Humans have been making art with charcoal for a very long time. Actually, the earliest known artworks created by humans used black charcoal over 40,000 years ago!

These animals were drawn onto a cave wall using charcoal and other materials thousands of years ago.

The tradition of using charcoal for drawing has continued over thousands of years and it continues to be a beloved drawing material to this day.

What is drawing charcoal made of?

Charcoal is carbon made by heating wood in a chamber with a limited supply of oxygen until all the volatile material is removed. There are a few different types of charcoal that are typically used for artistic purposes:

  • Vine charcoal – a stick of charcoal made from grape vines.
  • Willow charcoal – a stick of charcoal made from willow branches.
  • Compressed charcoal – charcoal made by a process of compressing charcoal into dense, more pigmented sticks, with the addition of binders to prevent the charcoal from crumbling and to control the hardness or softness of the final product. “is made of finely ground wood (birch) charcoal (50-70%), clay (25-50%), lamp black pigment (3-8%) and a hint of ultramarine (3-5%). Then this mixture is being burnt at 500-800°C for 2-4 hours. The longer the time the softer charcoal.”
  • Charcoal pencils – compressed charcoal encapsulated in wood or paper to maintain a fine point, which can be used for detailed drawing.
Vine Charcoal
Compressed Charcoal
Willow Charcoal
Charcoal Pencil

Charcoal & Chalk Drawing: What’s the difference?

Charcoal is made from carbon while chalk used for drawing is derived from a variety of sources such as clay and other natural pigments. The main chalk colors artists use are red, white, and black. The black chalk is typically less intensely black as charcoal.

Drawing with Charcoal

Drawing by unknown artist after Raphael. Poet Crowned with Laurel, 18th century. Original here.

You can use a stick of charcoal the same way you would a pencil in order to create lines, hatches, and other strokes.

Charcoal dust can also be used to create a softer look, by smudging or using charcoal dust that’s been shaved off a piece of charcoal and rubbed into the surface of the paper.

Look at the way the artist has smudged some of the cross-hatched areas to add value and softness to this drawing. You can try this technique with just about any dry drawing medium. Try it out with pencil at home if you don’t have charcoal or chalk available.

You can use a blending stump to soften up the marks made with charcoal sticks or charcoal pencils, as shown below. You can also use paint brushes, paper towels, or your fingers to blend.

Using a blending stump to soften up the lines from a charcoal pencil.

Safety Note: As with all art materials, never put charcoal in your mouth – even if it’s labeled as “safe.” If you have some on your hands, be sure to wash them before you eat or drink.

Why Draw With Charcoal?

One of the main advantages that you have when you use charcoal for drying is that you have a very large value scale to work with. Typically charcoal can go as late as the paper you are using to pure black. So try to use this increased value scale as best you can. In other words, use the lightest, darkest, and as many mid-range values as you can.

Since charcoal comes in sticks, you can often work with a larger piece and make larger markers. It’s like your entire arm can become the pencil! So try using charcoal sticks with larger papers. Newsprint sketch pads are great for practicing.

One of the challenges with charcoal is that it can be more difficult to erase mistakes than, say, pencil. It will smear into the paper more easily, so it’s best to use a lifting eraser such as a kneadable eraser, rather than the usual rubber type that smears.

About the Author

Shannon

Hi, I'm Shannon, the mom behind Drawing Studio. I studied visual arts and design at Massachusetts College of Art, and have been a freelance website designer/developer for over ten years. I love drawing with my two cool, creative kiddos!

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