14 Mar 2022Mont Marte

Let’s get to the point, charcoal pencils are a versatile medium that can create stunning effects and shadows. Whether you’re just starting out or if you’re a seasoned pro looking for a new challenge, we’ve done some sleuthing and rounded up 15 of our common charcoal pencil questions so you can get the most out of your pencils. 

Hand holding white charcoal pencil drawing a cat portrait on black paper

1. What are charcoal pencils used for?

Charcoal pencils can be used for drawing, sketching or smudging. Because of their point, charcoal pencils are best used for detailed drawings and showcasing the highlights and shadows of your subjects.

2. What is the difference between charcoal sticks and charcoal pencils?

Charcoal pencils are made from thin sticks of compressed charcoal and encased in wood like a pencil. Charcoal pencils are easier and cleaner to handle than charcoal sticks thanks to their wooden casing. Like pencils, only the point can be used, this makes them great for creating firm lines and strokes. Charcoal pencils come in hard, medium and soft grades as well as white and coloured charcoal.

Hand holding different charcoals. White charcoal, two charcoal pencils, two charcoal sticks and a woodless charcoal  pencils

3. What is the difference between graphite pencils and charcoal pencils?

The main difference between graphite pencils and charcoal pencils is down to the finish. Graphite pencils leave a shiny finish but because of the heavy charcoal within the pencil, charcoal pencils will leave a darker, matte finish. You can definitely use the two together, in fact they work well together but it’s best to leave the white charcoal and graphite pencils separate.

4. How do I sharpen charcoal pencils?

Because of their fragile nature, it’s best to not sharpen your charcoal pencils with a regular sharpener. We’d recommend using a sharp hobby knife and begin by sharpening away from yourself, slowly and at a slight angle. For a finer point try using a sandpaper block or a fine grade sandpaper, then apply gentle pressure and move the paper backwards and forwards on the point while rotating the pencil to evenly sharpen each side.

Sharpening a charcoal pencil with a hobby knife and placing it on the side

5. Are charcoal pencils erasable?

The good news is that charcoal pencils are erasable! A kneadable eraser or an electric eraser work wonders and can be used to create highlights. Simply mould the eraser into the shape you need, knead it to a point for delicate erasers or roll into a ball for a larger area, or use an electric eraser to wipe away the charcoal and show off your highlights.

6. What are woodless charcoal pencils?

Woodless means the charcoal has a plastic sleeve over it rather than wood like a regular pencil. It helps to create broader lines and make them more consistent shading in larger areas.

Woodless charcoal pencils laying flat against a drawing of three eggs

7. How do I use charcoal pencils for shading?

Use the side of a charcoal pencil to shade - like you would if you were using a colouring pencil. For this technique, work lightly, adding in more shadow as you go, rather than pressing too hard. To reduce pressure, try holding the pencil towards the end.

8. How do I blend charcoal pencils?

To blend use a finger, tissue, paper stump or tortillon in a circular motion. If you find your drawing has gone a little lighter, you will need to go back in to darken the shadows. An eraser can help bring out your highlights and bring your work to life.

Charcoal drawing of a boot being blendered using tortillon

9. What’s the best paper for charcoal drawing?

Most sketchpads and visual diaries will work well with charcoal pencils. The best paper for charcoal drawing is a high tooth paper with a rough texture so your charcoal can grip to the grain and texture of the paper. For white charcoal, try black paper such as our black paper sketch pads.

10. How do I stop charcoal pencils from smudging?

Pop a cotton glove on your drawing hand to stop the underside of your hand accidently smudging your work when you draw.

Messy hands blending out a charcoal work

11. How do I use toned charcoal paper with pencils?

Toned charcoal paper works wonderfully, especially when using a combination of charcoal pencils and white charcoals. Here, the focus is on finding the light and dark values of your subject and adding them in. For the lightest areas, grab a white charcoal pencil and for the darkest areas, reach for regular charcoal pencils. The tone of the paper coming through will make up the half tones, so keep the black and white colours separate.

12. How do I use white charcoal pencils?

You can use white charcoal pencil on its own or with a regular charcoal pencil. Use the white charcoal as your lightest value, regular charcoal as the darkest value and a blend for the half-tones. This is a good way to begin using white charcoal pencils, and best of all you won’t need to worry about erasing, simply colour the white over the dark charcoal to lighten.

White charcoal drawing on canvas of a woman resting on an easel

13. How do I shade with white charcoal?

Using white charcoal on black paper is the opposite to using regular charcoal on white paper. Here the darkest shadows are used in harmony with the black of the paper and the lightest value is made up of the white charcoal. To see how to shade with white charcoal in action, check out our lesson on how to draw a simple white charcoal portrait here.

14. Why are my white charcoal pencils so hard to draw with?

If you’re finding your white charcoal pencils are difficult to draw with, it could be because of an inclusion in the pencil. An inclusion is where a piece of the colour strip was not mixed properly during the pigment process and this can cause the pigment to not transfer properly. To remove the inclusion, use sandpaper to rub it out of the colour strip. The pigment should then transfer and you should be able to draw with your pencils.

Six variations of coloured charcoal laying against tonal paper with colour swatches

15. What are coloured charcoal pencils?

Coloured charcoal pencils are the same as regular charcoal pencils just with tinted colour.
You can create the same dramatic effects that you would get from using charcoal pencils but with a splash of colour. They can also be used alongside other charcoal colours like white and regular charcoal. Our signature coloured charcoal pencils include white, sanguine, black and sepia meaning you can capture the highlights and shadows of your subjects as well as the warmth.

If you’re looking for a charcoal pencil project to get started, learn to draw your own hand using charcoal pencils in this project.

We hope this has solved your charcoal pencil puzzling and inspired you to give them a crack. Try your hand at using charcoal pencils for yourself and #montmarteart or tag us @montmarteart on Instagram or Facebook, we’d love to see what you create.