Beginner Art · Drawing · Pencils

Pencil or Charcoal?

When I start teaching beginner drawing classes the materials I put out are pencils and charcoal.  I soon noticed that some learners were confused by the choice and don’t know which to pick.  This is because they are not sure of the differences between the two and in particular they know very little about charcoal.

How is charcoal different to pencil?

Charcoal is produced by burning twigs.  The smoldering wood, usually willow results in a sooty black that makes a dark, rich, smooth line that can be smudged with ease.

Willow Charcoal
Willow Charcoal

Charcoal comes in stick form, willow charcoal is the most common and they look ‘twig -like’ being long and thin.  Below is a thicker type of stick of charcoal know as ‘compressed charcoal’ the result is a thicker, blacker line more like a pastel.  Both types are very versatile and encourage a bolder, more free line than pencil can give. Changing the pressure will give varying tones, much like pencil but charcoal can give very dark, black areas.

Charcoal comes in thin and thicker sticks
Compressed Charcoal

Charcoal is often used for life drawing and it has many advantages.   It can be used to create large areas of tone quickly.  Charcoal prevents over-elaboration of detail because it is a blunt stick, which allows shapes to be created quickly.   The smudging qualities mean that you can create a very soft effect and lifting off pigment is easy with a finger, rag or putty rubber.  Charcoal is great for larger work, quick sketches because it allows you to capture something quickly.  It allows you to create bold work with large broad areas of tone and strong lines.  Although charcoal is a blunt instrument it also can be used to create sensitive work, because of the smudging and pigment removal abilities.

Life drawing with willow charcoal
Life drawing with willow charcoal

If you find charcoal too much of a blunt instrument you might like to use charcoal pencils which are a more controlled way of using charcoal.  Charcoal pencils have some of the blending qualities of charcoal and the control of a pencil.

Another nice way of using charcoal is as a subtractive drawing, this means lifting off pigment.  You can start with a page of black charcoal and rub out with a putty rubber or a rag to create lighter areas.  This way of working creates very atmospheric, sensitive drawings as they shine out of the darkness.

Student working on a subtractive drawing in charcoal
Student working on a subtractive drawing in charcoal


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