From early cave painters to Pablo Picasso to Robert 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. Vine charcoal is the easiest to erase, making it well suited for quick sketches and planning. Whatever effect you want to achieve through charcoal tools, we can help you find the set that’s best for your needs. Browse our picks below.
1. Castle Art Supplies Graphite Drawing Pencils and Sketch Set
This set has every tool a professional needs while still being fine for beginners. Its 40 pieces include charcoal pencils, wood-encased pastel pencils in four shades, willow charcoal sticks, blending stumps, and a dual-tipped rubber blender. It comes in a convenient case with pop-up sections secured by hidden Velcro strips, making it a great gift for artists wanting to take their drawing practice on the road. Unlike some other sets, this one does not include a sketch pad, but the clever packaging—featuring a five-step tutorial on drawing and blending—makes up for it.
2. General Pencil Charcoal Kit
One of the biggest frustrations of charcoal sketching, especially for those new to the form, is learning to apply enough pressure without breaking your charcoal. This 12-piece set includes six charcoal pencils (in white and black), which are easier to use than delicate compressed charcoal sticks. There are compressed charcoal sticks as well, also in white and black. With a kneaded eraser and sharpener included, this kit puts you well on your way to a basic setup; blending stumps and paper will need to be purchased separately. Also of note is the included “carbon sketch” pencil, which blends graphite and carbon for a tool that is much richer than standard graphite but retains some of graphite’s sharpness and erasability.
3. Royal & Langnickel Advanced Charcoal Art Set
This inexpensive set contains three charcoal pencils, four charcoal sticks, four charcoal vines, and one graphite pencil. The charcoal sticks are soft and easy to smudge and blend, while the black pencil creates strong, dark lines that can’t be achieved with standard pencils. The hard-compressed charcoal stick leaves a gray hue under pressure, while the soft stick delivers an intense black mark that lends an interesting depth. A few caveats: The soft pencil snaps under pressure, so be gentle when sharpening. The vine charcoal is similarly brittle, so again, handle with care.
4. Prismacolor Premier Charcoal Sketch Set
For those who want a complete set but don’t need something as comprehensive as our top pick, Prismacolor’s entry is a good, rounded option. Including vine, compressed, and pencil charcoal in a range of hardnesses, it offers plenty of sketching options. For tools, it includes all the basics: a steel pencil sharpener, a blending stump, and a sanding board that can be used to hone the pencils or compressed charcoal or even to clean the included erasers.
5. Cretacolor Noir Charcoal Drawing Set
This Austrian brand is eco-conscious and offers a drawing set with more than just the basics. With three charcoal pencils (hard, medium, and soft), hard and soft compressed charcoal, a black chalk pencil, sketching coal, vine charcoal, and a blending stick, you’ll have everything you need for every style of charcoal drawing. It also includes two Nero charcoal pencils, oil-based tools that provide the dark, velvety tones of charcoal with significantly less dust and mess.