top of page
  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Benson

Graphite and Charcoal Exploration

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Gathering of materials:

  • white drawing paper

  • printed magazine page

  • page from vintage encyclopedia

  • manila folder

  • lined writing paper

  • red construction paper

  • scrap paper with black printing ink

  • vellum paper

  • newpaper

  • scrap printer paper

  • painted scrap newspaper

  • lined flash card

  • foam sheet

  • postcard from the mail

  • canvas fabric scrap

  • soft/medium/hard charcoal

  • variety of graphite pencils

  • eraser, smudging tools, pencil sharpener, scissors

Create a reference sheet of the art materials you will be using, make note of they way each tool feels to you, create little squares labeled with which tool was used, set aside for referencing.

My findings:

  • Mechanical Pencil was easy to control, light in color, cannot be pressed too hard or it will tear the paper.

  • 2H was my least favorite, pressing hard still did not yield a darker line, rough over the paper, lines are very thin.

  • HB was rough on the paper, pressing on it made the lines darker, thin lines, good for detailing drawings.

  • HB2 was smooth over the paper but took more pressure to create darkness, lines were still very thin and detail is easier to accomplish.

  • 3B, still a thinner line, smooth to draw with, darkens easily without much pressure

  • 4B lines come out thicker, cannot get detail easily, very dark

  • 5B very smooth to write with, lots of graphite bits, easily smudges

  • 6B very smooth, very dark, graphite bits, easily smudges, thick lines, not good for details

  • 8B not for details, smooth to write with but the resulting line is bumpy if the paper is not very smooth

  • Soft Charcoal, sticks to the paper, hard to maneuver smoothly over paper, very dark, smudges with little pressure, fills in empty spaces easily

  • Medium Charcoal, darker, easily smudges, glides over paper a little more smoothly

  • Hard Charcoal, takes more to fill in a block, lines are more rough and also more detailed, not as easy to smudge

Create a sample of lines using a variety of pencils/charcoal. Try swirls, hatching, crosshatching, holding the material at different angles, different hands, shading, erasing, and any kind of line or doodle that you want. This will help you get a feel for the material. I used a regular piece of white printer paper.

The first experiment was on a piece of magazine paper with a floral design. Half of the paper i used charcoal and the other half graphite. I found that the generic soft charcoal from Amazon was the easiest to use with the sheen of magazine paper. I initially sketched the image in 3B graphite. Where I sketched with the graphite, the soft generic charcoal would not take. I found that the peel & sketch charcoal in all the varying hardnesses did not work well on this paper at all. The charcoal was messy and I found that my hands and work space were messy as well.

Graphite worked surprisingly well. I used the mechanical, 3B, 4B and 8B for shading and detail. It was hard to differentiate the details that I attempted. I also found that it was easier to erase mistakes without much evidence. Graphite did not easily smudge on the magazine paper but did show up on my finger.

Next, I took a piece of scrap computer paper that I had used for my roller ink blotting. Charcoal, all hardnesses, and brands worked very well in the areas with more white. The drawings did not show up in the areas where the ink had been rubbed. Graphite did not show up as easily. When I maneuvered the graphite pencils sideways, I was able to easily create value. I drew a design in the large ink blot, and the effect was interesting. It's not immediately visible but depending on how the light hits it, the shimmer of the graphite design shows up. For this exploration I used Soft, Medium, Hard Charcoal, and Graphite in HB, 5B, 6B.

Experimenting with yellow-tinted vellum paper was interesting. Both graphite and charcoal were applied smoothly to the paper. I found a poem by Emily Dickenson that I wrote with a variety of graphite pencils (HB, 4B, 2HB, 2H, 3B, 8B). I found 2H to be the hardest to write with on vellum as it did not show up very dark. 8B was difficult to control as the lines came out thick, too thick for writing. Smudging on vellum was simple with the smudge stick, which was both easy to use and easy to detail with. Qtip also worked well but was not as easy to smudge precisely. Last was fingertip smudging, easy as well, just messy.

I flipped the vellum over to continue my experimentation with charcoal. Hard charcoal was the only tool that did not glide smoothly over the paper. Just like graphite, smudging came easy with all three methods. It was surprising that the charcoal design did not show up nearly as dark as I thought it would on the opposite side.

I attempted a reduction drawing on a page from a vintage encyclopedia book. My first medium was charcoal. I filled the page in with charcoal and smudged it with a Q-tip. It was messy, both with dust and on my hands, so a piece of scrap paper underneath was beneficial for keeping the table clean. I used the eraser from a mechanical pencil because it was clean and it was small enough to be able to "draw" with. The process was surprisingly easy and fun. The charcoal was erased easily and effortlessly.

Next, I tried the exact same process with an 8B graphite pencil. Filling the page and smudging the graphite was a smooth process. However, the previous eraser did not work at all. The sheen from the graphite made the eraser glide above the graphite-like a skate on ice. I switched to an art gum eraser, which proved disastrous. It fell apart in my hands, merely moved the graphite around, and took a lot of effort to erase any graphite from the paper. The mess and deteriorating eraser were frustrating. I turned the still life into a strange abstract and scrapped the project.

Here is a piece created in class during studio time, with charcoal and graphite and a stomp blender.


Generally speaking, both charcoal and graphite are non-toxic but make sure the packaging says non-toxic to be sure. Charcoal can create quite a bit of dust, make sure not to blow the dust off the table as it could irritate lungs. Rather, brush away the dust and use a wet mop or wet paper towel to clean residue. Do not put charcoal or graphite pencils in the mouth as they could pose a choking hazard, especially if a little piece breaks off.


  • Group students together that will work collaboratively, or be able to assist one another in the creative process.

  • Read instructions out loud.

  • Demonstrate activities.

  • Show examples of completed activities.

  • pencil grips if there's trouble holding pencils properly.

  • Show alternative ways to hold pencils so that the hand is not smudging works.

Age Group:

Because graphite and charcoal are non-toxic, all age groups from K-12 are able to use both mediums. Charcoal will be more messy so make sure to have proper cleaining supplies on hand and cover tables to keep them clean.

Project Ideas:

  • Fill an entire piece of paper with the preferred medium. With an eraser draw, make sure to erase more or less depending on value. Reductive drawing.

  • Contour line self-portraits, using smudge tools to create value.

  • Left-right hands drawing in unison.

  • Use lines and shapes to portray an array of emotions.

  • Still life at different angles and zoomed in.

  • Create value scales.

  • Transformation projects, living creatures transformed into objects.

  • Study drawing, half in graphite, half in charcoal.


Repurposing materials

My big theme exploration this semester is about repurposing materials. I gathered several pieces of "garbage" and a plastic bag. The plastic bag served as my base. I coated the plastic bag with Mod Podge and started layer all the "almost discarded" materials on top of the plastic and on top of each other. I continued adding until all the plastic was covered and I used up every last piece of junk. I coated the entire piece one more time with a layer of Mod Podge and allowed it to dry for 24 hours.

Next, I took white gesso and spread a thin layer over the top of the Mod Podge collaged junk. I did not want to put the gesso on too thick because I thought that some of the original junk showing through would add an interesting element of design.

I wanted to see how graphite and charcoal worked with my newly created "upcycled" paper. I found that both graphite and charcoal worked very well on the thin layer of gesso, but I struggled with the texture of the underlying junk. I decided this piece would follow through to my next experimentation with color as adding too much detail to the imaginary monster would be too difficult in graphite/charcoal because of the texture. Next time around, I might try adding more gesso to see if it makes the process easier.


Hafeli, M. C. (2015). Exploring studio materials: Teaching creative art making to children. Oxford University Press. Pages 23-39.

30 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page