You should experiment with various types of charcoal—compressed, vine, pencil—but you should also familiarize yourself with the range of tools and materials that artists often use with it.
Kneaded erasers—a soft, moldable, gum-like eraser—can help you pick up charcoal particles, create highlights, adjust details, and do some light blending. For smooth blending and creating gradations, you may want to try paper towels, a chamois cloth, blending stumps, and, of course, your fingers.
Considering charcoal’s propensity to grab onto surfaces, you may also want to try out different paper weights and textures, which can dramatically alter your results. The advantage of using rough textured paper, Zanina notes, is that charcoal will take to the surface easily, making the material easier to manipulate as it rests on the page. Any paper with a visible texture suffices, like Canson Mi-Teintes, Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500, Fabriano Tiziano, or any pastel paper.
Alternatively, Maletz recommends using charcoal with soft, smooth, hot-pressed newsprint, as opposed to regular paper. Though newsprint’s cheap quality won’t allow you to erase as easily as high-quality textured paper, its even surface gives you room to practice blending and control. “The smoother the surface, the softer or more delicate the gradations will be,” Maletz explains. “As a beginner, working on a textured paper [can become] a distraction.”
Despite the many options, Maletz insists that what really matters is that students experiment with different materials and explore which combinations best conveys their vision. “The reason that all the different art supplies exist is that all of us have different opinions, and that’s okay,” Maletz muses. “Every single artist has to find their own personal expression.…You need to find what works best for you.”