Drawing Technique: Charcoal Blending

I recently received a question asking how I achieve very smooth blending in my black and white charcoal and pencil drawings without leaving lines.  I’d say 90% of it is experience and practice, and the other 10% is using the right tools.

Detail of'Grus'
Detail of ‘Grus’

I don’t approach drawing as if I am capturing a series of outlines.  Rather, I am drawing light and shadow.  Instead of lines, I draw gradients that create shadows and highlights.  This means I almost never draw directly on the paper with a piece of charcoal.  If I don’t make lines on my paper in the first place, I’ll never have to worry about blending out those lines together later on.  A line is drawn only if I want that line to appear in the finished piece.

Drawing tools on my worktable
Drawing tools on my worktable

These are some of my most useful tools for blending and shading charcoal.  Next to my charcoal holder we have some pieces of chamois, small foam sponges, and a few tortillons.  These are the tools I use most often.  The secrets of my success!  I use these for application as much as I do for blending.

Which tool I chose depends on the texture and level of darkness I want to achieve.  A soft, clean sponge or cotton cloth is good for the very lightest areas.  The softer the material the better.  Overtime these clothes and sponges will accumulate charcoal powder, and they will be more useful in slightly darker areas.  Because they tend to lift charcoal from the drawings surface, there is a limit to the shadows they can be used for.  For darker areas, a harder material like paper and chamois is better.  My fingertips are perfect for the very darkest blacks; they lift almost no charcoal off the paper, and the oil from my skin lends a bit of luster and depth to the charcoal, creating deeper, velvety blacks.

Powdered charcoal
I keep a dish of powdered charcoal on hand to dip my drawing tools in.

There are plenty of other objects that work well for blending, like brushes, old kneaded erasers, makeup applicators, corduroy, and newsprint.  Experimentation is the best way to learn what suits your personal style and technique.

If you have any questions about my work or process, ask away!  Leave a comment below or send an email to info@leahyerpe.com.