Drawing and Sketching With Charcoal

By: John A Burton

Drawing and Sketching With Charcoal

Charcoal comes in several forms, but the easiest to work with are charcoal pencils. At first sight they are little different to graphite pencils. They feel familiar, they don't make your hands messy, and their point can be sharpened.

Charcoal pencils even come in different grades, just like graphite pencils, although the range is smaller, and normally goes from H to 2B (or sometimes soft, medium and hard, depending on the manufacturer).

If you want to try drawing and sketching with charcoal, get some charcoal pencils, and some of the unfamiliarity of the medium will be lessened.

So how do they differ from graphite pencils?

There are two critical differences between graphite and charcoal. The first is that while graphite produces shades of grey, charcoal delivers shades of black. Let me clarify this point. The darkest shade possible with a graphite pencil is a dark grey. If you ever see pencil drawings on the Internet, where the darkest tones are black, the image is unlikely to be truthful. This often the consequence of digital imaging, where dark grey reads as black relative to a white background. It can also sometimes be the result of image "tweaking" to enhance a digital image (hard to resist when you are trying to show-off a drawing at its best).

Grey is a shade of black, and charcoal can produce faint greys all the way through to black. Therefore, charcoal can perform better than graphite because it records a superior tonal range.

The second significant difference is that charcoal gives a matte finish. Graphite has a surface sheen, and this is visible whenever a drawing or sketch is viewed at an angle (as opposed to face-on). This can be undesirable. For example, very dark areas can look shinny and reflective (they loose their darkness), and pencil marks can be revealed, especially where a heavy application has been used to achieve a deep tone. We do not always view a drawing head-on.

Using charcoal

Charcoals demand a more planned and meticulous approach.

Light tones absolutely require the use of a hard charcoal pencil. With graphite, the artist can make a 2B perform like an H, With charcoal pencils this is not possible. It's not a matter of skill: an H charcoal pencil is grey, and a 2B is black. You really need to use the right grade of pencil for the job.

The differences between the grades are also amplified in their smudginess. A 2B will smudge like crazy, while an H will hardly smudge at all. This means that lighter areas have to be hatched with greater care and accuracy, since they are harder to blend. Dark areas, particularly finer details, need to be left until last, to avoid the danger of accidental smudging.

The need to work from light to dark has the consequence that a likeness does not emerge very quickly. This can be very discouraging, because the drawing can look a complete mess or nonsense for some time. With charcoal it is hard to gauge how you are doing until you are some way on with the drawing.

f you want to ease into drawing with charcoal, you can start to get a feel for the medium by adding charcoal lowlights to a graphite drawing. The only thing to bear in mind here is that charcoal will not mark over graphite, so you need to get the charcoal down fairly early in the drawing.

As a final word on charcoal, let me introduce you to its relative - "Pierre Noire". Soft, smooth, very black, and works over graphite: a fantastic choice for supplementing graphite.

About the Author:
Please visit Portraits by John Burton


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