In this article, I’ll cover topics related to how to use charcoal sticks for drawing such as, How do you start a charcoal drawing? What tools are needed for charcoal drawing? Can you erase a charcoal drawing? And so on. This is meant to be an introduction to working with charcoal sticks for drawing.
I love working with charcoal because it’s physically engaging. Drawing with charcoal sticks allows me to create images with my hands and my fingers, which I use for blending. If you’re looking for a medium that’s very precise and detailed and not messy, you may enjoy drawing with charcoal pencils over charcoal sticks.
So let’s get into it!
Select the Right Materials
Before you can learn how to use charcoal sticks for drawing, you first must become familiar with the different types of tools that most artists use when drawing with this medium.
I recommend trying all the tools below, even if you eventually phase some of these tools out in favor of the ones that work best for you.
Compressed charcoal is a relatively heavy, condensed charcoal in stick form. They are the size and shape of chalk pastels.
This material produces a very dark, heavy line that’s very difficult to erase. Once it’s on the page, it’s not going to come all the way off. It can be smeared, but not as easily as vine charcoal, described below.
Compressed charcoal is my favorite charcoal material because I like the purity of its black lines. I also like how messy it is.
Vine charcoal is lightweight charcoal that feels a little like the material you burn in your grill. It’s porous, smears easily, and creates a light to medium gray line. I like vine charcoal for creating studies of subjects for future paintings.
Vine charcoal is often much easier to erase than compressed charcoal. Its lines are faint enough that it lacks some permanence.
White charcoal is more comparable to a white stick of chalk than it is to actual charcoal. I sometimes use white charcoal in my drawings to create highlights, but usually I prefer to allow the whiteness of the page to create the highlights for me.
If you do use white charcoal in your drawings, just be aware that it can change the character of your drawing. It will also mix with the charcoal on the page to create a gray that looks unlike pure smeared charcoal.
Once you’ve applied a little white charcoal on the paper, you may find yourself applying it everywhere just to get the right balance of white, black and gray.
An eraser is an important tool when working with charcoal. You can use eraser to clean up the drawing so that the white parts are whiter. Erasers also can be used to make lines in charcoal. I use click eraser sticks for this purpose.
Most of the items I have linked to you can probably find at Staples or a local art store. I always recommend buying from a local store as we want to keep local businesses running. But I also live in the real world and if you’re like me, most of the local art stores have closed so I am reliant on Amazon or Staples.
Blending stumps are paper sticks that can be used to smear charcoal to create soft shadows. Blending stumps come in different widths.
Once you’ve used a blending stump for a while, it becomes so dirty that it’s almost another drawing tool. I have used blending stumps for drawing faint outlines on paper or canvas before I begin painting or drawing.
Large Pieces of Paper
Use large pieces of paper when you’re working with charcoal sticks. Details are not often easy to create with charcoal sticks.
You’ll be using your fingers and maybe even your entire hand to create dark shadows. For this kind of drawing, the bigger the piece of paper, the better.
Pick a Subject
Keep the subjects simple. Charcoal sticks are a blunt tool, often used to imply or hint at details. Steer clear of subjects with fine details, especially when you’re learning how to use charcoal sticks for drawing.
Rather than drawing a vase with 40 flowers in it, draw one flower, or just the vase.
Choose subjects with voluptuous form, such as an unusual bowl, a nude figure, or a cloth draped over a chair.
Create areas of dark darks, and bright whites. Charcoal is best used on subjects that have a lot of shadow and highlights. Aim a light source at your subject to create areas of stark contrast.
Try some gesture drawings. I like to use vine charcoal to create gesture drawings, to loosen up my hand and to help me get used to the medium. Gesture drawings capture action.
For example, ask someone to pose for you. Have them hold a pose for one minute, while you draw them. After one minute, ask your subject to hold another pose for one minute.
You can draw each pose on the same sheet of paper, or on different sheets of paper, depending on your mood. Gesture drawings are done quickly – so fast that the artist only has time to capture the most important lines they see in front of them.
This is a good exercise for anyone learning how to use charcoal sticks for drawing.
Use the Tip and Broad Side of the Charcoal
When drawing with charcoal, use the tip of the charcoal to create thin lines, and the broadside of the charcoal to create thick lines.
Notice the texture of the charcoal when it’s first applied to the paper. You’ll see places where the paper shows through the charcoal. Once you start smearing charcoal, you can never get back that original texture.
Once you’ve created a charcoal drawing, you can spray it with fixative to preserve the image. This prevents the charcoal from spreading and smearing after the picture is finished.
Even with a layer of fixative, charcoal will still smear, but not as badly. The fixative will darken your drawing slightly, so if you’ve never sprayed fixative on a drawing before, don’t start with a drawing that you love deeply.
Spray it on a test drawing first. You don’t have to spray fixative on any charcoal drawing, but if you choose not to, keep it protected and away from other drawings to avoid making a mess.
The spray fixative below can be erased to allow for rework. Worth checking out.
How to Use Charcoal Sticks for Drawing – Supporting Video
I found a great video by Rachel Fisk that supports the topics we just went through for how to use charcoal sticks for drawing.
Now that you know more about what charcoal sticks are, how they work and the tools needed to create a drawing with them, it’s time for me to wrap up this article. I also have other charcoal related articles such as this one on completing a still life drawing in charcoal if you are interested in expanding your skills as a charcoal artist.
I hope you enjoyed this article on how to use charcoal sticks for drawing. If you have any questions about what tools are needed or tips and tricks, please use the Contact Us page or hit me up on Instagram! Now go out there and draw something with your charcoal sticks. Share a photo of it with me on social media too so we can all see!
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Joseph Colella is a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech). While he holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent style he spent years trying to get into various Art degrees from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), and failed to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. In his spare time, he writes for the this blog, WastedTalentInc, where he shares practical advice on art, making art, and art materials. Joseph’s art has been sold to collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art and copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
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