10 expert tips for charcoal drawing


Drawing with charcoal, pastel and chalk is addictive. Maybe it’s because the results are so fast and immediate, or maybe because the look is so dang cool, but people love to learn how to draw with charcoal. Even the great Michelangelo loved drawing with charcoal.

Whatever the reasons for charcoal's popularity as a medium, and there are many, these charcoal drawing techniques are used by many artists every day. So let's jump in, to reveal some handy tips and tricks.

Check out the video below, then follow the steps to success.

Any type of charcoal will do for these tips. Just ask at your local art store and they will guide you (see point nine for a little about different types).

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.

01. Concentrate on 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. Learn the value of value

Learn how to organise lights and darks

The word 'value' gets thrown around a lot in art and can seem confusing. What we mean by 'value' in art is simply a walk from white to black (light to dark) using one to 10. One is the white of the page and 10 is black, so a five, 50% or 'halftone' is a medium grey, halfway between white and black. Make sense? So every image is composed of values (darks or lights) regardless of colour.

To help you with this, work from the middle out, keeping your darkest dark (the shadows) no darker than a six or a seven value and your lightest (the light effect or everything in the light) 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. Use the hierarchy of value

You can control the eye using value. Whaaa?

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 the image above, based on a photograph by Josiah Bice, the darkest values are used on 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 in 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 you to see simple shapes very clearly. Nailing those simple shapes helps with the overall essence of the piece.

05. Try thick and thin lines

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 as very monotonous and boring. So using thick and thin lines in your drawing can make it so much livelier.

So how do you use it, and what do you need to know? The simple rule of thumb is that lines on top of things are thinner since light is hitting 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.

06. Use an eraser

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 you apply charcoal you can remove it or erase out where you don’t desire it. In the picture above, the erased part is marking out where the light is hitting the model's head.

07. Get a few 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. The image above shows some great ones: a really small fine line eraser, a kneaded eraser that you can bend and squash, and a hardcore eraser pen for those tough heavy lifting erasing jobs.

Make a one-stroke mass of charcoal

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 too small. A Webril Wipe is a great tool for making a large mass in one stroke.

08. Wear 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? The oils on your hand can even attach to your paper and repel your medium. To stop this problem, wear a glove or place another piece of paper under your hand to protect your artwork.

09. Charcoal pencils

These are a good place to start

Charcoals come in many forms, from pencils to thick sticks to chunks, and whatever you decide to use is up to you. In the above photo are three good examples of charcoal pencils. Know that they can be messy, so afterward using them you can spray your drawing with a workable fixative to control them.

10. Press on

You can fly – just keep on trying

Remember that drawing is difficult and at times frustrating. Stay at it. Creating art is extremely hard to pull off and feeling happy about your progress can take time.

Learning and growing is a community project. Reach out and network with a few artists you admire. Be humble and teachable and ask them for insight about your work. Ask 'What are my weaknesses?' and '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 that 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!

This article originally appeared in Paint and Draw magazine. Subscribe here.

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