Drawing With Charcoal: Sand Dollars

Charcoal is a great art medium to introduce with children. You can draw anything with charcoal – people, landscapes, animals, plants, buildings – but remember that the finished product will only have dark shades for colouring, with highlights of lighter areas. It’s great for showing the contrast between light and dark areas and the finished product can be quite striking.

I find asking children to draw from real-life provides more attention to detail so for this lesson, I chose to bring in my collection of sand dollars for the students to study and draw. This lesson was done with grade 5s, but I think any age can enjoy working with charcoal.

When drawing with charcoal; expect some a lot of mess! There is often fine dust from the charcoal pencils so it is best to have newspapers under your work surface. And your hands will definitely get dirty! If you don’t have soap and water nearby try to have some baby wipes handy to clean hands.

Study Your Subject

Once your work area is prepared, ask the students to take some time to really observe the objects that they will be drawing. I handed out a few sand dollars to each student. We examined the shape and noticed that they were not perfect circles. They were also not perfectly flat and instead raised up from the edges to be thicker in the middle. We noticed that they were not smooth but instead had fine bumps and lines and that some had cracks and little pieces missing. Each one was unique.

Working With Charcoal

There are many different types of charcoal to use. The school had a mix of both charcoal pencils and sticks so we used both. We used regular construction paper for this project.

I don’t like to give a lot of direct instruction with art lessons, preferring instead, to allow free exploration and discovery. I did, however, want to give them a few tips about working with charcoal as it was a first for most of them.

  1. You will get messy; it is inevitable
  2. Be mindful of your hand resting on your paper as your work will smudge easily. You can use a paper to cover finished areas that you don’t want to smudge.
  3. Use light pressure. Different pressure while drawing will produce different values. I cautioned the students not to press too hard. Start light, add more pressure slowly as needed.
  4. Smudge and spread the charcoal to create lighter values using a blending stick, a tissue, your finger…
  5. You can use a kneaded eraser to erase or lighten small sections to make highlights.

Finishing Your Work

Normally, charcoal works need to be “sealed” so that the dust won’t rub off and smudge and ruin the drawing. Craft stores will have a spray fixative for this purpose. I did not have this available so I just sent the students home with their work sandwiched between two pieces of paper.