Paint with Charcoal

Lisa Larrabee

Charcoal is both bold and forgiving.  You can blend and smudge charcoal or sharpen it to draw with precision.  Charcoal is a staple in most drawing classes, but did you know you can also paint with it?

If you mix the charcoal powder with water, you can paint using a process similar to watercolor.  The charcoal powder often pools and settles, creating interesting patterns as it dries.  When the water evaporates, all that is left on the paper is charcoal, which can now be manipulated using traditional dry charcoal techniques.  You can blend, erase, and add details using cotton stumps, charcoal sticks, or charcoal pencils.

Wet & Dry Charcoal Techniques

Before attempting to control wet charcoal, experiment by creating a range of marks, paint dark, inky strokes, and diluted watery washes.  Spatter, drip, and build up layers. You can smudge, lift, or erase the charcoal once it is dry.  Moving forward with an intended subject will be easier once you have a better idea of what is possible.

Mark making with wet charcoal.

I started with a light pencil drawing in the demo below to indicate the main value shapes.  The initial wash of charcoal powder and water was very diluted.  A little charcoal goes a long way.  It can be easier to add value than it can be to take it away.  While the wash was wet, I dropped in darker puddles on the shadow side and spattered some spontaneous drops.

Demonstration in charcoal using water.

The second layer was added after the first layer was dry.  Like watercolor, painting wet over dry allows more control over the new layer because the shapes will not bleed as if applied over wet areas.  In this layer, I specifically painted darker values and shadow shapes.  The charcoal mixture was again heavily diluted with water.  Remember that additional painted layers can easily disrupt the charcoal painted underneath because no binder or fixative has been added.  Although the application can be similar to painting with watercolor or ink, it has unique challenges.    

I have found that it is easier to add details and darker values using dry charcoal drawing techniques.  Once the paper was completely dry, I could use a blending stump to blur and soften transitions.  I used a kneaded eraser to lift out a few highlights.  Because I intentionally kept the values in the face a bit light, I did not need to erase much.  Sometimes, the darker values can be stubborn to lift, so gradually building up darker details with a sharp charcoal pencil is easier.

The loose application of charcoal washes may feel a bit out of control.  Try to let go during this stage, knowing you can regain control with more precise drawing tools (charcoal pencils, blending stumps, and erasers).  The wet stage is an opportunity for happy accidents.  Let the charcoal puddle or bloom in ways that only it can.  When you switch to more precise drawing tools, remember to respond to the charcoal washes rather than try to control them afterward.  Embrace the expressive qualities that are possible when you let go.

Art Challenge

Here's a challenge to help you practice.

  1. Choose a subject to draw with clear light and dark value shapes.  A subject like a tree or a flower is more forgiving to experiment with than the more structured form of a portrait.
  2. Mix a little charcoal powder and water in a small container.  It can take some time to fully stir in the charcoal.  You can purchase charcoal powder to use wet or dry or make your own with sandpaper and a stick of charcoal.  A little can go a long way.
  • A watercolor pallet can be useful for creating various mixtures ranging from inky black to lighter values diluted with water.
  • Allow yourself to play, experiment, spatter, spray water, etc.  The looseness of the charcoal washes provides a great contrast to more controlled layers.
  • Paint additional layers or switch directly to dry charcoal techniques.  Painting layers with charcoal has its own unique challenges.  Give yourself time to experiment and find solutions that work for you.
  • Use dry charcoal techniques to add details in response to the washes.  The goal is not to make an accurate copy of the subject but to allow for spontaneity and expressive, fluid marks.

Did you accept the Art Challenge?  Share your progress on our private forum with friends of the Art Verve Academy.

Follow Lisa Larrabee
on her instructional blog at
or visit her website at
Sponsored by the Art Verve Academy. Enroll in studio art classes for adults in Tucson, Arizona, at

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