Drawing with charcoal can be messy. If you’ve ever done it, even with the mess you know how satisfying it can be to take something as raw and tactile as a charred piece of willow or grapevine and make art with it. It’s as old-school as cave paintings. Compressed bars or charcoal pencils give you a bit more control, but drawing with charcoal is still a tricky technique to master. And you’ll probably end up with charcoal all over your hands, face, and clothes. One great thing about this week’s Charcoal Brush Set is that you get all kinds of control over the hardness or softness of your digital charcoal but with none of the mess.
What to draw
Studies seem to be popular with charcoal. Not too many people approach charcoal with the intent of creating a fully realized piece. Usually, it’s just pure sketching, with lots of shading and playing with values. Subjects are often figure drawings or portraits, or even animals. You can do a still life if you want, but most charcoal drawings don’t get into the tiniest details, owing to how blunt these tools traditionally are. You’ll be working almost exclusively with values, but one good thing about drawing digitally is that you can avoid having your sketch overwhelmed by blackness, which can be a problem with using real charcoal. With SketchBook, you have the benefit of layers and erasers and Undo do-overs. You can use a smudge brush to remove your charcoal or blend the charcoal as you might do in the physical world with a kneaded eraser, blending stumps, or your finger. Turn your charcoal to white when you want to add highlights. Of course, since this is the digital world, you can also break all the rules and draw in pink charcoal if you want. No limits except the ones you want to impose on yourself.
This Charcoal Brush Set comes with 10 brushes: Standard, Streaky, Smeary Edge, Thick, Broad Side, Itty Bitty Grainy Piece, Large Grainy Piece, and a few that mimic Conte crayons: Old Conte, Wet Conte, and Melted Conte. Conte is compressed charcoal combined with wax that some people use in conjunction with charcoal, so we’ve tried to make those brushes have that particular kind of wetter, more permanent look to it. The Melted Conte Brush is the wettest of the bunch if you find that you prefer working with less dusty or dry charcoal. In the end, we couldn’t replicate two details from the real world: blowing all the charcoal dust off your paper and then spraying it with a fixative. The former (we admit) we kind of miss, but spraying chemicals all over the room is something we’d be fine with never doing ever again.
Referencing stock art
If you don’t have a subject in mind, the best thing for charcoal drawing is to find a reference photo. A portrait of a loved one or a pet works great. Some people use photographs of famous people, which is a great idea if someone in the public eye inspires you. For this piece, our community manager Renee used a stock photo as a reference. It’s a photo that she found that she liked while browsing around on DeviantArt. Although you might not have thunk it, stock photos are a really popular category on DeviantArt. People upload their photos for other people to use as stock art, and each person who offers items for use as stock set own set of guidelines and rules to follow. Any time you’re using free or stock images, be sure to check the rules for usage. The original photo is by Vikarus and you can check it out here.
Installing the brush sets
Being able to share and install these weekly free brush sets in the desktop app is one of the features for SketchBook subscribers. If you’re using the latest desktop version of SketchBook, simply double click on the .skbrushes file, and it will automatically install. Check out this article for all the details about brushes and legacy versions. If you haven’t tried the subscription, you can download a free trial and unlock Pro membership for 15 days (no credit card required).