A review of the best charcoal for drawing: from natural sticks, to pencils and synthetic compressed charcoal blocks. Each type of charcoal will give artists slightly different results when drawing.
Read this guide to find the type of charcoal that will best suit your drawing practice and the best brands available.
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Attributes: Unique manufacturing process prevents breakage, less dust, range of hardness grades
What is Nitram charcoal?
Nitram charcoal is considered the finest type of charcoal for drawing. It’s favoured by many academies and ateliers. The charcoal sticks are rich black in tone and come in a range of hardness grades. This brand cannot be described as vine or compressed charcoal. This is due to the unique way in which the charcoal is processed. The cell structure of the wood is maintained, giving the charcoal sticks extra strength, meaning it has the attributes of being soft, erasable, dust-free and resistant to breaking all at the same time.
What are the advantages of Nitram charcoal?
The advantage of using Nitram charcoal is that it is treated in such a way so that it doesn’t break and crumble under pressure.
This charcoal sharpens to an extra fine point. Because it’s so durable, you can sharpen without worrying about the stick breaking. Use the Nitram Sharpening block to sand the end to create a long point, perfect for drawing details.
What formats does it come in?
Nitram charcoal is made in a variety of shapes and grades. Petits Batons are sold in packs of five, are small in size and suit figure drawing. The Maxi format would suit an artist who works at a large scale. The charcoal comes in three different hardness ratings. H is hard—sharpen to a point and use it for fine detail work. HB has a medium softness and B is soft. Use the softer grade of charcoal sticks for creating rich tonal values and soft transitions.
Overall, Nitram charcoal offers the best of both compressed charcoal and vine charcoal in its working properties. This is due to the fact that it is durable and less dusty than vine charcoal. However, it also offers the erasability and softness of vine charcoal.
Vine and willow charcoal
Vine and willow charcoal sticks are derived from natural sources. They are both types of long, thin sticks that have been heated in a kiln without air. The difference between the two is the type of branch that makes the stick. For example, vine charcoal is made from grape vine and willow is made from a willow branch.
As this charcoal is made from a natural source, there will be variations between sticks. The sticks don’t contain any binder, so they will be dusty and brittle in texture.
Artists choose this type of charcoal for the soft, liftable properties. They are easy to erase and can be used to make gestural marks. Willow and vine charcoal sticks aren’t as dark as compressed charcoal, which makes them great for making initial sketches on canvas before painting. However, creating ultra detailed drawings with this type of charcoal can be tricky for this reason, but they work wonderfully for expressive pieces.
Winsor & Newton Willow Charcoal
Attributes: willow charcoal, soft, short and long sticks, high quality
Winsor & Newton make their classic willow charcoal sticks by selecting only the finest branches of willow for their uniformity. Willow charcoal is a versatile medium that can be used on a number of different artists’ surfaces. These sticks are inexpensive and great for creating quick sketches and brilliant loose, expressive drawings. Almost every artist will have a few sticks of willow charcoal in their pencil case!
Coates Willow Charcoal
Attributes: made from willow, soft, five sizes
Coates is regarded as being among the highest quality willow charcoal in the world. The line was started by Percy Coates in the 1960s, who refined and perfected his charcoal production technique over a number of years from the willow he grew. Coates remains a family run business and their charcoal remains an essential tool for fine artists world over.
Create sweeping bold marks, or choose their extra large range of ‘tree sticks’ to quickly cover your surface. Willow charcoal is easy to erase and marks can be fixed in place with a fixative.
As compressed charcoal is synthetic and contains binder, each pastel block will have a more consistent appearance. Compressed charcoal is ultra dark black and the marks made are more permanent than vine charcoal. Therefore the marks are more difficult to erase. Just like natural charcoal, compressed charcoal is smudgeable and dusty, however it will create less dust than its vine counterpart.
The compressed charcoal sticks and blocks vary in hardness—soft charcoal contains less binder and will be more dark black in appearance. Compressed charcoal is a great option for artists who want to create intensely dark, matte, black marks, but with more uniformity than natural charcoal.
Faber-Castell PITT compressed charcoal
Attributes: compressed charcoal, deep black, range of hardness grades, high quality
The PITT charcoal by Faber-Castell is made from a mixture of soot and charcoal. This provides artist with an ultra deep black. The compressed charcoal sticks come in a range of different hardness grades, extra soft, soft and medium. This is a high, artist quality compressed charcoal that leaves marks that are blue-black in tone. Smudge the compressed charcoal with ease, using tortillions, a chamois or your hands.
The advantage of this brand is that an extra soft form of charcoal is available. Compressed charcoal is usually harder in texture than willow and vine charcoal, but the soft and extra soft versions of PITT charcoal are perfect for bold, expressive marks. Cover large areas by using the side of the charcoal stick, or sharpen the end for more detailed work. The extra soft charcoal sticks will wear down quickly and even break with more gestural techniques, but they deliver the deepest black tones.
Derwent compressed charcoal
Attributes: comes in different shades, great for transitional shading
Derwent compressed charcoal comes in three shades, light, dark and medium. They can be bought as single sticks. The colours are slightly different shades of grey, between the light, medium and dark. The light and dark shades are excellent for smudging and blending into transitional shades between the deepest shadows and lightest highlights.
Due to its natural water solubility, artists can dip the charcoal in water to create inky washes. The finish of the dark sticks is deep black and powdery, however the charcoal can be fixed in place with a sealant spray.
Apply charcoal powder with a brush or paper stump. Soft brushes will work better for powder application. The powder format provides artists with a unique way to apply charcoal to the surface, it means artists can experiment and use a variety of textural effects. For example, get a soft brush and blend the charcoal powder into the paper, creating seamless transitions between light and shadow. This is especially useful for portrait artists who want to create the impression of smooth skin tones. Use a kneaded eraser to lift charcoal from the paper for subtle highlights.
Nitram powdered charcoal
Attributes: smooth, fine powder, easy to blend, excellent lightfastness
Nitram powdered charcoal is smooth and velvety in texture. Brush it across the paper to create soft marks and perfectly blended transitions. The charcoal particles have been finely milled to a uniform 100µ particle size. This means that the powder will appear incredibly consistent on the surface, without creating a granular look, as some charcoal powders have a tendency to.
This powder has excellent lightfast ratings, meaning that artworks will not fade over time. It’s important to wear a dust mask while using, and not to breathe any of the charcoal particles in.
The advantage of liquid charcoal is that it offers artists a dust free method of applying charcoal. Use it with water to lighten the values and decrease the viscosity of the charcoal. Artists can opt to paint with liquid charcoal as an underpainting method before applying oil paints on top, for using alongside regular charcoal, or as a medium in its own right.
Nitram liquid charcoal
Attributes: water soluble liquid charcoal, thick consistency, excellent lightfastness, fast drying
Straight from the tube, the liquid is thick like oil paint and rich black in tone. Thin with water to make it runnier in consistency and adjust the values. Paint with a brush, or even apply to the surface with a palette knife.
Schmincke liquid charcoal
Attributes: three colours, excellent quality, lightfast
Schmincke liquid charcoal tubes come in three different pigments. Each pigment has been created by charring a different fruit seed: peach stone, cherry pit and grape seed. These have slightly different undertones from one another. Peach stone is neutral, grape seed is cool and bluish in colour and cherry pit has a warm black tone. Dilute with water to build multiple layers on the surface, with different tones and thicknesses.
Charcoal pencils are made from compressed charcoal leads in a wooden casing. This makes them much cleaner to work with and easier to hold. Plus, the smaller nibs allow artists to create fine details. Pencils will cause little to no dust, making them much easier and safer to work with.
If using soft charcoal pencils, make sure to sharpen with care with a knife as cores are more prone to breaking than hard charcoal pencils.
Graphite pencils are different to charcoal pencils in that charcoal has a deep, matte black finish, whereas graphite has a steel grey, reflective finish. If you want to learn more about the differences between charcoal and graphite, check out our guide.
Caran d’Ache Charcoal pencils
Attributes: dark shades, smooth, blendable
Perfect for sketching, or final portrait and landscape works, the Caran d’Ache charcoal pencils are Swiss made and encased in a round wooden barrel. The barrel is comfortable to hold, and the charcoal core is made from intense, soft black charcoal.
Derwent charcoal pencils
Attributes: compressed charcoal pencil, scratch-free marks, resistant to breakage
These charcoal pencils have cedar barrels and quality charcoal cores. The consistency of the charcoal means that these pencils are less scratchy than some of the others on the market. The pencils come pre sharpened in light, medium and dark shades.
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