What are the Different Charcoals Used in Art?

Powdered, vine, willow, and compressed charcoal

Coal is mineral anthracite but charcoal is carbonised wood (grape vine or willow) produced by slowly heating the wood and other substances in the absence of oxygen.

Conté—also known as Conté sticks or Conté crayons—is a drawing medium composed of compressed powdered graphite or charcoal mixed with a wax or clay base, square in cross-section. If they are made from charcoal and wax then we call this compressed charcoal.

There are different kinds of charcoal—vine, willow, nitram, powdered charcoal, compressed charcoal, charcoal pencil, and you also have pastel, conté and graphite.

Willow and vine charcoals are made from sections of willow branches and grapevine, which have been burnt to a precise degree of hardness. Because this kind of charcoal contains no binding agent, it erases completely and works well for sketching out a composition on a canvas prior to painting. Willow and vine charcoals are often very soft and powdery, so they can be less suitable for rendering fine, crisp images. Willow breaks less than vine charcoal but is also less black than vine charcoal.

  • Nitram Charcoal—is a brand of charcoal that keeps the wood cell structure and is more rich and black than willow and vine but is still easy to erase. It’s harder and doesn’t break as easily, so you can use sandpaper to make it sharp.
  • Powdered Charcoal—is the most basic form because it is an ingredient in compressed charcoal. Powdered charcoal is well suited to ‘toning’ large areas of a surface.
  • Compressed Charcoal—is made of powdered charcoal held together with a binder of gum or wax binders and compressed in sticks. Compressed charcoal comes in a range of softness based on the ratio of powdered charcoal to binder. Generally, compressed charcoal is harder than willow and vine. Because of its hardness, compressed charcoal maintains its shape better and can be sharpened for more detailed drawing—which makes it especially useful for drawing finer lines, textures, and details. The advantages of compressed charcoal is that it doesn’t break easily and is sometimes blacker than willow or vine. The disadvantages of compressed charcoal is that it can bleed and discolour paint or any wet media put on top of it, and it is generally harder to completely erase.
  • Charcoal pencils is made from compressed charcoal in the ‘leads’ with wood around it.

Compare different brands for compressed charcoal

Brands: I don’t get any money for any brand I name, for sure the brands change their recipes over time. No brand tells you exactly what you’re buying and every artist has different preferences.
I am an artist, not a scientist, I have drawn almost every day for the last 35 years with compressed chalk, not with charcoal pencils. So I can only give my opinion on compressed charcoal sticks. Conté Paris changed their recipe around 15 years ago and since then I have been searching for compressed charcoal, without success. In my newsletter, I talk about why I use compressed charcoal and not just charcoal. In my work, I hatch a lot for shadow or for the direction of the muscles. I don’t like when the chalk forms a grey cloudy spot. Some artist love this. Personally, I have way more respect for hatching techniques from Andrea Del Sarto or Michelangelo then example Degas.


Hatching of Michealangelo

Hatching of Michealangelo

Degas smudging under his hatching

Degas smudging under his hatching

There are a few things that are important for me in compressed charcoal

I am looking for the biggest range from grey to black and what is possible in one stick. A lot of compressed charcoal cannot go to black.

The oiliness of the stick—too oily or waxy means most of the time you get no grey out of the stick. The blacks are melting on good paper too easily.

Too dry—they have no black in there, and melt too much, smudging on the paper. Melting means for me that the charcoal is going to spread so it looks like a cloud of chalk.

Compressed chalk changes by temperature and age. The same brand, but an older package can be very dry, and brittle.

The form—I still like the round sticks from 8 mm. They lay easily in the hand, though the thin ones break too easily. Squares sticks give lines I didn’t make myself, like a pallet knife. Triangles have both problems in terms of breakage and give extra lines. Flat squares I don’t understand the function, only that they don’t roll from your table.

Strength—enough to sharpen my stick on one side. See youtube

I want non-erasable stuff—Read more on why. If you like to erase, I would advise Nitram.

I always choose the soft ones, 4b or softer from a brand, if they are not strong enough I try a harder version. Softer means most of the time they are blacker and less grey. But I am looking for charcoal that has a big range of greys to black.

I prefer round ones 8mm, but square that size is ok, but small squares are too breakable

Brands are changing their recipe for compressed charcoal so these are my findings in 2019

Extra notes;

Red I like most, yellow is ok.

Faber Castell says on their own website it’s smudging, so I think they see this as a benefit. Compressed Creta Colour has a plastic wrap around every stick, what’s not easy to unwrap.

If you know compressed charcoal that is not mentioned here, please let me know.

I am open for your comments—compressed charcoal is changing a lot and the more we let each other know about how it’s working, the better.

White, when I use it, is a Rembrandt pastel—one of the only ones that stay white after fixative, but I hear good stories of General White Charcoal.