A guide to working with Charcoal

Author: Dana McGorlick-Appelman  Date Posted:23 June 2021 

Charcoal is a unique medium that can be used to create detailed or more expressive sketches and drawings, predominately in grey and black tones. Enabling levels of smudging and blending, this drawing medium is a great place to start when drawing from life.

History of Charcoal

Charcoal is made when twigs of vine or willow are heated at a high temperature and deprived of oxygen, creating a stick that spreads rich black marks when applied to paper or canvas. The use of charcoal in art dates back thousands and thousands of years, with evidence of its use in cave paintings. Charcoal was used by Renaissance artists to create sketches for paintings, however it is loved and used by many artists today for its value as a fine art medium and for its ability to create a contrast between light and dark values (also known as chiaroscuro). Charcoal can also be used in conjunction with other mediums such as pastels, and produces beautiful effects when applied to toned papers.

Types of Charcoal

Compressed Charcoal

Compressed Charcoal is a traditional, smooth and smudgy drawing stick that is easy to use, and offers stunning shade depth.  Compressed Charcoal is intense and blendable, making it perfect for line work, detail, sketching, shading, and covering large areas. It can also be mixed and blended with a little water to create subtle wash effects.

Willow Charcoal

Willow Charcoal is softer and lighter in colour than compressed charcoal and can be used alone or with other drawing media. Willow Charcoal is suitable for beginners or professionals and can be smudged and blended with fingertips or a paper stump, and be erased with a Kneadable Eraser to reveal highlights. Made from willow rods, repeated slow-burning allows non-compressed charcoals to combine, creating a deep black hue, a uniform texture, and a soft, velvety touch. Willow charcoal is particularly well suited to free-flowing strokes and techniques and for blending.