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.
1. General’s Charcoal Drawing Set
Manufacturing pencils since 1889, this trusted brand produces drawing tools championed for their smooth, uniform quality. These charcoal pencils have less drag than our other picks, and they take to blending very nicely. This set includes one 2B, one 4B, and one 6B pencil, plus a white charcoal pencil and a good-quality kneaded eraser. These softer leads are perfect for creating rich lines and shadows, while the white pencil is satisfying to use to create highlights. This is a great set for shading, with durable pencils that 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.
2. Derwent Charcoal Pencils
Derwent’s pencils are slightly scratchier than General’s, but because they aren’t as soft, you can produce cleaner lines that aren’t as 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. The differences among them are clear, which means you get an excellent variety of tones to work with. Encased in cedar, these are relatively resistant to breaking.
3. Sunshilor Charcoal Pencils
These charcoal pencils don’t have the same pedigree as our other picks, but they do the job well and are more cost-effective. You get a dozen pencils in this set—six soft, four medium, and two hard, all clearly labeled. With a durable wood frame, these are less likely to break than General’s and Derwent’s pencils, but the charcoal is also harder and presents fewer subtle differences between grades. Artists working with charcoal pencils for the first time may want to try these to get a feel for the medium before upgrading.
4. Mont Marte Woodless Charcoal Pencils
Rather than wood, these hexagonal pencils are encased in lacquer. This coating ensures clean handling; some artists find that lacquer offers better control and more comfort than wood, particularly when it comes to creating uniform shading and broad strokes. These pencils are also a little easier to sharpen than wooden ones, although care is still required when doing so. This set includes three charcoal pencils in soft, medium, and hard grades. The variation is subtle, but they all produce dark lines that are easy to erase.
5. Royal & Langnickel Small Tin Charcoal Set
Artists who enjoy sketching on the go might enjoy this charcoal drawing set, which packs a variety of charcoal forms in a convenient, 7½-by-4½-inch tin. It includes three charcoal pencils, one woodless graphite pencil, four compressed charcoal sticks, and four pieces of good-quality, soft vine charcoal. The pencils come unsharpened, so you’ll have to provide your own sharpener before getting started (it’s best to do some research to find the most charcoal-friendly one). You’ll have a pick of soft, medium, and hard grades, which do show distinct differences. This is an excellent choice for charcoal artists who like experimenting.