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Softer than compressed charcoal but generally more brittle as well, willow charcoal and vine charcoal are especially useful for sketching as their marks can be erased with ease. These lightweight sticks are similar—and some brands confusingly describe their products as both—but vine and willow have distinct qualities that make them suited for different types of projects. Willow charcoal, which is made from carbonized natural willow branches, is darker and more forgiving and can produce a range of tones; vine charcoal, made by burning grapevines, comes in shades of gray and is slightly harder. You may want to experiment with both to see which you prefer, and our picks can help you sort through the many options available.
Coates Willow Charcoal
To many artists, the name Coate is synonymous with high-quality willow. Since the 1960s, the P. H. Coate family has been cultivating the shrub in the fertile land of southwest England’s Somerset Levels and producing drawing charcoal following a painstaking process that takes three days. The resulting 6¼-inch-long rods are free of impurities so they feel velvety smooth and produce a deep black color. They are sold in five sizes, from thin (2 to 3 millimeters) to the charmingly named “tree stick” size (roughly 20 millimeters), which is available by the piece. You can also buy a set of 30 assorted pieces that provides a good, basic array for creating both fine and broad lines. Don’t expect them all to look the same: Due to the Coate process, each stick is unique, but they all will give you beautiful marks with distinct texture and softness.
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Grumbacher Vine Charcoal
Although this is vine charcoal, Grumbacher’s product has a natural feel similar to Coates’, with slight variations in the pieces you’ll receive. Each is made by burning hand-selected grapevines at high temperature, and the results come in a range of light to dark grays that maintain their hue regardless of pressure. Free of grit, the sticks are available in just one size but four hardness levels, including extra soft, and are packaged in sets of three. The sticks are very light and brittle, requiring a gentle pressure at most, and can be used to create gorgeous tones for sketching or for underdrawings.
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Winsor & Newton Artists’ Charcoal Packs
Winsor & Newton sells both vine and willow sticks available in packs of three or a dozen and in a range of sizes. These sticks are carefully selected for uniformity and lack of imperfections, then baked to achieve further consistency of body. The resulting charcoal pieces have the same texture throughout so they lay down marks with uniform intensity. The vine charcoal in particular glides across the page to produce very smooth, rich lines that blend very well. The willow can be used to achieve both gentle grays and deep blacks with little effort, and the thin sticks excel at detail work.
General’s Willow Sketching Charcoal
This set is a great choice for those who are new to willow charcoal. It includes five sticks in a nice assortment of sizes to cover all bases: two thin (3 to 4 millimeters), two medium (5 to 6 millimeters) and one thick (7 to 9 millimeters). Also included is a kneaded eraser that you can use not only for correcting your work but also for experimentation with lightening, highlighting, and other subtractive techniques. The sticks are made of pure willow grown in England, then burned and processed to lay down rich black lines.
Conté à Paris Natural Charcoal
These high-quality willow charcoal sticks offer satisfyingly smooth coverage in a soft-medium grade. They lay down rich and dense strokes but also respond well to pressure so you can achieve more subtle, pale grays. This is another good set to purchase if you prefer to draw with uniform charcoal, as pieces are carefully selected for consistency. The packs of five are available in two thicknesses (6 and 11 millimeter). While round sticks are available, Conté also offers a more unusual square-ended version too.