Charcoal drawing of an orange, a banana and two hazelnuts.

Is Charcoal Drawing Difficult? (Basic Techniques Explained)

Charcoal is among the oldest materials used by man as an art tool and is still a popular art medium today. If you haven’t had any experience with charcoal yet, you might be wondering if it’s difficult to use.

If charcoal is a new or unfamiliar art material for you, read on. The purpose of this article is to provide basic information about this wonderful medium.

Drawing with charcoal is not difficult, it is an easy-to-use dry medium that requires no special preparation. 

Since the charcoal particles do not adhere strongly to the drawing surface, they can be erased. This makes any adjustments to the drawing quite easy.

Charcoal is a wonderful medium that is fun to use, anyone can learn to work with it, all you need to do is practice.

With charcoal, you can make beautiful grayscale or monochromatic drawings. Charcoal is suitable for depicting a wide variety of subjects, such as still lifes, landscapes, architecture, nature, human figures, and portraits.

However, there are some things to pay attention to when drawing with charcoal. One important thing is to be careful not to smear the drawing with your hands while working.

What materials do you need for charcoal drawing?

There are several forms of charcoal used for drawing, after some experimentation you can determine which one is best for you.

Willow and grapevine charcoal sticks

Simple charcoal is most often made by burning willow or grapevine twigs in an oxygen-free tank. The sticks thus produced have no added binder. They are irregular in shape and fragile. Vine and willow charcoal sticks are great for making preliminary sketches because they are easy to erase, making adjustments to your drawing easy.

Willow charcoal is suitable for drawing darker tones. Grapevine charcoal is harder so you can draw lighter tones with it.

Compressed charcoal sticks

The charcoal used for drawing is also available in the form of compressed sticks combined with a binder, mostly gum arabic. They are manufactured in a variety of hardnesses and thicknesses and are suitable for drawing rich black tones.

Compressed charcoal sticks allow you to draw more precisely, providing greater control than charcoal made from natural twigs. You can sharpen the tip of these sticks with fine sandpaper.

Charcoal pencils

Charcoal pencil is also made from pressed carbon with a binder and is available in soft, medium, and hard grades.

The wood casing protects the carbon stick inside from breaking easily. The advantage of pencils is that you can work with them cleanly compared to other types of charcoal without smearing your fingers.

Charcoal pencils can be sharpened in a similar way to graphite pencils, for example with a scalpel. You can make the pencil tip quite sharp with fine sandpaper.

What paper is best for charcoal drawing?

Almost any type of paper that has some texture or tooth can be used for charcoal drawing. These papers are mostly those that are also used for pastel or graphite drawings. Carbon particles need a tooth on the paper because they can stick to it. Plain, glossy papers are not suitable for working with charcoal or other dry media.

Drawing papers are available in a variety of colors, you can experiment with different ones. The color and texture of the paper contribute to the overall effect of the finished work of art.

Drawing board

The drawing board must have a smooth surface to which we attach the drawing sheet. For charcoal drawings, set the board to an almost vertical position. A painting easel comes in handy to support the drawing board.

What erases charcoal?

Willow or vine charcoal sticks, as their particles do not adhere strongly to the paper, can be erased relatively easily with either your hand, a chamois cloth, or a paper towel.

Compressed charcoal sticks and charcoal pencils contain a binder. Marks made with these materials cannot be completely erased, so it’s a good idea to work with them more carefully. If you press the charcoal stick harder on the paper, it will be difficult to erase the marks.

A kneadable eraser or putty rubber is the best tool for erasing charcoal. A good feature of a putty eraser is that it does not damage the surface of the paper and leaves no residue. In addition, it can be easily kneaded into any shape as needed, which helps with precision.

The kneadable eraser can also be considered a drawing tool, as it is suitable for correcting errors and drawing by lifting off charcoal from the paper to create light areas and highlights.

What can you use to blend charcoal?

When working with charcoal, you can use various tools and methods to smudge and blend charcoal particles on paper. Choose the one that suits you to achieve the effect you want.

Paper stumps are manufactured for blending and applying dry media. They are pencil-shaped and made of rolled-up paper. One or both of their ends are pointed. They can be cleaned with fine sandpaper as needed.

What is needed for charcoal drawing
Charcoal drawing tools and materials

Chamois leather or chamois cloth is also widely used by artists when working with dry media. You can blend Charcoal particles nicely with it. Chamois is washable so it is easy to keep clean and long-lasting.

In addition to professional tools, simple household materials can also be effective for blending charcoal, such as simple paper towels, cotton balls, and swabs.

You can also smudge charcoal with your fingers, but this will make the drawing process much messier. It should also be noted that the oil that is naturally always present on the skin can stain the drawing.

Is charcoal good for sketching?

Charcoal is great for drawing sketches as the drawing can be easily erased and corrected. It is an expressive tool and is therefore often used for study drawings in live drawing classes.

The most important drawing elements such as shapes and tonal values ​​can be easily perceived with charcoal without going into too much detail.

Can you use charcoal and pastels together?

Pastel and charcoal are both dry drawing materials with similar properties and can therefore be used in combination.

You can use white pastel, sometimes referred to as “white charcoal,” to emphasize highlighted areas. Like charcoal, white pastel is also available in pencil form.

Tips for charcoal drawing?  

Charcoal is a wonderful, versatile drawing medium, suitable for making both precise lines and broad strokes. You can choose from different ways of applications depending on the effect you want to achieve.

You can make the objects presented in your drawings three-dimensional by applying tonal rendering. When applying tonal rendering, always consider the shape of the object. Charcoal is a drawing medium that makes drawing tonal values easy. You can tone the drawing using one of the techniques described below.

When choosing a charcoal technique, the texture of the materials you intend to represent should also be considered. The surface texture of the objects can be, for example, smooth and shiny or coarse and matt.

  • You can draw crisp, precise lines with a charcoal pencil or the pointed end of a charcoal stick. By drawing with the side of the stick you can create broad marks. Depending on how hard you press the charcoal on the paper, you can achieve light or strong tones.
  • By smearing charcoal marks, you can create even tones and smooth transitions between tonal values.
  • Hatching and cross-hatching are made up of lines applied in different directions in one or more layers. With the help of this technique, we can gradually create rich, varied tones. By varying the length and direction of the lines and the distance between them, we can create a variety of effects and textures.
Is charcoal drawing difficult 5
Charcoal technique samples
  • Stippling is a technique in which dots of different sizes and densities are used to build a drawing. Darker tones can be achieved with denser stippling. For light areas, draw the dots less densely and leave the white color of the paper visible.
  • Subtractive drawing is an interesting technique that works especially well with charcoal. The essence of this technique is to draw on the charcoal-covered drawing sheet by erasing, and lifting off charcoal particles. For subtractive drawing, a kneadable eraser is the right tool.

How do you start a charcoal drawing?

We start the charcoal drawing by making a sketch. The best tool for the preliminary drawing is a willow or vine charcoal. In the first step, mark the outer boundaries of the composition on the drawing sheet.

Define the larger shapes first, including the shapes of light and shadow, taking care of the proportions. In the still life composition below, I measured the size and relationship of the objects using a measuring stick.

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Still life drawing with charcoal step 1.

As you progress with your drawing, add more and more detail. The right way to make a drawing is always to move from larger shapes to smaller details, it is not advisable to start drawing with details.

Start shading in a lighter layer, making sure to maintain the relative relationship between light and dark tones. Charcoal is great for producing strong contrasts that can enhance the dramatic effect of your drawing.

By observing and depicting the effects of light and shadow, you can create the illusion of spatiality with your drawing.

Is charcoal drawing difficult 3
Still life drawing with charcoal, step 2.

The mood of the artwork is influenced by the tonal values you apply to your drawing. If you use lighter tones, you will get a higher-key, brighter, and more cheerful creation. Dark, deep tones will result in a dramatic drawing.

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Still life drawing with charcoal, step 3.

As you progress through the drawing, refine the details and enhance the tones. Work continuously over the entire drawing surface and do not complete part of it completely, independent of the rest of the drawing.

When drawing with charcoal, be careful not to smear the drawing with your hands.

Is charcoal drawing difficult 1
Still life drawing with charcoal

What is the disadvantage of using charcoal in art?

One of the disadvantages of drawing with charcoal is that the charcoal drawing is prone to damage if not treated with a fixative. Another downside may be that working with charcoal can be quite messy.

Who invented charcoal drawing?

Charcoal is one of the oldest mediums used in art. The Paleolithic man worked with charcoal to make cave drawings that can still be seen today.

Below are some amazing charcoal drawings from different eras in art history. Explore the works of these outstanding artists, and study how they used charcoal. You can learn a lot by copying their drawings.

The works of art of the old masters are in the public domain, which means they are accessible to everyone.

Charcoal in the Renaissance art

During the Renaissance, charcoal drawings were only preliminary sketches that the old masters made in preparation for their more serious works of art. Charcoal was used to transfer the sketches to the wall prepared for the frescoes and to the panels for paintings.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci
Charcoal and white chalk on paper.
The Head of the Virgin by Leonardo da Vinci
The Head of The Virgin by Leonardo da Vinci. Black chalk, charcoal, and red chalk. Public domain. Image source
Albrecht Dürer The Virgin Nursing the Child
The Virgin Nursing the Child by Albrecht Dürer. Public domain. Image source
The School of Athens Cartoon by Raphael
The School of Athens Cartoon by Raphael. Charcoal, and basic lead carbonate. Public domain. Image source

Charcoal drawings from the Baroque era

Saint Christopher by Rubens
Saint Christopher by Peter Paul Rubens. Charcoal on paper. Public domain. Image source
Windmill on the Bastion Blauwhoofd in Amsterdam by Rembrandt
Windmill on the Bastion Blauwhoofd in Amsterdam by Rembrandt. Charcoal on paper. Public domain. Image source

Impressionist charcoal drawings

Tahitian Faces by Paul Gauguin
Tahitian Faces by Paul Gauguin. Public domain. Image source
Marjorie Eden, Lady Brooke, later Countess of Warwick by John Singer Sargent
Marjorie Eden, Lady Brooke, and later Countess of Warwick by John Singer Sargent. Public domain. Image source

Final thoughts

Charcoal is a wonderful drawing medium, perfect for expressing our ideas and impressions. It is easy to use, and suitable for making both sketches and more serious works of art, as evidenced by the drawings of the great masters of the art.

Charcoal is a great material to explore, experiment with, and use to create your unique drawing style.

About Me


My name is Debora, and I’m the founder of Drawing Fundamentals. I work as a civil engineering technician. I acquired the basic knowledge necessary for freehand and technical drawing during my school training, further developing and perfecting these skills throughout my years in the profession. Through my blog, I aim to assist anyone interested in learning to draw.

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2 thoughts on “Is Charcoal Drawing Difficult? (Basic Techniques Explained)”

    1. I’m glad you liked the information about charcoal. We can make truly beautiful works of art with it. Charcoal is perhaps the oldest drawing medium in art history, used by such great artists as Leonardo da Vinci and John Singer Sargent.

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