Simple but informative packaging design, a hallmark of W&N over the decades! The loose sticks of charcoal are packaged inside the cardboard outer case in a cellophane bag. The box itself has a cut out window that enables you to see the contents!

I was delighted to have been sent a box of Winsor & Newton Willow Charcoal sticks to review. I have in fact been using this particular top brand of willow charcoal since my college years, up to the present time - they are excellent to draw with, always of a consistent quality and I can highly recommend it to both students and professional’s alike.

Winsor & Newton Artists’ willow charcoal

Western Downs towards Stafford Castle, W&N willow charcoal sticks on A4 Strathmore Toned Tan paper, with a touch of white Conte chalk. A plein air sketch using a selection of different size sticks.

Charcoal is one of the earliest drawing materials known to man! Its origins stem back many centuries from the earliest cave drawings.

It is unquestionably one of the most expressive drawing materials available. My preference is to use it for loose sketches, but I’ve seen some exceptionally detailed work drawn with it also. I don’t draw in a highly detailed manner, it isn’t my style, as you will see in my examples.

W&N willow charcoal has always been my first choice, the quality of charcoal is always consistent. The sticks in this box were short length sticks, which is perfect for me, I usually break the sticks into smaller piece to draw with, the same applies to pastel sticks.

There was a good assortment of sizes inside the box, ranging from thin, medium to thick, the thick ones are perfect for blocking in those larger areas, down to the very thin sticks, so useful for those smaller details - there was a good assortment of sizes to cater for all possible applications.

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Top Features

  • Draws really dense, even lines
  • High quality smooth shading
  • Consistently high quality willow
  • Cardboard packaging with the charcoal sticks wrapped inside with cellophane
  • Combines well with other mediums such as pastel and ink

Price: £5.74 for a pack of 12

Where to buy: Art Supplies with Painters Online


Working with willow charcoal sticks

Midwinter Landscape, W&N willow charcoal sticks with a touch of white charcoal pencil. On A3 white cartridge paper. Here I’ve used quite a bit of blending on this studio piece, using both my fingers and a blending stump (Tortillon).

I’ve been working with W&N willow charcoal sticks for a great many years.

My first experience with them was on my first year foundation course at art college. It would most certainly have been in the life class, everything centred around drawing in those days, and in particular the human figure. I recall that we all used A1 size sheets of newsprint back then, often with short 10 minute poses, so speed and a certain degree of accuracy was required! Charcoal was the preferred drawing medium back then, and probably still is!

Those intense life-class sessions has stood me in good stead throughout my career. Drawing is the fundamental backbone of all good art, you can’t afford to ignore this important discipline.

Let’s start off with the basics of charcoal, I’m not going to bore you with the technical stuff about how charcoal is made, all that information can be found online. I’m talking application here… how to apply it and get the best from this exceptionally versatile medium!

Charcoal, in whatever form it comes in, is definitely not (generally) the stuff of detail, although I have seen some extremely detailed examples drawn on smooth surface paper - personally, I believe that its strength and true value for the majority of artists, lies in loose and expressive larger format sketching, en plein air sketching in particular.

Suitable for artists of all abilities

The Footpath to Sandon Church, W&N willow charcoal sticks on A4 Strathmore Toned Gray paper, with a touch of white Conte chalk. A plein air sketch using a selection of different size sticks.

Winsor and Newton Willow Charcoal Sticks are ideal for artists of all abilities who love the rich medium of charcoal.

Made from willow, the charcoals have been specially prepared by baking the wood to produce a consistent intensity throughout. Easy to use and handle, these charcoals deliver superbly even lines and high quality shading performance.

Ideal for professionals and students alike - willow charcoal sticks ensure beautifully rich blacks that will really make your artwork stand out from the crowd - if you’re after good strong tonal values to your drawings as I always am, then you can’t go wrong, in fact they offer everything you could want from this most expressive of drawing mediums.

Mixing your media

Above you can see selection of W&N willow charcoal sticks, along with a variety of other useful combinations that work well alongside charcoal.

ArtGraf water soluble chalk, Sanguine, Ochre, Sepia, Brown, Dark Brown and Black Carbon.

Wallace Seymour Sanguine Red Bole chalk pieces mix really well with willow charcoal, if you want to add a touch of colour to your drawings!


'W&N willow charcoal are excellent to draw with, always of a consistent quality and I can highly recommend it to both students and professionals alike!'

In summary W&N willow charcoal:

  • Is of a consistently high quality
  • Includes good range of sizes from thin to thick
  • Produces dense, even lines
  • Shades smoothly
  • Combines well with other mediums
  • Easy to handle
  • Suitable for artists of all abilities
  • Great for plein air sketching

Demonstration: Lichfield Cathedral from the West

Lichfield Cathedral from the West

For this demonstration I’ve selected to work from a plein air ink drawing that I did a few years back - obviously the composition is made up mainly of buildings, the cathedral taking centre stage, and which would act as my main focal point.

My choice of paper for this short demonstration is from Ruscombe Paper Mill in France, it’s described as Whistler’s Olive and It comes in large handmade sheets, which I’ve torn into four pieces, so it’s around A3 size give or take!

It’s a lovely sturdy drawing paper, slightly olive in colour as its name suggests, and has flecks of darker colours visible on the surface. It does have a fairly rough texture to the surface, so detail therefore will definitely need to be kept to a minimum.

Stage one

I started off by drawing out the main framework of this historic cathedral and surrounding buildings, using both a charcoal pencil and the thinnest stick of willow charcoal that was in the box.

It’s not necessary to draw in too much detail in these early stages, just get down the basics but with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

Stage two

I indicated the distant trees which helped to break up the hard edges of the cathedral on the horizon, initially smudging these trees with my fingers. I wanted the final image to have a touch of colour to it, nothing too heavy and certainly not on every building.

My objective here was to be selective and ensure that I had the right balance of tone and colour.

Top tip

Even at this early stage, I’m looking to start blocking in some heavy areas of tone, namely on the shadow sides of the buildings as a starting point!

We are trying to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image, when we know that it is a two-dimensional sheet of paper - so shadows are important here and will help to establish our darkest tones.

Stage three

My Art Graf sanguine soluble charcoal block was the obvious choice to start adding a hint of colour to a few buildings, as well as on the prominent spires of the cathedral, these would act as my focal point.

More depth was applied to the sides of the buildings using willow charcoal, and with the sharp edge of a thin stick, I carefully drew in some branches to the distant trees, as well as the foreground ones.

I’ve sharpened up a few of the edges of buildings, again using a thin willow charcoal stick, and loosely indicated a few windows.

Top tip

Keep the branches very low key in the distance, too much detail doesn’t look right!

Stage four

This didn’t need a lot more work before I considered it complete!

As I mentioned in my introduction, charcoal isn’t the stuff of detail in general, there are exceptions to this of course.

I’ve added a few white Conte chalk highlights, being selective and not scattering them all over the image - followed by more general tightening up on a few of the buildings.

I was reasonably satisfied with how the final piece had turned out - the total time spent on this was no more than an hour or so.

About Alan Bickley

Alan is a retired graphic designer and editorial artist for the Daily Mail group of newspapers who has been painting and drawing for many decades, and studied fine art and graphic design at both Stafford and Derby colleges of art in the late 60’s.

Alan writes regularly for The Artist and you can enjoy a series of demonstrations in various mediums by


For more charcoal drawing demonstrations


You can see more of Alan's work in the gallery by


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