Charcoal Over Pen and Ink

I’ve recently begun exploring an ingenious, tried-and-true technique for creating charcoal landscapes imbued with subtle realism. An initial rendering of details in fine-tipped black pen readily produces a painterly effect, strikingly akin to a watercolor wash, when covered in unhesitating swathes of expertly-blended charcoal. The artist’s impulse within the charcoal medium is instantly loosened and freed, and the composition can be pursued more expressively once secured with strong but unobtrusive foundational detail. An array of values can be coaxed to the surface after the main linear marks have been described, and the result is nothing short of elegant.

Getting Started

To begin, choose a fine black pen, a piece of very soft charcoal, and paper with a fair amount of tooth. Learn more about paper. With your pen, sketch out the bones of your chosen composition: predominant geometric shapes, small points of intricate detail, and everything in between—anything you feel requires underlying emphasis. Pay attention, even at this stage, to the relationship between light and shadow, but resist the temptation to draw too much. Your additions in charcoal will add far more in terms of value, life, volume and contrast. After you’ve set down the initial lines and marks, determine the source of light enlivening the composition, and add a bit of shading or hatching in pen to underscore darker areas. When you’ve drawn enough, lay your pen aside permanently, as you will not be able to attain good effect if you attempt its repeated use later, over charcoal.

Adding the Charcoal

As you begin to apply charcoal gestures to the paper, reference the source and direction of light once again, and be bold in your decisions. Start with pieces of sky or distant background, and work from top to bottom, employing the side of your charcoal as well as the end. Apply positive value, setting down the darkest marks next to areas of greatest illumination. Soften the charcoal shading, which may appear artificial, overbearing or too dark at first glance, with your fingertip, a soft cloth, or a chamois. Any marks not meeting your approval can be fully lifted out through blending or erasure; nothing is ever lost or ruined in charcoal. Fill spaces, set down value, and keep a light, loose hand, softening and blending as you go.
Landscapes: Charcoal Over Pen and Ink

Vincent van Gogh (Drawing, Charcoal, pen, brown ink, heightened with white)
Museum Boymans van Beuningen - Rotterdam, The Netherlands


Be spontaneous and expressive. Break the lines you initially recorded with washes of tone. Create a connection between the two mediums. Deepen any lines that need to be darkened, and lift out value with your cloth, fingertip or eraser to create lit areas. Your work in pen will begin to show through ever so subtly, effectively anchoring the composition and transmitting almost hyper-realistic detail to your landscape. Experiment, practice, and have fun!


  • Would appreciate seeing a demonstration of this technique. Thanks.

    pete windle
  • Please…Would like to know more of Charcoal/Pen & Ink renderings and detailed info regarding this subject.
    Robert M.
    April 23, 2024

    Robert McKeon

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