Getting started drawing with charcoal is a longstanding rite of passage for anyone thinking of becoming a real artist. Since charcoal is so flexible in how it can be used to convey a sense of light and contrast, it is ideal for learning and refining new drawing skills. It’s possible to practice swift, light strokes as well as thick, intense marks -- all depending on the types of charcoal that you use.
So it’s perhaps no surprise that some of the greatest artists in history - such as Edgar Degas - experimented extensively with charcoal and then applied those learnings to their future masterpieces. Degas may be known for his impressionist ballet dancers, but before there were lovely artworks like “The Dance Class” (a painting now hanging in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) there were the lovely charcoal creations that showed all of the various nuances of character and movement of ballet dancers that later showed up in his impressionistic paintings. It’s fascinating to compare these works side-by-side:
So what’s the best way to get started with charcoal?
Many experts recommend starting out simply by learning how to create various gradients of color, ranging from white to gray to black. The most common mistake made by beginners is going too dark at the outset, primarily because they have not yet learned how to apply pressure to the charcoal stick. It takes time to learn how to make soft, delicate marks on paper with charcoal.
From there, it’s time to experiment with various tools and materials, so that you can learn how different types of charcoal (such as vine, compound or pencil) react when applied to a surface. And it’s time to experiment with soft, gummy erasers that can help you create highlights, adjust various details or lighten up parts of your drawing that are too dark. And, of course, don’t forget to experiment with different paper types, textures and formats. You don’t even need to use drawing paper - social media platforms like Instagram are filled with countless examples of people experimenting with charcoal pencil on nontraditional surfaces like old cardboard:
As a third step in learning how to draw with charcoal, it’s important to develop the proper style of holding the charcoal, and that includes your fingers, wrist and forearm. While charcoal can be a very forgiving medium in terms of softening strokes or blending in highlights, it is also very easy to leave smudges and spots on your drawing paper or working surface. If need be, study how other artists in your class or group work with charcoal to get a sense of how to work quickly and deftly with charcoal, all without leaving behind unseemly smudges.
Using these basic steps, you will begin to perfect your own personal style that works best for you. All around you, there will be plenty of inspiration for your next artistic masterpiece. If still life paintings are too easy for you, look at creating portraits or landscapes that require much more detail and nuance. And, from there, you can quickly move into dramatic action scenes, where the interplay of light and dark made possible by charcoal can help to create some very compelling art works.