbing it in with a cloth or brush to tone the page before drawing.

Charcoal powder excels for laying in wide swatches of value. Blend the edges of powder applied with a brush or cloth to soften. You can also use a kneaded eraser to lift out highlights. Let your creativity run free with charcoal powder by experimenting with application techniques. Sprinkle, pour, spatter, or spray the powder for interesting textures and marks. For organic shading try using your fingers to blend.

Here charcoal powder creates atmospheric depth:

5. Expressiveness with Charcoal Sticks and Blocks

Charcoal in stick and block forms offer high pigment concentration in a convenient package. These charcoals are made from compressed charcoal powder mixed with just enough binder to shape it into square or round sticks. Charcoal sticks can be sharpened to a point or used on their side for broader marking. Charcoal blocks are great for large scale drawing such as murals.

Grumbacher Charcoal Drawing Sticks provide a smooth, bold lay down with excellent density and hardness range. From extra soft to hard grades, you can find the right stick for your drawing needs. Softer sticks are very blendable while harder options retain crisp edges and lines. Sturdy wooden handles make Grumbacher charcoal sticks comfortable for prolonged use.

The boldness of charcoal sticks and blocks allows for expressive, gestural drawing. Use them for quick figure sketches or still life studies. The sharpened point helps capture fine details. While the broad side readily fills in large areas with rich blacks. Charcoal sticks give you versatility between delicate and bold mark making. Allowing for any drawing style from loose and energetic to detailed rendering.

Here charcoal sticks capture form and contrast:

Mastering Charcoal Drawing Tools and Techniques

With an understanding of the unique properties of each major charcoal variety, you can select the right one for your artistic needs. As you develop your charcoal drawing skills, don’t be afraid to experiment with different tools. Combining vine charcoals with compressed charcoal or pencil adds dimensionality through mixed line work and shading. Let the charcoal interact with the paper’s texture to create dynamic effects. Always remember that a light touch goes a long way with charcoal. Smooth tonal blending requires finesse. Master charcoal’s versatility through focused practice and your skills will grow exponentially.

To recap, here are the top charcoal drawing tools every artist should try:

  • Vine charcoal – Delicate blending and lifting, soft shading
  • Compressed charcoal – Crisp lines and details, sharp edges
  • Charcoal pencils – Versatility and convenience, wide tonal range
  • Charcoal powder – Toning and smooth gradients, atmospheric depth
  • Charcoal sticks/blocks – Expressive strokes, bold mark making

Keep this guide handy as you advance on your artistic journey with charcoal. Feel the material and learn its capabilities through doing. Let charcoal enhance your unique drawing style and vision. What will you create with charcoal’s rich, black magic? Your imagination is the only limit. Now grab a charcoal, put paper to stick, and draw!

Frequently Asked Questions About Charcoal Drawing

Q: Which type of charcoal is best for beginners?

A: Soft vine charcoals are a good starting point for beginners. They are very forgiving and easy to erase and blend. Vine charcoal allows you to get a feel for the medium with friendly properties. You can make soft tones and lines easily. As you gain experience, move on to compressed and pencil charcoals for more control.

Q: How do I fix/seal a charcoal drawing?

A: Use a charcoal fixative spray or liquid sealant. Lightly spray or brush on a fixative to stabilize and prevent lifting or smudging. Apply in thin layers so as not to make the drawing overly shiny. Charcoal fixatives come in matte, satin, or gloss finishes. Allow layers to fully dry between applications for best archival protection.

Q: What paper is best for charcoal drawing?

A: Look for heavyweight paper with some tooth or fine texture. Hot pressed papers are too smooth for charcoal, causing it to slide rather than adhere. Strathmore 400 Series charcoal papers provide excellent tooth for building up dark charcoal tones. For larger works, try canvas panels with a bit of roughness. Tape drawing paper to a board before working to prevent buckling.

Q: How can I blend charcoal smoothly?

A: Use a chamois cloth, tortillon, or your fingers to softly blend charcoal. A very light touch is key to prevent overblending. Work gently in small circular motions to smoothly transition tones. A tortillon is a paper blending stump great for delicate areas like faces. Fingertips allow control for precise blending and gradation.

Q: What are some tips for charcoal drawing?

A: Use a light touch, layer gradually, lift highlights with a kneaded eraser, sharpen often, fix when finished. Also work from dark to light, letting the white paper show through for highlights. Use charcoal’s flexibility to easily modify and erase. Keep separate blending tools for light and dark areas. Shake excess charcoal dust off paper periodically while working.

Q: What are the safety concerns with charcoal?

A: Charcoal dust can be messy and get on clothes. Work in a ventilated area and wash hands after use. Avoid inhaling charcoal dust by wearing a mask when spraying fixatives. Charcoal smudges easily so protect work from rubbing. Baby wipes are great for cleaning up hands and work area. Spray fixatives outside or in well-ventilated spots.

Q: Can charcoal drawings be done in color?

A: Yes, add color with pastels, watercolor washes, or colored pencils on top of charcoal drawings. Apply color lightly over base charcoal sketch. Or use white charcoal to draw out highlights on toned paper before adding color. Draw over fixed charcoal for best results. Color allows you to expand the possibilities of charcoal drawing.

Q: How should I store charcoal drawings?

A: Store flat in a portfolio or folder. Fix drawing first and protect from rubbing and smudging. Cover with glassine or tissue paper to prevent transfer of charcoal dust. Never roll up charcoal drawings. Keep in consistent temperature and humidity conditions to prevent cracking or damage over time. Handle fixed charcoal drawings gently along edges.

Q: Do charcoal drawings fade over time?

A: Unfixed charcoal can slowly fade and lift. Spray with a fixative to prevent fading and stabilize. Reapply fixative every 5-10 years. Avoid exposing drawings to direct sunlight which can cause fading. Store framed drawings behind UV protective glass. Handle charcoal drawings gently and minimize touching surface to prevent blurring.

Q: What are some common charcoal techniques?

A: Blending, smudging, hatching, crosshatching, erasing, lifting, shading gradients, pointillism. Also try sgraffito drawing by scratching into charcoal with tools. Use your finger or cloth to rub and tone paper. Experiment with water for wash effects. Try pressing textures into charcoal. Use white charcoal for highlights on toned paper. The possibilities are endless!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *