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  • Writer's pictureMary Flack

Drawing With Charcoal For Beginners

When it comes to art media, there is no better material for the beginning artist to start with than charcoal. Not only is charcoal simple and straightforward (black, dusty stuff on white paper), learning how to use "values" in your artwork is a huge step for beginners getting started with charcoal drawing.

So what is "value?" Value is a term that we use to describe the relative lightness or darkness of a color. Here's a value scale. Just look at all of those values! Artists typically think of the value scale as having between 7 and 9 steps. With either 7 or 9 steps, we have the added bonus of having a precise middle value.

a seven step value scale
A 7 Step Value Scale

a nine step value scale
A 9 Step Value Scale

Using value, an artist can describe form by creating the illusion of light and shadow. Whether you are working from a photo reference in color or black and white, or from life, you can tackle any subject using charcoal and working with value only. Sharpening your abilities working with value makes your work in color much stronger! Value is the foundation of representational art. You heard it here. :-)

a color photo of a pear and a black and white version of the same photo next to it.
Anything you can see in color can be translated to black and white. It is the range of values that make the object appear three dimensional.

Different values placed near one another can be used to create contrast, and value contrast is one of the ways that artists compose pictures that keep the viewer's interest.

Value As a Compositional Tool

Where does your eye go first when you look at this design? Do you find you look mainly at the black circle against the light background?

A simple design of circles in different values over a gradient.
A design about value and contrast.

There are so many ways to create contrast in your artwork, and to direct the viewer's attention through your piece. But we can't get into them all right now! For now, just know that value contrast is arguably the most effective element to use to create contrast. It is also the most important building block to create the illusion of three dimensional form. And finally, know that charcoal is a terrific material to use when learning how to work with value. It is inexpensive, versatile and yes, super fun.

Buy this stuff: My favorite charcoal supplies and how to get started.

Here are affiliate links to the products in this video. If you enjoyed this recommendation please click the links and we will earn a small commission on your purchase.

Get to know the materials.

I recommend you learn how to use the supplies by creating gradients. Here's a video showing you a number of different ways to do this.

Next, try a small project.

If you're new to art or if you are returning to art, do some easy studies to sharpen your skills and have fun. Get to know the process of working with charcoal by drawing a pear along with me! Here is my reference image:

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I would love to hear your thoughts about charcoal and see your efforts! It is my favorite material, and I hope it will be for you as well. Leave me a note in the comments, and feel free to ask any questions!

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