Charcoal and the Art of Medium Language



Another month, another tip involving traditional mediums. This time, we're talking about the messiest of drawing mediums: Charcoal! However, I'm not using this for the way charcoal was intended to be used-realistic portraits and landscapes. Instead, I like to use charcoal for certain types of illustrations.

To learn how to use charcoal for non realistic illustrations effectively, you need to be familiar with something I like to call "Medium Language"

Medium Language

"What the heck are you talking about?!" and "isn't it related to English class?" You may be wondering. Before we can jump to conclusions, you need to be familiar with the concept of Shape Language:

Basically, a shape can tell us what kind of character a person is, be they hero, villain, or sidekick. In the context of Medium Language, we can use different art mediums (Ink, oil, Pastels, etc.) to tell us how certain materials are used and what symbols do these mediums reveal to the observer.

To see what I mean, here's a ball sketch:

Using my three most common mediums, I can state different meanings and give different effects.

Here, the ball is simply inked. Ink applied normally may mean there's stability and weight to something:

Using watercolor alone may convey something like brightness, dreaminess, and delicacy:

And using charcoal could mean that something is dangerous, intense or edgy if used non realistically:

It should be noted that the same medium used can have different meanings, depending on HOW it's used:

And of course, what one medium means to one person may mean something else to another:

Now that we have a basic understanding of medium language, on to the charcoal demonstration

Drawing process

Note that I am using a charcoal pencil I made for this demonstration. If you can't make one yourself, here are some decent alternatives:

For the record, I am referencing some charcoal sketches I made throughout this process:

After completing the Sketch, I applied the following techniques:

"Petting the Line"- that is, drawing multiple lines over the same area:


Drawing long, broad strokes:

"Dusting", AKA using a charcoal dust brush to give the "moon" texture:

And inking the hill and the guy, which stabilizes the ground and serves as a contrast to the madness illuminating the sky:

By the end, I should get this:

Needless to say, that guy's a dead man.

BONUS TIP: You can 'tint' charcoal to a different color! You can use any color you want, but you'll be better off sticking to the colors found in actual tinted charcoal. Look for the tinted charcoal made by Derwent!


Hopefully, this tutorial should help you with your not so realistic charcoal drawings, as well as understanding when to use charcoal.

Until next time...



New Official Articles