Choose the Best Charcoal for Drawing

A Review of the Best Types of Drawing Charcoal

Artist's hand and sketch.

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Charcoal is available in natural sticks of willow and vine charcoal, and compressed charcoal in various grades in stick or pencil form. Carbon pencils are a blend of charcoal and graphite with an oilier binder, which gives a soft, velvety feel. Compressed charcoal and pencils vary in texture according to the blend of charcoal, clay, and fillers used in their manufacture. Ideally, it's best to purchase a small selection to try, as preference is a matter of personal taste.

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    Winsor & Newton Willow Charcoal

    Blick Art Materials

    The extra expense for Winsor & Newton Willow Charcoal is worth the price. It's a luxury charcoal that delivers beautiful, velvety grays and erases with a touch of the finger or chamois. (When drawing with this, the temptation to use fingers is great.) This is a very high-quality charcoal to save for special occasions.

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    Coates Premium Artist Willow Charcoal

    Coates Premium Artist Willow Charcoal
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    Willow charcoal gives soft, subtle grays that are easy to erase. Natural variations in the willow can create variations in texture and tone. Coates is an old British charcoal manufacturer that produces a reliable, good-quality product. Their charcoals are affordable and available in varying thicknesses, including a box of assorted sticks.

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    The General's Charcoal Pencils

    The General's Charcoal Pencils
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    Standard timber pencils with charcoal blend cores, The General's Charcoal Pencils offer good rich blacks. They have a very dry, almost abrasive feel, blending easily with a paper stump and erasing fairly easily. The 4B and 6B pencils are preferable since the 2B is rather hard and tends to scratch.

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    Wolff's Carbon Pencil

    Made from a blend of charcoal and graphite, Wolff's Carbon Pencils have a smoother, almost greasier feel than charcoal pencils. They deliver lovely, velvety blacks, smudgeable but less so than charcoal. They are an ideal sketchbook medium because they are much cleaner to use.

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    Conte Compressed Charcoal

    Compressed charcoal sticks are the mainstay of many charcoal artists, providing a versatile, expressive medium for all kinds of charcoal drawing, especially figure drawing. Compressed charcoals give rich, smooth blacks that are blendable but adhere well to the drawing surface, although they can be difficult to erase, depending on the paper. Conte offers a consistent product in varying hardnesses. Try starting out with a medium, soft, and very soft.

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    General's Charcoal Chunks

    An opportunity for fun—General's Charcoal Chunks are just that: 8-ounce chunks of artist's quality charcoal. This material is ideal for those big expressive pieces where you want to lay on loads of charcoal fast, for big, expressive mark-making. Note that big, expressive drawing with chunky, irregular pieces of charcoal probably calls for a fairly robust paper, such as heavy brown craft paper or watercolor paper.

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    Cretacolor Charcoal Drawing Set

    The Cretacolor Charcoal Drawing Set offers a good opportunity to try out a range of charcoal drawing techniques without buying too much of one thing. The set also makes a fine gift. The set contains charcoal and Nero pencils, graphite sticks, five grades of compressed charcoal, willow charcoal, a charcoal block, kneaded eraser, and tortillon. Nero pencils are a bit like carbon pencils, with oily waxes giving a smooth, rich line. Tinned sets are particularly nice for organization. Artists who prefer to leave their tools scattered over their desks or to put them in other containers might find that buying loose stock is more economical.

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    General's Powdered Charcoal

    General's brand products are generally considered to be reliable. Powdered charcoal is usually used for transferring patterns and pouncing, but it is also popular with art students for hands-on, expressive, large-scale charcoal drawing. Expect a mess.