OCAD Studio: Charcoal, Graphite and Associated Tools

Graphite and charcoal are the two most commonly used dry media, they can be used together but they have slightly different properties, so I recommend using one or the other until you’re confident with both mediums.

Graphite is less messy than charcoal and tends to stick to the surface of paper more effectively, which makes it ideal for sketching and working on the move. However it is less dark which results in a narrower value range. It also tends towards shininess when applied heavily, which further reduces the impact of the darker values. So I’d recommend using charcoal for more sustained drawings as it can be used on a larger scale and provides you with a greater value range.


Types of Graphite

Wooden pencil:

The most commonly used type of graphite is a lead encased in wood, the leads are made from graphite powder mixed with clay powder (this acts as a binder). The ratio of graphite to clay determines the softness of the pencil lead, with more clay resulting in a softer pencil. Pencil grades go from 4H (hardest) to 2H, H HB to B, 2B, 3B etc. as they get softer. It is possible to sharpen a wooden pencil with a metal sharpener or using a stanley knife and sanding block (for more info about sanding blacks see the bottom of this guide).

Wooden pencils are a good all round drawing tool as they are common and equally effective for precise line drawing and mass drawing.


Mechanical pencil:

A mechanical pencil uses a thinner lead (usually between 0.5mm and 0.7mm) than a wooden pencil. This thin lead is fitted into a chamber the shape of a regular pencil. You can expose more or less of the lead by clicking the base of mechanical pencil.

Mechanical pencils are great for precise line drawing or light mass drawing but not a great choice if you need to lay down a lot of tone quickly.


Clutch pencil:

A clutch pencil is a mixture of a wooden pencil and a mechanical pencil. Like a wooden pencil it uses a fairly thick lead but this isn’t encased in wood. Instead the leads are held in a chamber like a mechanical pencil. This means that you don’t need to spend as much time sharpening, you can get a fine point using just a sanding block. As a result, clutch pencils are extremely versatile and would be my recommendation for the best all round graphite tool.

Graphite stick:

A graphite stick looks like a regular pencil but it is made entirely from graphite, making it very useful for laying down tone but less useful for fine line drawing.


Graphite powder:

Graphite powder can be bought pre-made from art shops as a dust in a container, or you can collect it when sharpening pencils with a sanding block. Graphite dust is a good way to apply a soft tone very quickly on your paper. You can spread and apply graphite dust with brushes, sponges and other tools (see the bottom of this guide for a list of tools that can be used with graphite).


Types of Charcoal

Vine charcoal:

Vine charcoal is the cheapest and most common form of charcoal. It is made by burning thin sticks of specific types of wood in a kiln. They are usually round in shape and irregular (depending on the shape of the original stick). Vine charcoal tends be quite light and harder than other forms of charcoal. So it is useful for sketching but not suitable for more sustained and detailed drawing. Vine charcoal can be used on its side to apply a tone or sharpened to draw a line.


Graded Charcoal:

If you want to produce a  more detailed charcoal drawing, then I highly recommend investing in some graded charcoal. Graded charcoal is made in a similar way to vine charcoal but with a greater level of control. This means that it is possible to buy the charcoal with different levels of hardness and softness (usually H, HB and B). Graded charcoal is usually straight and more regular than vine charcoal. It lends itself to sustained drawing because it is possible to begin laying in tone with softer B sticks before using HB and H for fine details and lines. The best brand of graded charcoal is called ‘Nitram’.


Compressed charcoal:

Compressed charcoal comes as a stick or pencil and is made from charcoal dust bound with a gum or wax. It is useful for laying down particularly dark tones but is harder to erase than vine, graded charcoal or charcoal dust so it needs to be used carefully.


Charcoal powder:

Charcoal powder is made from ground up charcoal and is used in a similar fashion to graphite powder.


Associated Tools

Stanley Knife:

A stanley knife can be used to achieve a finer point on a graphite or carbon pencil. Hold the pencil at the base before shaving the top of the pencil in a motion away from your body. Keep doing this until you have exposed the pencil lead and created a steep taper on the top of the pencil. Finish sharpening with a sanding block (see below).


Sanding Block:

A sanding block can be bought or made and consists of a small, thin piece of wood (approximately 4cm x 10cm) with strips of sandpaper stapled on top. By holding a sharpened pencil, vine or graded charcoal at an angle and lightly sanding the tip you can make a very fine point. You can also collect the graphite or charcoal dust to use with other application techniques. When the sandpaper is used up, just tear off, throw away and use the new strip below.



A stump looks like a pencil but it is made from very tightly rolled paper that makes a point at the top. It can be used to smooth, smudge and press graphite into the tooth of the paper. It is useful if you want a very smooth look to your drawing.



You can use any type of brush as a drawing implement. Stiffer brushes can be used to push graphite and charcoal into the tooth of the paper whereas softer brushes and sweep dust away and lighten the drawing. Try apply charcoal or graphite dust with a brush directly to get different effects.



A washing up sponge can be used to create dark masses of tone on a charcoal drawing. If you draw heavily on the paper with a soft stick of charcoal, you can use the sponge to shift the dust around the surface of the paper and fill in the tooth to create a smooth and filled in tone.


Paper Towel:

Paper towel can be used to wipe away charcoal from a drawing, it is not as effective as an eraser but will subtly lighten the image. If scrunched, it can also produce interesting textures when padded over a charcoal drawing.


Kneadable Eraser:

A kneadable eraser is an indispensable tool, it can be shaped into a very fine point for accurate erasing in the drawing. Whilst it is sufficient in most cases, it is not able to erase very heavily applied charcoal or graphite.


Hard Eraser:

If you need to completely remove a mark, you will need to use a hard eraser. If you need to be very precise, you can cut a small piece of hard eraser off with a stanley knife. It is important to keep your hard eraser clean as it will smudge rather than erase if it’s covered in charcoal or graphite.



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