This entry is part of the series Medium Monday

What is Charcoal? What is Graphite?

Charcoal and graphite are both made of carbon, but the element is structured differently for each. This means that graphite and charcoal have different properties, despite sharing an elemental building block.

Charcoal is crumbly, the product of a burning process. In term of art supplies, some charcoal is literally a burnt stick (vine and willow charcoal), while other forms are mixed with a medium like wax to change its consistency. Graphite (mixed with clay) is best known as the “lead” in modern pencils.

Visual Characteristics

Graphite and charcoal are both used for grayscale drawing. In art terms, value refers the scale of lightness to darkness. Charcoal usually produces a true black, while graphite looks lighter, more silvery. Much like colored pencils, charcoal and graphite can have a pebbly look, if the paper is rough. Paper with more tooth (raised texture) will trap the charcoal or graphite and keep it from sliding or blowing right off the paper. Unlike colored pencils, graphite and charcoal have marvelous blending properties. They can be manipulated with tools called blending stumps, tortillons, or even just the artist’s finger! Blending reduces that pebbly paper texture and is great for creating rich and nuanced shading.

Graphite can be easily erased, and charcoal can too, to a certain extent. This means that an artist can erase lighter details into the darker areas of a drawing.

Above is a detail from the cover of Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg. This book is illustrated with charcoal. Van Allsburg uses a lot of blending, which results in these smooth gray tones. Can you see how the gray areas still show the paper texture? Do the highlights on the bowl’s rim look like they’ve been erased into the charcoal? See how dark the shadows are towards the top of the image?

On the left is a detail from The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco. She applies different amounts of pressure to produce lighter and darker lines with her pencil. Graphite pencils come in a range of hardness and softness, which also affects the darkness. She has hardly done any blending, as evidenced by the paper texture showing though. Remember, pencils create lines. The “gray” area with the flower pattern is filled in with countless light pencil strokes. By contrast, the girl’s face is probably shaded with an artful finger smudge. (The techniques in this paragraph are simply my best guess, based on appearance).

In person, it’s relatively easy to tell the two apart, but in publishing, images can be adjusted on a computer. Graphite erases better than charcoal, and it’s easier to manage fine details. Sometimes, artists draw in graphite and then darken it digitally to make the images more bold. Charcoal drawings can be scanned and toned so that they aren’t true black. This makes it harder to discern the medium when looking at printed illustrations. Since they’re on a digital screen, even the examples in this blog post look different than they do in print. The best clues are the variations in value and the natural texture.

Frequent Pairings

Despite being carbon-siblings, graphite and charcoal do not work well together. Charcoal slides right off of graphite, and graphite looks weak on top of charcoal. Charcoal, being easily smudged and finnicky about surfaces, doesn’t easily integrate into mixed media. Graphite is commonly used to make an underlying sketch layer, often still visible under a layer of watercolor. In recent years, I’ve seen some beautiful examples of graphite linework with digital coloring. This combo preserves the hand-drawn feeling, while allowing full color without any risk of smearing the lines.

Read More