Love charcoal but hate the mess? Pick up a charcoal pencil, which is composed of compressed charcoal inside a protective layer, typically wood. Suitable for drawing, sketching, or smudging, a charcoal pencil offers a familiar feel and provides you with a lot of control over your marks. Even in this more structured form, it can be manipulated to create an array of rich and dark tones, as well as thin lines and bold ones. Our picks range from beginner to artist-grade sets. Remember that charcoal, even in pencil form, is delicate, so these can still break if dropped. And sharpen with care.
General’s Charcoal Kit
This trusted brand, which has been manufacturing pencils since 1889, produces drawing tools championed for their smooth, uniform quality. Its charcoal pencils have little drag, take to blending very nicely, and are affordable. This set includes lots of options to achieve different shading effects. You get one HB, one 2B, and two 6B pencils as well as one 5B white charcoal pencil to create highlights. And that’s not all—compressed charcoal pieces, sketch pencils, and a kneaded eraser round out the set. The pencils are durable and won’t easily break in your hand. Sharpening them is another story: They can snap in a hand sharpener, so it’s wise to invest in a compatible sharpener or keep them pointy with an X-Acto knife.
Purchase: General’s Charcoal Kit, $11.99 on Amazon
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Derwent Charcoal Pencils
Derwent’s pencils are slightly scratchier than General’s, but because they aren’t as soft, they produce cleaner lines that are less susceptible to smudging. You can buy them in packs of four or six, both of which include soft, medium, and hard pencils as well as a white highlighting pencil. (Unlike other brands, Derwent relies on its own system of hardness grades.) The differences among them are clear, which means you get an excellent variety of tones to work with. Encased in a round, 8-millimeter barrel made of cedar, these are comfortable to hold and relatively resistant to breaking.
Purchase: Derwent Charcoal Pencils, $9.00 on Amazon
Staedtler Mars Lumograph Charcoal Pencils
Staedtler’s incredibly affordable charcoal pencils are a great option for artists who are just beginning to use the medium. This set comes with everything you need to explore shading, blending, and subtractive techniques. Included are four pencils—2B, 4B, 6B, and a soft white chalk pencil—as well as a pencil sharpener, kneadable eraser, and paper stump for clean smudging. The pigments show up well on light paper and can be blended effortlessly with your fingers.
Purchase: Staedtler Mars Lumograph Charcoal Pencils, TKPRICE on Dick Blick
TOP OF THE LINE
Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Charcoal Pencil Set
Perfect for the seasoned charcoal user, these artist-grade pencils lay down rich colors with a satinlike finish. The set of six pencils is ideal for creating beautiful tonal studies, as it includes not only black, charcoal, and white chalk pencils but also sepia dark, sepia light, and red chalk pencils based on natural pigments. Each is highly pigmented and buttery smooth, showing off excellent blending characteristics on both dark and light surfaces. Draw and contour to your heart’s content.
Purchase: Koh-I-Noor Gioconda Charcoal Pencil Set, $13.75 on Dick Blick
Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Charcoal Pencil Set
If you’re looking for charcoal pencils only, consider this set. It’s less expensive, on a per-pencil basis, than Derwent’s product, and although Winsor & Newton isn’t as well known for its charcoal as for its paints, these are fairly good-quality pencils. You get two each of 2B, 4B, and 6B grades, each of which blends and smudges very well. The variance in degree of hardness between pencils is not as stark as Derwent’s, however. They are encased in a barrel made of sustainably grown linden wood, which contributes to their comfortable handling and ease of sharpening.
Purchase: Winsor & Newton Studio Collection Charcoal Pencil Set, TKPRICE on Michaels