Messy stuff charcoal – which is probably why so many painters see it as something that is only used in life classes as a drawing tool, or as a preliminary to an oil painting.

Charcoal is a kind of Cinderella of an art world where there are so many exciting and colourful media to explore. Yet I was once arrested by the beauty and subtlety of a pair of Edwardian portraits in someone’s house. To my surprise, what I had taken to be a very fine pen drawing or good plate photograph turned out to be charcoal. The immense and varied tones in the picture had caught my eye as they not only made the sitters look convincing, but somehow revealed something deeper about them. Of course, much of this was down to the skill of the artist but the incredible variety of tones gave a veracity to the portraits it would have been hard to replicate in any other way.

So what role has charcoal in the training and practice of painting? It is absolutely invaluable in the understanding of tone. And it makes good pictures too. Even in the hands of a novice the effects are startlingly good and that is important because in the early stages of learning to paint one needs to have some success.

The importance of tone

Tone is all important. Paintings are about tone as well as colour, which is why I always start new painters off with a charcoal exercise followed by a monochromatic painting (one colour only).

Analysing what I’d seen in these portraits I realised that the charcoal had been used tonally and not as line. There were blocks of dark tone where the charcoal had been smudged and lifted off with the fingers and an eraser. This is known as subtractive tone.

St. Kilda. Charcoal (29.2cm x 42cm)

The whole of the picture, with the exception of the sea on the left, was rubbed over with charcoal, and the lights revealed by removing the charcoal by hand and eraser. Darker charcoal marks were added at the end.

Trying it myself I realised how very useful it was for new painters learning about tone prior to painting. It was comparatively easy to achieve an effect too, which is a great advantage at a time when nothing really comes easily. I then started using it as a half-way stage to painting. Since it was not being used as a drawing tool in a linear way and since painting is not about lines, this was a helpful exercise. My students quickly adapted to trying these dark masses of charcoal and relished the smudging and lifting out – though the fastidious found dirty hands hard at first. Baby wipe tissues are very useful during this exercise, but you must remember that the hands need to be kept dry.

For the experienced painter charcoal offers a vast tonal range, which is vital to the understanding and use of colour. The example shown below is by one of my students. This lady informed me that she only wanted to learn to paint so that she could paint a flower. After she did the charcoal exercise, she became so interested that she found some black and white newspaper photographs and did some large charcoal pictures of the war in Kosovo. The varied tones of the charcoal caught the desolate quality of these subjects. Adding a discreet amount of red paint powerfully added to the painful sadness of the subject.

Kosovo. Charcoal, (28cm x 39.4cm) by Jane Bushell

Sketching tool

If you are out painting it helps to do a small tonal drawing to familiarise yourself with the subject and its tonal values, and in this way using charcoal as a tonal sketching tool prior to doing a painting is extremely useful. In this instance you might consider using a charcoal or carbon pencil, or Conté crayon. Although these don’t smudge with the same effects as the willow sticks they are worth carrying in your sketching kit. I find carbon pencils very good for quick drawings, so for animal studies they are very useful. Carbon pencils combine the qualities of carbon (charcoal) and graphite (pencil lead) and give lean, dark, precise marks that convey line well.

Examples of the possible marks made by a variety of drawing tools: 
(a)    Marks made by Conté crayon
(b)    Marks made by charcoal pencil
(c)    A sketch made with a carbon pencil


Charcoal is sold boxed in sticks. It is made from willow twigs and is available in a variety of thicknesses. I recommend the thicker sticks. The willow twigs need a higher temperature than other woods to produce the characteristic deep velvety softness.

The compressed or pencil form will not smudge very well, and is best used for other techniques.


To try this form of charcoal you will need:

  • A box of willow charcoal
  • A putty rubber (soft kneadable rubber)
  • Cartridge paper