Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Messin' Around with Charcoal

One of my charcoal sketches to
liven up the beginning of this post
This post will be a little different from my usual blog entries as I have decided to make it more informative than a straight review. I have had a slight obsession with charcoal over the past two months, which has led me to try a few new products related to this enjoyably messy medium and reacquaint myself with some old favorites. I have enjoyed this journey so much that I want to share what I have learned, and I hope it is helpful to less experienced artists.

I should clarify that charcoal is nothing new to me. I had used it extensively in my freshman drawing classes back in the day when I thought I was going to complete my BFA and work as an artist for the rest of my life (I may expand upon that in another post).  I have dabbled with charcoal occasionally over the last 20+ years, but I had never appreciated its versatility and its power as a fine art medium. In fact, I had always dismissed charcoal as a messy and awkward sketch tool, and now I suspect that a touch of intimidation factored into my avoidance as well. Sounds dramatic, but I think other artists will understand this point.

Using a chunk of soft charcoal is nothing like sketching with a finely sharpened pencil, and anyone accustomed to working with highly controlled mediums like graphite and colored pencil is guaranteed some awkward moments when switching from one to the other. As a young timid artist, I would abandon any medium that took me outside of my comfort zone; however, as a matured (in some ways) artist with more patience, I understand that it takes a while to get comfortable with something new. In many cases, I have to do a little research, watch some YouTube videos, and check out blogs and art forums for guidance. I didn't have these resources when I was fresh out of high school. Furthermore, I had started my university fine arts program with very limited studio art experience compared to my fellow classmates. Maybe I can save a few "noobs" some of the frustration that I have felt by sharing the following information.

Affiliate Disclaimer: For full transparency, you should know that many of my links in my posts are affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when readers purchase items using my affiliate links. This helps me fund the blog domain costs, and you will not be charged extra if you buy anything using my links. 

Types of Charcoal

Like graphite, artist charcoal comes in different shapes, sizes, consistencies, and degrees of hardness. You can buy it in sticks, chunks, pencils, and powdered forms, which all have their uses and limitations. Most artists are introduced to willow or vine charcoal and compressed stick charcoal in their early drawing classes, and these are most readily available in most areas, so I will begin with them.

annotated pic of different charcoal types
Here are some of my charcoal supplies with the different types labelled

Natural, Willow, and Vine 

First, I should explain that all charcoal is "natural" unless otherwise stated on the packaging. It is made from burnt wood, after all. "Natural" simply refers to charcoal that is not compressed into sticks, blocks, or chunks. Willow is a natural charcoal made by burning willow tree branches at a steady, high temperature until it is a solid stick of charcoal. Vine charcoal is made the same way but from sturdy grape vines rather than twigs. Most companies will explain their manufacturing process in detail on their websites or even on the packaging. From what I have read, willow lays down darker tones than vine charcoal, but I have found that darkness varies between brand, so one brand of willow may give lighter values than another brand of vine, and vice versa. 

 Both varieties come in many sizes, but most I have used are anywhere from 4 to 8 mm wide. Currently, I have some vine pieces made by Royal & Langnickel, with which I can achieve light to darker mid-tone gray shades. However, if I smudge, blend or blow on the lines I make with the vine charcoal, they become a light value gray tone. Such is the nature of vine and willow varieties. Most artists use these slim, lightweight sticks to create initial sketches and gesture drawings that will eventually disappear under subsequent layers of charcoal or other mediums.

 A painter may draw his or her subject in vine charcoal, spray fix the under-drawing, then paint over it without fear of it showing through the paint. This may be the most popular use for vine or willow charcoal sticks because these varieties do not offer the dark, rich shades of gray or black one desires in a finished charcoal piece. The lighter lines are also easy to erase or smudge down to faint values in an under-drawing, which is ideal at the beginning stage of  your artwork when you want to establish your lines and forms. 

Compressed Charcoal

This variety is made by pressing finely ground charcoal powder and a binder together in a mold, just like pastels. Unlike the "natural" varieties, compressed charcoal comes in different shapes, sizes and degrees of hardness. Some brands (like Generals and Nitram) label charcoal degrees just like graphite using "B" grades to designate softer, darker degrees and "H" for the harder, lighter degrees. Others keep it simple with "soft", "medium", or "hard" labels (like Derwent, Koh-I-Noor, and Royal & Langnickel brands). Manufacturers control the hardness by varying the amount of binder in the sticks. Softer degrees have less binder (thus more charcoal) than the harder values. There is no standard formula here, so one brand of "soft" may be darker or lighter than another brand designated with the same degree. 

You can find larger bricks, chunks, and batons (the artsy French way to say "stick") in compressed form, which makes this variety more suitable for blocking in large areas of tone and for establishing general shapes and values during the initial drawing stages. If you have or want to develop a more painterly style, you will want to experiment with larger pieces of charcoal. Due to its variability, you can create greater value ranges with compressed charcoal than you would with vine or willow sticks. However, it can be more difficult to erase darker marks made with compressed charcoal. 

Charcoal Pencils

I love any medium that can be made into pencil form, so, naturally, I have tried a few different kinds of charcoal pencils. Most brands use compressed charcoal for the core, so you can find them in different degrees. The sturdy, slim cores make these pencils perfect for rendering tiny details that have the visual impact and staying power that compressed charcoal offers. Neither thick compressed sticks nor willow or vine twigs can do this for you. 

I have seen some pencils labelled as "natural charcoal", which implies a vine or willow core, but I have not tried them because I think that sharpening them would be an issue. Whenever you have a wood casing involved, you need a blade, and natural charcoal is very tricky to sharpen with blades. Sandpaper is great for sharpening any type of charcoal, but it is not very effective for the wood casing. You still have to cut away the wood on the pencil to sharpen the core on your sand block, and the process can put too much pressure on a fragile natural charcoal core. 

I have sharpened my charcoal pencils with mechanical (both my "old school" crank-operated ones and the little hand-held types) and electric sharpeners, but I think the most reliable method is by razor blade or sharp craft knife. I found a few great videos on YouTube that will help you if you are not used to sharpening with blades. Note: If you're clumsy or have shaky hands (or you are a kid) just don't do it this way. Also, practice on cheapo graphite pencils first so you don't ruin your good pencils. I have found that the more I try to control the wood shavings, the more pressure I put on the core, which will break it. My solution was to go outside and just let the shaving fly everywhere. This way, I shave off thinner bits of wood and I am less likely to carve into the core or press on it. 

After you chip away a nice portion of the casing, you should have exposed at least an inch of core- you want it longer than what you get after using a pencil sharpener because then you will not need to hand sharpen the pencil as often. You can use sandpaper to create and maintain a very fine point on the core after that. Many people think that blade sharpening is tedious, but once you get the hang of it, you can do it much faster, and the first session will take the most time. I am going to link one of my favorite YouTube videos that will show you what I mean. This guy uses a nude razor blade, which scares the heck out of me, but I was able to modify the technique using a craft knife with a handle. 

 You can see by the image from this video that the pencils will stay sharpened for quite a while. Also, if you rotate you pencil while you fill in larger areas, you will maintain a point without using any sandpaper. However, using the sandpaper or sanding block has an added benefit: charcoal shavings! I save the pure charcoal powder in a jar. You can use the "waste" powder to create an airbrushed effect in your charcoal art, which brings me to...

Powdered Charcoal

Yes, you can also buy charcoal powder in a jar. General Pencil Company and Cretacolor are two popular brands of charcoal powder, but I have never bought any powdered charcoal since I make my own. It builds up pretty fast when you save your shavings, but if you need a large amount for a big piece, the ready-made kind may be better. You can also grind some of your charcoal sticks down to powder using a mesh grate or kitchen grinder. If you buy charcoal sticks that are unusable for any reason, this is one way to get your money's worth out of those inferior items. Save the last little bits of your used charcoal or unusable broken pieces (like those bits I broke off while learning to sharpen the pencils) because you may need them to make some powdered charcoal at some point. 

There are many uses for charcoal powder, but the most common one is to create a smooth solid tone or a subtle gradient over a large area. Many charcoal artists use it for what I call "eraser drawing", where you lay down a toned ground with the powder, then pull out highlights to create an image. It is the opposite of typical drawing methods, but one can create outstanding visual effects like this. You can also draw with a blending stump dipped in the powder. This creates softened lines and shapes that are ideal for enhancing realism and perspective in your drawings. 

The Charcoal Sock

This handy tool has probably been around for a long time, but I learned about the charcoal sock by watching tutorial videos by Casey Baugh, a very talented contemporary artist who creates some of the most beautiful charcoal portraits that I have ever seen. Literally, this is a piece of old sock made into a sachet that is filled with crumbled or powdered charcoal. I put two pieces of chunky compressed charcoal in an old black trouser sock, tied it closed, then took it outside and clubbed it a few times with my hammer. You pounce this little bag against your paper to create abstract shapes that you can easily turn into recognizable subjects in your piece. If your sock has chunks mixed in with powder, like mine does, you will get a variety of marks. One filled only with fine powder will make a soft circle, much like a puff of paint from an airbrush. You keep patting it to make darker areas. For example, Casey used his to create deeply shadowed eye sockets in a portrait he made during one of his videos. The sock seems to be one of his signature tools.

 A little Side Note: Edge Pro Gear has created a prefabricated charcoal sachet, which Casey has "modeled" in a promotional video for the company. It looks nicer than mine, but I cannot justify the price- it's $54 at the EPG site as of this writing, so I am not linking it out of principal. The site claims that this product was in development for a decade. I made mine in five minutes using an old sock and bits of waste charcoal- took longer to find the hammer than it did to make this thing. To be fair, I did not come up with the idea, so props to whomever did.

A Humble Demo

I took a series of photos to demonstrate how you can use different types of charcoal, specifically powdered, and the charcoal sock. I created a very simple, abstract image in a few minutes, so don't judge my abilities on this odd demo!

pic 1 charcoal demo 

This first photo shows where I patted the sock against my paper (plain newsprint), prior to blending.

pic 1 charcoal demo

I used a soft, fluffy cosmetic face brush to blend
the charcoal. I didn't have to do this, but I wanted to demonstrate using a brush. You can also use any type of paint brush to blend charcoal, and you can achieve different textural effects using fabrics, tissue, stumps, sponges, or a kneaded eraser.

pic 3 charcoal demo

Here I pounced a little more charcoal onto the paper using the DIY charcoal sock. This time I only blended a little bit with the brush so I could keep some of the darker tone intact.
pic 4 charcoal demo

Next, I took one of my kneaded erasers, which I had shaped into a rough cylinder, and rolled it over the charcoal a couple of times. Since the eraser was formed into a lumpy cylinder, it skipped and wobbled when I rolled it, causing it to lift uneven amounts of the charcoal. This created a pattern different values of gray. The result, pictured at the right, reminds me of an X-ray image of really messed up vertebrae.

pic 5 charcoal demo

I used my General's 6B charcoal pencil to darken in a few areas. You can see how some areas are more three-dimensional now. I made a couple of the abstract forms into creepy skull faces, but I see countless applications for this technique (clouds, anyone?)

pic 6 final charcoal demo

I added this final shot so you can see what I mean abut the shape of the eraser. There's my slightly mangled General's charcoal pencil too. I still have to work on my blade sharpening skills. I should watch that "Sharpen a Pencil Like a Boss" video a few more times!

This post is a lot longer than previous entries, so I have decided to do a separate article with my reviews of various charcoal brands. I'll have it up in the next few days, I promise! I plan to discuss General's charcoal pencils and compressed sticks; Royal & Langnickel pencils and vine and compressed sticks; and Koh-I-Noor Gioconda compressed charcoal, and Cretacolor's interesting artificial charcoal product called "Nero".

If you have anything to add to this discussion or would like me to review other brands, please let me know! I am always looking for new "cool stuff" to try and review.


  1. I also felt that the price for the Edge Pro Gear charcoal sachet was too high. I'm going to experiment with some fabric and see what I can come up with. I'll let you know. If anyone has already done this, post it!

  2. They charge only $5 for the sachet and leather pouch alone. The expensive product is actually a kit (now $96) that seems to be a complete drawing setup. The kit includes a lot of stuff any artist would already own, so buying the sachet alone is not such a bad deal.

  3. Thanks a million! Very informative.

  4. Hi Amazing Post!!! I like this website so much it's really awesome. Nice information About Drawing classes in chennai.Thanks for sharing good information with beautiful images.I hope you will be posting more like this beautiful posts.
    All the best

  5. Thanks, going to make a charcoal sock, and check out your other links as I want to do a commission in charcoal and never used them before lol

  6. Hi there: I am the study and observe stage using powdered charcoal and large brushes. I appreciate your comments. Would love to see a video of you working . Thanks. What justifies the $54 charge for the pouncing sachet?

  7. Very informative, thank you very much!