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Charcoal vs Graphite: What's the Difference?

Graphite and charcoal are two of the most user-friendly media for drawing. Not only do they allow for expressive lines, but they also help to render values through blending. For many people, this can be a much easier learning curve than working with layering. As far as drawing goes, both charcoal and graphite have a long history of artistic use.

You’ve most likely used both of them at some point in your daily life, not to mention throughout your artistic endeavors, but you might be hard-pressed to pinpoint the exact difference between them.

A Short History of Charcoal and Graphite

Both charcoal and graphite are carbon-based media. However, they excel in different uses.

Many artists consider graphite the ideal tool for a finished piece; whereas the flexibility of charcoal is often preferred for concepting and expression.

This is because graphite is most often used for detail work. On the other hand, charcoal is most commonly used for dramatic work and preliminary sketches, as artists work through finding a shape or design for a more finished piece.

Charcoal: How It All Began

It’s difficult to overstate how much tradition is behind charcoal drawing since it’s the oldest art medium that we know of, dating back to early cave paintings. Charcoal was frequently used throughout the Renaissance to create gestural sketches while artists conceptualized a larger painting. Nonetheless, charcoal’s expressive abilities and range allow it to create beautiful finished drawings as well.

As an early carbon medium, charcoal is made by burning organic matter, such as plants, wood, or even bone. More stable charcoal is made by applying heat over a long period of time in a kiln or other chamber with little airflow.

There are different types of charcoal available, such as those made from plants, including willow and vine, charcoal powder, compressed charcoal, and charcoal pencils of different hardness. Vine and willow charcoal tend to be the highest quality since they aren’t compressed and do not use binders. Each of these will have different consistencies, including how they flake or feel when used on the paper.

Additionally, most charcoals will come in a soft, medium, or hard consistency. This is less standardized than the hardness of most graphite pencils, however, and will require experimenting with different types and brands to find your ideal charcoal consistency.

Graphite: Developed for Detail

Graphite is a more recent medium than charcoal and has been in use for six hundred years. Graphite was believed to be a type of lead until 1779 when it was understood to be a mineral carbon instead. The earliest graphite pencils were created from blocks of raw graphite that were then wrapped with string to use as a holder. The first use of graphite in a wood pencil casing began in the late 1500s.

Early was made with a combination of clay, graphite, and water, which is then fired at high heat. Most modern graphite pencils are also filled in with wax to make them less porous and therefore less prone to breaking for a smoother writing experience.

More modern graphite is most often a synthetic created by heating choke. This creates graphite that has more of a matte finish and is less reflective. Pencils and lead or graphite holders are the most common forms of using graphite for art or otherwise.

Graphite comes in an array of consistencies, defined through their hardness. Hardness is determined by the amount of clay or other binders that are mixed into the graphite.

Graphite with a lot of binders will be harder but will make a lighter line; whereas, lower amounts of binder will allow for a darker, softer, more powdery line. Graphite pencils are range in hardness from H (Hard) to B (Bold or soft leads). F or HB tends to be the happy medium for your average writing pencil.

Some Similarities and Differences

Charcoal is primarily a matte medium. Since it tends to have a porous or crumbly texture, it can be quite loose or powdery to offer easier blending. This also means that charcoal is porous and therefore fragile, sometimes making it a difficult medium to travel with.

Because charcoal is so loose, it creates many different textures, from strong lines of many thicknesses to soft shading. Many people also find drawing with charcoal to be an enjoyable tactile experience, since it can feel rough or scratchy on the paper, and it reacts or creates interesting textures on papers of different roughness.

Graphite tends to have a shiner, more metallic finish. This is particularly prevalent when using softer graphite pencils, which have a higher consistency of graphite. If you want to avoid this shine, it’s better to work in layers rather than pressing hard with the lead. Graphite offers more control and puts out less dust for finer line work. It also tends to be more predictable and uniform, while moving across the surface of a page more smoothly.

Quick Tips for Comparing Graphite vs Charcoal

  • Charcoal can be brushed away by hand. Whereas, graphite most often needs to use an eraser to remove from the paper.
  • Charcoal tends to be looser on the paper, making it easy to move and blend. However, this also means that charcoal is more likely to smudge. Graphite can be blended through buffering, smudging, and in some cases erasing. Although layering may often be a better option with graphite.
  • Graphite pencils are often considered more suitable for smaller drawings since they have a smaller, more detail-oriented range. This means that they take more time to cover a large space. Charcoals tend to be more suitable to larger drawings since they are good for large, broad strokes.
  • Very dark charcoal will more likely be able to shade darker than the darkest graphite, for those truly looking for a matte black drawing experience.

As you experiment with charcoal and graphite, it's common to prefer one to the other, depending on your artistic style and the kind of drawings that you intend to do. Charcoal excels in broad gestural works, while graphite is more suited to smaller detail work. Nonetheless, each has its use in your toolbox for expression and experimentation.

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