Charcoal Q&A's

I am the snobbiest of all charcoal snobs. If there were to be a Charcoal Snob Club, I’d be the CEO-Owner-President-Queen-Hail-Mother-of-all-the-Living-and-Dead-Snobby-McSnobber of the Charcoal Snob Club. Here are some questions I’ve been asked in the past about charcoal.

Q: Charcoal vs Graphite

A: There are 3 main differences between charcoal and graphite: 1. Charcoal is much softer than graphite; therefore, it’s messier and minute details are harder to render. 2. Charcoal is much darker. Your blacks are really black. 3. Charcoal has a matte finish. Unlike graphite’s unsavory silver sheen, charcoal will stay matted.

Q: What grades do charcoal offer?

A: A typical set of charcoal pencils come in 3 grades: hard, medium and soft and sometimes include a white charcoal pencil. Unlike graphite-- having a wide range of grades from 9H to 9B-- even the hardest charcoal is much softer than graphite 9B. I don’t really see the difference in how dark the grades are, but I notice a difference on how often I sharpen my pencils.

Q: Why would charcoal be better for me when I’m already happy with graphite?

A: I’m not subtle about what a gigantic charcoal-snob I really am. If you are textured-driven and detailed-oriented like me, then charcoal is for you. I’m not a huge fan of smooth drawings. I like texture and I like dimensions. I don’t want to see eyes looking straight at me-- I want those eyes piercing me. There’s nothing graphite can offer that charcoal could not do better.

Q: How do you build up layers with charcoal?

A: I know traditionally it is taught to work from the lightest shade to the darkest shade, but I actually like to work with mid-tones first. So I like my first layer to be mid-tones and then I adjust the shadows and highlights accordingly layer after layer. If you go to my WIPs folder, you will see that my WIPs are changing from layer to layer-- shadows get darker and darker meanwhile highlights get lighter and lighter. You keep adding layers to your satisfaction. Some parts require maybe 2 layers while others can require up to 6-7 layers.

Q: How different is charcoal to graphite? By this I mean, do you build up skin texture in one big layer? Graphite is about 5 or 6 but since charcoal is one grade, how does this work?

A: You always want to use minimal charcoal per layer. Most of my layers are applied using other tools. I hardly use pencil directly onto paper. I like using brushes or even q-tips (cotton swabs or ear buds, whatever) depending on how much and how big of a space I’m covering. I shave the lead of my charcoal using a tea strainer and then apply the powdered charcoal with a brush or q-tip. So the darker you need it the more layers you will build up.

Q: Are there any tools that are essential that differ to graphite, tortillons etc?

A: No, there are no special or different tools from graphite. I always have tortillons, brushes (round tip, flat tip, and angled-flat tip), q-tips (cotton swabs or ear buds) and tea strainer. I rub the lead of my pencil back and forth on the net of the tea strainer and now I have powdered charcoal. You may also find photos of some tools I use in my gallery. You may also use other tools for different textures. I like to suggest using certain tools for certain textures. Like use your brush for soft-feathery skin or use a q-tip for uneven dots that are perfect for pores. You can use felt, chamois, even printing paper has its own texture. Anything you can experiment with, go for it!

Q: Explain how you apply powdered charcoal using a brush or q-tip please.

A: I just take the tip of the brush or q-tip and dip it into the powder and carefully dotting the surface of your paper in a stippling motion. If you prefer to feather out with the brush to give it a nice gradient effect, dip the tip of your brush into the powder and shake it a bit to get rid of any loose powder, then go to your paper and slightly angle your brush and stroke your brush to the desired direction while slowly lifting your brush up from the paper. I found it easier to stipple first and feather afterwards. Check out my hair tutorial with pictures.

Q: What's the best way to get tiny details? Or is this something that needs to be sacrificed because of the medium?

A: The only compromising you will have to make with charcoal is the mess. You will get charcoal debris everywhere. I would sneeze out black snots for days sometimes (gross, I know). Tiny details are not a problem. I’d like to fashion myself as a realism artist so details are important. You can see in my portraits that I do not leave out details. Regardless of how soft charcoal is I’m still able to render pores and thin, stray hairs. I’ll have a really sharpened pencil to lightly draw thin lines (lead barely touching the paper) or I actually use the tip of my tortillon-- you can refer to my hair tutorial in my gallery . Or I draw with dots using the sharp tip of my pencil and take the tip of my tortillon to connect the dots – examples in my teeth tutorial in my gallery. And no, my drawings are not big. I keep my paper at 9” x 12” which is slightly bigger than A4. I like to keep a border around the drawing itself too so it’s actually smaller than 9” x 12”.

Q: Have you found a better technique to apply the charcoal - circulism or hatching?

A: You know what, I apply my charcoal mostly by dotting in a stippling motion. So if I’m using a q-tip, I would take the tip and dip it into the powdered charcoal and start dotting the tip onto my paper (perfect for skin texture with pores). I then take a clean brush and softly feather it out. I don’t think it really matters how you apply it if you’re using the pencil directly onto paper because anything you apply will have to be blended. I blend everything except for thin lines like for hair or eyelashes since those will need to stay sharp and thin.

Q: Can charcoal be erased? Does negative space work with charcoal or is some planning needed before starting a drawing to prevent the need to erase?

A: Charcoal can be lifted to a certain degree. I mean if you take the pencil and roughly darken the crap out of the paper, then most likely you won’t be able to lift it off. But if you use less abrasive techniques as I have mentioned in previous answers (applying with brushes/q-tips by dotting or lightly feathering) you can definitely lift it. I like to use frisket film and my kneaded eraser a lot. That’s how I have loose highlighted strands of hair and small highlighted pores in my drawings—by lifting the charcoal with frisket film. Just like you have to add layers to build up the shading, you also have to lift up by layers as well. So if you applied 3 layers of charcoal using your brush, then most likely you will have to use your frisket film 2-3 times on that one spot to lift off the charcoal completely. Now if you want parts of your drawings to be pure white, like the highlight dot of the eye, I recommend you mark off that spot and do not apply any layers of charcoal if at all possible. Keep that area clean. Take your kneaded eraser and/or frisket film to lift off any debris as you draw around it. They do have white charcoal pencils, which I despise to no end. I have no idea how to use it and it actually has a tint to it. It’s not pure white at all and it looks tacky, in my opinion. If you find it to be useful, then by all means use it. I’ve heard white pastel pencils do wonders. I personally like to keep my pure whites untouched.

Q: What's the best paper to use with charcoal? Does it stick to Bristol board or is a slightly textured fibrous paper better?

A: First of all, I hate Bristol board. It’s far too smooth and holds nothing in any of the media I use (seriously, how the hell do you use such a paper except for garbage). I heard using textured paper is best with charcoal. The more tooth the more layers the paper can hold. I find that textured paper overpowers my ability to render my own textures. So I like using rather smooth papers, but I don’t get as much layers as I’d like sometimes. I use Arches Watercolor paper in hot press 140 lbs. It’s smooth, but not slick smooth like Bristol board. Plus you can turn the paper over to the back where there’s a little more tooth if I need to apply more layers than expected. It’s not impossible to use smooth paper, but I would recommend some kind of tooth on the surface to start off with.

Q: How do you do your sketch to prevent the charcoal sliding over shiny graphite?

A: Graphite will leak through charcoal. I only use graphite to do my line art and that’s it. I use a 2H mechanical pencil for my line art. I lightly put down my shapes and lines and as I start to work in an area I start lifting up the graphite as much as possible using my kneaded eraser until it’s nearly invisible. Actually the charcoal pencils I use, General’s Primo Euro, will cover graphite for the most part. It layers really well over graphite and completely covers it. For my own sanity I lift off the graphite, just in case it decides to leak to the surface one day to slap me across the face. To watch a video tutorial on how I do my line art:

Q: How do you keep your drawings and area clean?

A: It's basically impossible to keep anything clean when using charcoal. I have a duster brush for my table to brush off debris. For my drawing surface I just use my kneaded eraser to lift off debris as I draw along. If I'm adding a black background with my pencil directly, there will be mountains of residue and debris-- I layer the background, then blend with a brush/q-tip and then I gently take it to my garbage can and tip the paper to the side to let the debris and residue slide off of my paper. Tip it down using the side closest to the edge to avoid having debris sliding across your whole drawing-- unless it's necessary. I like to gently tap, tap the paper to get any loose, stubborn dust out. If there are leftover debris or dust on parts where they don't belong, then take your kneaded eraser and start carefully dotting the area to lift them up. I also make a habit of taping down my paper to another piece of paper so that the back of my drawing paper stays white and clean. I buy loads of cheap gift wrap paper because they come in huge sizes rolled up and just cut them down to my liking. I lay my drawing paper on top of it and start taping off the edge of my paper using artist tape (I like to have a white border around my drawing anyway so the taping serves 2 purposes). I spray down my drawing using matte finished WORKABLE fixitive (I apply at least 3 thin layers-- you can test if you have enough layers by gently pressing your finger on the darkest part of your drawing to see if any charcoal is lifted on your finger) and once that is dried and ready then I peel off the tape and take off the gift wrap paper. You should have a white border and the back of the paper should be white as well.

Q: Why realism?

A: You know, I ask myself that question sometimes. I didn’t start out with realism at all. I was more into darker things then. I was also still young at the time. I think my work matured as I matured. In any case, I think realism is highly underrated. What I fear most is that traditional art as we know it is a dying breed. I haven’t seen many that mastered realism (especially tattoo artists) because it’s that damn difficult. Realism is very precise making it the most objective 2 dimensional medium. Most art media are subjective to the audience. Yes, you may call it “photocopy” or whatever, but there are not many artists that can do realism. I’ve also seen drawings that have surpassed photos because photos require their environment to be just right to take an amazing photo (plus additional editing). With drawing, you get to choose how to render anything your heart desires through skill and talent from hand to paper. Before you criticize, think about being constructive and summoning good advice.

Q: Any tips for realism?

A: Proportion is the fundamental key to realism. Whether the likeness is there or not, the proportions have to be correct. I think the second most important aspect is shading. Great tonal value will bring life to your drawing. I’ve seen many good pieces that could have been great pieces if they hadn’t compromised their shading. The whites are too white, the darks are too dark, the whites are not white enough, and/or the darks are not dark enough. When there is not enough tonal value, then it becomes too flat. When tonal value is too extreme, then it will not look crisp. You have to be able to balance light vs shadow. I especially enjoy the subtle shadows and highlights bouncing around faces. Remember, where there's a highlight-- there's a shadow and vice versa. Finally, do not be afraid of angles. Angles will make your drawings far more interesting. Whether it’s the way a face is angled or how a finger and its knuckles are curved in certain angles. If you can master angles, you can definitely achieve a high level of skill in realism.

Q: How do you do your line art?

A: There are a couple of ways to do your line art. I see people using the grid system quite often. I actually hated the grids when I first started drawing. It takes up way too much time and effort. I actually use the Reilly Method. Everything is a shape. I look at a face and I see a mixture of shapes overlapping and intertwining. Every shadow and every highlight is a shape. If you can familiarize yourself with the Reilly Method, then your line art will be more accurate, time-efficient and far more effective with hand-eye coordination. Sure it may look comical and discouraging at first (refer to any of my first WIPs in my WIPs folder), but I found it to be the best way to start a drawing.

Q: Any video tutorials?

A: I do have a Youtube channel: where I record my drawing sessions so you can see exactly how I do my drawings. None of the videos are edited and they are in real time. They are very lengthy and can be snoozers. Just sit through a few minutes of it and you'll the gist of my technique. Though I did start making speed videos for some of my drawings. The process to speed up the videos is tedious and takes a few hours for me to do. I just don't have time for such things in my busy-chaotic life. Though I've noticed the speed videos are my most popular videos.

Q: More questions???

A: Ask away! I promise I'll try to answer them in a timely manner. Try.