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Charcoal Drawing Fundamentals

Updated: Apr 7, 2022

Sketching with charcoal can be a lot of fun. It is liberating to make big, sweeping movements across your canvas and getting your hands dirty.

However, there are a few things to keep in mind before you start sketching with charcoal, especially if you are a beginner. There are different types of charcoal pencils and drawing materials that you can choose from to give different effects.

Let’s cover all the basics to make your drawing stand out while also teaching you a few useful techniques.

Materials You Need

  • Drawing paper

  • Charcoal pencils

  • Vine charcoal

  • Charcoal sticks

  • Chamois

  • Kneaded eraser

Prerequisites For Charcoal Drawing

Sketching with charcoal can be a very exciting activity if you know what you are doing. However, as a beginner, you might have trouble figuring out the basics. But don’t worry! In this section, we will walk you through the basics of charcoal sketching to help you get started!

Choosing Your Tools

As mentioned before, charcoal pencils come in 3 types, including vine, pencil, and stick. In order to figure out which is the best for you, you will first have to test them out individually and see how they perform on paper.

To do this, draw a few lines with each type. The second method is to do a little bit of shading. Based on the behavior of these charcoal pencils, you will be able to make the perfect decision.

Pencil Charcoal

Just like drawing pencils, pencil charcoal also comes in hard and soft types. Using this, you apply a lot of pressure to make the finer details of a sketch and keep it cleaner.

Vine Charcoal

Vine charcoal pencils are nothing but burnt willow sticks, which means they are softer than pencil charcoals. These pencils are great for creating solid black shapes as they can easily fill in all the grooves of the paper.

However, the color is lighter than most black charcoal

Stick Charcoal

These types of charcoal typically come in a wide range of colors, and they can range between hard and soft textures.

It creates a nice black finish for your sketches which makes stick charcoal pencils the perfect choice to create the darkest dark effects for your sketches.

Hold Charcoal The Right Way

The most important thing to keep in mind before you start sketching is that you need to have a hard, sharp grip over the charcoal. All you need to do is hold the pencil the way you would normally hold an ordinary pencil.

A rule of thumb here is that the more pressure you apply, the darker the charcoal will get. The lines will also get more solid.

For larger areas, make sure to hold the charcoal firmly on the side. This way, you can get a better feel of all the sweeping motions you make.

Filling In Large Spaces

If you want to fill a large area on the canvas, start by gripping the charcoal on its side. Next, slide the pencil up and down, left and right, while also applying more pressure.

For a darker, smoother finish, remember to gently wipe the chamois over the paper. Continue repeating this until you achieve the desired smoothness.

Sketching Process

Now that you are well aware of all the basics of charcoal, you can follow this easy 5-step guide to start drawing with charcoal! You can also refer to a few artists paintings to get a better idea.

Step #1

Turn to a fresh, clean page. Take vine charcoal or a charcoal stick and use the side to draw a light sketch of your design. Next, shape the objects by adding large dark blocks or directional lines and give the bare bones of your sketch more dimension.

At this point, your sketch might look like a simple over-glorified stick figure. But don’t worry! Trust the process.

Step #2

Continue adding more dimension to your drawing by making a few dramatic lines. However, this is still the starting stage of your sketch, so make sure not to get attached to it yet.

Step #3

Painting on all-white paper can be quite intimidating. So in this step, you will use your chamois to wipe off your entire drawing. Don’t worry about losing the fine lines and dark areas at this point because you will get those back later.

By using a chamois on your drawing, you will have a nice, neat, light grey background. This, with a kneaded eraser, will help you to emphasize all the shapes and figures.

Once you have properly smoothed out the surface, go back in to add the lines and darks back into the picture. Now, you will have a nice toned background that will emphasize all the values.

Step #4

At this stage, you will have a decent amount of blacks in your paper. Grab your kneaded eraser and start erasing out a few black to create highlights.

Make sure to knead the eraser according to the shape you want and swipe it gently over the paper. After a few swiping movements, you will have created a white area that acts as the perfect highlight to your sketch.

It is also common for your eraser to get dirtier. However, kneading it more will help expose more new areas that you can use to erase.

Step #5

By now, you should have the right amount of lights and darks all over your sketch. The only thing left to do is enhance it a little more to give it a full value scale.

To do this, you will have to identify where the lightest lights and darkest darks are.

Keep in mind that your portrait also needs to have a decent range of toned grays. To make this job easier, you can place a dark background in the back of a light area and vice versa in the drawing.

This will help create a nice pull-push effect for your eyes. Feel free to pull out a few whites in the background for more depth in the image.

Make sure to trail off the sketch as you approach the end of the paper. This way, the eye of the viewer will be automatically pulled to the main focus area.

Big Finish

And, voila! You are now ready to start filling in your sketchbook! Grab your charcoal pencils, chamois, erasers, and paper, and start creating your dream art shop. Don’t worry about making mistakes, as these will be the best way to learn and improve.

If you want to preserve your sketch after you are done with it, spritz it with hairspray or a spray fixative.

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