How To Draw With Charcoal: A Guide For Beginners
Whether you’re looking to start your art practice or expand it in a different direction, charcoal is a versatile medium worth mastering. While excelling at this drawing style can take time and practice, you can learn a few foundational techniques and exercise your creativity in just a few steps.
Charcoal comes from burning organic carbonaceous materials, such as wood, in the presence of little oxygen. It’s a black residue that’s easy to smudge due to its powdery nature. It can be soft (like a crayon), hard, or powdered and used in sticks, blocks, or drawing pencils.
Depending on your artistic goals, charcoal lends itself to drawings ranging from hyperrealistic portraits to softer landscapes.
If you’re new to the medium, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll discuss why you may want to start drawing with charcoal, how drawing with charcoal is done, and nine actionable steps to achieve the unique results you desire in your art.
Why draw with charcoal?
Charcoal is popular among artists for many reasons. The material’s versatility, simplicity, and unique properties make it a great choice for a range of art styles and applications.
Consider these benefits of drawing with charcoal:
- Charcoal smudges easily, which helps with blending and making smooth drawings. When smudging charcoal, you can also create gradient effects.
- Being able to spread and blend easily means you can use charcoal to experiment with different techniques.
- You can erase and correct mistakes made using charcoal—so you can draw freely and improve your technique with time.
- Charcoal limits the range of colors you can work with, allowing you to refine your understanding and perfect your technique when working with different shades.
- Since charcoal comes from burning twigs or vines, it’s a natural material without toxic effects on the body. It’s safe to use from a health perspective and doesn’t harm the environment.
The basics of working with charcoal
Understanding the basics is valuable before delving into the step-by-step process—so you feel prepared and ready to create your first charcoal drawing.
Tools you’ll need
Let’s look at the different art supplies you’ll need to draw with charcoal.
You can choose from a range of paper types. Slightly textured paper is a good idea, as the surface texture absorbs the charcoal more easily than smooth and matte papers.
We also recommend opting for heavy-duty paper so you won’t have to deal with tears. With time, you may prefer one type of paper over another, but multiple types work well with charcoal and produce varying results.
- White paper. White paper is the go-to for many artists, especially beginners, as the color of the paper mixes with the charcoal to give you smooth and natural highlights. Bristol paper, illustration board, and plain cartridge paper also give similar results.
- Charcoal paper. This option has a fine-ribbed texture, helping you make harder lines.
- Toned paper. Toned paper is an interesting choice, as you’ll need to use white and black charcoal to strike a balance between shadows and highlights.
Type of charcoal
Charcoal comes in various shapes and forms. With trial and error, you can figure out which types you most enjoy working with and which are most suitable for the various components of your artwork.
The three types of charcoal are:
- Compressed charcoal. This type of charcoal produces thick, dark lines, making it difficult to erase or smudge. Compressed charcoal doesn’t lose its shape when used, which can be when you need to add fine details to your drawing after its foundation is in place.
- Willow charcoal. Willow charcoal is the softest of all types, making it easy to spread, erase, and smudge. You’ll typically use this soft charcoal in the beginning stages of the drawing process. Blending also becomes a smooth and easy process. But the ease with which this charcoal spreads and smudges makes it messier.
- Powdered charcoal. Powdered charcoal is charcoal crushed to a fine powder. As a result, it can cause a bigger mess than the other two kinds, and you’ll need to use a paintbrush. With charcoal powder, you’ll need to build the color slowly and carefully, so you’ll want to avoid applying too much of it too fast. This charcoal is ideal for adding light layers to your drawing or filling bigger portions.
- Kneaded eraser. This tool can remove charcoal from paper. You can also use a kneaded eraser to spread charcoal onto paper in a specific stroke. Using a kneaded eraser as a brush can help you experiment with charcoal drawings. Remember to clean your kneaded eraser with warm water before using it on a white piece of paper.
- Blending stump. Blending stumps create subtle smudging and blending effects using charcoal. Blending stumps can help you create effects like soft light and evocative shadows within your drawings.
- Paper towels. Powdered charcoal is charcoal crushed to a fine powder. Working with specific charcoal, especially powdered charcoal, can get messy. Keeping paper towels handy helps ensure that things remain clean and tidy.
- Fixative. Fixatives are protective coatings you can spray onto your charcoal drawings to minimize smudging and keep particles in place over time.
- Sharpener. Sharpeners are a necessity for any artist. They help sharpen charcoal pencils and tools, just like graphite pencils.
- White chalk. You can use white chalk to add finishing touches to a charcoal sketch. Charcoal drawings primarily experiment with light and how it illuminates particular objects. White chalk can help you depict the fine details of an object being lit from a specific angle and add visual depth to your drawings.
How to hold charcoal
How you hold a piece of charcoal affects how your drawing will turn out. You’ll want to keep some techniques in mind when holding charcoal. Mastering these techniques may take some time, so practice as much as you need to.
- Use your elbow and shoulder to lead your movements while holding the charcoal—instead of just your wrist.
- Grip the charcoal softly while working on the outline or other basic details of the drawing.
- Hold the piece of charcoal in a way that allows it to move freely in the direction of your strokes.
- Be aware of when you should let the charcoal dangle loose and when you should grip it closely to ensure maximum accuracy. Holding it like a pencil is useful for drawing outlines, whereas holding charcoal at a greater angle allows you to create textured and loose strokes.
- Keep your wrist and palm off the canvas as much as possible to avoid unintentional smudging.
- Remember to hold the charcoal sideways against the paper when you want to highlight the texture of the paper.
Focus on blending and layering charcoal
A humble piece of charcoal allows you to create layers, depths, and realistic renditions of life.
With skilled blending and layering, you don’t need other tools to transition from delicate softness to hard lines in the same piece of work. When working with charcoal, it’s important to focus on perfecting your blending and layering techniques.
Some charcoal drawing techniques you can practice with your newly acquired materials include:
- Using a blending stump. Blending stumps and brushes are important tools for charcoal drawings. Blending stumps help you do everything from softening your drawing in specific places to creating expressive strokes that encapsulate your style—while also adding detail to your drawing by highlighting how the objects in it are lit.
- Layering different types of charcoal. Charcoal drawings are usually multilayered. Each layer of the drawing adds more depth and helps bring the drawing closer to your envisioned piece of art. You can use different types of charcoal to achieve different results. While one layer of your drawing might use very light charcoal, another might require a darker, matte effect that you can achieve only by using a darker charcoal pencil.
How to create a charcoal drawing
Now that we’ve covered the basics of charcoal materials and techniques, it’s time to put that understanding to use. Get your tools ready and follow this tutorial to create your own charcoal drawing.
Step 1. Plan the composition
The first thing is to plan what you want to make. Having a rough idea of the composition can help you achieve your desired result.
For example, if you plan to make a drawing with a “softer” look, you might focus more on smudging and pay attention to where the light in your drawing is coming from.
Additionally, you should be aware of the tools you might need to complete the different sections of the piece. Collecting the necessary tools in advance is a good idea, so you don’t have to scramble to arrange things like paper towels and blending brushes in the middle of working on your drawing.
Similarly, if you think a part of the drawing might need you to try out a technique you’re unfamiliar with, do some research in advance and practice on rough sheets to get the technique right.
Step 2. Draw broad shapes
Making the first stroke on a blank piece of paper can be hard. It’s even tougher if you don’t know how to start. The easiest way to start is by beginning with a broad shape that you can later sculpt more accurately to better resemble your subject.
Here are some tips to help you get different shapes right:
- Look at your subject closely and draw a broad shape that serves as its outline. You can even break it down into a simple geometric shape and start with that. For example, if your subject is a Christmas tree, you can begin by drawing a triangle. If it’s an apple, start with a rough circle.
- Start contouring the outline lightly with a soft charcoal pencil until the geometric shape resembles the subject.
Step 3. Add shading
Once you finish drawing the shapes, it’s time to add detail to them. You can do this in the following ways:
- Smudge the charcoal in areas where you want to add shadows. Usually, you smudge areas around the contour lines to create depth.
- Add shading to the larger areas of the picture, such as the sky or the subject’s hair. Use a light touch at first.
- Create depth by using your charcoal lightly in some areas and not in others.
- Don’t shade areas that should have a lighter tone.
- Use a blending stump or your finger to blend light and dark areas.
Step 4. Increase contrast
Now that you’ve added more detail to your drawing through shading, you can start establishing a contrast between dark, mid-tone, and light areas.
Contrast enhances the difference between these areas and accentuates the effect you add to your drawing through shading. Contrast accentuates how objects are lit in your drawing, giving them more depth and definition.
You can add contrast to your drawing by following the next few tips:
- Make the shadows darker (or highlights lighter using white chalk) and clearly define light sources.
- Mark areas of high contrast with dark lines using a charcoal pencil.
- Add more pressure to your charcoal when working on darker areas.
- Use the kneaded eraser to erase brighter areas that should have highlights.
Step 5. Add definition
Scan your surroundings, and you’ll realize that some objects have soft edges and others have harder edges. This step involves identifying objects in your drawing that need to be defined more clearly or softened.
- Add solid black lines to objects that need definition.
- Use a kneaded eraser to create highlights in brighter areas, creating a hard transition between areas of light and shadow. Transitions between such areas aren’t always smooth, so you can use the eraser to create a sharp edge between the two.
Step 6. Darken shadows
You might have noticed that charcoal drawings almost always have a smooth, matte finish. The texture of the paper is barely visible because of the number of layers of charcoal the artist adds to the drawing.
- Keep darkening the shadow areas of the drawing with the help of charcoal pencils and powdered charcoal.
- You might need to use an extra coat to fill the tooth of the paper until its texture isn’t visible anymore.
- Use a charcoal stick and add pressure to darken your identified areas.
Step 7. Lift highlights
Your kneaded eraser and blending stump come into use now. You can do three things to lift highlights in your drawing:
- Use a blending stump or kneaded eraser to smooth transitions between light and mid-tone areas.
- A kneaded eraser is also useful in creating highlights. It absorbs excess charcoal, so you can use it to lighten areas where you want to create highlights.
- You can use a white charcoal pencil to highlight bright areas further.
Step 8. Refine the details
It’s time to add the finishing touches! Use a sharp stick of charcoal to even out edges, shade the darkest dark shadows just a little more, and add other finishing touches you think your drawing’s missing.
Step 9. Spray a fixative to protect against smudging
This last step involves fixing your charcoal drawing by spraying it with a charcoal fixative. The fixative protects the drawing from getting smudged and keeps the charcoal particles on the paper.
Spray two to three coats of the fixative on the drawing and leave it to dry between each application. Make sure you use the spray in a well-ventilated room and stand a few steps back while spraying it on your drawing.
When the drawing has dried, you’ll want to store it in a way that protects it from damage. If you’re storing all your drawings together, layer a smooth or glossy paper between them. You can use glassine to cover charcoal drawings.
Get started as a charcoal artist with Upwork
If you have a knack for charcoal drawing, it might be time to monetize your skills. You can list your services on Upwork and bid on jobs as a charcoal drawing freelancer to make money practicing your hobby.
If you’re looking to commission a beautiful charcoal piece from an experienced artist, you can always enlist the services of one of our many certified charcoal drawing experts. Check out Upwork today.