Learning to draw a still life using charcoal is the basis for most types of art which is why in this tutorial we’ll look at some simple steps that will help you get started with your own art project.
Please continue reading below if you want to learn more!
Hands, fingers, arms and face can get very dirty when you’re drawing with charcoal.
If you’re learning how to draw still life with charcoal, I recommend changing your clothes. Wear something you don’t mind getting dirty.
Enjoy the mess.
Gather the Materials
Start by gathering your materials for your still life charcoal drawing.
- Pencil (optional).
- I recommend a light pencil, or none at all.
- Blending stump.
- Blending stumps come in different widths. Buy several sizes. Bigger blending stumps make bigger, broader strokes. Thin blending stumps are good for detail work.
- Charcoal is incredibly messy, so you’re definitely going to need some kind of eraser. I always like to use the eraser as a drawing tool, by creating “erased lines” in blended charcoal forms. I prefer the click eraser sticks because they easily create thin lines that suit my purposes. These are not art tools so much as school supplies, but they work just as well. There are many types of art erasers on the market (including rubber, gum and kneaded) and you can choose whichever eraser works best for you.
- Vine charcoal.
- Vine charcoal is lightweight. It feels and looks like charred wood. It comes in thin or thick stumps and creates a light to medium gray mark that is easily blended and erased.
- Compressed charcoal.
- Compressed charcoal comes in stick form, like chalk pastels, and creates a very dark, rich, black mark. I always prefer compressed charcoal to vine charcoal, and rarely use both types of charcoal together in the same drawing. They make distinctly different marks.
- White charcoal.
- White charcoal comes in a stick form, like compressed charcoal, and creates a chalky white mark. It can be used to make highlights.
- I prefer a weighty drawing paper with minimal texture. Always use acid-free paper, because it doesn’t yellow over time. You never know when you’re going to draw a masterpiece.
Test the Charcoal First
Before you start a still life drawing with charcoal, test out the charcoal on a scrap piece of paper.
Make a line with the tip of the charcoal, then make a thick line by drawing with the broadside of the charcoal. Blend these lines with the blending stump or your fingers.
Notice that compressed charcoal doesn’t smear as easily as you might expect. You can easily get your fingers quite dirty by touching it, but it takes some effort to smear compressed charcoal on the paper.
Vine charcoal, on the other hand, smears very easily. Make a line with the vine charcoal, then smudge it with your blending stump or finger. Notice the difference in color between the vine charcoal and the compressed charcoal.
Try erasing both types of charcoal. Compressed charcoal is difficult to erase, while vine charcoal is more easily erasable.
Finally, test out the white charcoal. Try drawing with white charcoal over vine and compressed charcoal, to see how it covers up the darker shapes.
Choose Your Subject
I recommend selecting an easy, basic subject for your first still-life. This might be a ceramic pot, bowl, dish or shoebox.
To get more mileage out of your subject (and to see what charcoal can really do) shine a bright, directional light on your subject. Set up a still life with areas of deep shadows, lighter shadows and bright highlights.
Step 1: Loosely sketch the image.
Using a pencil or vine charcoal, lightly sketch the outline of your subject, the table it’s sitting on, and any elements in the background.
Some people like to dive right in without sketching. If you skip this step, you’ll likely end up with some thrilling distortions in your drawing.
I like distortions and often do not sketch an outline when working with charcoal. I find that the best thing about working with charcoal is that it can be freeing.
I don’t like to worry about accuracy. Charcoal is a messy medium that creates messy drawings with lots of visible accidents that I relish.
Step 2: Deepen the outline around the figure, then fill in shadows.
Use the broadside of the charcoal to fill the deepest shadows of the forms you’re drawing. You can also use the tip of the charcoal to color in shadows, like you would with a crayon.
Start light and go deeper as needed. Once charcoal is on the paper, it can be hard to erase.
Step 3: Blend.
Use the blending stump or your finger to blend the shadows. This will spread the shadows around, making them larger.
If you need to apply medium-value shadows and don’t want to make a strong mark on the paper, try applying the charcoal to your blending stump or even your finger, and then smear the charcoal onto the paper in this secondary way.
Repeat steps 2 and 3.
Keep filling in outlines and shadows, smearing the charcoal to create deeper shadows. You may notice that you make some errors. Perhaps the figure you’re drawing ends up looking lopsided, or too small compared to the other objects around it.
Erasing the entire figure will likely not work. Charcoal is very difficult to fully erase. Learn from your errors, start over if you’d like, and enjoy the chaos.
Step 4: Create highlights.
Once you’ve got the shadows in place, identify the brightest spots in your still life image, then erase those areas on the drawing to expose the white paper underneath.
If you’d like your highlights to be even brighter, you can try using white charcoal. Be careful when applying white charcoal to paper. Once it’s on, it won’t come off. It has its own distinctive look that will affect the overall look of the drawing.
Tips for Future Drawings
If you enjoy still life drawing in charcoal, try charcoal pencils for something new and different. Charcoal pencils are far less messy than vine and compressed charcoal but still create very satisfying dark shadows.
It’s easier to create detailed drawings with charcoal pencils.
Want to try something new and different? Try drawing with white charcoal on black paper. This method produces some striking results.
Joseph Colella (Joe Colella) is an Editor and Writer at WastedTalentInc. As 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 Joseph holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent fashion he spent years applying for various Art degrees; from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), to failing to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. While he jokes about his failures at gaining formal art qualifications, as a self-taught artist he has had a fruitful career in business, technology and the arts. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. Joseph’s art has been sold to private collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art advice and tutorials to copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
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