How to Draw a Charcoal Landscape

Art EducationBrigida Swanson
How to draw a charcoal landscape drawing tutorial, with educator downloads

Today we'll draw a mountain landscape in charcoal from observation. For this project, you'll want to find a location in nature where you can see far into the distance. I'm going to draw the foothills outside of Seattle with Mt. Rainier along the horizon.

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

For this drawing, you'll need the following: a sheet of white charcoal paper, scrap drawing paper, vine charcoal, compressed charcoal, white chalk and a kneaded eraser. It’s also helpful to have a paper towel and to wear an apron since this project tends to get a bit messy.

Step 2: Experiment with Materials

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

On your scrap drawing paper, practice making marks with the different tools you’ll be using. Vine charcoal is very thin, so go ahead and break a stick into a size that works best for your hand. Hold the vine charcoal at an angle and gently sketch a line on your paper. Use your fingertip to test how easily it blends. If you're sensitive to the feel of charcoal on your fingertip, you can blend with a piece of paper towel or a blending stick instead. I find that my fingers work best, though. You can also try using the charcoal on its side to shade in a larger space. 

Next, test out the compressed charcoal. Press very lightly for your first line. What a difference from the vine charcoal, huh? Vine charcoal is usually the burnt twigs of plants like willow, and creates a soft gray to black color. Compressed charcoal is like a whole bunch of the vine charcoal pressed together with a binder and it creates a deep black color. Try blending the compressed charcoal with your fingertip. It will have a slightly different feel than the vine charcoal and can overpower everything if you're not careful. We'll use this material at the very end of this project to achieve our darkest areas.

Try layering and blending the white chalk over either the vine or compressed charcoal. This can be used to create highlights in your drawing. You can also use the kneaded eraser to lighten areas or remove some of the vine charcoal. You’ll notice that the eraser doesn’t work as well on the compressed charcoal.

Step 3: Draw Layers of Land

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

Start by coating your paper with white chalk, using a loose and light touch. This will create a softer ground to apply the charcoal. Look carefully at the landscape view in front of you. Squint one eye to get a different perspective on your depth perception or create a viewfinder with your hands to frame the scene. How many layers of land do you see? What hills are closest to you and what's furthest away?

Plan out where each layer will be drawn on your paper. You'll want to start near the bottom of your paper for the hill or mountain that is closest to you. This will be the foreground of your drawing, or the area that's most in front. Draw the general outline of this hill lightly with vine charcoal. You can include some details, but stick more to the contour outline for now. Repeat for the hills or mountains that make up the middle ground, filling the middle of your paper. Decide how high up on your paper you want your background and horizon line, or where the sky meets the earth, to be drawn. I'll draw Mt. Rainier as my top layer and will leave a bit of room for the sky above it.

Step 4: Shade in Aerial Perspective

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

To shade in our drawings, we'll use aerial perspective to increase the sense of depth. Aerial perspective is the concept that as objects get further away from us and closer to the horizon line, they'll be lighter in color and blurrier in detail. That means that the layers of land closest to me and at the bottom of my paper will be the darkest, and Mt. Rainier in the background and top layer of my drawing will be the lightest. Start with your lightest layer at the top and move down.

For the top layer, use a light touch with the vine charcoal and blend it with some white chalk, moving your fingertip in small circles to maintain control over your blending. Repeat for the next few layers, adding more vine charcoal each time. There should be a noticeable difference between each layer of land. Once you reach the bottom layer, go ahead and start to work with the compressed charcoal. Use a very light touch and blend thoroughly. You can always add more layers of the compressed charcoal if you need to, but it's challenging to take away what you’ve already added.

Step 5: Blend and Adjust

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

Continue to blend each layer of land separately, adjusting as needed to achieve a variety of grays and blacks. Try to blend all the way to the edge of each layer so that you can blend in the outline to the rest of the shape. This will give each hill or mountain a more realistic effect. You can also shade the sky at this point. With aerial perspective, the sky will look lightest at the horizon line and will slightly deepen in tone as it reaches the top of your paper. Blend the sky with white chalk and vine charcoal only since it's usually lighter overall than any of the land layers.

Step 6: Add Details

How to draw a charcoal landscape, with downloads for educators

Step back from your drawing and compare it to the real landscape view in front of you. Are there any changes you want to make? If not, start looking for a few details you can add. Textures work well, as do a few strategically placed trees. Remember that the land layers in your foreground will have the most detail since they're closest to you, so focus your attention there. Consider using the white chalk to draw in some of the details. This will provide a bit of contrast and help the details stand out.

Once you come to a stopping point, you can spray your artwork with a spray fixative or hairspray to help seal the charcoal in and prevent it from smudging more. Congratulations on completing your charcoal landscape from observation!

This post contains Amazon affiliate links. These are all favorite drawing products of mine that I used to create this drawing, so I wanted to share them with you. Thank you for your support!