Can You Use Charcoal on Smooth Paper?

The paper you choose to work with is a pivotal part of your charcoal drawing. There are a bunch of brands out there and for those just starting out, it can seem confusing. First, you’ll find that from artist to artist and even down to piece to piece, there’s a raging debate over what type of paper works best. One of the more prevailing debates is if you can or should use smooth paper, followed really closely by what techniques you can use.

Of course you can use charcoal on smooth paper. You can use charcoal on pretty much anything you want, technically. Now, if you want to, is where you’re getting into the nitty gritty of things. (Pun intended.)

Personally, my preference is a more medium grade paper with a little bit of tooth to grab things. When I use smooth paper, it’s typically with graphite, rather than charcoal purely owing to one big issue: the mess.

If you use charcoal on smooth paper, and you want a clean finish that doesn’t require a lot of going back, erasing and blotting: tap it, don’t blow it. There are two reasons that this is so for a lot of people: Blowing is messy, not just for your working area, but for the piece itself. If you’re working with a lot of smooth papers, you’re also working with fairly delicate papers that don’t withstand a lot of erasing. One slip and you’ll smudge blown charcoal right where you don’t want it.

Now, this is just a note for beginners because as an old art instructor once told me: learn the rules so that you can break them more effectively.

As you look around, you’re sure to find artists whose methods don’t go along with what you’ve been taught. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, necessarily, but it may mean they’ve come to a point where their pieces utilize methods that may differ. This is a really important thing to note for the student artist because the internet offers us a huge opportunity to take a look at the way that others’ practice their art.

If I’m using smooth paper, what is best?

I’m going to have to disagree with the last post about what paper is best, if you want to work with smooth paper. I’ve never been fond of Stonehenge for charcoal, for the same reasons our commenter mentioned- it is fantastic when using a fixative, but without, it is a bit difficult to get a good expression. What I have is a huge stockpile of Fabriano Ingres 600. I mention this purely for preference sake: because if you don’t have a stockpile, you might not be able to get it. it was discontinued a while back.

For a student artist my recommendation is always going to be the Strathmore 500 series. This is because when you’re just starting out, there is really not a better paper to get the basics of rendering down pat on. A lot of people feel like you can’t get a clear and smooth modeling with this, but I disagree. It takes patience and method- and it teaches you to take your time by way of enabling you to slowly work a very highly sharpened charcoal with the weave. This is one of the most basic techniques you should learn and will enable you to work with charcoal on pretty much any paper after. Strathmore’s another one that I’ve had some issue with getting the charcoal to fix, but, keeping your touch light and your charcoal sharp is again important. That is another one of my old instructor’s mantras coming through and it has served me very well over the years.

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