April 18, 2023

Mastering Charcoal Drawing: Techniques and Materials You Need to Know

Charcoal drawing is a captivating and versatile medium with a rich history in the art world. In this blog, we will delve into the essential techniques and materials needed to master charcoal drawing, helping you create stunning works of art.

Understanding Charcoal Types and Their Applications

Choosing the right type of charcoal is crucial to achieving your desired outcome. There are three main types of charcoal used in drawing:

Vine Charcoal

Derived from burnt grapevines, vine charcoal is a soft, light, and easily erasable medium, making it ideal for sketching and laying out compositions. Its thin and fragile nature allows for delicate lines and subtle shading, perfect for creating loose, expressive drawings. Since vine charcoal is easily smudged, it is often used in combination with fixatives to preserve the artwork.

Willow Charcoal

Similar to vine charcoal, willow charcoal is made from burnt willow twigs, offering a slightly denser and darker line, perfect for adding depth and intensity to your drawings. Willow charcoal is ideal for creating smooth transitions and blending large areas of your artwork. Its slightly firmer texture makes it less prone to breakage, while still being easily erasable.

Compressed Charcoal

Compressed charcoal is a dense, dark medium created by mixing powdered charcoal with a binder, such as clay or gum. This type of charcoal is ideal for achieving strong, bold lines and dramatic contrast. Compressed charcoal comes in various grades, from soft to hard, allowing you to choose the desired level of intensity and detail in your artwork. Unlike vine and willow charcoal, compressed charcoal is less easily erased, making it suitable for more definitive lines and details.

Essential Charcoal Drawing Techniques

Mastering charcoal drawing requires an understanding of various techniques. These methods will help you create beautiful, expressive artwork:

1. Hatching and Cross-Hatching

Hatching is a technique that involves creating parallel lines to build up tone and texture. Cross-hatching involves drawing intersecting lines to create a denser, more intricate pattern. These techniques are useful for achieving various shading effects and providing depth to your drawings.

2. Blending and Smudging

Blending is a technique that smooths out charcoal lines and tones to create a seamless transition between areas of light and shadow. You can blend charcoal using your fingers, a blending stump, or a chamois cloth. Smudging involves intentionally blurring charcoal lines to create a softer appearance, often used to create atmospheric effects.

3. Erasing and Subtractive Drawing

Erasing is not just for correcting mistakes; it can also be a creative technique in charcoal drawing. By removing charcoal from the paper, you can create highlights, add texture, or refine details. Subtractive drawing involves applying charcoal to the entire surface of your paper, then using an eraser to ‘draw’ by removing charcoal and revealing the highlights. Kneaded erasers are especially useful for this technique, as they can be moulded into various shapes to achieve precise results. This method can also be used to build layers creating great depth to the work. An artist that uses this to great effect is Frank Auerbach.

4. Layering and Building Up Tones with Powdered charcoal

Layering is a technique that involves gradually adding layers of charcoal to build up depth and richness in your artwork. By carefully controlling the pressure applied to the charcoal, you can create a wide range of tones, from light and subtle to dark and dramatic. Layering allows you to create complex and nuanced shading effects, enhancing the realism of your drawings. With powdered charcoal you can create very flat tonal areas.

5. Stippling

Stippling is a technique that involves creating texture and tone through a series of small dots or marks. This method can be time-consuming, but it allows for precise control over the density and distribution of the charcoal, resulting in a unique and intricate effect.

Choosing the Right Paper for Charcoal Drawing

Selecting the appropriate paper for your charcoal drawings is essential for achieving the best results. Consider the following factors when choosing paper:


Textured paper, such as watercolour or pastel paper, provides a surface that grips charcoal particles, allowing for richer and more vibrant drawings. Smooth papers, like Bristol board, are better suited for fine details and precise line work.


Heavier weight papers, typically 100lb (270gsm) or more, are ideal for charcoal drawings, as they can withstand repeated erasing, blending, and layering without tearing or buckling.


While white paper is the most common choice for charcoal drawings, coloured paper can add depth and intrigue to your artwork. By using paper in a mid-tone shade, you can create both highlights and shadows, resulting in a more dynamic and visually interesting piece.

Essential Charcoal Drawing Tools and Accessories

Beyond charcoal and paper, there are several tools and accessories that can enhance your drawing experience and help you achieve stunning results:

1. Fixatives

Charcoal drawings are prone to smudging, which can damage or alter your artwork. Fixatives, such as workable fixative and final fixative, help to preserve your drawings by sealing the charcoal in place. Workable fixatives allow for additional layers and adjustments, while final fixatives provide a more permanent, protective seal.

2. Blending Tools

Blending stumps, tortillons, and chamois cloths are essential tools for smoothing and blending charcoal. These tools allow for precise control over shading and transitions, resulting in a polished and professional appearance.

3. Erasers

Having a variety of erasers on hand is crucial for charcoal drawing. Kneaded erasers can be shaped and molded for precise highlights and corrections, while plastic erasers are excellent for removing larger areas of charcoal. Gum erasers are ideal for lifting charcoal particles without damaging the paper surface.

4. Sharpeners and Sandpaper

Maintaining a sharp point on your charcoal is important for achieving fine details and crisp lines. Pencil sharpeners and sandpaper pads can be used to shape and sharpen your charcoal sticks, ensuring that your tools are always ready for precise work.

Learning from the Masters: Charcoal Drawing Inspiration

Studying the work of accomplished artists can provide valuable insights and inspiration for your own charcoal drawings. Consider exploring the work of renowned charcoal artists, such as Frank Auerbach, Odilon Redon, Henri Matisse, and Käthe Kollwitz, to gain a deeper understanding of the medium’s potential and versatility.


End of the Day' Charcoal on paper. This piece was selected for the Derwent Art prize exhibition 2020.

End of the Day’ Charcoal on paper. This piece was selected for the Derwent Art prize exhibition 2020.

Experimenting and Finding Your Style

Charcoal drawing is a medium that encourages experimentation and personal expression. As you practice and refine your skills, consider exploring different techniques, subject matter, and styles to find your unique artistic voice. Remember that the key to mastering charcoal drawing is practice, patience, and persistence. With time and dedication, you can create captivating and evocative works of art that showcase the beauty and power of charcoal.


Mastering charcoal drawing requires a solid understanding of the different types of charcoal, techniques, tools, and materials. By familiarising yourself with these elements and practicing regularly, you can elevate your artwork and create stunning charcoal drawings. Remember to study the work of accomplished artists, experiment with different approaches, and, most importantly, enjoy the creative process. It always amazes me that each time I work with charcoal I find something new.