• Justin Cooke


There are various types of charcoal used for drawing. You will commonly find willow and vine charcoal as well as compressed charcoal. Willow and vine charcoal are both nice to use; they both give a good even line and do not splinter or break up too easily when used. The fact that they both grow as slender stems also means that you can get pieces that you can hold like a pencil. Willow charcoal is also available in larger more randomly shaped blocks. Compressed charcoal is formed out of charcoal dust; it is compressed to various degrees and is available buttery soft to hard.

Why use compressed charcoal?

Firstly, it gives a darker and denser black.

Secondly, it can be found in pencil form, some artists prefer to use it this way.

Thirdly, sticks of compressed charcoal can be shaped or sharpened with a blade to make specific marks, much like the different nibs of a pen.

Any problems with compressed charcoal?

It does not smudge or blend as freely as charcoal does, neither is it easily removed with an eraser. The benefits of it adhering to the paper better, have to be balanced with the fact that it is not easy to work with once it is on the paper.

Why use a regular charcoal? (such as willow charcoal)

The first thing many artists say is “it’s quick” and “direct”. With one piece of charcoal you can achieve all sorts of effects that would otherwise require a whole range of materials. Here is a summary.

You have a box of charcoal….

· If you snap a stick, you will get a sharp edge for detailed drawing.

· You can use it on its side for broader marks as you would a large brush for painting.

· By using your fingers you can soften marks in a similar way that you might use water to soften a watercolour painting.

· Just by pressing harder or softer, you can grade your tones from the lightest shade to rich dark tones.

· You can “draw” light areas back into your charcoal drawing by simply using an eraser.

Then there are some more innovative ways too; for example, that charcoal dust at the bottom of your charcoal box…it is very useful. You can use it with your fingers to shade tones. The very finest dust can be used with a brush. Just pick it up with the brush and paint with it!

(This is a good way of working out a drawing prior to drawing with finer –maybe splinters – of charcoal on top.) As well as your fingers, try using pieces of cloth or tissue folded into a pad.

Here is a tip for using charcoal that many artists have found useful.

To show you I will use cartridge paper and willow charcoal.

Firstly; cover your paper with a layer of charcoal using the stick on its side. Roughly smooth out with your fingers to spread it evenly. What we now have is a very thin charcoal layer to draw on and this can be very useful. It particularly helps with life drawing if you are a little apprehensive about drawing. I will show you why.

Let’s have a go at drawing on top.

I will do the same thing on a bare white paper.

Supposing I have drawn some lines that I do not like; if I try to smudge them away with my fingers on the bare white paper they still show. I would then have to stop, find an eraser, rub it out and start again. Even with an eraser, there is a very good chance my old drawing will still be visible.

On the prepared paper; a quick swipe with my fingers and it has disappeared.

You can also draw in highlights with an eraser. Below is an image showing a charcoal line removed and a line drawn with and eraser.

You can see there is an obvious downside to this. The drawing on the prepared paper, until fixed, is vulnerable.

The advantages though, you may consider worth it; because in just a few minutes you can draw hundreds of lines, any of which you can easily loose if you want to. The pressure is off… You have the freedom to try things over and over. You can experiment wildly, knowing anything can be put back to how it was. It is very liberating and helps to develop the sort of freedom in drawing that only comes with practice.

You can then also use an eraser to remove excess background tint and few people will know how you did it!

As your confidence and technique grows, you will find yourself making fewer changes to your drawing. You could then reach for the unprepared clean paper and just go for it! You are well practiced now, more confident and it will show.

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