Difference between Using a Charcoal and a Pencil for Sketching

Human beings express creativity in different ways, and one of the most remarkable ways is art. Sketching is a form of art and a manifestation of imagination. However, when it comes to sketching, artists choose either charcoal or a pencil (graphite). There are differences between these two, and these will be discussed in the sections below. 

Detailing of the Sketch

In various parts of the globe, artists need to choose from charcoal or graphite pencils to draw or sketch tasks. As for graphite pencils, there are more options regarding grades and are mainly used for intricate drawings that need a lot of fine details. 

When it comes to charcoal, it is ideal for sketching and getting pretty dark values. But overall, it has a much darker appearance, and it also has higher roughness than graphite. It is associated to smudging too when compared to graphite pencils. It is easier to maneuver and get the finer details while using a graphite pencil for sketching.  

Specific Sketching Applications

The nature of charcoal means that it is suitable for making sketches that feature very expressive marks. Charcoal is also flaky by nature. This implies that artists can use it to create an impressive diversity of textures, ranging from thick lines with the maximum application of pressure to soft and powdery lines upon applying minimal pressure. 

When sketching with charcoal, the feeling is rough and somewhat catchy for the artist. This is because, at the molecule level, the material is breaking in uneven patterns. Hence, if an artist is interested in playing around with as many texture-based designs as possible when doing the sketches, charcoal is a much better alternative than graphite pencils.

But if the artist is interested in letting the sketch have some grey shine, then graphite is better. A lower amount of dust is also produced if graphite is used, and it also has a greater degree of adhesion to the surface without the need for any fixative. Smoother sketches are a lot easier with graphite pencils. 

Ease of Control

The arrangement of atoms within graphite pencils makes them easier to control when drawing or sketching by the artist. The same cannot be said of charcoal pencils. 

Composition of the Material

The typical graphite pencil is made from a blend of clay and graphite, while charcoal pencils are made from charcoal (burnt carbon material). This composition means that graphite pencils are better for very complex sketchings with minute details. On the other hand, charcoal’s nature means it is better when making ‘rough’ sketches that do not need fine details.

The higher the composition of graphite, the darker and softer will be the marks during sketching. If the proportion of clay is higher, the sketch marks are going to be lighter and stiffer. Thus, the sketch’s outcome depends significantly on the composition of the material used in the manufacture of the sketching medium. 

Grading System

Even though there is no conventional system for grading the materials used for sketching or drawing, there is a way of grading. This grading is different for graphite pencils and charcoal pencils. The graphite pencils are graded from 9H to 9B – on the graphite pencils, the B markings are placed on the black and soft side, the H markings are on the light and hard region while F denotes a mix. The regular standard pencil used for drawing or sketching is graded ‘HB’. 

However, the grading of charcoal pencils is different. Charcoal pencils are typically a lot softer than the regular graphite pencils, and their own grading ranges from HB to 6B. But as an artist, you also need to know that the grading is not as regular or even steady as it is with graphite pencils. The grading of charcoal pencils can vary from place to place, but overall, the artist will have to depend on it when selecting the one to use for sketching. 


This is common with charcoal pencils, especially compressed charcoal pencils. Even though this is generally not considered a quality problem, some artists do not like it while making their sketches. Graphite pencils on the other hand, do not smudge. The smudging is due to charcoal’s soft nature, so an artist must put this in mind when doing sketches. 

Physical and Chemical Structure

Both charcoal and graphite are carbon-based, but their structures are different physically. This explains why sketches made using both materials are also different in outlook. Charcoal is soft and it crumbles effortlessly when used. The charcoal structure is a complicated lattice that does not have any particular pattern, which affects the sketches done with it. This same charcoal structure makes it produce crumbly, dusty and matt particles when sketching. Not many artists like this matt material because it is not easy to clean off the paper. 

The structure of graphite is different. It has a layered and uniform structure with regular patterns. The arrangement of the atoms allows for stability and sliding at the molecular level. This explains why graphite pencils glide perfectly on paper and is a lot easier to control. 

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