Are Graphite Pencils the Same as Charcoal Pencils?

In the creative world, it is almost impossible to get away from one essential tool; a pencil. Regardless of whether you are an established artist, an architect, a highly established artist, or just a drawing enthusiast, good charcoal or graphite pencil is one of the most critical components of your drawing supplies.

Today, there are nearly endless types of pencils out there on the market. This only implies that the prospect of finding the best pencil that suits your drawing needs can sometimes prove to be a daunting task. When choosing the perfect graphite or charcoal pencil, the most critical factor you need to take into account is your drawing style. All great artists acknowledge that detailed artwork and technical drawing with fine lines require different pencils than those used for sketching or shading figures.

Do you often use dark, bold lines in your drawings, or your artwork favors a somewhat lighter, thinner strokes? When you know and understand your personal artistic drawing style, you will be able to narrow down your selection process when looking for the best drawing pencil.

Today, the two common types of drawing pencils are graphite and charcoal pencils. So, today in this particular post, we are going to discuss in excruciating details, all you need to know about graphite as well as their charcoal pencil counterparts.

Are Graphite Pencils the Same as Charcoal
Are Graphite Pencils the Same as Charcoal

So, are Graphite Pencils, the Same as Charcoal Pencils?

As we previously mentioned, the two main options available for drawing are charcoal and graphite pencils. Of course, graphite pencils aren’t the same as charcoal ones. Whereas graphite pencils are arguably the most commonly used in the art and writing world, their charcoal counterparts are famed for creating dark and rough lines but are not as versatile as graphite pencils.

Graphite pencils boast a broad range of grades and are useful for more complex drawings that need more delicate details. Charcoal pencils, on the other hand, are ideal for sketching and perhaps for hitting those dark values. Click here to visit Amazon to find more information on the Best Charcoal Pencils.

It is also imperative to note that charcoal is comparatively rougher and darker than graphite and is equally more prone to smudging. If you didn’t know, smudging means that you only need to work less to achieve shading. You simply put your charcoal pencil down and use it accordingly to cover a relatively larger area much more quickly, thanks to the resulting blurred shadow.

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What is the Key Difference Between Graphite and Charcoal?

Chemically, charcoal and graphite are strikingly similar, and this is primarily because they both originate from the same element, carbon. Graphite is an isotope of carbon. If you didn’t know, the term isotope is used to describe different forms of compounds derived from the same element. However, these two drawing materials are also very different in many ways.

Graphite is a relatively shiny material and is commonly used in sticks and pencils for drawing or writing applications. Graphite produces far less amount of dust when being used and usually adheres to the writing surface without much need, if any, fixative. This is due to graphite’s layered and uniform structure. Even though the atoms in every single layer are securely bonded, the bonds that exist in these layers are somehow fragile, allowing the stable graphite sheets to effortlessly slide and slip over one another. When drawing with graphite, the layers easily slide over and off the pencil, allowing it to glide with ease across the drawing board or paper, leaving behind perfectly structured sheets of graphite.

Thanks to its structure, graphite is somewhat less crumbly compared to charcoal and produces smoother and fewer marks. What’s more, even though graphite sheets usually separate from one another quite quickly, graphite is known to maintain its uniform structure as opposed to charcoal, which will always fracture into irregular shards.

Charcoal remains arguably the oldest art material ever used. It is widely believed that charcoal was first used around 23,000 BC in cave paintings. Since then, there have been numerous methods and technologies harnessed or invented to boost its properties to help mitigate its structural weaknesses.

Charcoal is usually made by burning natural matter such as wood, plants over an extended period in a closed chamber, kiln, or pot that has restricted airflow. This results in incomplete combustion of the material and subsequent production of the form of carbon described as charcoal.

While graphite is the crystalline form of carbon, charcoal, on the other hand, is the amorphous form. Simply put, graphite processes long-range 3D interactions, whereas charcoal features very short-range interactions. In terms of physical appearance, charcoal is somehow duller and powdery. On the other hand, graphite is somewhat shiner and structured in layers and can be cleaved.

It is also imperative to note that graphite is a pure type of the allotropic forms of carbon with a definite structure. On the other hand, charcoal is a carbon residue obtained by eliminating water as well as other volatile components of organic material such as bones, plants, and woods, among others. Charcoal doesn’t have a definite structure.

So, What is Graphite?

Graphite is a crystalline form of the element carbon and has its atoms arranged in a hexagonal structure. It occurs naturally and is the most stable form of carbon. Under extreme temperatures and pressures, graphite converts to diamond. Thanks to its structure, it is used in lubricants and pencils and is equally a good conductor of both heat and electricity. It is a soft yet highly brittle substance, so unless used as a drawing medium in powder form, it needs a protective binder or shell. Graphite is usually used mixed with other ingredients to boost its composition, hardness, and strength. To be more specific, graphite pencils are made of a mixture of clay filler and graphite powder, with the proportion of the two determining the degree of hardness of the pencil. In this regard, the more the filler, the harder the drawing pencil. Most artists find it useful in producing sketches, finer details as well as final pieces.

So, What Color is Graphite?

Graphite mostly occurs in its massive form. It is a metallic compound which is black to dark gray, with a distinctive greasy feeling.

Different Types of Graphite Pencils:

As a drawing medium, graphite is available in various forms, such as sticks, powder, and pencil. In our case, we are only going to discuss the multiple types of graphite pencils. Graphite drawing pencils come in various grades, where the term grade is used to describe the degree of hardness of the pencil.  The following graphite pencil offers graded artist pencils in a variety of values. Click here to visit Amazon 

The terminology of graphite pencil shades, according to their relative hardness, lightness or darkness is defined through a combination of letters, with numbers in the prefix. These various shades usually range between 9H to 2H, H, F, HB, B and 2B to 9XXB. Each grade works differently when drawing, with softer grades for darker areas and vice versa.

Understanding The Graphite Grading System:

As an artist, it is always important to know what you are working with. Every artist works differently, and their preferences and priorities also differ! Regardless, there are specific standard rules that you may use as a guideline. Click here to read my post: Drawing Pencils Numbers Explained

  • B pencils are relatively softer and usually leave more graphite on the drawing surface, implying that they are darker.
  • H pencils are generally hard and usually leave less graphite residue on the drawing surface. This means that they are lighter.
  • F denotes Fine Point. This type of drawing pencil is relatively hard and is also very easy to keep sharp. However, they are somehow too hard for generalized drawing.
  • The higher the H number, the harder the pencil. This simply implies that a 4H pencil is harder compared to a 2H and, therefore, relatively lighter also. On the other hand, the 9H is typically the lightest and the hardest graphite drawing pencil available.
  • The more B’s, the softer the drawing graphite pencil is. This simply implies that a 5B pencil is relatively softer than a 2B, and the 5B will create darker marks. The 8B, as well as the 9XXB, are the darkest and softest as well.

While you may not always use all your drawing pencils, it is highly recommended that you should swatch your drawing pencils. The best way to gauge how a drawing pencil works are to do a swatch. This will enable you to see how dark, light, soft, or hard a particular graphite drawing pencil is in your set. And by having the swatch by your side while drawing, it can be a great source of reference when deciding what pencil to use.

So, What is Charcoal?

As earlier mentioned, charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue that is produced by removing water as well as other volatile components from animal and plant materials. It is usually produced through slow pyrolysis, which refers to the gradual heating of plant, wood, or other organic materials in the absence of air or oxygen. This process is commonly described as charcoal burning. Charcoal has several applications but is also used in drawing.

Charcoal pencils are made by placing compressed charcoal into a wooden jacket or very commonly into a paper jacket. It is also worth noting that the most common wood used for the jacket of the pencil is cedar. This makes the pencil perfect for producing fine, crisp, and clean drawings that you could create with graphite drawing pencils.

Charcoal is a bit more complex because the materials have different names to distinguish their capabilities and not just a simple grading system featuring B’s and H’s. There are various types of charcoal drawing pencils which we are going to tackle in detail.

Different types of Charcoal Pencils:

In general, there are three popular types of charcoal. All these three are used for drawing, but each type of charcoal boasts its unique properties that make them suitable for different applications in art.

Willow and Vine Charcoal:

Willow and vine charcoal are made by actual heating vines and pieces of willow inside a chamber and without the availability of oxygen. Willow and vine sticks usually tend to be relatively thinner and longer and are equally slightly irregular in structure, and this may sometimes restrict the level of marks you can make. Whereas vine charcoal usually produces a dark grey finish, willow charcoal creates a rich, deep, nearly black finish. Click here to visit Amazon to see this high-quality non-compressed charcoal. 

Willow charcoal is usually relatively more uniformed, producing consistent and finer particles compared to vine charcoal. Willow charcoal is available in a broad range of widths, traditionally described as thin, thick, medium, jumbo, or chunky. Vine charcoal, on the other hand, tends to be very easy to erase or dust, a feature that makes it ideal for life drawing, compositions that require constant reworking or quick sketches. It is also worth mentioning that vine charcoal is naturally available in a wide range of hardness, ranging from hard, medium, and soft.

Compressed Charcoal:

Compressed charcoal is made by combining the charcoal powder with a gum binder and pressing it into sticks by either decreasing or increasing the amount of binder to control the level of hardness of the sticks. The range of hardness usually falls between HB and 6B with B, 2B, 4B, and 5B falling in between. They may also be alternatively described as extra soft, soft, medium, or hard. Compressed charcoal has gained lots of popularity, perhaps because it is relatively harder to erase. What’s more, you can also use the side of the stick to create broad and consistent strokes, which you may never achieve with vine charcoal due to its irregular shape. Click here to visit Amazon to read about this excellent Compressed Charcoal Set. 

Charcoal Powder:

Just as the name suggests, powdered charcoal is literally charcoal in powdered foam. It is usually made by crushing up the dust of vine or willow charcoal. It can be combined with other products and can also be used wet with watercolor to create areas of extremely darker spots in the artwork. As such, charcoal powder is perfect for toning surfaces in drawings. If you plan to use wet charcoal, you should practice a lot since the wrong proportion of water to charcoal can potentially create muddy effects. Visit  Amazon to find out more about Charcoal Powder. 

So, What Are the Advantages of Drawing with Charcoal?

The joy of using charcoal as a drawing material majorly lies in its sensitivity and spontaneity. You can effortlessly make marks using charcoal that are very painterly as if you are using a brush. You can also make fairly more technical drawings with charcoal at your disposal. Painterly, soft marks are best achieved with the softer, richer charcoal grades, whereas detailed drawings are best made with harder ones. In general, below are some of the advantages of charcoal.

  • It is relatively time-consuming and ideal for large area drawings.
  • It also makes it relatively easier to achieve drawings with darker shades.
  • It is also easier to achieve bolder sketches compared to graphite.
  • Fairly more intuitive and faster to work with.

What Are the Advantages of Drawing with Graphite?

Graphite is usually suited for work on smooth drawing surfaces or paper and is also ideal for smaller drawings or quick sketches. And bearing in mind that graphite pencils feature minimal mark-making surfaces, it is always going to be difficult covering large areas smoothly with them. Below are some notable advantages of graphite pencils.

  • They are straightforward to use, which is good news for artists who are just starting to draw.
  • Graphite pencils aren’t as messy to work with and doesn’t smudge as well, making them more portable.
  • They are great for small drawings.

Creating Expressive Drawing with Charcoal:

There are potentially endless uses of drawing. Drawing is a type of communication that preceded writing and continues to serve as another method of communicating. Artwork can be used to tell stories, show emotions, inspire, educate, entertain, inform, and reveal. What’s more, they can describe appearances, convey drama, and related history. The expressive drawing usually conveys ideas or emotions that are neither tangible nor visible. Expressive drawing may describe movement and energy, memories, feelings, or even the spiritual realm.

Charcoal is a fantastic medium for creating marks quickly and usually works wonders when used as an expressive medium. Thanks to its properties, you can easily manipulate it to create new, energetic marks to create a highly expressive drawing. Charcoal pencils are also very versatile. It darkens to pitch black, allowing artists to create a spectrum of values in their drawings.

What Type of Drawing is Graphite Suitable For?

Unlike its charcoal pencil counterpart, graphite pencil is not as versatile. In this regard, use graphite when you are looking to create a drawing that largely consists of lighter values. Graphite is also suitable for use when working on a fairly smoother drawing surface or paper. With graphite, is relatively easier to draw light lines and even shade smoothly.

Can You Use Graphite and Charcoal Together?

First and foremost, it is worth mentioning that charcoal and graphite won’t layer on top of each other perfectly. However, if you are experienced enough, you may use graphite next to charcoal. Kindly note that this is a highly advanced technique that you’ll only be comfortable practicing once you have mastered how to use both mediums separately.

As you may have guessed, the debate about graphite Vs. Charcoal is an interesting one. You can only pick your favorite drawing medium once you are very familiar with both mediums. Each one has its pros and cons, and it’s worth considering this when choosing your preferred drawing medium. Your final decision will also depend on what type of drawing you are doing.



Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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Are Graphite Pencils the Same as Charcoal Pencils