Linda Birch recommends the chunky charcoal and graphite products from Derwent, that create bold – and surprisingly colourful – images.

Derwent XL Charcoal Blocks

Who was the first artist to pluck a piece of charred wood from a cool fire and make a mark on a cave wall? Whoever it was started a form of drawing that lasts to this day.

Charcoal makes marks like no other tool and I value its properties greatly.

Derwent's XL Charcoal Blocks are chunky 2cm square blocks of coloured fine art charcoal that are naturally water soluble, and blend and layer easily.

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Where to buy

Derwent's XL Charcoal Blocks can be purchased from Jackson's Art Supplies by clicking here and from art shops and other online retailers.

The colours

Derwent XL Charcoal Blocks are sold individually or come in a set of all six colours:

  • Ochre
  • Sanguine
  • Violet
  • Sepia
  • Black
  • White

The white is not charcoal, but is made using the same binders.

Using Derwent XL Charcoal Blocks

Old Man, sepia white and black charcoal on cartridge paper, (46x41.5cm)


Traditionally, charcoal has been used by artists for drawing studies of the human form.

I decided to draw this head (above) because I wanted to explore the linear quality of the XL Charcoal Blocks.

White, sepia and black were used on white cartridge paper.

The lines were smudged making half tones, creating shadows on the beard and modelling on the face.

The charcoal is particularly good for textural subjects such as this man’s beard.

Top tip

Use a fixative to stop accidentally smudging your work

Using coloured charcoal blocks

Polar Bear,
coloured charcoal on pastel paper, (51x34.5cm). An expressive use of colour is used by ‘scribbling’ the fur to create the bear’s form.


I wanted to try the coloured charcoal on a coloured surface so I chose an Ingres pastel paper.

I selected a polar bear (above) as my subject and went straight in without drawing an outline.

Instead I used rapid hatching marks to create the form of the animal and the texture of its fur.

The white has a soft pastel-like consistency, but is not as crumbly, as a different binder from pastel is used in its production. This makes the marks softer and much less liable to create dust. I used sepia and black for the shadows.

Derwent XL Graphite Blocks









Derwent XL Graphite Blocks are chunky 2cm square water-soluble blocks are available in a set of six or individually.

Graphite Blocks are great for subtle blending, fine lines and deep tonal work. Naturally water-soluble and available in 6 shades.

Where to buy

Derwent XL Graphite Blocks can be purchased from jackson's Art Supplies by clicking here and from art shops and other online retailers.

The colours

Derwent XL Graphite Blocks in a set of six graphite and colour-blended blocks in:

  • Raw umber
  • Burnt umber
  • Dark Prussian
  • Olive green
  • Soft
  • Very soft

The last two are greys.

Using Derwent XL Graphite Blocks

Old Door, coloured graphite on cartridge, (33x33cm). I used the coloured graphite wet and dry to create layers of texture.

XL Graphite Blocks combine pigment (colour) and graphite together in 10cm blocks so they offer not just colour, but a slightly greyed tonal effect.

They can be used wet or dry, and are capable of being smudged to create half tones.

I used the blocks for this old paint peeled door and stone steps (above), which offered a range of textures and colours.

There is a strong linear feel to this subject with stones, edges of steps and door panels, so I started with a drawing using the soft block.

Turning the block on its corner enabled me to draw the thin lines I needed to pick out the stones, the steps and doorframe.

Dark Prussian was then used on its broad edge – this time dragging it up and down to create broad sweeps of blue.

The stones were similarly treated with raw umber, and touches of dark olive were used for the grasses and moss on the steps.

I wetted the colour with a brush and clean water.

When dry I reworked the piece by adding dry colour on top, and smudging to soften some edges.

Using XL Graphite as a wash

Venice, coloured graphite on NOT watercolour paper, (16.5x28cm). I used the graphite wet for this study of Venice.

Restricted colour helps create atmosphere in a painting.

I used XL Graphite colour on a NOT surface watercolour paper and decided to use it mainly as wet washes.

The shapes of the buildings (in Venice above) were blocked in lightly with the very soft stick; this was followed by a lighter blocking in with Prussian blue.

I pressed a little harder for the foreground buildings to allow for aerial perspective (tones and colour becoming lighter with distance).

The drawing was then wetted with a damp brush, which yielded enough colour to paint the waves on the water and the sky.

Some dry graphite was added to the foreground buildings.

The blocks of colour are inviting to use and are at their best when used on a large scale.

They’re easy to work with, very smooth with no grittiness, and they respond well to both smudging and lifting-out techniques.

The Derwent Charcoal Set

For novice artists, charcoal is a wonderful confidence booster, as it offers a safe way to explore tones before starting on the business of dealing with colour.
It creates a myriad range of tones between light and dark, which can be achieved quickly and without great effort.
I always introduce students to charcoal after they have drawn with pencil and before tackling colour, as it is so satisfying to use.
Charcoal also encourages the artist to work on a larger scale, which prevents ‘niggling’ at your work.

Traditionally viewed as a way of marking out an oil painting, charcoal offers such a rich range of texture and tones, it should not be ignored as a medium in its own right.

The Derwent Charcoal Set consists of four different forms of charcoal:

  • A charcoal pencil
  • Two tinted charcoal pencils
  • Natural willow charcoal
  • Natural vine charcoal

Where to buy

The Derwent Charcoal Set can be purchased from Jackson's Art Supplies by clicking here and from art shops and other online retailers.

Natural willow charcoal

Fjord, charcoal on cartridge paper, (27.5x42cm). A combination of smudging and lifting out with an eraser created soft smokey tones.
The drawing of a mountain (above) was made on cartridge paper using natural willow charcoal.
To keep this as a tonal drawing and not linear (in other words, with no drawn outlines) I broke off a piece of charcoal about 10cm long and picked it up between finger and thumb so it lay across the paper.
Moving it in this way over the paper deposited a light grey broken tone where the mountains were to be.
Heavier tone was added using greater pressure.
I then used my fingers to both lift and smudge the tones until the correct effect was achieved.
A putty rubber was used to lift out the low clouds below the mountains, and the broken wave patterns.

Derwent Vine Charcoal

Derwent also produce a natural willow charcoal in a box of assorted widths and a more chunky width (Chunky XL see above); both these yield a deep rich black that blends well.

Final thoughts

Derwent has come up with useful and inspiring additions to the artists’ drawing tools, as both media are capable of being used wet as well as dry.

For any drawing project they work well, and particularly if working on a large scale.

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Explore the Derwent XL range further with Robert Dutton by

To find out more about Derwent’s charcoal and graphite products visit the website,

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