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From early cave painters to Pablo Picasso to Roberto Longo, artists have long loved the expressive potential of a soft charcoal pencil or crayon. Each sweep of charcoal offers intense black color and easy blending for preliminary studies, lush landscapes, or photorealistic portraits. There is a wide variety of artist’s charcoals on the market, each with its own unique set of properties and ingredients. Compressed charcoal is a soft block or stick, often created from burned birch, clay, and black pigment. Charcoal pencils are similar to graphite pencils; they’re often used to render crisp, detailed drawings. There are also delicate charcoals made from burning willow twigs and grape vines. Buying charcoal implements in a set is a nice option, giving you tools for an array of effects from the get-go. We can help you find the set best suited to your needs; browse our picks below.
General’s Classic Charcoal Set
The popular pencil purveyor offers a number of charcoal sets, but we like this one as it covers a diverse range of charcoal types in many different grades, all at an affordable price. It’s suitable for both seasoned and beginner users of charcoal, with implements showcasing consistency in quality and performance. Highlights include eight black charcoal pencils (from 6B extra-soft to HB hard) that have little drag and blend nicely, two white charcoal pencils to create values and highlights, and 10 compressed charcoal sticks—including four sturdy jumbo pieces that can be turned on their wider sides to efficiently cover large areas. This set will satisfy virtually all your shading and smudging needs.
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Derwent Charcoal Set
If you love sketching with willow and vine charcoal, consider Derwent’s set. It’s the only option on our list to include both in addition to harder kinds of charcoal. You get one chunky piece of willow charcoal for intense mark-making and two long stripes of vine charcoal ideal for looser strokes, plus three charcoal pencils. One is a dark variety that’s slightly softer than General’s and therefore capable of producing slightly cleaner lines that are less prone to smudging. The other two are tinted pencils in a brown and a white—great to add subtle tones into your drawings. Also included are three compressed charcoal blocks that smudge beautifully and can achieve rich depth. Note that unlike other brands, Derwent designates its charcoal by shade rather than by the standard grading scale for hardness.
Royal & Langnickel Essentials Charcoal Sketching Set
This is a great basic starter set for those on a tight budget. While not made of the highest-quality charcoal, the tools offer an introduction to lots of charcoal types, and the low price means you won’t feel too bad if you accidentally break one—which is likely if you’re a newcomer to charcoal. Packed in a handy tin are six compressed charcoal sticks that deliver pleasing gray hues; three woodless charcoal pencils that can create strong, dark lines; and six compressed charcoal sticks that are soft and easy to smudge and blend. You also get four vine charcoal sticks to familiarize yourself with a more brittle, delicate form and three blending stumps.
Cretacolor Black & White Drawing Set
Made in Vienna, the implements in this set will satisfy artists seeking more sustainable products. They’re made with no rainforest woods or toxins in a process that doesn’t compromise on quality. Artist-grade charcoal appears in myriad forms, from a trio of compressed black charcoal (in soft, medium, and hard) to two white charcoal sticks with square ends. A highlight is the Nero art stick, an oil-based charcoal pencil that can produce permanent, deep-black lines. This set also comes with chalk pencils, chalk oil pencils, and pastels, making it a particularly good choice for those who want to mix their drawing media.
TOP OF THE LINE
Faber-Castel Pitt Charcoal Set
Faber-Castel’s Pitt charcoal is natural, which means it doesn’t have any added fillers or binders, and is incredibly intense. You’ll get to experience the top-grade stuff in diverse ways with this set, which includes three charcoal pencils that are soft yet lay down deep and dark strokes; three compressed charcoal pencils that offer even deeper black marks; and eight charcoal sticks of different sizes. You also receive eight compressed charcoal sticks to work with. These are rectangular rather than round like most sticks, which makes them more comfortable to hold. Made of a combination of charcoal and soot, they produce a unique black that is very blendable.