Charcoal drawing is a fantastically versatile medium to try. Charcoal can be used to create textured drawings or blended to achieve smooth tones – charcoal drawings can look almost like paintings!
When you use charcoal, it teaches you to look at your drawings in a different way. The limited colour palette forces you to focus more on light and dark shades, which will help you to improve your overall drawing and painting techniques.
Charcoal can be used to produce drawings of absolute anything, but they’re particularly popular with portrait and landscape artists. Once you’ve mastered some simple techniques, you’ll be surprised what you can produce.
This medium can be a little messy, but that’s part of the fun! Give yourself permission to be a bit messy and explore the effects you can achieve with charcoal. If you’re worried about smudging your work, you can put a piece of paper underneath your hand to keep your paper clean.
Charcoal drawing is suitable for artists of all levels and you only need to buy a few materials to begin making your own charcoal art. In this guide, we’ll show you the charcoal drawing materials you should buy to create your own beautiful charcoal drawings, plus we’ll show you a few techniques to help you get started!
Charcoal drawing supplies
Want to get started right away? Here are some recommended supplies to buy to help you get into charcoal drawing…
Winsor and Newton willow charcoal sticks
Charcoal drawing supplies come in lots of different forms, from compressed sticks to charcoal pencils. Willow sticks are a very traditional material for charcoal art and often come in bulk packs. Packs are available in different thicknesses, so you can do finer charcoal drawings if you wish. Willow sticks are a budget-friendly option for people who want to try out charcoal drawing without spending too much. You may find that they are more brittle than other forms of charcoal, but they blend very smoothly because they don’t contain any binding agents – only wood. Just don’t press too hard though!
Kaiyes woodless charcoal pencils
Woodless charcoal pencils are a great choice if you want to get into charcoal drawing. They’re covered with a thin layer of plastic so your fingers won’t get messy when you’re drawing, making them a good pick for beginners or younger artists.
These pencils come in three different grades: soft, medium and hard, so they’re suitable for most of your charcoal drawing needs. They blend very easily so you can create smooth drawings – use a finger or a paper stump to blend your pencils for best results. This is an ideal set of charcoal drawing pencils for beginners or amateur artists – and they won’t break the bank.
Derwent charcoal drawing pencils set
If you’re looking for a good starter set of charcoal drawing pencils, this set from Derwent is an excellent choice. Charcoal pencils are great for precision drawing and sketching out your designs. This set includes charcoal pencils in various grades from dark to light, plus a white charcoal pencil for any highlights.
The pencil tips are very smooth and blendable, which is why I love using my own Derwent charcoal pencil set! It also comes with a pencil sharpener. The charcoal drawing pencils are protected by a sturdy tin. Like most of Derwent’s products, these pencils are high quality and great value for money.
Derwent tinted charcoal pencil set
Want to add a little colour to your work? This Derwent tinted pencil kit allows you to add some subtle shades to your charcoal art. This is very effective when used in combination with a set of more basic charcoal drawing pencils. We’d recommend this set for landscape artists who want to add some muted colour to their charcoal drawings.
The set contains 12 water soluble charcoal pencils for you to try – use them dry or brush some water over your drawing with a pencil to create interesting effects! If you like this set, a larger 24 pencil set is also available to buy. Like the other Derwent charcoal pencil set, these pencils come in a robust tin.
Faber-Castell charcoal set
Faber-Castell has a fantastic reputation within the industry for producing excellent materials for both amateur artists, students and professionals. This beautiful charcoal drawing set is no exception – it includes everything you need to produce charcoal art from pencils to compressed charcoal sticks. It even includes a kneadable eraser (sometimes called a putty rubber) and a paper stump (used for blending). This is a good set to buy if you’re into charcoal art and want a more complete drawing set for your work. The quality of everything in this set is top-notch, so you won’t be disappointed.
Derwent paper stumps
Paper stumps are really handy if you want to blend or smudge your charcoal drawings without getting your fingers dirty. To use them, you simply rub the stump over your drawing – as you would if you were blending using your fingers. If the end of the stump becomes too grubby or the point becomes flattened, you can easily clean it up and sharpen the point using a sandpaper block.
Paper stumps aren’t essential for charcoal art, but they are really useful. If you don’t want to buy a paper stump, you can use rolled-up paper instead.
Strathmore charcoal paper
This pad of crisp white charcoal paper is ideal for beginners. The traditional laid finish is designed to pick up the charcoal easily, making it a good drawing surface. As you progress, you’ll probably want to try using using coloured papers, but this is a good place to start.
Strathmore toned gray paper
A light coloured paper can be used to create the mid-tones of your charcoal drawing, with black charcoal for the shadows and white charcoal for the lighter tones. This approach means you really focus on the way light interacts with your painting. This soft grey paper will be a good foundation for all of your charcoal art!
Daler Rowney murano pastel paper
Want to experiment with colour? Daler Rowney’s murano range has a selection of paper pads in different colours – including cooler and warmer shades. This is a great way to bring colour into your charcoal art. Personally, I prefer the cooler paper pad for moody and atmospheric landscape drawings, but there’s also a pad with warmer colours and a neutral pad.
ArtGraf water soluble graphite disc
White graphite discs (sometimes called tailor’s chalk) are ideal for adding highlights to your charcoal art. They can be used dry, or you can apply water using a brush to blend the graphite.
Daler Rowney perfix fixative spray
Once you’ve completed your charcoal drawing, you’ll need to protect it. Most artists working with charcoal or pastels spray their work using a fixative to stop it smudging, but this can dull the colours a little. There are lots of different fixatives on the market, but this one is effective and reasonably priced.
Cretacolor charcoal powder
This is a nice optional extra to add to your art supplies. Charcoal powder can be used to create smooth gradients and can be built up using a brush. Be careful not to apply too much at once – start with a light dusting and build up the colour gradually. When you’re buying charcoal powder, make sure that you’re buying a brand designed for artists, as edible charcoal is also sold. This charcoal is definitely not for eating!
Derwent charcoal tinted paint pan set
This Derwent set offers you the chance to use charcoal in a different way! You can use the tinted charcoal to paint with, adding subtle colours to your work. These charcoal paints can also be used alongside more traditional charcoal sticks or pencils. This handy little set comes with a mixing palette, a mini water brush and a cleaning sponge.
It’s a good set for charcoal sketches of a landscape or a person – and the results can be very striking!
How to draw with charcoal
Now you’ve got all of your charcoal drawing supplies, we’ll show you how to create a beautiful charcoal drawing step by step…
You Will Need
- Charcoal pencils
- Paper blending stumps
- Tailor's chalk
- Charcoal sticks
- Coloured paper pad
- Putty rubber or kneadable eraser
- Fixative spray, (optional)
If you’re new to charcoal drawing, I’d recommend drawing from a photo to begin with. Look for an image that has strong contrasts between light and dark, as this will help you to produce a really striking picture. You can produce a picture of anything you like, but for this example I’m going to draw a landscape. I’m going to loosely base my drawing on the photo below – it’s St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Feel free to use this photo for your own drawing!
First, take a black charcoal pencil and lightly sketch the outline of your picture. It doesn’t need to be too precise at this point – you’ll add more detail at a later stage. If you really go wrong, you can use a mouldable eraser (putty rubber) to remove the unwanted lines.
Next, lightly mark out some of the darker areas of your picture using the graphite pencil, so you have some idea of which parts need to be really shadowy. You can also start sketching the shapes of the clouds.
Start to add shading to the sky using a dark charcoal pencil. I like to work in one direct, so that the shading lines go diagonally across the sky, but you can create interesting textures by shading in the opposite direction – experiment and see what works for you! Blend the clouds a little using the blending stump.
Add some more shadows to the sky using a charcoal stick. Build up the colour gradually and use the blending stump or your finger to create smooth gradients from light to dark. Blow on the paper or give it a shake to remove any excess charcoal.
Next, take a white charcoal pencil and start adding some highlights to your charcoal drawing. Again, I’m working diagonally to tie in with the black graphite marks. Go over the top of your white graphite with tailor’s chalk to add lighter highlights.
On this drawing, I’m starting from the top and working down so I don’t smudge the drawing with my hand. Top tip: if you’re prone to smudging your drawings, try putting a piece of scrap paper under your hand.
Now we’re going to draw the castle! Use a dark graphite pencil to go over the outline of the castle, then shade it in. I’ve added a little white charcoal pencil to highlight the roof of a building and to show that there are other buildings on the island – you don’t need to add any details to the houses, just add a few marks to suggest that they’re there.
You could go over the castle again with a charcoal stick if you want to make it darker and even more dramatic!
Now I’m going to draw the sea. As a general rule, when you’re drawing a landscape you want to add less detail in the distance and more detail in the foreground. This can create a feeling of depth even if there’s nothing else in the landscape (or seascape) to create a sense of perspective.
As I’m using a denim blue paper, a lot of the work is already done for me, so I’m just going to scrape the full side of the tailor’s chalk across the drawing to add some instant texture. Don’t go all the way to the bottom of the page because we’ll be adding more detail there. Use the corner of the tailor’s chalk to highlight some areas of the sea. For example, I’ve added a little highlight to the righthand side of the island to make it pop out.
Now we’re going to tackle the foreground of the drawing. Start adding some ripples to the drawing using black charcoal pencils. Draw lightly at first, then build up the colours using a charcoal stick. Smudge your lines a little using the blending stump.
Add some more dark tones to the bottom of the drawing to show the shadowy depths of the sea. Use charcoal sticks and blend using the paper blending stump.
Now add some highlights to the water using white graphite. You may want to go over them again with tailor’s chalk to add lighter areas and rub it over the bottom of the paper to get a shimmering look.
Now is the time to go over the drawing and add your finishing touches. Look at your picture and compare it to the original photo. Are there any areas which need to be darker? Do you need to add more highlights anywhere? This is a good time to tidy up any bits of the drawing that you’re unhappy with and make your drawing as good as it can be.
To finish off the drawing, I’ve added more white charcoal around the castle and added some more highlights to the clouds. I’ve also added more shadows in the sky. On the sea, I’ve darkened some parts of the water using a charcoal stick and blended it in. I thought the sea was looking a little too dark in places, so I used an eraser to remove some of the charcoal.
Finally, I went back over the waves and added some more white charcoal highlights, as they’d become a little smudged. This is a good thing to do when you’re finishing off the drawing and you’re sure that you aren’t going to add any more charcoal.
Keep going until you’re happy with your drawing, then cover it with a light coating of fixative spray.