Love charcoal but hate the mess? Pick up a charcoal pencil, which is composed of compressed charcoal inside a protective layer, typically wood. Suitable for drawing, sketching, or smudging, a charcoal pencil offers a familiar feel and provides you with a lot of control over your marks. Even in this more structured form, it can be manipulated to create an array of rich and dark tones, as well as thin lines and bold ones. Our picks range from beginner to artist-grade sets. Remember that charcoal, even in pencil form, is delicate, so these can still break if dropped. And sharpen with care.
General’s Charcoal Kit
This trusted brand, which has been manufacturing pencils since 1889, produces drawing tools championed for their smooth, uniform quality. Its charcoal pencils have little drag, take to blending very nicely, and are affordable. This set includes lots of options to achieve different shading effects. You get one HB, one 2B, and two 6B pencils as well as one 5B white charcoal pencil to create highlights. And that’s not all—compressed charcoal pieces, sketch pencils, and a kneaded eraser round out the set. The pencils are durable and won’t easily break in your hand. Sharpening them is another story: They can snap in a hand sharpener, so it’s wise to invest in a compatible sharpener or keep them pointy with an X-Acto knife.
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Derwent Charcoal Pencils
Derwent’s pencils are slightly scratchier than General’s, but because they aren’t as soft, they produce cleaner lines that are less susceptible to smudging. You can buy them in packs of four or six, both of which include soft, medium, and hard pencils as well as a white highlighting pencil. (Unlike other brands, Derwent relies on its own system of hardness grades.) The differences among them are clear, which means you get an excellent variety of tones to work with. Encased in a round, 8-millimeter barrel made of cedar, these are comfortable to hold and relatively resistant to breaking.
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Charcoal Pencils
Staedtler’s incredibly affordable charcoal pencils are a great option for artists who are just beginning to use the medium. This set comes with everything you need to explore shading, blending, and subtractive techniques. Included are four pencils—2B, 4B, 6B, and a soft white chalk pencil—as well as a pencil sharpener, kneadable eraser, and paper stump for clean smudging. The pigments show up well on light paper and can be blended effortlessly with your fingers.
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Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Charcoal Pencil Set
Perfect for the seasoned charcoal user, these artist-grade pencils lay down rich colors with a satinlike finish. The set of six pencils is ideal for creating beautiful tonal studies, as it includes not only black, charcoal, and white chalk pencils but also sepia dark, sepia light, and red chalk pencils based on natural pigments. Each is highly pigmented and buttery smooth, showing off excellent blending characteristics on both dark and light surfaces. Draw and contour to your heart’s content.
Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Charcoal Pencil Set
If you’re looking for charcoal pencils only, consider this set. It’s less expensive, on a per-pencil basis, than Derwent’s product, and although Winsor & Newton isn’t as well known for its charcoal as for its paints, these are fairly good-quality pencils. You get two each of 2B, 4B, and 6B grades, each of which blends and smudges very well. The variance in degree of hardness between pencils is not as stark as Derwent’s, however. They are encased in a barrel made of sustainably grown linden wood, which contributes to their comfortable handling and ease of sharpening.
1. General’s Charcoal Drawing Set
Manufacturing pencils since 1889, this trusted brand produces drawing tools championed for their smooth, uniform quality. These charcoal pencils have less drag than our other picks, and they take to blending very nicely. This set includes one 2B, one 4B, and one 6B pencil, plus a white charcoal pencil and a good-quality kneaded eraser. These softer leads are perfect for creating rich lines and shadows, while the white pencil is satisfying to use to create highlights. This is a great set for shading, with durable pencils that won’t easily break in your hand. Sharpening them is another story: they can snap in a hand sharpener, so it’s wise to invest in a compatible sharpener, or keep them pointy with an X-Acto knife.
2. Derwent Charcoal Pencils
Derwent’s pencils are slightly scratchier than General’s, but because they aren’t as soft, you can produce cleaner lines that aren’t as susceptible to smudging. You can buy them in packs of four or six, both of which include soft, medium, and hard pencils as well as a white highlighting pencil. The differences among them are clear, which means you get an excellent variety of tones to work with. Encased in cedar, these are relatively resistant to breaking.
3. Sunshilor Charcoal Pencils
These charcoal pencils don’t have the same pedigree as our other picks, but they do the job well and are more cost-effective. You get a dozen pencils in this set—six soft, four medium, and two hard, all clearly labeled. With a durable wood frame, these are less likely to break than General’s and Derwent’s pencils, but the charcoal is also harder and presents fewer subtle differences between grades. Artists working with charcoal pencils for the first time may want to try these to get a feel for the medium before upgrading.
4. Mont Marte Woodless Charcoal Pencils
Rather than wood, these hexagonal pencils are encased in lacquer. This coating ensures clean handling; some artists find that lacquer offers better control and more comfort than wood, particularly when it comes to creating uniform shading and broad strokes. These pencils are also a little easier to sharpen than wooden ones, although care is still required when doing so. This set includes three charcoal pencils in soft, medium, and hard grades. The variation is subtle, but they all produce dark lines that are easy to erase.
5. Royal & Langnickel Small Tin Charcoal Set
Artists who enjoy sketching on the go might enjoy this charcoal drawing set, which packs a variety of charcoal forms in a convenient, 7½-by-4½-inch tin. It includes three charcoal pencils, one woodless graphite pencil, four compressed charcoal sticks, and four pieces of good-quality, soft vine charcoal. The pencils come unsharpened, so you’ll have to provide your own sharpener before getting started (as with other charcoal pencils, it’s best to do some research to find the most charcoal-friendly one). You’ll have a pick of soft, medium, and hard grades, which do show distinct differences. This is an excellent choice for charcoal artists who like experimenting.