Using Charcoal Pencil with Artist Robert Dutton
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Using Charcoal Pencil with Artist Robert Dutton

Difficulty Beginner
Budget £10 - £30
Time 1 hr +

Artist Robert Dutton here demonstrates how the new Derwent Charcoal Pencils and drawing tools can add a fresh approach to all artists sketches and studio drawings. Dutton explains the basic techniques and tools required to begin a charcoal artwork and shows his step by step process of layering techniques that build up a finished piece. He has included the reference photograph used to create his example artwork – so get your charcoal pencils out and follow along to see what new tips and tricks you can pick up along the way.

As a Derwent Associate Artist Robert teaches a wide variety of creative painting and drawing techniques on popular art holidays, workshops and short breaks throughout the UK. Robert is also a regular contributor to ‘The Artist’ magazine and has won several prestigious awards for his distinct expressive style of work. To find out more visit www.rdcreative.co.uk


When expressively drawing quite often my chosen media to use is charcoal. Derwent Charcoal Pencils are highly versatile, with rich pigments that allow a wide variety of tonal marks to be built up with little fuss. The none-dusty pigments are another added bonus meaning more pigment remains on the drawing than the floor! These pencils are a perfect addition to any artists repertoire – especially those who like to travel and sketch light with a versatile drawing medium and who require in particular a clean way of working.

Let's begin by looking at some really great techniques which are possible with the Derwent Charcoal Pencils.


Charcoal Techniques:


Trying out different surfaces and different textured paper is a great way to discovering what works best for you and your drawing approach with any art materials that are new to you. In the following examples of creative techniques with the Derwent charcoal Pencils, I have used a number of different papers and surfaces to show just how versatile the Derwent Charcoal Pencils can be.

To begin with, we will look at how all three grades of pencil perform on 100% cotton watercolour paper ‘not’. The weight of the paper is 300gsm (140lb) so it is robust enough to accept lots of different drawing techniques from delicate marks to really robust heavy pressured strokes without tearing the paper. 


Top row – a,  b,  c.

We begin with using the sharpened point of all three grades of Dark, medium and Light Derwent Charcoal Pencils lightly cross hatched over the surface of the watercolour paper. Cross hatching is a great way to build up tones in your drawings. Leaving wider gaps between each regular pencil stroke allows the white of the paper to optically affect the collection of regular strokes and make them look lighter. Closer drawn strokes together increase a darker optical shade.

Increasing the number of cross hatched marks in different directions and varying the gaps between each cross hatched layer also increases a variety of interesting tonal areas in your drawings. The same amount of pressure was applied to each Derwent Charcoal Pencil to see how light and dark the cross hatching effects would be.

There is a noted difference between the light and very dark Derwent Charcoal Pencil applications but not much of a change between Dark and Medium. Now the fun begins! The central parts of each of the squares were covered or masked with torn paper to protect them. From what? Fixative!

The outside of the squares were then given an even spray of aerosol fixative to deliberately darken the Derwent Charcoal Pencils in each square to see how the pigment was effected by the fixative.

The use of fixative is a recognised technique when drawing – a bit ‘Marmite’ really, you either like its effects, or you don’t. I for one do. Why? Versatility when drawing as the layers are fixed in place to allow yet more drawing layers over subsequent base layers to build rich layering in a drawing. Fixative does darken colours though. I have used it deliberately here in this example to highlight the richness in the Derwent Charcoal pencil pigments.

There is a definite and more pronounced stepping of light and dark in all three grades of Derwent charcoal Pencils evident now. Once the mask was removed the central protected areas in each square is confirmation of this positive use of fixative when drawing.


Bottom row – d,  e,  f.

The same processes were applied to the bottom row of technique examples. Here tone was explored more by gently drawing the pencils over each designated area with the separate grades of pencils in circular movements. The effect is to build up comparison tonal areas with all three Derwent charcoal Pencil grades. The light areas of white in each swatch are the hollows in the paper texture. The pencil pigment being deposited on the top surface of the paper mainly. Harder pressure with all three Derwent Charcoal Pencils would fill both to make a darker tone – another recognised drawing technique.

Different drawing papers will have different effects on your drawing. We will look at that in a little more detail in the next examples.



Let's mix things up a bit – quite literally!

In the drawing examples above I have used all three grades of the Derwent Charcoal Pencils on a heavyweight watercolour paper (300gsm) 140lb ‘rough’ 100% cotton watercolour paper.

All three Derwent Charcoal pencils were sharpened with the handy useful Derwent pencil sharpener to create the maximum length of point to draw with. Using the pencils at an acute angle on their side, the pigment was scumbled over the surface. In the example ‘a’ using the Light shade of the Derwent Charcoal Pencils the marks made were more loosely side stroked than the circular deposits with the dark Derwent Charcoal Pencil – example ‘b’ and medium tone Derwent Charcoal pencil marks – example ‘c’.

Using a large watercolour brush loaded with clean water the brush was used in each of the examples separately to lift, move and ‘paint’ with the charcoal. Once dry the subtle wash tones were revealed.

By drawing and then painting with charcoal you can create a multitude of wash and line and tonal drawing effects with these pencils further extending the range of creative drawing options with these high grade Derwent charcoal Pencils.

I particularly liked the deep rich dark tones created with the dark Derwent Charcoal pencil when wet and the light delicate washes created with the light charcoal pencil in example ‘a’.



Smooth paper is the preferred option for artists who require precision drawing techniques in their work. The tight weave of the drawing surfaces are far considerably less textured than hot pressed or rough watercolour papers for example. You can see these results in the above example top left using all three grades of Derwent Charcoal pencils with parallel lines, cross hatch and gradual tone.

Next, I introduce the Derwent Charcoal White Pencil for the first time in the examples top right. The white Charcoal Pencil is very effective on coloured papers to imply highlights when drawing which we will focus on in the next techniques section on a coloured sanded textured pastel paper. Here I found that the White Charcoal pencil was very useful for extending the range of tones with the Light, Medium and dark pencils when mixed.

If you look at two sections in the above (created on heavy weight 220gsm smooth drawing paper), you will notice some blended areas. In the top right there are nine squares – three in each row. The first row is the solid tonal area of Dark, then Medium followed underneath by Light Derwent Charcoal Pencils. Next to those (middle squares) the tones are repeated but at the right hand edge of each blending is taking place. This has been done with a sharp White Derwent Charcoal pencil. With evenly applied strokes into and on top of the unfixed black charcoal grades, a effective solid grey tone is created with the use of the white. The final rows of squares top right have been blended with the use of the Derwent blending paper stumps – very useful tools indeed for clean blending.

There is a distinct difference with the tonal blended areas using the Derwent Paper Stump to those using the Derwent White Charcoal pencil as you can see creating useful options when drawing. This can be seen in the lower area of the sheet on the left. Here the White Derwent Pencil has been used to blend into larger areas of each grade of the black charcoal – dark, medium and light. The blend down the centre, by comparison, is with a vertical light pressure stroke using the Derwent eraser to blend.

Bottom right each grade of black Derwent Charcoal Pencil has had ‘subtractive’ drawing applied to each. This is created when pigment is removed from the paper as shown to reveal the lighter paper underneath.



In this final example of Derwent Charcoal Drawing techniques, the White Derwent Charcoal pencil really takes centre stage. Working on a dark background (in this case a dark brown sanded surface pastel paper that is 350gsm in weight), the drawing properties of the white become really effective.

Normally when working on a dark background with dark colours they recede, become subdued. Not so in this case. The Derwent White Charcoal pencil has ‘lifted’ the tones so they are effectively enhanced in every single square.

With all of these examples, trials and successful tests with all the Derwent Charcoal Pencils and drawing tools, I was keen to get started in a real life studio drawing and combine them together to create an expressive yet accurate eye-catching drawing.


Putting the Pencils into Practice



Stage 1 

The drawing began with loose gestural strokes of Canson Mi-Teintes Touch 350gsm pastel paper (Steel grey) – a mid tone paper which helped show off the quality of the white charcoal pencil and light, medium and dark charcoal pencils which, from experience, once the drawing was completed showed all the wonderful attributes of the Derwent Charcoal Pencils at their best.



Stage 2

Having outlined the main compositional elements with all black Derwent Charcoal Pencils, interchanging regularity between each, I quickly was able to establish the framework for all drawing. Next came the highlights to keep the drawing in balance.

I found the white pencil not only a very useful to imply highlights in the rock face of Malham Cove and clouds above but also to act in part, like a blending tool itself to create transitional tones from dark to light in lots of interesting ways. The additional use of white help builds up this richly layered drawing even in the early stages.



Stage 3

Using a wide variety of continued linear marks – cross hatching and blending whilst varying the pressure of the strokes, the shapes, form and tones in the drawing quickly developed.

The rich high grade charcoal pigments in the pencils inspired a clean method of drawing helping keep everything controlled and progressive. Fixative was used at regular stages during the layering of tones to increase the darks and add more drama and contrast to areas within the composition.



Stage 4

Having both mid tones, highlights and some darks it was the turn of the foreground to receive greater attention with increased pressure strokes interchanging between Derwent Charcoal Pencils as I worked.



Stage 5

I used the dark Derwent charcoal pencil in selected areas to increase the tonal range to add more depth in chosen areas of the drawing.



Stage 6

Foundation drawing completed.


Stage 7

In several areas of the drawing (to include chosen areas in the clouds) the Derwent blending paper stumps easily created controlled smoother passages of the clouds forms and weathered rock faces adding a smooth blend to them I particularly liked and found useful.



Stage 8

As a different response to slightly more textures areas in the clouds created using the different Derwent Charcoal Pencils, I wanted to express the smoother transient effects in some clouds.

I masked off the drawn areas under the clouds in the cliff face to protect them for the next stage – blending. Using a thin piece of torn white photocopy paper I held this in place with some masking tape so it didn’t move. Using the large Derwent Paper Stump, I carefully blended areas of white, light and medium Derwent Charcoal pencils together to create different tones of grey in the cloud forms as shown crossing over the paper as I worked to ensure an even tone next to the rock face.



Once the paper was removed this was the result – smooth transient area of blending with a sharp clean edge adjacent to a contrasting more linear drawn area in the limestone rock face of Malham Cove.



Stage 9

To increase the visual expressive response to textured surfaces in the drawing I chose to use a wet watercolour brush to help ‘paint’ with the charcoal. Selecting unfixed areas the high pigmentation of the Derwent Charcoal pencils dissolved quickly and easily together to form a rich black ‘movable paste’ to paint with.

These washes worked brilliantly to add contrasts in texture to all the drawn areas throughout the composition and create visual interest as well as expressive response in particular to shadow areas under the foreground Hawthorn tree.



Stage 10

Once these washes had dried the entire painting was assessed for brightest high key areas (whites) rich darks (dense shadows) and subtle halftones. Final marks were created in all these areas to increase maximum contrasts to complete this Expressive yet accurate drawing of the dramatic vantage point.



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