Charcoal/Pastel vs. Graphite as a Precursor to Oil Painting

(Originally posted at on January 16, 2016. link:

I would like to make clear that the comparisons presented here are limited to the pencil forms of both compressed charcoal and graphite. I am not taking into account powdered graphite/charcoal, charcoal or graphite mixed with alcohol, or any other significantly less-common (in modern day atelier training) application of either material. Additionally, this comparison is made strictly within the context of a dry media to wet media (specifically oil-painting) training sequence. Graphite and Charcoal are equally celebrated materials that, as far as I am concerned, hold equal potential for impressive feats of draftsmanship and artistry.

A student’s first day at the Ani Art Academy Waichulis can indeed be an overwhelming experience. Our day-one orientation involves a thorough studio walk-through, a detailed presentation of studio etiquette and protocols, and culminates in a lengthy lecture (from yours truly) regarding our curriculum design and the materials that facilitate it. One very common question that arises in the first few minutes of this initial materials lecture involves our reasoning for choosing compressed charcoal and pastel for the dry-media portion of our program rather than the more commonly-used graphite. It is a question I look forward to as it offers me the opportunity to reveal a great deal about the design of our curriculum.

First, I should introduce a few of the concepts I have kept in mind when designing my training programs. (From the National Academy for Academic Leadership regarding curriculum design):

1. Clear purposes and goals. A curricular mission statement and written curricular goals (intended student development outcomes or intended results) articulate curricular purpose – what graduates should know and be able to do and those attitudes and values a faculty believes are appropriate to well-educated men and women. These goals and their objectives are specified in considerable detail and in behavioral language that will permit assessment of their degree of achievement (the curriculum’s actual outcomes).

2. A theoretically sound process. Student activities are chosen that are capable of developing the desired outcomes, as indicated by empirical research. Curriculum has its desired effect primarily through instruction. Therefore, the choice of course experiences and the specific quality and efficacy of these experiences in producing the stated intended outcomes for all students is fundamental to the quality of any curriculum. Current empirically based education theory is essential to effective instruction and thus the improvement of curricular quality. For example, there is little evidence that using traditional lectures will develop in students the higher-order cognitive abilities a faculty may value. Nevertheless, lecturing is still, by far, the predominant method of instruction in most institutions today.

3. A rational sequence. Educational activities are carefully ordered in a developmental sequence to form a coherent curriculum based on the stated intended outcomes of both the curriculum and its constituent courses.

Arguably one of the most significant issues that continues to plague the growth and development of quality arts education is the deficit of quantifiable learning objectives and effective outcome assessment. Clearly defined, intended curricular outcomes enable an educator to understand, communicate about, and manage learning through the curriculum more effectively. As we find within the tenets of deliberate practice–an individual can find significant, efficient growth within an activity only if there exists feedback from the effort by which an effective strategy of modification and/or reinforcement is possible. As such, the program that I have developed for use with the Waichulis Studio and the Ani Art Academies has clearly defined goals. These goals include (but are not limited to): a focus on a comprehensive, demonstrable understanding of simple materials, basic mechanisms of draftsmanship, numerous elements of visual perception as well as the efficient and effective development of adaptable fine motor control, automaticity and procedural fluency.

So what does our theoretically sound process have to do with our order of material use? “One of the most important issues in the application of learning theory is sequencing of instruction. The order and organization of learning activities affects the way information is processed and retained (Glynn & DiVesta, 1977; Lorch & Lorch, 1985; Van Patten, Chao, & Reigeluth, 1986) A number of theories (e.g., Bruner, Reigeluth, Scandura) suggest a simple-to-complex sequence…. According to Gagne’s Conditions of Learning theory, sequence is dictated by pre-requisite skills and the level of cognitive processing involved.” –

Our curriculum follows this simple to complex framework as follows:



As you can see, the wet media section contains a component not introduced in the dry media section of the program: color. However this additional component is not the defining factor that pushes the wet media into the latter half of the program. It is the increased complexity of paint delivery (specifically oil paint). Please understand that I am not saying that dry media training is a necessary requirement to learn how to paint efficiently and effectively—but rather, it is the MOST efficient and effective training methodology that I am aware of. The aspiring painter can more successfully automatize low-level mark making operations in an effort to introduce automaticity and procedural fluency into his or her “draftsmanship database” without diluting his or her initial focus with complex mechanics inherent to effective and efficient paint application.

So that explains why we introduce dry media as a precursor to wet media (oil)—but why specifically charcoal/pastel over graphite? We chose charcoal/pastel as our primary training tools as they yield an automaticity and procedural fluency that is far more adaptable to oil painting than what can be garnered from graphite. Plain and simple.

Let’s look at some of the characteristics that have influenced our choice for (soft) compressed charcoal as primary training tool (please note that this list is not exhaustive):

1. The Mark – On average, modern (soft) compressed charcoal can generate a much broader range of value than graphite. This means that the student will have to develop a much greater range of pressure control than will be necessary for graphite. As many painters will know, different paints and paint surfaces can yield a wide range of experiences that require constant adaptation. As such, we find the increased adaptive pressure control to be highly applicable to painting.

2. Compatibility/Mixing – This is probably the most influential factor of all. Compressed charcoal has the ability to intermix with a wide range of pastels of similar consistency that will result in a reasonably homogeneous application. Charcoal and pastel can be layered to the point where latter applications actually begin to feel “buttery”. If you have never layered charcoal and pastel to this degree in your early training then you have unfortunately missed a significant, useful foreshadowing of paint behavior.

3. Compatibility/Mixing/Surfaces – This characteristic is connected to the previous one–but introduces the variable of drawing surface. Most often, (again-arguably), the surface of choice for graphite is white as the value of the drawing surface will define the lightness ceiling for graphite’s common “subtractive” dynamic (i.e. the paper is the lightest light and all other values are subtracting this light with the addition of graphite.) Graphite can indeed be applied to a toned surface, and even be “heightened” with white pastel (or other pigment delivery vehicle), but its limited intermixing potential still leaves it more dissimilar in behavior to oils than that of compressed charcoal. Charcoal’s intermixing potential with white, or other pastels (regardless of surface value) means that it can still emulate paint behavior far more effectively than graphite. However, utilizing charcoal on toned paper with white pastel is where this medium truly excels in foreshadowing early painting dynamics. Darks (charcoal) and lights (pastel) can be added separately, intermixed, layered, and “polished” to yield a strong representation of multiple painting dynamics.

4. Movement – As most experienced artists will know, there is a significant difference in the ability to move surface charcoal versus surface graphite. As such, paintbrushes may be used to move or blend charcoal quite successfully (such tools would be far less effective with graphite.) Stumps and tortillions may be used with graphite quite effectively—but again—with a greater discontinuity relative to painting.

5. Tracking/Mixing – While this may seem a small attribute to consider–I assure you that it is a significant dynamic inherent to intermixing charcoal and pastel. What anyone with experience in intermixing charcoal and pastel is quick to discover is that the point of your charcoal or pastel is often contaminated by the aggregate of whatever region you may be working in. Therefore, the artist must quickly become mindful of where the drawing tool has been, what it has picked up and where it is going (much like having to consider where your paintbrush has been, what it has picked up, and where it is going…). Graphite, with its limited intermixing potential, will often “pick up” much less than charcoal would. (again, remember that graphite is used in some contexts as a lubricant–more on this later.)

6. A Familiar Rhythm – Generally speaking (ceteris paribus), a softer graphite will hold a point much longer than a softer charcoal or pastel. As such, the point of a compressed charcoal pencil will require far more attention with equal applications of pressure into comparably toothed surfaces. This more frequent breaking from application to attend to an application tool begins to reflect a material application/tool-tending rhythm that is closer to what will be experienced with oil painting. This difference is indeed far more subtle than the earlier mentioned characteristics—but it may be noticeable enough to some to warrant mentioning.

7. Varied but Compatible “Consistencies” – Again, capitalizing on the intermixing potential of charcoal, varied-yet-compatible materials (charcoal-pastel) begin to reflect the wide range of material consistencies that are experienced with the application of multiple paints. As such, addressing attributes like opacity and softness in the context of strategic intermixing will begin to yield successful and adaptable application strategies that may be applied towards future oil painting efforts. While a developing procedural fluency is indeed inherent to systematic graphite use (or any mark-making tool for that matter), it is a far more dissimilar to oil painting in this regard.

In the interests of adequately representing the potential advantages of graphite, I turned to social media to call upon those that have had far more experience–either as a student, or as a teacher, with graphite as a precursor to painting. Here is how I framed a call for “graphite advantage”:

“Can anyone explain, in a clear manner, why graphite is a preferred medium for so many “drawing-as-a-precursor-to-oil-painting” programs? I am writing a short article explaining how the dry media portion of our curriculum (and the specific materials with which it is delivered) is geared towards the development of an automaticity and procedural fluency that is directly applicable toward painting. However I would like to contrast this with the potential benefits of graphite use–but aside from a potential advantage in delivering foundational concepts with a more common medium–I am not sure why its use is so prevalent. I would be happy to credit any contributions I use for the piece. Thanks in advance!”

Let’s look at a few of the contributions:

I think graphite is ‘popular’ because it is familiar, and hence less likely to scare beginning students.

While this is a simple argument—it’s quite good. I would think it reasonable to assume that more people are likely to have experience with graphite as opposed to charcoal in any form. Unfamiliar ground explored within a familiar vehicle is one of the best arguments for graphite in this context I have encountered.

I think that the reason graphite is so prevalent is due to it being so available. When you are growing up as an artist, your parents may have no clue what materials to get, however they always have a pencil.

Graphite on white paper is the simplest starting point with the shortest list of materials, yet the possibilities are very vast. Graphite ( alone on bright white paper ) may also require more patience than charcoal and chalk and more effort to create the three dimensional effect of light and shade on a compressed value scale.”

As many of you may already know–I’m a sucker for the practical. These contributors have great points here that feed into the previous answer. Definitely more points for graphite.

(An additional note: within the online discussion I referenced a possible advantage to working on white paper that may be of interest here: A good argument may be made for starting on white paper though with the Bartleson-Breneman effect: as a background becomes darker, values appear lighter—which compresses the value range and makes the steps between gray values appear smaller. Against a light background (a common surface for graphite), values appear darker and the value steps between grays appear to widen. This widening of value steps may prove advantageous when beginners are first exploring the dynamics of value/lightness.)

I think it’s because it is slippery, low friction. Graphite is used as a lubricant. So it allows the arm to swing freely which gives freedom of gesture and rhythm.

This is an extremely valid point that I truthfully did not consider at all. Arguably, in some circumstances, graphite can seem much more fluid than charcoal—and in those cases one can make a compelling argument that its behavior is more similar to paint than that of charcoal.

My guess is it has to do with rate and accuracy with which detail can be rendered on the page at different levels of skill, and the sense of reward gained by the student who is learning….Charcoal provides time-efficient value rendering and can be immediately gratifying to someone just starting e.g. rendering a metallic object with naive shapes but with decent highlights and shadows with smooth transitions can look pretty good.

While I would tend to agree with all of these points, I don’t think that speed is necessarily a high priority (in either case) when you are considering the worth of contributions that can be carried forward. Perhaps speed may be a more relevant issue in cases where a student only has an extremely short amount of time to invest in a project–but in general terms I would not think it a factor to “bump” adaptable skill-set development. However–I believe that there is something to be said for the gratification aspect inherent to working with specific materials. A good point indeed.

I think graphite is the hardest to master. If you can get it right in graphite I think you’ll also manage charcoal and oils. For me it’s the base of everything. There are no easy tricks to it (like smudging in charcoal). If you want an intermediate value you’ll have to put it down yourself. You can not smudge or pull adjacent values or colors together to produce it. Sharp graphite forces you to make finer decisions about shapes over smaller areas and takes much longer to render values => slower rate of gratification => less motivated students have trouble staying focused and find cast drawing with graphite daunting.

While the opening of this contribution is extremely subjective, a reasonable argument may be made for the claim that graphite may require a more deliberate initial application due to its inability to move as freely as charcoal. However, an argument used to promote graphite in this manner also declares that it behaves far less like oil paint than charcoal and pastel does.

The reason we use it is that it helps you to really conceptualize form. Instead of making a broad mark or blending you are encouraged to render the form, as fully and precisely as possible, with a sharp graphite point. If you cannot turn form with a precise implement, it will be near impossible with the relatively imprecise brush . Learning to turn form in graphite’s somewhat truncated value range is also helpful. When you progress to painting in grisaille,your range is much increased. This is not to say I think graphite is better or worse than any other medium: it is just a rationale for why it is used.”

“Concerning the “conceptualization” of the form, the idea that we need to think [about] is an ant walking slowly through the form, leads to work with an instrument that ends in a very sharp and small point, in closed hatches, that of course you can replicate with charcoal, but charcoal is more suited for mass. This kind of work also resonates with egg tempera and his close brushstrokes, considering each brushstroke as a micro-plane.”

This idea of ‘conceptualization’ came up a few times throughout the online conversation, but I do not think think it is a relevant factor for consideration. “Conceptualization” (as I understand it in this context –the translation of abstract theory into specific variables) is not something that would be better served by either graphite or charcoal. Conceptualization is a cognitive operation that may be equally manifested and/or explored in either material. However, there may be something to the idea of exploring accuracy and precision before more broad-based suggestion. Definitely some food for thought.

Perhaps there is a historical reason for its [graphite’s] dominance in traditional art practice—that is, what artistic sensibility is governing the art school, but it seems to me that there are a majority of ateliers that use charcoal as a basis rather than graphite…Maybe pencil came into use more commonly in representational art education in modern times as it was used by illustrators and technical drawers of the day. There definitely seems to be a preference for line in illustrative work where perhaps design is more of an initial consideration.

We cannot, for a second, discount the influence from “historical use”. I am sure that many choose to implement one tool over another just because “this person” or “that person” used this or that tool. Hopefully by reading these short articles you can see how useful it is to probe your own process so as to see if you are being as efficient and effective as possible in your efforts.

So in consideration of the above factors, I find that the automaticity and procedural fluency developed with compressed charcoal and pastel to be far more adaptable to oil painting than can be found with graphite. As I hope to have shown here, while there are indeed viable arguments for a significant graphite advantage (in certain contexts)—the behavioral dissimilarities between graphite and oil paint are far greater than what can be found with compressed charcoal/pastel and oil.

I hope this gives you all a bit to think about while you are at the easel!

I would like to thank the following artists for taking the time to share their thoughts and insights on this topic: Leah Waichulis, Sadie Jernigan Valeri, Mark Popple, Gabe Coke, Cliff Connell, Carol Bromann, Scott Agnew, Debbie Harris Kommalan, Sivananda Nyayapathi, Mitch Shea, Travis Michael Bailey, Richard Murdock, Julie Beck, Alexandra Smith, Philip Ackermann, Stephen Yavorski, Julie Beck, Brian Skol, Theodore Landers, Maneesh Yadav, Chad Lewis, Hetty Easter, Linda Dulaney, Matt Buckner, Damian Chavez, Kristel Peyskens, Shawn Sullivan, Angus McEwan, Ariel Gulluni, Caroline Niesley and Mostafa Mahmoud (as well as anyone else I might have missed. Thank you!)

Happy Drawing!