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  • Writer's pictureKonstantin

Can You Mix Graphite And Charcoal?

Some people often wonder whether a drawing started with graphite would admit charcoal or not. Beyond the evident physical possibility of combining these two dry media, beginners frequently wonder if there are any inconveniences or rules to consider.

Can you mix graphite and charcoal?

You can mix graphite and charcoal. It is not only possible but, actually, quite recommendable and, in some cases, it is arguably even mandatory to combine them in a complimentary way. However, in order to do this properly and achieve the best technical results, it is important to understand the differences and similarities between these two media.

Each one is better built to accomplish certain operations and, if not orderly accounted for, mixing their qualities could hurt your drawing.

The most common concern regarding this is the technical adequacy of combining these media, but the artistic compliance of the admixture is also a matter of consideration. In this article, we’ll look at both aspects of this query.

I. Affinities And Similarities

Watch this amazingly informative video if you can't stand reading that much text:

1. Carbon-Based Monochromatic Range

The first trait graphite and charcoal share is that they are both carbon-based dry media, whereas the most evident feature is that they yield monochromatic marks.

2. Composition And Shapes

Speaking of ingredients, compressed charcoal has a certain amount of binder (usually a varied mixture of synthetic clay and sometimes wax) just as graphite supplies. You can also find both in analog commercial forms: pencils, round bars, square bars, and powder.

3. Ready To Hit The Road

One of the main reasons for their popularity is that they are extremely easy and safe to transport (you’ll never run into the same accidents that ink could provoke).

Due to their similar preparation, graphite and compressed charcoal are quite sturdy and won’t break easily.

Thick wooden charcoal is also quite resistant.

4. Cheap And Everywhere

Overall, charcoal is a little pricier than graphite, but both are rather affordable and cost-effective. They are also two of the most common art supplies and you can easily find them even in not particularly specialized stores.

5. Light And Darkness

Due to their monochromatic yield and neutral temperature, you can use them to develop very refined grayscales, hence making them perfect tools for the most extremely poignant light and shade studies.

II. Differences

1. Brightness

Because their chemical composition and molecular structure are different, charcoal and graphite present a noticeably different interaction with light: graphite is bright whilst charcoal is opaque in comparison. This is the first of the two capital differences to account for when mixing graphite and charcoal: in drawing as in painting, the brighter layers should supersede the opaque.

In the case of graphite, this reflecting trait varies according to the lead’s hardness:

The harder a mixture is, the more binder and less graphite it carries, thus the less bright it will be (9H leads being the hardest); whereas the softer leads carry an inversely proportionate amount of binder (9B being virtually pure graphite).

However, the brightest reflection, almost metallic, can be found in 2B leads due to the balance of the small amount of wax within the binder (which is also the reason for the buttery consistency in some brands like the famous Palomino Blackwings).

2. Leanness

This brings up the second capital difference which dictates the mixed application of graphite and charcoal: leanness.

As suggested in the Affinities and Similarities section, there are basically two kinds of charcoal: compressed, which is usually mineral-based, and vegetal, which is usually made from grapevines or willow branches.

Since vegetal charcoal doesn’t carry any kind of binder whatsoever, it is entirely lean and pure. This implies a number of differences with respect to compressed charcoal:

  1. Although not as bright as graphite, it is brighter than mineral charcoal

  2. It is more fragile

  3. It is much softer and malleable

  4. It is much easier to remove

All of these qualities make wooden-based charcoal the best candidate to combine with graphite, although this also depends on the particular results you wish your drawing to achieve.

Overall, compressed charcoal is more problematic to mix because of the binder. If you go over a vegetal charcoal layer with graphite, the latter’s binder will engulf the charcoal particles, whereas it wouldn’t mix so evenly with compressed particles which are already bound. Thus, employing it as an underlayer is not recommendable because it is not easy to move once applied and its opacity is much higher than vegetal charcoal. This also “kills” graphite’s brightness.

3. Softness And Thickness

Not as critical as brightness and leanness, softness and thickness are crucial factors to consider in the mix though.

Firstly, let us clearly explain how they are not the same:

By regulating pressure, a dry medium can be applied either thinly or thickly, whether it be hard or soft (we've explained how the amount of binder determines this).

In painting, there can be another way around, but in drawing, thicker strokes should supersede thinner ones.

Charcoal, especially when compressed, has a deeper range of thickness compared to graphite (let us not confuse this with darkness), thus, if you are looking for a very dense final outcome, you should prevalently work with the first one and be careful not to use the brighter graphite leads in the layers beneath.

When accounting for softness there are two things you should include in your strategy: malleability and edges. The softer the medium, the more you can move it and the wider variety of edges it may yield, whilst a harder medium becomes more difficult to move from its original spot and yields harder edges (making it better suited for precision work).

In pastel, which is more of a painting than a drawing technique, it is possible to go from softness to hardness and vice versa —even more so if you use sanded paper—, but graphite and charcoal do not admit that much steering because you work with a more restraint number of layers. So, you should plan for the drawing to become either ever harder or ever softer and use graphite and charcoal accordingly.

III. Artistic License

When we talk about mixing media, oftentimes we run into the notion that “true artists” avoid them.

Perhaps you have reached out to this post precisely because of this concern.

Good news: it is licit for your creative intent to fulfill its purpose by whichever means necessary! And even if it was illicit, you should still go for it.

If you wish for a little validation, keep in mind that the likes of Picasso, Rivera, Sargent, Homer, Klimt, and many other monsters and big-guns of art mixed graphite and charcoal.

Nevertheless, don’t forget that, albeit your freedom is granted, the materials you use have a certain nature and inherent qualities —which I have tried to illustrate in this article— and you will get nowhere unless you pay attention to them and put them in a position to let them do their best.

V. Related Questions

1. How Do You Draw With Graphite And Charcoal?

Like virtually every other drawing supply, the most common use for them is outlining. Graphite pencils are very well suited for cross-hatching, but Conté charcoal pencils have been great at this for a couple of centuries as well (although you would be dealing with a much smaller margin of error). The key to making this kind of work shine is the cleanliness and consistency of your lines.

Perhaps the most interesting results come from turning graphite and charcoal into lighting study media. There are basically two ways to do this:

  1. Light subtraction.-covering the light tone of your paper with progressively darker strokes.

  2. Light addition.-using a toned paper (like gray or cream) as the starting point from which you will be “pulling down” with darks and “pushing up” with whites.

General advice: use graphite over willow charcoal or charcoal powder layers and don’t use bars and sticks as if they were pencils, their width and length to your advantage.

The paper’s texture is absolutely critical for the outcome. Graphite tends to perform better on smoother surfaces, while charcoal does well enough on both smooth and rough grains.

2. Which Is Better Charcoal Or Graphite?

No medium is better than others. Some are a better match for a specific kind of creativity, but neither would win a superiority trial.

That being said, there are a few operations and objectives where charcoal

performs with advantages over graphite and vice versa.

For instance, laying out a composition on a canvas you’ll paint is more of a job for vegetal charcoal than graphite, because it allows you to keep your surface completely lean and easily correct your tracing as much as you like before cleaning it and then sealing it.

On the other hand, graphite can be more of a precision tool (technical drawing is traditionally done with graphite pencils) and it is much easier to control grayscale development with it.

In such a comparison, we couldn’t keep out the paper choice, because its texture is absolutely critical for the outcome. Graphite tends to perform better on smoother surfaces, while charcoal does well enough on both smooth and rough grains, but it is harder to work on minute details with it.

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