UPDATED (ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 28, 2020 6:29 PM)
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Compressed charcoal can be intimidating. Composed of powdered charcoal held together by a binder, these dense sticks don’t look easy to master, but with practice they can yield a wonderful variety of tones and lines. Short and slim, these pieces are typically slightly harder than vine and willow charcoal (which can be quite brittle), so they can be used for more intense marks. Whether you’re dipping your toe into the medium or exploring new brands, our picks will help you decide which is ideal for your needs.
1. General Pencil Compressed Charcoal Sticks
General is a longstanding purveyor of pencils, and its charcoal implements are among the most consistent in quality and performance. These rectangular sticks perform well on many paper types, producing uniform, dark lines that blend and smudge nicely. They come in a comfortable, three-inch length and can tolerate the pressure of being sharpened to a fine point for greater precision. You get four sticks in this set, including 2B, 4B, and 6B grades, and each is packaged separately to safeguard against damage.
2. Quartet Alphacolor Soft Pastels
Alphacolor compressed charcoal manages to be both soft and dense, making it excellent at blending and brushing. They produce a range of tones, all the way to the deepest, richest black. Their softness makes them better suited for shading than for drawing clean lines.
3. School Smart Compressed Charcoal Sticks
School Smart’s charcoal sticks are an economical option for the classroom or for artists who aren’t ready to commit to more costly, professional-quality products. For a fraction of the cost per stick of the other sets, this one offers a dozen fine charcoal sticks that leave bold, black, lasting marks. The hardness is not specified, but they perform similarly to charcoal with a soft- to medium-grade firmness.
4. Derwent Compressed Charcoal Blocks
Comfortable and durable, Derwent’s sticks are excellent tools for shading. Unlike other brands, Derwent designates its charcoal by shade rather than by the standard grading scale for hardness. This set includes six blocks (just under 3 inches long) of light, medium, and dark shades that smudge beautifully while maintaining subtle tones. Even the darkest block is closer to dark gray than to black, but this can be advantageous for creating shadows and achieving rich depth.
5. Faber-Castel Compressed Charcoal Sticks
Faber-Castell’s sticks are round rather than rectangular, which makes them more comfortable to hold, although you’ll have to be a bit more careful when setting them down so they don’t roll off a table and break. They are made of a mixture of charcoal and soot, which results in a deep black color that can be harder to achieve with other brands. This three-pack of sticks is of a soft grade that lays down uniform, clean lines and is very blendable.