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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Charcoal

The Basics of Sketching With Charcoal

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Sketching with charcoal is a lot of fun because it's so freeing to make big, sweeping movements across your paper whilst getting messy. In this tutorial I'll discuss the basics of sketching with charcoal, from choosing which type to use to showing you how to tone your paper. We'll cover the tricks of making your subject pop off the page and getting a nice range of value in your sketch.

What You'll Need

supplies for sketching with charcoal
  • Drawing paper or newsprint
  • Charcoal pencil
  • Vine charcoal
  • Charcoal stick
  • Chamois
  • Kneaded eraser

1. Deciding Which Type to Use

Charcoal comes in three basic forms: pencil, vine, and stick. You'll want to play with all three to decide which you prefer to sketch with. Sometimes you will use more than one type in a sketch. Draw lines with each type and also do a bit of shading. Looking at how the charcoal behaves with these two drawing methods will help you make a better decision.

comparing types of charcoal

Pencil Charcoal

Pencil charcoal comes in a range from hard to soft, just like drawing pencils. The advantage of a charcoal pencil is that you can get a very fine point and apply quite a lot of pressure. You will also keep a bit cleaner. Charcoal pencils work perfectly for small pieces.

Vine Charcoal

Vine charcoal is literally burnt willow sticks. As such, it is quite soft and thus it will completely fill in the grooves of your paper, creating a very solid black. Vine charcoal is generally a bit silvery grey compared to the other types of charcoal and thus it doesn't make the darkest blacks.

Stick Charcoal

Stick charcoal comes in a range of hard and soft and also sometimes different colors. It can create quite dark blacks and is generally used to make the darkest darks on your sketch.

2. Holding the Charcoal

To get a hard, sharp edge in your sketch, hold your charcoal as you would a normal pencil. The more pressure you apply, the darker and more solid your line will appear.

holding charcoal like a pencil

To fill in larger areas on your paper and sketch quickly, hold your charcoal on its side. This is how I do most of my sketching because you can better feel out the size of things by making big, sweeping motions.

holding charcoal on its side

3. Filling in Large Areas

Holding the charcoal on its side, start to fill in the large area by applying pressure to the charcoal as you slide it left and right, up and down. Depending on the tooth of your paper and what is underneath your paper, you may get quite dark or you may have little toothy bumps appear.

filling in large areas of your sketch with charcoal

If you want a smoother, darker finish to the large area, take your chamois and gently wipe the paper. You can repeat these two steps several times, changing the direction of your rubbing and wiping to get a smooth, solid finish.

filling in large areas of your sketch with a chamois

4. Sketching With Charcoal

Now that you know the basics of working with charcoal, we're going to quickly cover my favorite way to sketch with charcoal. 

Step 1

Starting with a clean page, use the side of your charcoal stick (or vine charcoal) to draw in the 'bare bones' of your sketch. Put in directional lines and any large blocks of darkness to help you feel out the size and shape of your subject. Don't worry if at this point it looks like a glorified stick figure drawing.

sketching in the bare bones

Step 2

Continue fleshing out your subject using both the side of your charcoal and the point, especially along the edges to really make some dramatic lines. Don't get too attached to anything yet.

fleshing out your subject with charcoal

Step 3

You never want to leave a charcoal sketch on completely white paper. It's similar to starting a painting on a white canvas; it's too intimidating. So take your chamois and wipe your entire drawing down. You'll lose some of your dark areas and fine lines but don't worry, we're going to get those back. Using the chamois gives you a nice light grey background and enables you to later emphasize areas with a kneaded eraser. Go in and add your darks back, pushing the values more now that you have a toned, grey ground.

chamois your charcoal sketch

Step 4

Now that you have quite a range of blacks in your piece, it's time to go in with a kneaded eraser and pull out some highlights. Knead your eraser to the shape you need and gently swipe it over your paper. You'll be amazed by how white that area will become. As your eraser gets black and dirty, simply knead it some more and it will go back to new.

pull out highlights with a kneaded eraser

Step 5

You have darks and you have lights in your sketch. All that's left to do is push things a tiny bit more to have a full value scale. 

Squint your eyes to see where the darkest darks and lightest lights are. Make sure you have a nice range of greys. A good rule of thumb is to put a dark background behind a light area in the subject and a light background behind a dark area in the subject. This creates a push and pull for the eye. That's why I used my eraser to pull out whites in the background in the top left and the right side. 

Also, as you near the edges of your paper, trail off your sketch. The viewer's eye will naturally circle back up to the main area of focus.

push your value range

You're Now Ready to Fill Your Sketchbook!

Gather up your charcoal, chamois and eraser, and start sketching! A good way to preserve your sketches is to spray them with spray fixative or hairspray. Newsprint works great for fast sketches, but it's not as archival as sketching paper.

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