How to Draw with Charcoal

We often tend to associate vibrant colors with beauty, but overlook the charm in simple blacks and whites. For this reason, not many beginners take up drawing with charcoal. In this Buzzle article, we will discuss how to draw a couple of simple subjects with charcoal.
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Tip for drawing with charcoal
No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.
― Oscar Wilde

You know, there is truth in what Oscar Wilde says the minute you set eyes on masterpieces by the likes of Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. But, the point is really driven home when you see charcoal sketches by the likes of Edouard Manet, Kathe Kollwitz, and Edgar Degas amongst many others. These artists see a world made up of shadows and portray it on the paper, thus, making even the most unlikely scenes look beautiful in ebony and ivory.

The main reason is charcoal―basically the residue left after burning wood in the absence of oxygen―which has gained so much popularity as a drawing medium due to the rich and velvety softness it lends to the drawing. It is also very easy to shade charcoal sketches, as it is easy to smudge or erase it on paper. For this reason, charcoal is the preferred medium for drawing bold and robust sketches, where the emphasis is on mass and movement rather than the fluidity of lines. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss how to draw with charcoal sticks, and what are the easy things to draw with charcoal as a beginner.

Basic Materials Required for Charcoal Drawing

Even though drawing with charcoal as a medium is comparatively easy, it is advisable to start with a medium-sized charcoal stick if you are a beginner. Following are some of the supplies you will require for this art.

Paper
It is advisable to select thick paper, as it will not tear when you try to erase or rub anything you have drawn. It is also a good idea to select paper with a grainy texture, as it gives a more striking, but subtle feel to your drawing. It is also easier to shade your drawing on grainy paper.

Vine Charcoal
It is created by burning sticks of wood (usually willow) into soft, medium, and hard consistencies. This variety is uncompressed and is easy to erase.

Powdered Charcoal
As the name suggests, this is charcoal in a pulverized form. It is often used to cover or tone large sections of a paper.

Compressed Charcoal
This type comes in the form of pencils in which the charcoal is blended with small amounts of gum binder, which makes it hard to erase or smudge. The amount of binder determines the hardness of the charcoal.

Gum/White Eraser
These erasers are hard and rigid. They are used to erase the charcoal and reveal the striking white highlights in paintings.

Kneaded Erasers
These are very soft erasers, and you can knead them into any shape you want. These are used for creating subtle highlights in your drawing.

Blending Stumps
These are used to smudge or blend the charcoal and create shading effects. They are made up of tightly wrapped paper. Alternatively, you can also use your fingers or paper towels to smudge and create shading.

Fixative
A fixative is a liquid that you can lightly spray on your finished drawing. This helps you to preserve your drawing and prevent smearing.

Now that you know what all materials you will need for drawing with charcoal, let us look at the steps for drawing some simple shapes with this material.

Drawing Flowers with Charcoal

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Start by drawing the basic circular outlines of the petals and center of the flower with a graphite pencil. Divide the circles into four quadrants.

Sketch the center of the flower with charcoal sticks.

Fill in the petals one quadrant at a time. Do not fill in any details. This is what your basic sketch will look like when all the quadrants are filled with petals.

Roughly shade inside the flower and its surroundings using soft charcoal. If the petals get smudged in this process, retrace them with the charcoal stick.

Smooth out the background using a blending stump or your finger.

Smooth out the flower as well. Make sure that there is no loose charcoal on the surface of the paper.

Shade the seed section of the flower. Use your finger or a blending stump to smooth it out. You can also use an eraser to create highlights.

Define the petals by shading the background in dark tones, and shading the petals in soft tones. Use an eraser and a blending stump to create highlights and smooth out the drawing, respectively.

Highlight each and every petal in this way, one quadrant at a time, until you have completely defined the entire flower.

Now, define the seeds by erasing the highlights in the seed sections.

Use a white charcoal stick to roughly shade in the petals.

Detail all the petals one by one in a clockwise manner, one quarter at a time.

Add some finishing details. Your charcoal flower drawing will look something like what is shown in the final image in the slideshow above.

Drawing Faces with Charcoal

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Start by filling an entire paper with charcoal. Do not leave any blank spaces.

Find a good black-and-white portrait photograph. Turn it upside down in front of you. This way, you do not have the exact image of what you are drawing, and your end product becomes unique.

With a kneadable eraser, erase the basic outline of the face on the charcoal-filled paper.

Then, draw the eyes with the help of the eraser since they are the whitest spots on your face. Consider the eyeballs and the shine, and make a rounded line inside the eyeball with an eraser.

Find the lightest areas in the photograph, and erase these out with an eraser. Apply less pressure as you go out of the lighted area.

Rub the drawing with a blending stump to give a more realistic and shaded effect by reducing the gradient.

Now that your basic face is ready, start working on the details. You can do this with the help of charcoal or eraser, using them as you need. Use charcoal where you think you need more shade, and use the eraser where more light is needed.

Take the eraser, and draw lines in the dark area where the hair is supposed to be. Follow the pattern in the original photograph.

Erase the black background surrounding the portrait with an eraser.

After this, take a charcoal stick and make a thin black background with it around the portrait just to separate it from the background.

The portrait that you have drawn using charcoal sticks and eraser is now ready.

These were instructions for just two drawings done using charcoal. You can also try your hand at drawing different still-life objects, landscapes, scenes, live subjects, and abstracts once you are comfortable with the basic technique of drawing with charcoal sticks. Just take precautions not to smear what you have drawn. You can cover your drawing with a hair spray after you have finished fixing the charcoal on paper and preventing it from getting spoiled.
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Last Updated: April 16, 2014
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