Skip to main content

Sketching Tips for Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils

#15 of 100

#15 of 100 -- wow this is starting to add up fast!

#15 of 100 -- wow this is starting to add up fast!

Sketching with Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils

 Sketching with Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils is fast, sometimes messy, interesting and dramatic. Drawing with charcoal is always dramatic whether you're going to settle in at your drafting table with a huge piece of all rag fancy good paper and meticulously use kneaded eraser (putty eraser in the UK), tortillons, stumps, Colour Shapers and assorted blenders to precisely and carefully render something in realism with a deep value range -- or just grab a stick of charcoal and head off into the wilderness or the yard to draw the way our Pleistocene ancestors did.

Charcoal is burnt wood. That's all it is. You can improvise it with a wooden match by letting it burn down and I have done so on occasion. Good charcoal is made from willow stems roasted till they're black and cooked all the way through into carbon, or various vines done the same way. Compressed charcoal is grinding up all the broken bits and mixing them with a binder, then pressing into a mold. Charcoal pencils are made into thick leads and cased in wood like other pencils to keep your hands clean... at least until you use assorted fingers to smudge the drawing and get smooth gradual shading by finger painting.

You're not supposed to do that if you're a serious artist, but half the artists I know do it anyway and I'm one of the finger-smudgers. So it does help to keep baby wipes or a damp towel handy for wiping off your dirty hands when using Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils or any charcoal pencils or any form of charcoal.

You can use any kind of paper that has at least some tooth. Hot press watercolor paper has a very fine tooth and does stand up to charcoal drawing -- in fact will allow extremely tiny details if you sharpen the pencil with a knife or sandpaper to a chisel edge or point to get them. However, the kind of glossy surface children's poster boards have is made for markers so pencils and charcoal don't stick to them well. Printer paper is all right but of course isn't archival unless you spend more to get archival printer paper.

Cartridge paper is just fine and if you use black or tinted charcoals on a mid-tone surface like pastel papers including Fabriano Tiziano or Canson Mi-Tientes (either smooth or woven texture side) you can highlight with white charcoal, which I think is compressed chalk or something. I'm not sure what white charcoal is but it's got the same charcoal and is white. White Conte crayons work well with it.

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils go beyond the Conte range. All the colors are muted and most of them are very dark, but will shade and show their color in light applications.

Derwent Tinted Charcoals 24 color Tin Lid

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils tin lid, 24 color set showing sample art from Derwent.

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils tin lid, 24 color set showing sample art from Derwent.

The Pencils And Where To Get Them

 Derwent's got this good design going with their tins for all their pencils. They'll show a sample artwork and something of what's being drawn from done by someone very good, then arrange photos of the actual pencils in a diamond-formation with the tips and barrels showing. This helps a lot if you never heard of the product, which is often something they only just invented anyway.

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils are charcoal pencils with just a hint of color. They are watersoluble like the Derwent Graphitints. However, when I tested mine (too bad the test strip is on another computer) unlike the Derwent Graphitints, the colors do not get brighter with washing. They look exactly the same as they do in a dry application. Not all colors are lightfast.

You can find a complete color chart and lightfastness ratings at Derwent's website: along with some wonderful demonstrations of those and all their products by excellent UK artists including Fiona Peart, whom I envy no end because she gets all these neat new pencils as soon as they come up with them. I bet she has a full set of everything Derwent makes. Also she draws and paints well, very well, wonderfully well and is very good at explaining it in a cheery British way that completely rips to shreds any notion that it's stupid or embarrassing to be a beginner or a hobbyist.

The UK has a long tradition of hobbyists in the arts. Ladies who dabble in watercolor go back probably to the Middle Ages and their sometimes brilliant works wind up in museums. Retired gents who take up painting are part of the Middle Class Norm and even the most conservative Brit wouldn't raise an eyebrow at some weekender, even a healthy young man, hauling out a grand French easel and oils or just a box of charcoals and a pad to some scenic spot to draw it. They're likely to relax and appreciate it.

They treat it about the way Americans treat barbecuing and that is a welcome change from how the US treats anyone who draws or paints and hasn't made a million dollars on it or become Picasso yet. It's even all right to still be a hobbyist when you're good enough at it you could put it in galleries and become a Professional Artist -- they have long traditions of hobbyists who get very stunningly good at what they do. I think of that as a much more mature, less elitist way of viewing the arts.

End rant, this is about these particular newly created wonderful pencils.

Charcoal pencils are the quick and handy solution to not having a broken little stick of black thing rubbing its soot into everything you own including the putty eraser and smudging up your face like you're going to star in Oliver Twist as an orphan. If you use assorted fingers for blending you can still get that effect very fast as soon as your nose itches, but you don't have to. And if your hands are wet you're not going to ruin it because you're handling it by a nice enameled pencil barrel. Derwent has been making those in white and three hardnesses for a very long time, probably longer than I've been alive.

Then they made Graphitints in 2003, 2004 or 2005 or thereabouts and all of a sudden those took off like hotcakes. Everyone wanted them and people like me on the wrong side of the ocean went nuts reading about them and unable to get them. I don't know the actual dates of their invention, but I do know Graphitints came first and were invented while I was not in the shelter. One day they weren't there and the next they were a new product I couldn't get. Then a year or two later, ASW and Blick got them and I did.

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils are darker and have less color, but still each have distinct hues. The softness is still the incredible softness of a charcoal stick. It can smudge if you breathe on it or brush your sleeve on it. They respond well to workable fixative and need it like any other charcoal drawing.

Workable fixative will deepen the colors a little without changing them, not always a bad thing if you have very delicate value shifts in the light end of the range and want them to scan in. Scanners sometimes lose the lightest values of any artwork you put on the bed, they seem to show up a little overexposed. Charcoal pencils with their dramatic darks and smooth value gradations all the way down to black or near black are wonderful to scan. Charcoal drawings are usually recognizable even in tiny thumbnails.

That makes them a great quick sketch medium and a wonderful realism medium. You can do the same thing with these pencils as with stick charcoal and cover a page with dark, then lift out back to white with a putty eraser (kneaded eraser) and white vinyl eraser.

What you need to use them is drawing paper of any kind that isn't glossy slick, workable fixative and the pencils themselves. Useful accessories include traditional cardboard blenders -- cheap one-ended tortillons rolled out of gray paper or homemade from printer paper, more expensive solid paper stumps with two pointed ends that can be sharpened like a pencil, a chamois (just like the one from the automotive shops) or cotton buds.

Scroll to Continue

Kneaded erasers are nearly a necessity, they will lift off the tinted charcoal completely sometimes if it's dry and hasn't been ground in so deep it's in the fibers of the paper. White vinyl erasers are good too for picking out very small clean white spots. I like always having a damp towel handy for keeping it off my hands before I touch my face when using charcoal or soft pastels, but it's optional.

If you want bold color along with your tinted charcoal pencils, consider using them in combination with Derwent pastel pencils or any other brand of pastel pencils. The texture is similar and you can get better darks with the tinted charcoal pencils in a nice variety of hues. Carb-Othello pastel pencils from Caran d'Ache and Cretacolor Pastel Pencils are both watersoluble. I'm not sure if Derwent Pastel Pencils are because I haven't tried any yet, but they might be and just not bother to mention it.

Most soft pastels are watersoluble too, but it isn't often mentioned except in pastel classes.

If you live in the UK your local art store probably carries Derwent products or would be willing to special order something like the Tinted Charcoal Pencils for you, also Jackson's is the big online art supply company that has all the good Derwent stuff faster than the US ones. In the USA, and carry these now. New Derwent products usually show up at ASW first. Jerry's Artarama is part of the same company as ASW and has the same products often at the same prices, but ASW has the deep-deep discount stuff.

For going outdoors, I recommend my favorite sketchbook -- a wirebound ProArt sketchbook from Blick. It's loony inexpensive, comes in several sizes including 4" x 6", 8 1/2" x 11", 11" x 14" and a larger size that I think is 12" x 16" and very sturdy with hard covers held together by a wire, not plastic, spiral binding. The paper is 80lb good white cartridge paper as the Brits would say and the hard covers mean you don't need a drawing board and that your delicate charcoal drawings aren't going to get rained on -- it's not impervious because the book's open on the sides but the covers will survive running through a rain shower if you wipe them off right away.

I would also suggest picking up a Global Classic leather pencil case or a Tran Deluxe case or some other elastic band case to hold your pencils, or get the Derwent canvas wrap if you're going to carry the set around a lot. If not, tape the tin shut and make sure to put a thin foam or flannel cover over the pencils so they don't jump out of their tracks and bang into each other inside it. Knocking soft-core pencils against each other creates internal breakage and charcoal pencils are infamous for it.

That makes the lead fall out while you're sharpening it, again and again and again, till the expensive pencil you bought all the way from the UK is a funny little stub almost too small to use and then the point falls out again anyway midway through your drawing. So treat these with care. Baby them like your pastel pencils.

You can make an elastic-band wrap if you're handy with a sewing machine by cutting and hemming a strip of upholstery weight fabric a bit wider than two pencil lengths, then stitch on some 1/2" or 1/4" wide elastic at intervals just wide enough to slide a pencil in. Make sure that two rows of elastic are lined up with the stitch lines straight. Stitch the elastic on around the middle, fold up one flap or use the flap to make pockets, then fold the other flap over, sew on a grosgrain ribbon tie and you're good to go. Several friends have made wraps at home from custom fabric. 24 pencils does not take a wide one, but leave a good six to eight inches more fabric after the loops to go around once more for padding.

Derwent Tinted Charcoal Sketching is FAST!

Leaves and Clover page from ProArt wirebound sketchbook, by Robert A. Sloan, in Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils.

Leaves and Clover page from ProArt wirebound sketchbook, by Robert A. Sloan, in Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils.

Quick Sketching Shows Up Well!

 Above is yesterday's Daily Art, some quick sketches I did in less than five minutes from imagination and memory. I sketched some simple leaf shapes, drew in ribs on them with a dark bluish green, then smudged with my finger and strengthened some lines. Then I looked at the Burnt Embers reddish one and decided to try for red clover, played with that, smudged over it, drew some clover leaves and smudged the edges into the centers with my little finger.

That's it -- that dark and dramatic and quick.

I used some of the brown for the stem to do dried leaves on the twig with the leaves just to give it some character, again smudging to give it a midtone in the middle. I could have worked on it longer or used a tortillon to get darker middle tones, but I was tired and had done my Hubs for the day and wanted to do one more Hub -- this one -- so I knocked that out as my example of how sketches look done in them.

Try copying that with an HB pencil and finger smudging. Then try scanning. You'll see the light values drop out completely and unless it was an 8B, you won't get nearly that dark on the darks either. I did not use much pressure on those darks, I would say it was medium pressure.

And of course you wouldn't see that subtle color without them being Derwent Tinted Charcoal pencils. The possibilities are wonderful. When you use a muted palette of actual colors, you can blend colors, you can use cool colors to push the background away into the distance and flatten the plane of a landscape, you can use warm colors to pull foreground objects forward or make the focal point more important. Every color trick that can work in a painting or drawing is at your disposal -- but the effects are subtle and far less noticeable.

You will also have value taking center stage to establish the shape and volume of the subject, with color as a good supporting actor strengthening its natural look. You can get pure realism for overcast days and rainy days using these, while getting the strong values of pure charcoal drawing. The possibilities are endless.

Since the server went down last night around ten when I was about to start this Hub, I held over the sketch and did a new one today. I put a little more time and thought into the bison below just to try to show how the colors can work together.

Bison in Derwent Tinted Charcoal Pencils

Bison drawn from an image posted to the Reference Image Library on by WC member QueenBeeArt for members to draw from, drawn by Robert A. Sloan.

Bison drawn from an image posted to the Reference Image Library on by WC member QueenBeeArt for members to draw from, drawn by Robert A. Sloan.

Tips for Using Them and Art In General

 One tip I should mention here is in the caption of that bison.

If you love drawing or want to learn, or just want to meet other artists and already draw well, join -- where you'll find free classes in any medium you care to think of from pencil drawing to oils or glass slumping, taught by prosperous, brilliant professionals and often the authors of North Light Books commenting on your drawings from them. It's run by F&W Publications which owns three good art magazines and North Light Books, maintained as a completely flame-war-free zone that's tremendously stimulating. As soon as you actually do a drawing you won't be the worst beginner there taking the classes and no matter how good you are, I guarantee you'll meet someone whose art makes your eyes pop and you wish you could do that.

Also the site provides a Reference Image Library that's for members only. Since the software went down on it and you can't upload to it any more, members who want to donate photos to the community to draw from just post them in threads like one bloke's Flowers thread and mention in the post the terms are the same as the RIL. It's polite to attribute the images you draw from them when you post them online but it is okay to sell the art. Just not use it in any competition that won't let you use other people's photos.

The amount of good photos in the RIL is incredible and I never seem to fail to find anything I want in it. Tonight I wanted to draw a bison because I'm rereading Jean Auel's Earth's Children series for the ninetieth time or so and bison or elk or mammoths were on my mind from thinking about rewriting Curse of Vaumuru. Once I looked, I found plenty of choices in the animals section and a section for bison/buffalo. Picked a summer one and altered him slightly and definitely made up his background except for that striking shadow I liked.

I think this sketch is a better demonstration of how the colors look in real life when smudged. I have plenty of gold and reddish mid tones on the animal, smudged two green hues in the grass and used a deep dark blue for the shadow for drama. It looks black but it has a more powerful effect than flat black would -- it pushes away and thus pushes the warm animal forward, rounding it more. If I had actual black details in it next to that strong blue-black you'd see the difference, at least in person.

Everything I said about Derwent Graphitints goes for Derwent Tinted Charcoals. You can get wonderful, natural looking scenes -- but these are even better for sketching because they go so fast and so dark and shade so smooth. One big step more dramatic than the deepest graphite, charcoal gives a true value range between pure untouched clean white and deepest matte black. With the tints, you can get colors that look like real colors of nature on overcast days -- and even render brighter colors by implication and contrast.

It's like the fantasy elements or science things in a science fiction story. Color is the McGuffin. If it is kept consistent, then it just seems natural. You can do a drawing in soft pastels and combine bright strong hues to make neutrals, or you can use soft neutral colors to give an impression of bright color. I've done dawns and sunsets with these Tinted Charcoal Pencils that come out seeming brilliant and colorful by their context -- by sticking to the pinks and golds in the sky and using blues and violets in the shadows. then getting brightness by using stark deep darks next to those light bright colors. Without actual bright yellow in it, the earth yellows and brick reds do look like they're bright.

Take special care with some colors, the less lightfast ones. I've used them for ACEOs and warned the buyers that they might be fugitive and should be kept in an album. Sketchbook use is fine because you're not going to have much light falling on a page within a bound sketchbook -- art can last a very long time even in fugitive pigments if you protect it from light and other bad conditions. I do think it's important to warn buyers of serious art or to download the lightfastness listings and be careful to substitute pastel pencils for hues that aren't lightfast if you're doing something meant to be framed and exhibited.

But they are so great for sketching anyway that I think of them as indispensible, and there are other ways to protect fugitive art like rotating how long it's hung, never putting it right across from the window, making sure it's behind glass and maybe getting UV-protective glass. Derwent has done it again.

I might as well get the tub of 72 if I ever visit the UK because I know I'll go through them all. Just don't do your best charcoal work on newsprint because that stuff will yellow and rot even if you keep it in the dark -- archival printer paper is better or you can get pastel papers to have gray paper that doesn't rot. If you use newsprint you will inevitably do the very best drawing of your life on the most impermanent surface. I've done it and regretted it and so have many others. Sketchbooks with acid free or especially archival all-rag papers are much better.


Michael Kismet from Northern California on July 29, 2014:

I use to draw so much when I was a teen, other elements of my life got in the way, so I haven't been able to practice nor have the time just to do it 'recreationaly'.

But I digress, awesome hub, there's so much useful information to digest. You must have put a lot of time in this article, thank you for sharing!

Margaret Russell on January 14, 2010:

Just bought myself some tinted charcoals, all I need now is some practice!!! I normally happily use soft pastels and pastel pencils, which I love, tried Graphitints - still thinking about those, but really looking forward to having a go with the charcoals - just need a bit of help though, checked out the Derwent site and the booklet I got with the pencils, but a 'hands on' set of tips would be wonderful. I am in England by the way.

Sheila Wilson from Pennsylvania on December 31, 2009:

I love drawing with charcoal, but I haven't tried the pencils yet. I always use vine or compressed charcoal. I'll have to try them. Nice artwork!

Daryl on November 14, 2009:

wow!! it is definitely amazing, it makes me inspired a lot. hope i will learn something in your tutorials..

Related Articles