Charcoal Drawing Supplies

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These are not just little tips and techniques, but a full course of learning how to see, think, and draw like an artist.

On this "Charcoal Drawing Supplies" page:

- what are the two basic types of charcoal materials and what they are made of

- how vine is made, what it is best for and how to use it

- "mixed" charcoals, what they are best for and how to use them

In this drawing I used vine charcoal, compressed charcoal and a uniquely French drawing material called "pierre noire" (black chalk), made with black pigment paste for deep, matte blacks.

- how charcoal is graded for hardness and softness in the European and American systems, so you buy the right materials



Charcoal can come in many sizes and shapes, ranging from a big rough hunk as big as your hand to a slender stick neatly packaged in a pencil. You even have charcoal dust for shading in your charcoal drawing, which you can save in a jar after you sharpen your charcoal.

We're going to stick to the essential here, though, to get you started. For our purposes, we will say there are two kinds of "charcoal":

- the first kind is literally carbonized wood;

- the second kind is not; in reality it is a mixture of carbon (or black pigment) and a binder (or thickener); it can include anything from pigment to clay to graphite - even soot.

Vine Charcoal
(Carbonized Wood)

Vine charcoal.

Vine charcoal is so called because tradition says it was first made with grapevine twigs. I actually know someone who makes his own vine, and he says grapevine makes perfectly awful drawing material!

Today willow or linden is burnt charcoal and an airless kiln (with air, it would burn down to ash), and commercialized in three grades: hard, medium and soft. You will also find it can come in various thicknesses, ranging from fine little twigsto stout charcoal as thick as your thumb.

The best quality vine (read: the most expensive) for charcoal drawing is willow, which leaves and even, consistent trace and small particles, and has a rich, velvety tone; linton is more common, however. I recommend going for the willow, even if it is a little pricier - learning to draw with scratchy, brittle materials for your charcoal drawing will be frustrating and not instructive.

Now I'll share an embarrassing secret:  when I started at the Ateliers de Beaux Arts I misunderstood what this type of charcoal is best for, and made large, complex drawings entirely in vine. However, I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get intense, high contrast, no matter how heavily I laid it on the paper.

In fact, owing to its softness and the fact that it just sits on the paper's surface, it is used for drawing temporary construction lines that you can easily wipe away with a flick of a finger or an eraser.

Charcoal Sticks and Pencils (Mixes)

Compressed charcoal.

You will have understood that when we do not have just carbonized wood, we have a mixture of ingredients,  and that mixture is varied to make harder or softer "charcoal". When it is made in four-sided block or round sticks, which range from very soft to medium grade, it is called compressed charcoal or charcoal sticks.


Charcoal pencil.

This is denser and oilier stuff owing to a higher degree of graphite, producing beautiful darks that are a whole lot more difficult to remove when you goof  in your charcoal drawing. It doesn't blend nearly as well as vine, either. These qualities make it leave more permanent traces in your drawing. Indeed, this was the charcoal I was looking for that first year to shade the rich, black tones I wanted to set off the light in my drawings.

You can use the "corners" on the block-shaped version to draw dense but fine lines.  On the rounded sticks, you can wear away the tip to create a sharpened edge for fine lines.

If you press the stick flat against her paper, it will create a broad mark, handy especially for quickly filling in big spaces like a background on your charcoal drawing.

Here we have three charcoal pencil grades. From left to right, H, HB, and 2B; in other words a hard, then a not-too-hard-not-too-soft, and finally a soft charcoal pencil.

Manufacturers have their own standards for hardness and offer bigger or smaller hardness ranges.  In Europe, "H" stands for "hard" and "B" stands for "black"  - because the softer the pencil, the black or its mark.

The middle-of-the-road, not-too-hard-not-too-soft grade is "HB". While graphite pencils are easily available in a range as wide as the one here, you'll most generally find charcoal pencils in only the HB, 2B, 4B and 6B grades

In the United States, the grading is done with numbers; which is why an average office-supply pencil in France is an "HB".  And why in the States it is a "Yellow #2". The grade will be stamped at the end of the pencil, and quality manufacturers will mark pencils with both the number and letter system.

United States > Europe

#1 > B

#2 > HB

#3 > H

                #4 > 2H

Charcoal pencils mixed with carbon are tough to sharpen, because they are so brittle; they feel "dry" on the paper as you draw. Those thickened with graphite will be oilier and behave much better when you try to sharpen them; they will feel much softer on the paper

By the way, don't be surprised at how grubby you get when you work with charcoal. Many art is primarily use their hands and fingers to work on the paper.

You can find out about other ways to work it, such as with erasers, a chammy, a tortillon or a stump when you read about other drawing supplies and equipment.

Go from "Charcoal Drawing Supplies"  to "Other Drawing Supplies and Equipment"

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