3 Types of Artist Charcoal & How to Use Them

By Nicole Tinkham

Being an artist isn’t easy especially with various supplies to choose from and endless techniques to learn. Every week we strive to bring you useful product info and helpful tips to inspire and help take your artwork to the next level. This week, we’re focusing on charcoal. You’re probably aware that there are 3 main types of charcoal (powdered, compressed, and willow/vine) but you may not realize that all three types produce very different effects. Here’s a little information on your three charcoal options and how to use them in your next project.

Powdered Charcoal

Powdered charcoal is charcoal in its most basic form, powdered. This charcoal will give a softer look and is ideal when toning large areas. The downside however, is that it tends to be very messy. As an artist, we’re guessing you don’t mind getting a little messy :)!

Compressed Charcoal

Take that powdered charcoal, bind it with gum or wax, and you have compressed charcoal. The amount of powdered charcoal and binding agent used determines the softness of the charcoal stick, giving you options. Even with an assortment of sticks, compressed charcoal is still harder than vine and willow sticks (mentioned below). Because of its hardness, compressed charcoal can be sharpened, producing finer detailed lines that you can’t achieve with willow and vine. You may also want to choose compressed charcoal over the alternatives for its darker lines and break-resistant qualities. On the down side, it can be more difficult to erase and can bleed if wet media is placed on top.

Willow/Vine Charcoal

These charcoal sticks are made of grape vines and willow branches that have been burnt to a specific hardness. Unlike compressed charcoal, vine and willow charcoal doesn’t use a binding agent which results in clean erasing. Because of this property, they are perfect for sketching a composition on canvas prior to painting. You’ll notice a vast difference in the way this type of charcoal feels in comparison to the heavy compressed charcoal. Willow/vine charcoal is very light and produces soft, powdery lines.

How to blend charcoal

Your initial instinct may be to blend with your fingers but we advice against this. It’s messy and the oils from your fingers can darken the charcoal. Instead, use blending stomps or tortillons. These are tools made of tightly wrapped paper that are ideal for blending.

The best way to truly understand the differences between powdered, compressed, and willow/vine charcoal is to experiment. Practice using each one to determine the best charcoal for your project. Here’s a helpful tip: If you’re using charcoal sticks and want to keep your hands clean, wrap aluminum foil around the end of the stick that you hold in your hand. Now it’s your turn – share with us your best charcoal tip in the comments below!