Charcoal is one of my favorite mediums for beginners to art to start with. It’s fast, it’s forgiving of mistakes, and it helps you to perfect your values!

Tip #1 – Paper Type

You can use charcoal on most types of paper, but if the paper is too smooth, there isn’t much for the charcoal to grip to, so you’re going to be limited on how many layers you can add. It likes texture! Any paper intended for pastels or charcoal will work well. I really like the Canson Mi-Teintes. You can get this in a variety of colors. The grey pack is by far my personal favorite. I work on the rough side of this paper when working in charcoal or pan pastels and the smooth side if working in colored pencil.

Tip #2 – Pencil Type

I usually use the Generals black and white charcoal pencils. The Peel n Sketch works great too. The black charcoal pencils come in a variety of hardness levels from hard to extra soft. If you feel overwhelmed and aren’t sure which ones to choose, simplify and use just the white and extra soft or soft (you’re not going to notice a huge difference between the two when you’re starting out) pencils. While the other hardness levels can be handy, they aren’t something you need to worry about as a beginner. Keep it simple!

Tip #3 – Blending

In this video I just use the shading stump (tortillion) but you can also use Sofft Tools, Q-Tips (cotton swabs for those outside of the US), or even a rolled up piece of paper towel! The thing you want to avoid…your fingers. You can leave oil marks on your work if you blend with your fingers, plus you will end up with charcoal fingerprints EVERYWHERE! This makes for very messy art! Get used to blending with various blending tools that keep the oils from your skin OFF the work!

When you blend, don’t over blend. It’s normal to see a few blending strokes and think “wow! This looks great! If 10 blending strokes look good…100 must look even better!!” NO! JUST NO! You end up losing your contrast between the lights and the darks (which is one of the things that really makes charcoal stand out), and you end up with this ugly medium grey blob. Don’t over blend the work! I would rather see something under blended than over blended. At least if you under blend you still have strong contrast!

Tip #4 – Abstract Shapes & Reference Photos

When you look at your subject you naturally see a rose. You need to break yourself from focusing on the whole and instead zone in on individual abstract shapes. A single flower petal for example. Work on one small area, one small abstract bit at a time and it will all come together. If you’re looking at it thinking “I’m drawing a rose” you’re likely going to be jumping all over the place and your work ends up less accurate and messy. Focus on that abstract shape and look at your reference photos!

Speaking of reference photo… you’re using one right? There is this weird idea that new artists have that if you’re really “good” you work from memory. Yeah…that’s not how photorealism works. The photo is right there in the name! PHOTOrealism! You’re looking at a photo! That doesn’t mean you need to copy it exactly, it’s their as reference, but it’s your recipe for your paintings and drawings. If you want things to be accurate, get over this idea bad artists spread that you need to be working from memory. The best artists are all looking at something, either in life or photo.

Tip #5 – The Right First Project

Don’t set yourself up to be discouraged! Your end goal may be portraits or wildlife, but let’s not start there. It’s not going to look good if you’re new, and because you’re new and still learning about ugly stages being normal, this may discourage you and make you never want to draw again! Instead, start with a rose. I say a rose specifically and not just “flower” because roses have so much dimension with the folding petals and curves. What you learn from drawing and shading a rose will apply to portraits and other difficult subjects! Plus if you completely miss a petal, it still looks like a pretty rose, so you finish feeling proud of yourself. If you miss the shape of an eye on a portrait you’re going to feel discouraged. Roses are both great practice for learning techniques and for encouraging you to keep moving forward in your art!

Tip #6 – Make Your Reference Photo Black & White

We’re looking at values (lights and darks) when we work in charcoal. If you’re using a color photo this makes it harder to correctly judge that. Pull your photo into photoshop or any other photo editor and make it black and white. That’s not where it ends though, most color photos make for boring/bland black and white photos, so after you make it black and white, hype up the contrast in that photo editor. Get those darks and lights super dramatic for a better reference photo! This will make your art even better!

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 We all need to be reminded “Don’t drink the paint water”  and other fun artist sayings. 
Why not wear it on our clothes or coffee mugs to make sure we don’t forget.

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