How to Draw with Charcoal: A Medium With Mystical Gravity

2018-06-11T16:56:12+00:00By |Comments Off on How to Draw with Charcoal: A Medium With Mystical Gravity

“There’s an almost mystical gravity to this old material,” says Julio Reyes, on using charcoal. “There’s no denying its seriousness once you’ve placed your first mark to paper. You find that you are, in essence, dealing with the extremes of creation, that most ancient and elemental contrast — dark against light.”

Aren’t you left drawn in, wanting to see and touch this medium after reading that? It has been a while since I used charcoal myself, but I immediately remember its boldness in my hand. It’s almost intimidating.

In the article “Light & Form & Dust” (Artists on Art magazine, January/February 2012), Julio shares with us his love of art, as well as a demo on how to draw with charcoal. Read an excerpt here in your weekly dose of inspiration.

Happy drawing,

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How to draw with charcoal - Julio Reyes,

Julio Reyes, “Legacy,” charcoal on paper, 24 x 18 in.

Light & Form & Dust: An Approach to Drawing With Charcoal

By Julio Reyes (

There’s an almost mystical gravity to this old material. There’s no denying its seriousness once you’ve placed your first mark to paper. You find that you are, in essence, dealing with the extremes of creation, that most ancient and elemental contrast — dark against light.

As a child, I remember watching as my mother made rich black marks with charcoal on a broad sheet of white paper. She enjoyed drawing in charcoal and pastel, and I would watch quietly as she gently worked this velvety soot into the paper’s surface, and like magic, a world of textures and forms began to appear. This was one of my earliest memories, and to this day I am still enchanted by this medium and its capacity to communicate so powerfully. This is perhaps the reason I enjoy the tactile qualities of charcoal so much. I am no minimalist when it comes to drawing implements — I use everything but the kitchen sink, and it all ends up in the final piece in one way or another!

Drawing with charcoal provides that perfect mix of play and precision that I really love. I can move from broad and dynamic mark-making to the most quiet and delicate of passages, all in one piece.

Charcoal landscape drawings - Julio Reyes,

Julio Reyes, “Far from Home,” charcoal and pastel, 11 x 22 in.

How to Draw with Charcoal

Laying out the initial stages of a charcoal drawing is one of my absolute favorite things to do! A terrific amount of energy and expressive freedom are needed. Your intensity can hit a fever pitch as you push forward in total concentration, anxious and eager to capture what’s in front of you. However, none of this seemingly chaotic activity is truly arbitrary or “wild.” It is, in fact, passionate thinking in action. Often, you’re not after “perfect” objective realism, but a still point between what you see and all that you feel towards a given experience.

To me what matters most in these early stages is to capture — with strength, energy, and boldness — the most vital elements of the whole concept and design. I’m trying to distill these elements to their pictorial essence; not just as a practical foundation for the technical drawing, but also the moment when the expressive heart of the piece is established. I cannot overstate the importance of this element. Too often, pictures are rushed along to incidental and infinitesimal details without being properly settled on a strong foundation.

I begin much the same as I would a painting: blocking in the major shapes of light and dark in the composition, being careful to preserve the vivacity and strength of important gestures. Whether the drawing is large or small, this principle remains the same.

Drawing with charcoal - Julio Reyes,

Julio Reyes, “Outland,” charcoal on paper, 20 x 28.5 in.

Lately, I’ve been using charcoal powder and a broad brush to establish the larger areas of a drawing more loosely. This can be tricky, but blocking in values with this technique is
fun, very painterly — and very messy! The brush allows me to keep my edges soft and to create mid-tones and transitions in value, which feel lively and natural. At this stage, I’m careful to preserve the white of the paper for my lightest lights. I don’t typically build my lights with white chalk, pastel, conté, or other media. So it’s paramount early on to anticipate the overall design and then judiciously work around the light masses.

Working into darker passages with an eraser can produce some striking effects. Lifting out the lights in this manner can be achieved by means of erasing in order to reveal the white of the paper. I’ll do this mostly with clean kneaded erasers (and the occasional use of charcoal erasers and drafting-type erasers), mostly to further define the lights I’ve already established. To some extent, you’re literally pulling light out of darkness, being sensitive to the direction the light moves across the form.

This way of working is more akin to oil painting than it is to traditional drawing methods — the emphasis is more on form, light, and atmosphere than it is on line, shape, and the calligraphy of mark-making.

How to draw with charcoal - Julio Reyes,

Julio Reyes, “Stars Above,” charcoal on paper, 34 x 23 in.

The medium itself has an inherent character and charisma, which I try not to fight. In fact, the working qualities particular to each medium have everything to do with how, and when, I choose to use them. If I’m sensitive enough, I can find which medium best captures the essential qualities of what I’m trying to express in a piece. I think this can be seen in “Stars Above,” where the deep dark of the starry sky simply begged for sumptuous and sooty blacks. I wanted to preserve the graphic power of that tremendous silhouette against the white of the dying grass, and knew instantly that charcoal could deliver.

Artist Julio Reyes -

Learn more about Julio Reyes and his artwork at

This is an excerpt from the article “Light & Form & Dust” in Artists on Art magazine, January/February 2012 (download it here to access Reyes’ charcoal drawing demonstration and learn how to draw with charcoal).

Drawing the head with charcoal - Learn how to draw with charcoal when you go in the studio with Zhaoming Wu’s how-to DVD, “Drawing the Head in Charcoal.”

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