'Charcoal is the carbon-rich residue of incompletely burned wood, bone, or vegetable matter,' says Robert Dutton. 'One of the oldest and most traditional drawing tools available, it comes in a variety of grades from soft to hard, and the colour varies from black to an almost brown, depending on the original material. Understanding the different varieties will go a long way to helping you to create the exact type of marks you want with this expressive and versatile medium.

'The most popular forms of charcoal, willow and vine charcoal come in a variety of thickness. The support you choose and the techniques you use will ultimately affect the interpretation of your subject. Blending with your fingers expands the mark-making capabilities of the media from just line work. With the exception of pastel, charcoal is unparalleled for producing subtle tones.

Drawing with charcoal

The drawings featured in this article were created directly in front of the subject.

The weather was changing rapidly on both occasions, so I really needed to work quickly to get down information about shape, tone, composition and so on. Charcoal was ideal for this as a wide range of tones can quickly be created.

I worked on heavy-duty cartridge paper, but I also work on lighter-weight watercolour papers such as 140lb (300gsm) Saunders Waterford or Arches Not, as the texture of such papers helps to create very interesting marks.

Being lightweight and robust, an eraser can be used quite vigorously on this paper to help smear or draw further expressive marks. The pressure you apply when removing the charcoal marks with an eraser will determine the tone and expression of the marks in the drawing.

White Conté and white pastel are also useful media to use in combination with charcoal to create further white areas but, by thinking ahead a little you can, as I often do, leave pure white areas within a drawing to help create maximum highlights rather than trying to add them later on.

Flat Iron Building, New York, charcoal on heavy-duty cartridge paper, 30x17in (76x43cm)

Charcoal allowed me to work quickly to block in the structure of the Flat Iron Building, New York (see above) and all the main shapes in scale with one another.
As the study began to build, I added black pastel to create some really great darks to create maximum contrast with lighter areas. Highlights were further revealed by cutting into areas with an eraser.
The really white, bright and clean highlights are the white of the paper; they contrast well with all the rich deep darks, particularly those in the trees, for which I used a lot of pressure.
I used the eraser as a blending tool to push and smear the pastel marks to visually describe other parts of the building and scene.


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Types of charcoal:

1. Vine and willow charcoal are both natural charcoal.

They are produced by burning sticks of wood, usually willow or lime, with controlled amounts of air to produce the right degree of charring of the wood.

Artists’ drawing charcoal makes a uniform black line – vine charcoal is more dark grey while willow charcoal is black and produces a denser mark.

They come in three basic densities: soft, medium, and hard, with willow being softer than vine charcoal.

Vine charcoal is easily removed by dusting and by erasing. This makes it ideal for preliminary sketches for oil painting where changes are frequently made before the final outline is completed.

Before painting begins, however, the charcoal sketch must be fixed to the canvas or the paint will pull the charcoal off the surface and mix with it.

These types of charcoal are much easier to erase than compressed charcoal.

Winsor & Newton charcoal packs contain uniform sticks of high-quality vine and willow charcoal.

2. Compressed charcoal consists of particles of charcoal combined with a binder such as clay, gum or wax.

I find that compressed charcoal has a homogenous stroke whereas natural charcoal produces lighter, irregular lines and I often prefer to use natural charcoal for quick sketches and for mapping out more in-depth black-and-white paintings.

Compressed charcoal is also available as round and square solid sticks and produces deep, dense tones with a completely different texture from graphite.

Because of the beautiful velvety dense lines and tones you can create with this type of charcoal, it is the one I mostly use.

The degree of hardness is regulated by the amount of binder that is used; this gives a wider selection and greater consistency of quality from stick to stick. HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B and sometimes 6B are available, which is great as you have a wide range of soft and hard charcoal sticks to choose from.

They give rich, smooth blacks that are easy to blend, adhere well to the drawing surface but can, however, be difficult to erase. Conté offers a consistent product of compressed charcoal in varying hardness.

Available in three versatile grades: light, medium and dark, compressed charcoal is naturally water-soluble so allows you to create interesting line and wash effects when used with water, but I advise you to stretch your paper first if you are going to use this technique. If you don’t your paper is sure to cockle, particularly at a lower weight such as 140lb (300gsm).

Faber-Castell Pitt compressed charcoal is of the highest quality. It is produced from a mixture of soot and charcoal and comes in five grades of hardness. I find their charcoal offers the deepest possible blacks with a soft stroke, which is especially suitable for large areas.


3. Chunky charcoal is an extra-large, round compressed charcoal, which produces a smooth deep black of exceptional depth and tonality.

I like using this type of charcoal for really big black-and-white drawings and mixed media work. Its unique size and shape fits comfortably into the hand and allows you to make big, sweeping expressive marks.


4. Powdered charcoal can be used to ‘tone’ or cover large sections of a drawing surface.

Drawing over the toned areas will darken it further, but the artist can also lighten (or completely erase) within the toned area to create lighter tones.

One technique when working with charcoal powder is to sprinkle or scatter it on to the surface, press it into place, blend it and smear it and then start drawing into it with further applications of charcoal or, in fact, removing the charcoal dust with an eraser. Many subtle soft moody creative drawings can be made this way.

Powdered charcoal can also be mixed with water to create many other interesting and expressive effects.


5. Charcoal pencils are made from compressed charcoal.

The charcoal is protected with wood, or a paper wrapping, to give a clean and precise way of working. This is a real advantage for those artists who do not like to have too much pigment on their hands.

The outer casing also helps to reduce breakage of the charcoal.

Many artists use a pencil sharpener to produce a point but I prefer to use a scalpel, which creates a much longer point. In the paper-wrapped version, the charcoal is exposed by peeling rather than by sharpening.

The pencils are available in the same general range of hardness found in compressed charcoal sticks and are classified as extra soft (6B), soft (4B), medium (2B), and hard (HB).

They are very useful for making more tightly rendered drawings that require greater control, or for adding detail.


Borrowdale Sun and Shadow – Cumbria, charcoal on heavy-duty cartridge paper, 18x18in (45.5x45.5cm)

When looking down on the subject, as in Borrowdale Sun and Shadow, Cumbria (above) you are able to observe shapes and the scale of forms much more simply.
The light was bright and the clouds were scudding by, casting deep dark shadows over the landscape. To create a convincing drawing my tonal awareness needed to be on full alert – you can see how the tones in the hillside to the right are quite dense.
I used a variety of compressed charcoal applications to create the expressive marks in the deep and darker passages.
I drew in an A3 pad that easily fitted into my lightweight backpack – the cover folds over after completion to protect the drawing from smudging.


Both charcoal and pastel artists use fixatives to stabilise their work.

There are several types of fixative available – in both spray cans and jars – from most major manufacturers, including Winsor & Newton and Daler-Rowney.

In general one form permanently seals and protects the dust from moving so is used for a final fix, and the other is a working fixative, which allows you to build up layers, fixing each one in turn.


My charcoal set-up

  1. Hard square black and grey pastels. Pastel and charcoal in combination – both made for each other!
  2. A variety of soft grey-toned pastels – very useful for drawing with charcoal for subtle half tones. They add another dimension to a black-and-white tonal drawing or study.
  3. Black hard and soft pastels – very useful with charcoal to add really intense dark blacks.
  4. A variety of different types of charcoal – vine, willow, compressed. The small pieces make very useful additions, particularly for detail – fresh broken pieces giving the sharpest edges.
  5. Soft willow charcoal has a beautiful consistency of line when applied.
  6. Conté medium compressed charcoal. Sharp and square edged, it’s very useful for architectural studies.
  7. Conté pastel pencil and hard sticks – both useful for building up layers and detail in a drawing.
  8. Scalpel – very useful for scratching into the paper surface, making masks, cutting erasers to give a precision edge.
  9. Very soft pastel sticks.
  10. A variety of erasers. Different erasers ‘behave’ differently on different papers and with different charcoal combinations. Hard, soft and putty erasers are all useful tools for areas of solid or hatched charcoal

Charcoal marks

These marks were all made on 140lb (300gsm) Arches watercolour paper. This weight of watercolour paper suits my technique, is ideal for both studio and outdoor work, is light, flexible and versatile and the texture allows for many creative possibilities.

  1. Compressed charcoal
  2. Willow charcoal
  3. Vine charcoal
  4. Conté compressed charcoal
  5. Conté pastel pencil and sticks
  6. Compressed charcoal smeared, blended and drawn into with an eraser


Robert Dutton exhibits widely and runs a wide range of art courses for all levels of ability in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. For further details of his art courses and workshops email him on [email protected], visit www.rdcreative.co.uk

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