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Just a quick question since I've been drawing for a long time:

Do I really need that white charcoal pencil? How do you use it? Same as charcoal?

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  • It is good for highlights, and can do well on darker paper. – Lyssagal Jan 27 at 6:27
  • I have done drawings using white charcoal on black paper and it definitely has a different aesthetic than black on white/toned paper. – agarza Jan 28 at 18:47
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+50

No, you don't really need that white charcoal :) However, it can be a very useful and fun to work with.

White charcoal can be used to create highlights in drawings, and is particularly effective in combination with dark charcoal. It is often used in academic drawing when drawing from a real-life references, like nudes:

Cropped upper part of a model drawing
Pierre-Paul Prud'hon - Standing female nude, seen from behind - 1810s

Notice the hue of the paper: white charcoal is naturally especially useful when used on non-white paper, preferably dark paper, as mentioned in the comments by users Lyssagal and agarza, or, when used in combination with charcoal, a hue in between white and black (medium greys, often slightly coloured, in blue, green, or yellow, are quite common).

Using this approach, you can use white charcoal as an opposite of charcoal, in the sense that you build your subject up from the illuminated aspects instead of its shadows, as one usually does using charcoal. Together, especially on toned paper, these two complimentary approaches give you more freedom, a larger tonal depth, and a quicker method of working, as you can correct most (minor) errors on-the-fly.

You can actually create your own toned paper by crushing some charcoal and rubbing it on a paper sheet using the palm of your hand (if necessary, you can use tissue or cloth to even it out more).

Unlike charcoal, white charcoal is harder to erase, and less prone to blurring as regular charcoal is (see the note below for the reason).


Note that - unless you're talking about binchō-tan - 'white charcoal' is obviously a misnomer: charcoal, from 'charred coal', is the product of burning wood.
This so-called "white charcoal" may be similar in character and regularly used in conjunction with charcoal, but is a pigment combined with a binding agent, often a (compressed) soft pastel. Binchō-tan is indeed (seemingly) white charcoal, but not suitable for drawing (and would probably appear grey).

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  • How about drawing a cat? the hairs are white, the kneaded eraser won't be able to mark them as well as the white pencil – Isaac750 Jan 29 at 20:02
  • Yes, that's a perfect example for a situation where white charcoal is very helpful: the lines will be fine, and can be added with quick gestures, making sure they're nicely curved. – Joachim Jan 29 at 20:13
  • One thing to remember when doing a full drawing using mostly "white charcoal" is your brain will have to think in reverse. What do I mean? Whether pencil or regular charcoal, you are drawing the shadows. When using white charcoal, you are actually drawing the light hitting the subject. That threw me for a loop when I first started doing white on black drawings. – agarza Jan 29 at 20:27
  • oooh🤯, ok, so just the light. But do you blend it as I do with charcoal? – Isaac750 Jan 29 at 21:06
  • @Isaac750 You can, but as I wrote white charcoal is less susceptible to blending, as it has a higher concentration of the binding agent (rather, unlike charcoal, it has a binding agent). – Joachim Jan 29 at 22:17

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