Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.
Using Charcoal to Draw Portraits
I’ve been drawing for several decades now and I am still learning new things. The face has so many planes and shapes that each one presents its own challenges and learning opportunities. When I first went to college in my early twenties I was instructed to buy charcoal, but because we did very little work in it and because it is so messy, I never picked it up again—until, that is, very recently. There is a trick to charcoal and I’m going to share some of that here.
7 Tips for Drawing With Tricky Charcoal
- Consider the hardness of your charcoal.
- Use a kneaded gum eraser.
- Sharpen your charcoal correctly.
- Use good quality references.
- Try cheap blue paper.
- Get going with blocking.
- Challenge yourself.
I can always paint very well with my eyes, but with my hands it doesn’t always work out.
— Kathe Kollwitz
1. Consider the Hardness of Your Charcoal
Charcoal has many grades and softnesses just like lead pencils. The charcoal pencils are labeled according to their softness or hardness. This is created by compressing the charcoal with a mixture of clay. The more clay in the charcoal, the harder the pencil will be. Conversely, the less clay, the softer the charcoal in the pencil.
The H signifies hardness or clay content and the B signifies softness or charcoal content. So an HB pencil has equal clay and charcoal and makes a crisp fine line but doesn’t get very black. A 2B pencil has twice as much charcoal and is a bit softer and blacker but not as dark and soft and the 4B or the 6B.
Also, there is extremely soft charcoal called vine charcoal which also comes in hard, medium soft, and soft. This vine charcoal doesn’t even have wood around it. It is special in that the lines are not dark black even though it’s so soft. The lines made with vine charcoal are so light and soft you can practically erase them with your finger rubbed across the paper.
2. Use a Kneaded Gum Eraser
To erase charcoal on paper is very difficult. You can’t use regular pink or vinyl erasers with it, which only smudge the charcoal. You want to get a kneaded gum eraser and to use it you do as the name says; you knead it with your fingers. Like pulling taffy, you pull and fold, pull and fold until it has a lighter color. Each time you knead the eraser it makes a “clean” spot that will pick up the charcoal better.
You don’t rub the kneaded gum eraser over the paper; you dab it to take off the charcoal marks. This works best on the vine charcoal marks. Because of this, it is best to have all the drawing sketched in with vine charcoal, and only when it is just the way you want do you go over it with the charcoal pencils. I always start with the HB or 2B because if I should decide I want to change a line later, the HB and 2B are much easier to pull up with the eraser than the softer, darker, 4B and 6B.
3. Sharpen Your Charcoal Correctly
Next comes the sharpening. In my early days in school, no one mentioned that the pencils cannot be put into a pencil sharpener because it eats charcoal. You must sharpen the pencils with a knife and sandpaper. I use an Exacto knife and fine sandpaper but you can buy specialty knives and sandpaper in art stores if you want. Watch my video I made of how to sharpen charcoal pencils.
Also to get the most out of the charcoal pencil you want at least half an inch of wood carved away from the charcoal. This can't be done with a pencil sharpener. A knife is needed.
Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.
— Paul Klee
4. Use Good Quality References
The next vital piece of advice is to use only photos with good shadows and light source for your reference to draw from. Too often I will get someone sending me terrible photos they want me to draw their precious child or grandchild from. The worst is photos taken with flash. You simply cannot get a good drawing from a photo taken with the flash. That is because the flash blows out all the shadows. Without good shadows and highlights on a face, there is no way to get the feel of the turning of the form. It always comes out flat. Even though the photo looked good to the person, the drawing will look flat and off.
Often when I’m commissioned to do a portrait, I insist on coming to the home and taking my own photos of the subject. That way I know I have some good light source and shadows to work from. Outside indirect light is really good. The sun is the best source of light. When I told that to a friend, she took a couple of photos of her grandson under a tree with mottled light. It was awful because the sunlight was peeking through the leaves and leaving streaks across his face in awkward places.
Also, the best portraits don’t have the subject looking directly at the camera. A three-quarter view is best. In other words, choose a view where you see most of the front of the face and some of the side of the face. This also helps with the turning of the form and placing shadows in a good place. Nothing takes the place of good quality reference photos to work from, except drawing from life. Most of the time drawing a portrait from life isn’t possible because of time constraints.
I’ve been 40 years discovering that the Queen of all colours is black.
— Auguste Renoir
5. Try Cheap Blue Paper
Most drawing paper works fine with charcoal. I especially like to work with middle-toned paper. In my videos I use a cheap blue paper I get by the ream for my “sketches” of children, as well as my practice drawings of hands and feet. It has just the right value even if it is blue. After a while, I don’t see the blue and only see the value. Later I like to dump the color in Photoshop and keep only the black and white of the image. That’s where you see the blue turn into grey and work with the 5-value system.
6. Get Going With Blocking
Start by blocking in the face with the sharpened vine charcoal, sharpened the same way you sharpen the charcoal pencils with the sandpaper. On children’s faces, the eyes are slightly higher on the face than adults and larger. On an adult, the eyes are halfway between the top of the head and the chin.
The nose is always small on a child and grows with age. On an adult, the nose is halfway between the eyes and the chin. The ears can be placed between the eyebrow and the bottom of the nose on the side of the face. The corners of the mouth usually are placed directly down from the pupil of the eye. The bottom of the lip is halfway between the bottom of the nose and the chin. A child’s neck is always shorter than an adult's. If you want to age a child, make the neck longer and the nose larger. These are only guidelines, as every individual has their own special features and facial shape.
7. Challenge Yourself
The rest is the experience. The more you draw, the more experience you get and the better your skill will become. As a weight lifter, lifting heavier and heavier weights, start with small things and work your way up until you can tackle commissions to do portraits for a pretty penny.
If you feel you need work in one area that is weak, do what I did. Give yourself the 100-day challenge and that one thing once a day for 100 days. You can’t help but get better and stronger in your weak area when you do.
People need motivation to do anything. I don’t think human beings learn anything without desperation.
— Jim Carrey
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 28, 2018:
I'm so glad you found it informative. I hoped that would be the case. Informative and entertaining. Thanks for commenting.
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 28, 2018:
I'm not much of an artist, but I'm always fascinated in how things are done, this was very informative.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 15, 2018:
Thank you Carrie. Very sweet of you to say. Thanks for commenting.
Carrie Kelley from USA on September 15, 2018:
Great job with this article and the helpful tips. Your portraits are all beautiful!
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 06, 2018:
Thank you, Ann. I'm so glad you found it inspirational. That was my intent. I hope you do pick it up again and dive in with both feet. Thanks for commenting.
Ann Carr from SW England on September 06, 2018:
I've loved charcoal ever since I first experienced it at school. My mother also took it up at a later age and she was good. I learnt from her too. I still have a tin of graded charcoals, with a gum eraser, but have not done any charcoal drawing for a long time; you've given me the appetite to do some again, so thank you for that.
Charcoal is smooth, it is good to touch and I don't care about getting messy, indeed that's part of using it. I also like the contrast of black and white; the shading is definitely an acquired talent which I haven't mastered yet. Practice makes perfect, as they say!
Lovely hub with some beautiful sketches, Denise.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on September 04, 2018:
Very nice Bede. I have a dear friend who worked that way too. He liked to cover the whole paper with soft charcoal and then draw basically with the eraser. I always admired his work because it was both soft and detailed. I'd love to see some of your creations. I have always believed that God created us in His image, and since He has a creative nature He intended us to have one too. Although few of us have created anything the scope of a planet or galaxy, I like to think we are expressing His nature when we draw and that He smiles when we do! Thanks for commenting.
Bede from Minnesota on September 04, 2018:
Very nice drawings Denise- you can handle faces very well. Many people struggle with getting facial anatomy correct (i.e. one eye is too high or crooked), but it looks like you’ve done your homework.
I’ve been drawing a lot in charcoal this past year, particularly on brown packaging paper. I bought a 4 ft. wide roll. But, my favorite paper for charcoal is blotter paper; printmakers use it for drying prints. It has a nice texture. I cover the whole thing with vine charcoal, lay on my outlines, and then use the kneaded eraser.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on August 29, 2018:
Thank you, Mary. I think they are expressive. I got some nice detail with just black and white on grey paper. I hope you do try it. Let me know what you think. I'd love to see what you come up with. Thanks for commenting.
Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on August 29, 2018:
Thank you so much. I love working on these and it seems a shame to have them sit in corners or behind doors so I write about them and get others to see them that way. The same with the videos on YouTube. I created these tutorials of me drawing which no one seems to watch. So I thought I'd write about them and at least get a few people to watch. Thanks for commenting.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on August 29, 2018:
These are so beautiful. You've encouraged me to try charcoal. They are much more expressive for portraits.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on August 29, 2018:
Oh they are beautiful drawings. I wish I was that talented. Really lovely. =)