3 Unconventional Ways to Use Charcoal Brushes in Illustrator

3 Unconventional Ways to Use Charcoal Brushes in Illustrator

In Adobe Illustrator, charcoal brushes are like the black licorice of brushes.

Only a few people truly enjoy them, but the folks that do, really enjoy them (even though it can kill you*).

In this article, I'll share three secret ways you can use charcoal brushes in Adobe Illustrator to bring grainy, organic magic to your work.

If you're encouraged to try out the techniques below — grab our VectorSketch charcoal brushes for Adobe Illustrator.

The pack includes 40 historically inspired charcoal pencil brushes that utilize no-stretch technology so your charcoal brush strokes always look perfect.

View VectorSketch for Adobe Illustrator

Secret #1. Use the Right STroke

Do you sketch your work out on paper or in some other digital medium like the Procreate app and then import your work into Illustrator to build with the Pen Tool?

Try shrinking down the gritty strokes of a charcoal pack like VectorSketch and using them for your line work. This trick will inject your strokes with a bit of grit and still keep the benefits of 100% vector art.

I started with a piece of 1950s commercial art from an old catalog. First I scanned the work. Then I traced it with my tablet. Next I experimented with VectorSketch's large selection of charcoal brushes to find the perfect gritty line.

Secret #2. Masks are Good

Here's an easy way to give your typography a unique effect using Illustrator brushes.

  1. Choose a bold, thick font (you want plenty of space to show off your velvety, charcoal textures).
  2. Duplicate the font and convert to outlines (Type > Create Outlines).
  3. Grab your favorite vector charcoal brush and start building up shading (try using a gray and setting the Blending Mode to Multiply).
  4. Once you're happy with your shading work place the outlined type on top of the texture and create a Clipping Mask (Object > Clipping Mask > Make).

Hint: This works extremely well with a 3D font or layered type system. The font used below has been lost to time but our Parts & Labor font is an excellent layered font for the job.

Secret #3. Get the Blend Right

I discovered this little trick late one night after scanning 40+ charcoal samples and vectorizing them.

I chose a willow stick sample I had made and made a few random lines with my mouse.

When I applied the charcoal brush it was blown out and looked like garbage. But when I lowered the opacity and set the brush to Multiply in my Blending Modes I was pleasantly surprised.


My charcoal brush was now transformed into a watercolor brush! Now use it as a watercolor brush! Layer your strokes to create different shades.

Conclusion: Charcoal Should Be Abused

If I was your art teacher, I'd tell you to experiment with your tools. Your creative voice comes from departing from the path of your peers.

    1. Invest in a good pack of brushes or textures for Illustrator.
    2. Pretend like you don't know how to use your resources.
    3. Except bad results but look out for the diamonds.

Need Charcoal brushes?

Great news, it's for sale! Grab VectorSketch now and get 40 charcoal and pencils brushes inspired by real 1950s source material. Plus, it's only $19! For less than the price of getting a pizza delivered you can have your own set of lovingly made charcoal brushes to experiment with forever!

Looking for other unconventional ways to use digital tools and textures in your work. Consider the following articles.

*Black licorice contains the compound glycyrrhizin, a sweetening compound. Glycyrrhizin causes potassium levels in the body to fall resulting in abnormal heart rhythms and congestive heart failure.