12 expert tips for charcoal drawing

As a professional artist over the past 35 years it’s safe to say I’ve used almost every medium that exists, yet the one I continually return to every day is the charcoal drawing or pastel/chalk technique. 

Maybe it’s because the results are so fast and immediate or maybe the look is so dang cool, whatever the reasons are, and there are many, I use these charcoal drawing techniques every day and thankfully I’m not alone. One of my favourite artists of all time used this medium – the great Michelangelo. So let's jump in!

Watch me as I walk you through my charcoal technique. Any type of charcoal will do. Just ask at your local art store and they will guide you. I also address types of charcoal in point 11. 

If this inspires you to educate yourself further, why not head over to Schoolism.com to discover courses, workshops and more. It’s an amazing way to study with the pros. Enjoy! 

01. The main thing – The Essence

This image is all about Paul and EVERYTHING supports or revolves around that main idea or essence

It’s been said, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." Artistically speaking, the main thing is called The Essence. Remember when creating a piece the primary question to be asking yourself is, "What is this image about?", or "What do I want to say?".

Once you settle that – the 'main idea' or The Essence – then everything you do from that point on, every move and every detail you put in or leave out, should strengthen the 'main thing' or The Essence of the piece.

02. The value of value

Learn how to organize lights and darks

The word value gets thrown around a lot in art and it confused me until I simplified it. What we mean by 'value' in art is simply a walk from white to black (light to dark) using one through 10. One is the white of the page and black represents 10, so the middle is a five or 50% or 'halftone'. Make sense? So every image is composed of values (darks or lights) regardless of colour. 

I find it easy to work from the middle out, meaning let your darkest dark (the shadows) be no darker than a six or a seven value and your lightest (the light effect or everything in the light) be a three or four value. Work your way towards the darks (accents) and your whites (highlights).

Think of accents and highlights as twins just living in different neighbourhoods. They are not the most important element of your image. They serve the whole.

 03. Hierarchy of value

I can control your eye using value. Whaaa?

Ha… I made you look! It’s safe to say that a successful image is one that quickly reads well and has power to touch you. Using value or tone and assigning different areas of the image to lesser or darker tones can be a very helpful tool. 

In this image taken by Josiah Bice, a fantastic young photographer, I used the darkest values for the subject. Notice the lightest value on his cheek and the darkest value reserved for the mass of his body. 

Using a hierarchy of value allows you to direct the viewer to what you want them to see first. In this case it’s Steve smoking his pipe. Everything else becomes less important. He is The Essence of the image.

04. Squint

Squinting your eyes simplifies things

Sometimes 20/20 vision is not helpful. When we observe whatever we are drawing there is a ton of information going through the eye gate. And an image filled with needless details cripples the effect of a piece. The goal is to EDIT and SIMPLIFY. 

Squinting our eyes just enough simplifies values and over all helps us to see a simplified version of what we are looking at. Squinting also helps me to see simple shapes very clearly. Nailing those simple shapes helps with the overall essence of the piece. 

05. The sketch

Studies/sketches are your friends. Use them to help you

There are many purposes and degrees of finish for a sketch. Sometimes they are quick and just for fun. Other times they are fully finished and gifts for others. Sometimes they are mental note taking and other times they are used to problem solve to see if a particular idea has wings... pun intended in 'Angel Dog'.

This sketch was a study to bring my thoughts to life. I liked it enough in this form to go further with the idea and it just might be a painting someday. The sketch of the man was a working sketch for a bigger painting.

06. Thick and thin

Not all lines are created equal

Using thick and thin lines is an interesting idea and it’s funny how many artists miss this very helpful concept/tool in drawing. In a drawing if every line has the same width or is drawn using the same exact pressure it looks like a colouring book drawing and can come across very monotonous and boring. So using thick and thin lines in your drawing can make your drawing so much more lively. 

So how do you use it, and what do you need to know? I’m glad you asked. The simple rule of thumb is lines on top of things are thinner since light is hitting on them and lines underneath objects can be thicker since there are usually shadows underneath things. That’s it. Wow – that was simple. Check out the various dancing lines and thickness on the dog drawing. Now you know.

07. Erasing out

Sometimes light can be 'erased' out

The cool thing about charcoal is that it’s easy to control it. You can move it around easily. Once I apply it I remove it or 'erase out' where I don’t desire it. I’m really erasing out where the light is hitting or the light source.

08. Tools

You just might need a tool belt

There are many tools of the trade for an artist and for charcoals there are cool ones to have. I’m showing three in the image above. A really small fine line eraser, a kneaded eraser which I can bend and squish to fit my needs, and a hardcore eraser pen for those tough heavy lifting erasing jobs.

09. Webril wipes

A one stroke mass

Using charcoal or pastels requires us to 'move' or apply the medium and there are many ways to accomplish this. Your finger is the most obvious, yet can be streaky or 'smallish'.

I like having the ability to make a large mass with one stroke. Say hello to Mr Webril Wipe… it’s the best tool I’ve found. Enjoy!

10. A glove

This is an oil free zone

Did you know that your hand has oils on the surface that can damage the purity of your paper or stock and fight against you? I use a glove so that my hand and the oils stay off my paper. I’ve seen instances where the oils from my hand attached to the paper and repelled my medium… Dang!

A glove is one way to stop that from happening. Another helpful move is to use a piece of paper under your hand.  Who knew?

11. Charcoal pencils

These are a good place to start

Charcoals come in many forms from pencils to thick sticks to chunks, whatever you decide to use is up to you. In the above photo are three good examples of what I like. Know this, they can be messy and you will want to try and keep your drawing clean. Afterwards you can spray your drawing with a workable fixative.

12. Press on

I wish I could fly… You can! JUMP!

In closing just remember that drawing is extremely difficult and at times frustrating. Stay at it. Creating art is extremely hard to pull off and feel happy about your progress. 

Learning and growing is a community project. Reach out and network with a few artists you admire and be humble and teachable and ask them for insight about your work. What are my weaknesses? Where should I start or what should I focus on? Ask them to be honest. Those are good questions and a great place to start. 

The good thing is everyone has been down in the dumps as well, and even to this day there are really discouraging days full of doubt, and yet days where we can fly! So press on and open your wings and jump and catch the wind!

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