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Value Scales: Charcoal

This may seem like a simple repetition of the pencil value scale exercise – until you get your charcoal out.

It’s much, much harder to get an even light value with charcoal. As well as giving you more practice with judging value, this exercise will seriously stretch your control of charcoal.

Charcoal is capable of great subtlety, but that subtlety comes at a price – it’s very difficult to control at first.

As well as the value scale, I’ve included an exercise on value gradation. Unless you have a lot of experience with charcoal, this too will stretch you beyond your comfort zone. Go with it. Draw through the frustration. Keep practising.

Persevere with these exercises until you can make a really even value square and an even gradation from dark to light, and you’ll have the manual control you need for charcoal cast drawings. And you’ll be getting much, much better at judging values.

What you need:

  • Charcoal sticks. I use Coates willow charcoal, the thin sticks. Nitram fussain charcoal will make it easier, it’s slightly higher quality and easier to sharpen. I’d advise against using charcoal pencils – they have binder in with the charcoal which makes them behave more like pencils.
  • Sketch pad paper – make sure it’s got enough tooth to take the charcoal, but not so rough you can’t get an even value. I use Cansons recycled pads.
  • Putty rubber for neatening up
  • Sandpaper for sharpening
  • Kitchen roll or other soft paper for resting your hand on to protect your work.

How to do it:

1. Sharpen Your Charcoal

Start with sharpening your charcoal stick. This is a skill in itself that will take practice to perfect. Here’s some tips:

  • Sharpen so that the edge you draw with is to one side of the stick. Natural charcoal is softer in the middle, you’ll struggle to keep a point if you sharpen the stick so that the point is in the middle, like a pencil.
  • Hold the charcoal stick lightly whilst sharpening, its very easy to break them. Rest one finger on the opposite side of the surface you’re sharpening to brace it.
  • Sharpen it flat first, to a chisel shape down one side, then do each side to bring it in to a point.
  • Sharpen a few ready so that when you’re drawing, you can just switch to a new one. The points wear down really fast.

Watch this video for a demo of how to sharpen charcoal:

Got that? Good. Let’s start drawing.

2. Charcoal Technique

The video below will show you how to get an even, very light value with charcoal. Practice this. I guarantee you’ll find it difficult at first. Pay particular attention to which end I’m holding the charcoal stick at!

Once you’re comfortable with this, move onto producing a graded strip of value from dark to light. This also is very difficult at first. Do it very. very slowly, take your time, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful gradation from light to dark.

Remember this is drawing. Don’t expect to do it in a single pass. The only way to get a really even gradation is by refining and evening out.

A careful gradation of value in a strip like this takes me at least 30 minutes.

3. Value scale

You should be used to the basic technique for this by now. If you’ve practised your charcoal technique, you should now be able to produce a good value scale in charcoal.

The video demo here just shows a three step scale, but do three and five step scales as we did for the pencil value scale exercise.

If you’re right handed, remember to work from left to right. That puts your darkest scale on your left and stops you smudging it so much with your hand as you draw the next square. If you’re left, handed, work from right to left.

Repeat this exercise until you can:

  • Create a scale you feel is fairly even in the steps between each value
  • Produce a fairly even value across the surface of each square

Then do it some more.