The dos and don’ts of smudging charcoal

I have recently read other students’ comments about the OCA’s stance on smudging charcoal as a means of mark-making.  (I have tried to trace where exactly I read this but cannot find the comments so cannot check that they exactly match my own understanding stated here.) I also used smudging of pastel in a recent assignment and commented in my reflection that I realised that I am not supposed to do that.  In the assignment feedback, my tutor wrote: 

“Why did you try to avoid smudging, this could have helped you create a more coherent drawing in terms of relationship between surface and form.”

I wrote to my tutor and mentioned that my understanding was that the OCA frowned on smudging as lazy mark-making.  She contacted an assessor, Richard Liley, at the OCA.  Here is his response (in italics), received by email from my tutor today:


‘All I can think is the student has misinterpreted the guidance for Charcoal – page 20 where it says use this technique with caution as smudges can cover up lack of assurance about line or the flow of tone.



Smudges of course are a vital part of expressive mark making and are essential where they are relevant to context.



 I would refer the student to the following:


  •  that using smudges are appropriate to your intentions
  • enhance the drawing so that it is ‘alive’ and embodies and expresses the  ‘life-energy’ of the maker-the artist
  • Help communicate and express qualities of light and its invisible energy, tone and the material substence of form,volume and surface of object.
  • present the eye with variety and changes of pace and rhythm


Ask the student how they would go about drawing cloud formations showing billowing and movement without the technique of smudging?’



My tutor added: “I think every kind of mark can have something to offer at the appropriate time and place in a drawing. Try to foster the habit of moving back and forth between your intuition and looking critically at what you’ve drawn, you develop a sense for what the drawing needs and what it doesn’t. Only keep what is necessary.” 



8 thoughts on “The dos and don’ts of smudging charcoal

    1. I own and have read Drawing Projects and have found it to be very useful. (I am guessing that you are one of the authors?) I especially liked the format of the book, in which artists talked about their practice, interspersed with activities designed to take relative newbies to drawing – such as me – off in new directions. I used an expressive tone exercise from the book as the basis for a recent assignment (I credited the source in my assignment reflection). I had misinterpreted instructions about the use of charcoal in the OCA course handbook and now feel more inclined to take risks and explore this beautiful medium further. I began with some gestural drawings in a recent post.

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