Charcoal is a dramatic and unique medium, used to create expressive drawings that can be difficult to replicate with pencils alone. They are great for beginners as well as experienced artists, allowing you to improve your shading, light and blending techniques without getting bogged down in different materials. Because you can experiment with both detail and smudging, charcoal is versatile and fun, a medium that really allows you to play around as an artist and put your full expression into your work. For those of you looking to use charcoal in your art, here’s our quick guide to charcoal materials and techniques.
This is loose charcoal bound with a gum to form a chunky stick or bar, and is the form you are most likely to have come across at school. It can be used for precision and detail, as well as for general shading and blending. Compressed charcoal comes in a hardness rating similar to that of pencils, although they are graded differently. It ranges from HB - the hardest charcoal, which won’t smudge easily and produces a grayer line, to 6B - the softest grade that will produce a dark line and is great for shading and blending. Charcoal pencils are great for detailing, whereas the bar form is better for covering a larger area of the paper.
Rather than loose charcoal bound together, vine charcoal is a piece of wood that has been burnt, usually a thin grape vine. These come in the same hardness gradings as compressed charcoal and are generally used for shading large areas. The vine produces a grayer tone than the compressed bars, and is perfect for adding a softness to your work. Vine charcoal is also easier to erase, which can work to great effect for adding highlights.
Although you can (and should!) use your fingers to smudge and blend charcoal, a paper stumps can provide you with more control. Smudging and blending to achieve depth and expression in your art is a key element of working with charcoal, so it’s worth taking the time to practice and find your favourite method. You’ll often find paper stumps in charcoal sets, although you can make your own with rolled up paper.
This type of eraser is designed to lift material off the paper, and works particularly well with charcoal. Products such as the Winsor and Newton Medium Kneaded Rubber or the Pack of 3 Daler-Rowney Simply Erasers a great way of adding highlights to your work, without needing to use white chalk or a conte crayon. However, some artists like the extra texture that a different medium can add to the work, so it's worth playing around to see what works best for you!