Charcoal Sticks and Pencils

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Some artists are excited by composition, mass and shape.

Color is secondary to the execution of the art. If the stark contrast of black, white and gray moves you, crafting your artwork with pencil or charcoal may be a technique to spark your creative muse.

Of course, most of us use a pencil to draw rough sketches, and many artists wield a stick of charcoal to lay down a few compositional lines on a canvas.

However, most artists don’t use charcoal and pencil as their primary artistic medium.

Pencil, charcoal and a few sheets of paper are almost all an artist needs for this medium. Add an eraser, a blending stump, a can of fixative, and you’re ready to start creating stunning works of art.


Unlike the yellow Ticonderoga pencil you may have used in school, artists’ pencils are precision tools that have a wide range of hardness. Pencils, contrary to popular belief, are not filled with lead. The material used is graphite, which is blended with clay and fired to provide a consistent and uniform medium.

Wood-Cased Pencils

Inexpensive pencils lack the diversity of hardness, and they are made with inferior materials. They are not crafted in a precise manner and break when sharpened. Since artist’s pencils are inexpensive, do yourself a favor and buy a selection of proper drawing tools. You’ll thank yourself.

Wood-cased artist pencils range in hardness from 9B to 9H. You don’t need every single one, and you can start out with a selection of five or six pencils. As you become accustomed to the range of tonal qualities you can achieve from each pencil, you can add pencils as your needs and abilities change.

Graphite Sticks

If you want to darken a large area quickly, graphite sticks fit the bill. These sticks of pure graphite are square in shape and can be sanded to a fine tip or used horizontally to make wide sweeping swathes. They’re great for bold, spirited work and can cover a lot of ground swiftly.

They come in soft, medium and hard varieties and are available in several thicknesses. However, they are messy to work with. If black fingers, cheeks and chin are not part of your everyday look, you can purchase a holder to keep the sooty residue at a minimum.

Mechanical Pencils

Long used as a draftsman’s main tool, a mechanical pencil provides a crisp, uniform line. It’s perfect for detail work where precision counts. Leads are available in all hardnesses and thicknesses range from 0.3 mm to 0.9 mm.

One strong point for a mechanical pencil is that you never need to sharpen your lead. You always have consistent line weight and depth of color. It also maintains its balance point. When you use a wood case pencil, sharpening continually shortens it, so your balance point is forever changing.

A mechanical pencil is perfect for cross-hatching and doing work in which you have a consistent line weight. Drawing hair and fur for fine detail work is also easy with this type of pencil.


Charcoal is available in several varieties and forms. Natural willow and vine charcoal are uncompressed sticks and are available in several thicknesses. Compressed charcoal is made in various shapes, thicknesses and levels of hardness. Carbon pencils combine charcoal with graphite and have a wide array of densities and hardness. The compressed and pencil varieties vary by manufacturer, as each shop has its own recipe of charcoal, filler and clay additives. Carbon powder is also available, and although it’s normally used for pouncing and pattern transfer, it’s a hands-on sort of medium that’s fun to use experimentally.

Compressed Charcoal

Compressed charcoal is a combination of powdered charcoal and a gum or wax binder. Since it’s a manufactured product, it’s available in soft, medium and hard varieties. The hardness is produced by altering the ratio of binder to charcoal powder. It is produced in a wide range of shapes and sizes. There are rectangular sticks in many thicknesses and lengths, and you can even purchase large, irregular chunks.

The hardness factor of compressed charcoal makes it suitable for sharpening and holding its shape. It’s also less likely to break than vine or willow charcoal and is very useful for fine detailing.

Vine And Willow Charcoal

Grape vines and willow branches are used to create a natural charcoal by burning the wood in low oxygen conditions. This form of charcoal is soft and breaks easily. However, this softness makes it ideal for laying in color quickly, and since there is no binder, it erases very easily. Vine charcoal is a very dark gray and willow charcoal is a dark black.

That same easy-erase feature is also a problem that can arise with natural charcoal. It doesn’t adhere to your drawing surface very well, so you must use extra caution and fixative when working with this type of charcoal.

It’s available in Hard, Medium, Soft and Extra Soft varieties, but the soft nature of this product precludes it from being used for crisp detail work.

Powdered Charcoal

Charcoal in a powder state is a mess just waiting to happen. However, it’s perfect to tone large areas of your drawing surface, and it can be a real time-saver if you’ve moved to large supports that require a lot of uniform expanses massed in.

Tips For Charcoal and Pencil Drawing

  • The first and foremost tip is to wear black clothing while drawing with charcoal. Really, it’s very messy, and you’ll soon see just how important this tip is to you.
  • An addendum to that tip is to wear inexpensive white cotton gloves. Not only does this keep your hands clean, but it protects your drawing surface from oils in your skin and perspiration when drawing in warm weather.
  • Don’t use your bare fingers to blend charcoal or pencil. The oils in your skin can cause future yellowing of the paper, darken the charcoal and create a blotchy surface.
  • Always use a blending stump or chamois to blend your work. Even a tissue wrapped around your finger is better than bare skin.
  • Use a soft artist’s brush to dust off stray particles from your drawing.
  • There are workable fixatives that can be used during the drawing process. This gives you a little bit more protection from ruining your own work while it’s being created.
  • Your work should always be protected under glass or encased in glassine sheets.
  • Fixative prevents your drawing from smudging by a casual touch, but your work can easily be damaged.
  • If you find that you need to lay your hand upon your support while drawing, protect the surface by using a piece of clean scrap paper to act as a coaster. Using an artist’s Mahl stick for this purpose may also be a good alternative.

If you’re just getting interested in art, sound drawing skills are a necessary evil. It’s also an inexpensive and portable way to get started with a creative hobby. For an experienced artist, sometimes getting back to basics is like a breath of fresh air. In either case, pick up some basic drawing supplies, and get your inspirations down in black and white.

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