How To Choose The Best Paper For Charcoal Drawing

How To Choose The Best Paper For Charcoal Drawing
How To Choose The Best Paper For Charcoal Drawing

Figuring out how to choose the best paper for charcoal drawing is essential if you want to succeed when working with this versatile medium. Charcoal is a favorite medium for many artists because of its incredible versatility. With charcoal, you can achieve a wide range of values quickly and easily, once you've mastered how to use it, that is. 

Unlike graphite, charcoal isn't reflective, so when you create a dark area in a drawing with charcoal, that area is much darker and deeper than what you could attain using graphite. Charcoal also blends more easily than graphite does, which makes attaining a wide range of values easier. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword since charcoal can also be accidentally smudged much easier than graphite can. Fortunately, this can usually be prevented by using precautions like a workable fixative. Workable fixative at Amazon.

Before you start experimenting using charcoal, you need to figure out what style of art you want to create. This will help you when choosing the right surface to draw on. Charcoal is incredibly versatile and can be used on just about anything, but you'll get a different look depending on what surface you use. If you use a smooth surface, you can get many fine lines and details, but charcoal is harder to control this way. 

If you use a rough surface, you can lay down more layers of charcoal, giving you more intense blacks, but getting fine details in this manner can be more challenging. You can also use charcoal as a painting medium by adding water to it, creating an effect similar to black watercolor or ink wash.

As you can see, charcoal is incredibly versatile, which is why spending time experimenting with different surfaces is essential. Whatever you do, don't make the mistake of assuming that if charcoal doesn't work well on one surface that you won't be successful using it on other surfaces. 

Charcoal is inexpensive, so feel free to experiment. Do a lot of little sketches on small amounts of different papers and even canvas so you can see how it behaves on different surfaces. After you've grown more comfortable using it, you can move on to larger pieces where you invest more money in the drawing surface and more time creating your drawing.

Please look at this drawing and sketching video course I have createdUse this link.

Can You Use Charcoal On Drawing Paper?

When looking at surfaces for charcoal, drawing the first one that you might try is regular drawing paper. Can you use charcoal on regular drawing paper? Yes. Is it your best option? Probably not. Drawing paper will work for charcoal, but it's made for use with graphite in most cases. 

Drawing paper is usually thin and is also usually relatively smooth. This limits your options, making it difficult for most artists to achieve good results when using charcoal on it. Drawing paper is too thin to accept water without warping or tearing, so using charcoal with a wash isn't going to work. Drawing paper is also too smooth to allow you to layer charcoal on it. In a pinch, will charcoal work? Absolutely, but there are better options available for you to try.

When should you use drawing paper for charcoal? You can use it anytime you want to, but it is usually best used when practicing. Most artists have plenty of drawing paper sitting around, so if you are new to using charcoal, then go ahead and practice on any drawing paper that you have around. The more you practice with charcoal, the better you will get with it since your comfort level will grow. Not only is practice essential for you to hone your skills, but it should also be enjoyable for you since you are an artist.

While traditional drawing paper shouldn't be your first choice when working with charcoal, if you decide that you like it as a surface, there are some things that you can do to make yourself more effective when using it. First, make sure that you use drawing paper that has plenty of tooth.

Charcoal can work on a smooth surface, but most artists find working on a rougher surface that gives the charcoal something to grab onto works better. Second, make sure that you have plenty of workable fixatives on hand. By fixing each charcoal layer before moving onto the next one, you can help prevent unwanted smudging.

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What Is The Best Paper For Charcoal?

The best paper for charcoal drawing is whatever you're most comfortable with. If you're looking for papers that are the most popular, charcoal and pastel papers are often considered favorites by many artists. Both of these papers are highly textured, making them an ideal option since they can hold onto the charcoal, allowing you to put down multiple layers of charcoal. 

While both of these papers are highly textured, each paper's type of texture is quite different. What does this mean? It means that you need to experiment to see what you like and what works well for your art style.

When talking about papers to use with charcoal starting with charcoal paper makes a lot of sense. The charcoal paper was made specifically for use with charcoal, so if it turns out that you like using this paper, that's probably why. Charcoal paper is manufactured with a grid pattern that provides a texture that works very well for charcoal, pastels, and oil pastels. 

The grid-like pattern may look distracting, but then the pattern shouldn't show up if you put down enough charcoal. That's one of the secrets to working with charcoal on charcoal paper, you should use a lot of charcoal. The tooth of the paper makes multiple layers possible, so take advantage of it. If you don't like to work in multiple layers, then charcoal paper is probably not the best choice for you.

If a grid-like pattern shows up on your charcoal drawings, that means that you aren't using enough charcoal for this type of paper. Don't worry; you don't have to change how you work; you can simply change the surface you work on. If you want another type of paper with texture but lacks the charcoal paper's grid pattern, then pastel paper may be just what you are looking for. 

Pastel paper comes in different varieties with different amounts of tooth. That means that you'll have to experiment! Which is a good thing because it will help you to improve! Pastel paper also comes in a wide range of colors, so you can add a splash of color to your charcoal drawings, which can dramatically change your drawings' mood. You could also work with soft pastels over the charcoal to add even more color.

If you don't like charcoal or pastel paper, another option is to make your own paper. No, we don't mean actually making paper from wood fiber. What we are talking about is transforming other types of paper into a surface more suitable for charcoal. You can apply pastel ground to any paper capable of supporting it. 

Watercolor is often your best choice here because it holds up well when it is wet. Pastel ground is basically ground particles suspended in a latex medium that you apply to anything you want to draw on. One advantage of using a pastel ground is that it can be tinted with acrylic paints before applying it. You can also paint on top of it after you have applied the ground.

One type of paper that you may not think of using is sandpaper. Sandpaper is typically used in construction, but its tooth is also ideal for drawing with charcoal, pastel, oil pastel, and Conte crayons. Sandpaper has a lot of tooth, and it comes in types with more texture and less texture. That means time experimenting and practicing, which is always a good thing.

Another option that you might want to consider is using canvas for your charcoal drawings. Canvas is traditionally used by painters, but it has a rough, textured surface that will also work very well for charcoal. Canvas is also much more durable than paper, which means you can abuse it more than paper. You can put down multiple layers of charcoal, and you can also erase charcoal more easily on canvas without having to worry about tearing it. 

That doesn't mean that you can start drawing with heavy charcoal right away because it will still stain the canvas and won't be easily removed. So, you should still sketch lightly to start, but you have the peace of mind of knowing that you have a more considerable margin of error.

One of the other reasons that working on a canvas with charcoal should interest you is that it allows you to turn your drawing into a painting. Adding water to charcoal transforms it into a liquid very similar to ink. You can use charcoal in this way on watercolor paper, but using it canvas will give you different results. If you work on primed canvas, the gesso will help prevent the water from being absorbed quickly. That gives you more time to work on your drawing/painting and allows you to achieve unique effects that aren't possible on paper.

Do You Need Special Paper For Charcoal?

Many artists that are starting out using charcoal hesitate to get started thinking that they need special paper. This is a common mistake, and it's understandable. After all, when you go to an art store and see paper that says charcoal paper on it, it's natural to think that this is the type of paper you should be working on. But it's not the only paper you can use. You can definitely use charcoal paper, but don't make the mistake of thinking that you have to restrict yourself to only using charcoal paper. 

You can work on any type of paper that is heavy enough to accept charcoal. You can also work on rough paper that will give your charcoal enough tooth to hold onto, and you can also work on smooth paper to do detailed work. Whatever you do, don't set up boundaries for yourself that will limit what you can do. As an artist, you should be pushing past boundaries and exploring new things, which means that the right type of paper for charcoal is whatever type of paper you like to work on.

The only way you'll know for sure what kinds of surfaces you like to work on with charcoal is by trying them. Spend time experimenting. Start out with the most obvious choice and use charcoal paper. Then, move on to pastel paper, drawing paper, bristol paper, watercolor paper, and even canvas. If none of these suit you, then charcoal probably isn't the right medium for you. But you won't know until you try. 

You also can't make the mistake of trying something once, then deciding it isn't right for you. If you're new to using charcoal, it's going to take time for you to get comfortable with it. That means that the first time you work on a surface probably won't give you the best results. So, try different surfaces many times, try different techniques, and experiment. If you spend time doing this, you'll probably find an ideal surface for your art style.

Is Bristol Paper Good For Charcoal?

Can you use charcoal on bristol paper? You can, but it's probably going to be a lot more challenging than working on a paper that has more tooth. Charcoal is typically used on paper that has a rough surface. The paper's rough surface helps to grab the charcoal and hold it in place, which prevents it from smearing. Working on a smooth surface like bristol paper doesn't allow you to apply a lot of charcoal, and smearing it accidentally is also going to be a significant concern. Click here to read more about Bristol Paper on Amazon.

If you are going to work on bristol paper with charcoal, and you've used charcoal on more traditional, rough surface paper before, you're going to have to adjust how you work. First, you won't be able to put a lot of charcoal down on the bristol paper. Instead of working in multiple layers, you'll probably have to work in a single layer. This is a limitation, but it's a limitation that you can learn to workaround. 

If you want to work in multiple layers, you can do this using an initial light layer of charcoal, then spraying that first layer of charcoal with one or two coats of workable fixative. Ensure that the workable fixative is completely dry, then you shouldn't smudge it a lot when you start on the next layer. You might also want to spray the bristol paper with a workable fixative before you start your drawing. This will provide the paper with some more tooth, which will make it easier for you to work on and control the charcoal.

One of the reasons that bristol paper is popular among many artists, despite its difficulties, is the smooth surface allowing for detailed work. While it's possible to produce detailed work using rough paper, it's much more challenging for most people. The smooth surface that bristol paper offers is perfect for detailed drawing with graphite, charcoal, or any other type of dry medium. As long as you can get used to working in charcoal with only a single layer or two, you should be good to go.

Another way that many artists enjoy using charcoal on bristol paper is by using it with water. You can add water to charcoal on bristol board to create effects similar to ink and wash, but you have to be careful Bristol paper can handle a little bit of water; if you try adding too much water, the paper will warp, and eventually, the paper will tear. You can help mitigate some of the warping by taping the paper down before you start working, but you're still going to have issues if you use a lot of water.

Can You Use Charcoal On Sketch Paper?

Should you use charcoal on sketch paper? Probably not if you're planning on creating a drawing that is going to last. Sketch paper is called sketch paper for a reason. It's meant for sketching. It's thin, lightweight, and has very little texture. In other words, it's pretty much the last thing that you should be using charcoal on. Now, when you're first starting out using charcoal, then working on sketch paper is sufficient for practice. 

It's also acceptable for practicing new techniques, even if you've been using charcoal for a while. But as far as completing finished drawings that you plan to show or sell, sketch paper isn't something you should be working on. There are exceptions; of course, you could be an artist that invents a unique new technique that only works on sketch paper. But, for the most part, sketch paper should be reserved for sketching and practice only.

Can You Use Charcoal On Watercolor Paper?

If you're experimenting with different types of paper to use with charcoal, you may be wondering if watercolor paper is a good option. The good news is that it is, but specific watercolor papers will work better for you than other watercolor paper types. Watercolor paper comes in two main varieties, cold press and hot press. Cold press watercolor is rough and is what most charcoal artists prefer when working on watercolor paper. When working on cold press watercolor paper, you can treat it a lot like pastel paper or charcoal paper because it has enough tooth to hold quite a bit of charcoal. Click here to view watercolor paper at Amazon.

Hotpress watercolor paper is smooth. You can use hot press watercolor paper, but it takes a lot more control since the paper is very smooth and doesn't hold onto charcoal very well. Hotpress watercolor paper can be used when you are trying to work with more refined details. One trick to improving the tooth of charcoal paper is to use a workable fixative before you start drawing. Workable fixative will add some more texture to the paper, making it easier for it to hold onto the charcoal.

Why would you want to use watercolor paper for a dry medium like charcoal? One reason could be so you can add water to your drawings and turn them into paintings. When you add water to charcoal, it behaves a lot like ink or watercolor paint. The more water you add, the more spontaneous the effect that you'll get. You can also just add small amounts of water to blend the charcoal a little, and it will also help to deepen the darkest parts of the drawing, creating an even, dark tone.

One exciting thing that you might want to try when using charcoal on watercolor paper is to put gesso down first. Gesso will give you a different type of surface to work on, and it will add a lot of texture to your paper. If you finish a charcoal drawing on top of gesso that you really like and want to take to the next level, you can seal it in place with workable fixative then paint with oils on top of it. Since you already sealed the paper with gesso, you won't have to worry about the oil paint damaging the paper!

Drawing On Black Charcoal Paper

Drawing On Black Charcoal Paper
Drawing On Black Charcoal Paper

Can you draw on black paper with charcoal? You can, but only if you use white charcoal. Drawing with black charcoal on black charcoal paper isn't going to do anything since you won't see the black charcoal on a black surface. If you are working with white charcoal, then black charcoal paper is an ideal surface to work on. Click here to view charcoal paper on Amazon.

If you decide to work with white charcoal on black charcoal paper, you're going to have to change the way that you work. You'll be working from dark to light, which is very different than how you would typically work with charcoal. While it can be challenging to work in this way at first, once you get used to doing it, your art should transform and take on a different look.

When working with white charcoal on black charcoal paper, you should choose a subject that has bright highlights surrounded predominantly by dark shadows. You'll want to take advantage of the black paper by having a lot of black in your composition. If you don't work this way, you'll be spending a lot of time applying white charcoal to cover the black paper, and that kind of defeats the entire purpose of working on black paper. 

You want a drawing that is mostly dark with a few highlight areas. This will save you time since you won't be drawing as much since you'll be using the paper's black as negative space. It will also give you a more dramatic looking image since the limited highlighted areas will really jump off the page compared with the rest of the black background.

You might also want to consider adding some color when working on black charcoal paper. A little bit of color on a black background can create a very dramatic effect. How do you add color to a charcoal drawing? With soft pastels. You can use soft pastels or pastel pencils on top of the charcoal, but you have to be careful to prevent them from accidentally mixing. 

Using color directly on top of black charcoal paper can work in some cases, but it will often give you a duller looking color. One way that you can counter this is by working on top of white charcoal. You'll need to use a workable fixative first to prevent the color from smudging the charcoal, but once you do, you should be able to lay color on top of the charcoal without a problem.

Working With Charcoal Can Be Very Challenging And Very Rewarding

Is working with charcoal going to take practice? Unless you are some kind of artistic savant, you are going to have to practice. You're also going to have to practice using charcoal on different surfaces and using different techniques. It's going to take time, effort, and patience for you to figure it out, but once you do, it will be well worth it. 

Charcoal is an incredibly versatile medium that can be used on a wide range of surfaces. You can combine it with oil paint, watercolors, pastels, ink, and even acrylic paint. It can be used dry to create drawings or add water to the mix to create a painting. The point is that charcoal is a medium that is definitely worth you spending time learning. So, spend time trying charcoal on different papers, and before you know it, you'll probably have a surface that you love to work on.

Create Art With My Favourite Drawing Resources

General Drawing Courses. I like Udemy if you want to develop your knowledge of drawing techniques. Udemy is an excellent choice due to its wide range of creative courses and excellent refund policy. They often have monthly discounts for new customers, which you can check here. Use my link.

Sketching and Collage. Take a look at this sketching resource I have created. Use this link.

Proko. Is one of my favorite teachers who surpasses in the teaching of Anatomy and Figure drawing. Prokos course breaks down the drawing of the human body into easy-to-follow components aiding the beginner to make rapid progress. For this, I really like Proko.

Art Easels. One of my favorite ways to draw is by using a drawing easel, which develops the skill of drawing on a vertical surface. The H frame easel is an excellent vertical way to add variety to the style and type of marks you create when using a drawing board.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you.


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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How To Choose The Best Paper For Charcoal Drawing