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How to Draw a Still Life With Charcoal on Toned Paper

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This is a charcoal still life drawing on toned paper.

This is a charcoal still life drawing on toned paper.

Capturing Light and Shadow With Charcoal

This article is designed to give artists background information on how to create a still life in charcoal that has a sensitive representation of dramatic light and shadow. I will explain how to create and gather the materials and supplies needed to create the drawing and give advice about how to set up the still life using everyday items. I will give pointers on how best to arrange the items in the still life set-up to create an interesting and beautiful composition.

This project is easy to complete and does not require exotic or expensive materials. As you read this information, I hope you will agree that creating tonal drawings using this method is a great way to explore and enhance one's creativity and drawing skills.

Background Information and Key Terms

Before we jump into creating the drawing, we need to clarify some terms that you might not be familiar with.

What Does Still Life Mean?

Our subject matter for this drawing is going to be a "still life," which refers to an arrangement of inanimate objects, presented in a fashion that is pleasing to the eye. We will discuss a bit about how to compose this arrangement later in the article. The objects you choose for your still life are entirely up to you. You may wish to group objects with a similar shape or size, but it is preferable to include a variety of shapes and sizes. The items you choose can be ordinary household objects (pitchers, vases, flowers, fruit, etc.), really there are no rules here—just find things that appeal to you.

Defining Tone and Value

Our drawing will be a "tonal" or "value" drawing, meaning we will focus on portraying the light and shadows that are created when we shine a dramatic light on the collection of objects in our still-life arrangement. While we will be using lines to render parts of the drawing, we will be primarily interested in portraying the still life by showing light and shadow as we see it in our arrangement. The terms "tone" and "value" refer to the lightness and darkness of objects (and the highlights and shadows created when a light source hits these objects) in a drawing.

Working With Angles to Find Highlights and Shadow

To set up the still life, experiment with various arrangements of the objects you have chosen until the composition satisfies you. Also, take the time to try casting your light source from various angles until you have a variety of highlights and shadows that pleases you. It is usually preferred to have the light cast at a "severe" angle to give the arrangement distinct and dramatic shadows.

Charcoal Drawing Supplies and Materials

Before you begin, you will need to compile some supplies and materials. It's best to get everything you need to complete the drawing before you begin. That way you won't need to interrupt your work to track something down.

  • Still Life Objects: First I would suggest you get together those still life objects you wish to draw. Take some time to work through the arrangement and make sure that it is configured in a way that is pleasing to your eye. Make sure that you don't have too many objects. If you have too many items, your drawing will be overcrowded and you will be overwhelmed when you attempt to draw it. Five or six items should suffice.
  • Light Source: Another tool you will need is a light source. I just use a utility light we have in the garage. It is nice because it has a clamp on it so I can attach it at any angle I wish and direct the light onto the still life as I see fit.
  • Charcoal: Now let's turn our attention to the drawing materials you will need. Obviously, you will need charcoal—I like vine charcoal, but any form will work. Whatever form of charcoal you choose, make sure it is of the "medium" or "soft" variety. You will also need a stick of white charcoal.
  • Eraser: You will need an eraser—here I recommend a kneaded eraser. It's great because it is flexible and can be made into any shape you need.
  • Paper: Purchase paper that is specifically made for use with charcoal. Charcoal paper has a rougher texture than many types—artists describe this roughness as "tooth." This roughness, or tooth, helps grab and hold onto the particles of the charcoal as you apply it rather than simply falling from the paper as dust.
  • Tissue: When you make the toned paper for the drawing, you will need some facial tissue. This will be used to rub charcoal particles into the surface of the paper to create an even, medium gray tone over the entire drawing surface.
  • Blending Stumps (Tortillions): A related item you will need is blending stumps or tortillions. These are sticks of rolled paper artists use to help them blend their pencil or charcoal marks, allowing for smooth transitions from lighter applications of pencil or charcoal to darker. These tortillions are available at any art supply store.
  • Aerosol Fixative: Finally, you will want some aerosol fixative for when you have completed your drawing. The fixative is sprayed onto the completed work to help keep it from smudging. Untreated charcoal drawings are very vulnerable to smearing and smudging when handled. The fixative helps lock the charcoal into place on the paper. This is not foolproof—the drawing will still smudge if treated roughly, but the damage will be reduced. When you get to this step, make sure you do the spraying out of doors on a calm, warm day. The fixative has a very strong, chemical odor, so you don't want to use it indoors.

Quick Materials Checklist

  • Charcoal
  • Eraser
  • White Charcoal
  • Charcoal Paper
  • Facial Tissues (Kleenex)
  • Blending Stumps (Tortillions)
  • Fixative

How to Creating Toned Paper for Charcoal Drawings

Before we begin our drawing, we must make the toned paper upon which this technique is based. This is a simple, but messy process, so don't wear your nice clothes during this step (it's probably preferable to avoid wearing your best clothes during the whole drawing process). Charcoal drawing is not a pristine enterprise, so be prepared by wearing suitable clothes and set up your workspace in a place that can be subjected to a bit of charcoal dust without serious repercussions.

  1. To begin, decide the size of the drawing you want to create. You can outline this area with a pencil to define the dimensions, or you can "eyeball" it. Use the side of a piece of your charcoal to smear a layer of charcoal over the entire area you've determined for your drawing. This initial layer of charcoal will be a bit uneven, but we will correct this in the next step. Your goal in this step is to lay down a basic layer that is of a medium gray tone (neither too light nor too dark).
  2. The next step is to use facial tissue to smooth out any unevenness in the tone over the surface of the paper. Your goal here is to get the medium gray tone to be uniform over the whole area of the toned paper. You may have to apply more charcoal in certain areas and rework the smoothing with the tissue in order to achieve this uniformity. Once you are satisfied with the overall tone of the paper and the even gray surface of the entire drawing area, you are ready to create your drawing.

Step-by-Step Charcoal Drawing Technique

Now that your still life is set up and your materials are gathered, it's time to begin to create your drawing.

1. Render Shapes

To begin, use black charcoal to begin to render the major shapes in the still life. Begin with large shapes, asking yourself "comparison" questions as you draw the components of the still life. Is this item bigger or smaller than the first item you have drawn? Is it higher or lower on the picture plane? Is this item round, angular, tall, short, or skinny? The questions can be numerous and each one will help you make an accurate drawing.

Do not get bogged down in detail—just try to capture the major shapes, sizes, and spatial relationships between the objects. If you make a "mistake" in your drawing at this point, do not erase it, but rather redraw the lines so that you are more satisfied with them.

2. Define Highlights and Shadows

Once you have the still life drawn to your satisfaction, it is time to begin to define the highlights and shadows you see in the arrangement. As you toned your paper in the earlier step, you were creating the medium gray value for the still life.

3. Assess Value Deviations

Now you will turn your attention to any value that deviates from this medium gray. This will apply to both areas that are darker than the medium gray and to areas that are lighter. The darker areas will be rendered with an application of the black charcoal.

The charcoal will be applied in heavier amounts where the still life is darkest and with less pressure and charcoal in areas that are lighter than those darkest parts. To achieve a gradual transition from lighter to darker areas, you can use your blending stumps to soften the transition areas.

You must resist the urge to blend the charcoal with your fingers. Our hands have oils that naturally occur in our skin. By using your fingers to blend the charcoal you are rubbing these oils into your drawing. While it will usually not be apparent initially, over time those oils will begin to show in the drawing and compromise the long-term quality of your drawing.

4. Indicate Light Source and Highlights

The next step is to indicate where the light is striking the objects in the still life. These areas will be lighter than the medium gray your toned paper provides. To create these highlights you will be using your eraser to lift some of the charcoal back out of the toned paper. You will see that you can remove most, but not all, of the charcoal. It's fun and unexpected to use an eraser as a drawing tool, and for this project, it is a very effective one.

5. Experiment With Eraser Effects

Experiment with the eraser and the pressure you apply to lift the charcoal. A myriad of effects can be achieved by using the eraser in different ways. The beauty of the kneaded eraser is that you can shape it into all kinds of edges, points, etc. to vary the effects in lifting the charcoal from the toned paper.

6. Use White Charcoal for Lightest Lights

For the lightest lights in the drawing, you will need to apply some of the white charcoal. As mentioned earlier, these light areas can be blended with the tortillions—just make sure that the blending stump is clean before you attempt this light area blending. The tortillions can be cleaned by rubbing the dirty parts off with sandpaper.

While I have described the creation of light and shadow on the still life drawing in terms of "steps," you do not have to do all of the shading first and then highlighting second. In fact, you can go from one to the other interchangeably I tend to work from dark to light on this type of project, but by no means do you have to.

7. Know When You Are Finished

As your drawing progresses, occasionally step back from the picture and consider the image as a whole. When you are satisfied with your drawing—when you feel good about the variety of lights and darks portrayed, when the drawing looks "finished," it is time to stop. Many artists have the problem of overworking their creations and thereby lessening the quality and spontaneity of their pieces. Knowing when to quit is one of the most overlooked skills in the artist's repertoire.

Perks of Practice

I hope you will give this approach to drawing a still life a try. There is much to be learned from a project of this type, and the end product is worthwhile in itself. I would encourage you to repeat this project several times, varying your still life or your perspective on it. This will allow you to evaluate your progress in creating a beautiful drawing with a minimum of time and trouble involved.


Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on September 07, 2017:

Thanks suzyvidalon! I hope these articles will be helpful to you. on September 06, 2017:

I got a fast look at this great information/instruction. I would like to start with the First Hub instruction: Blund drawing. I'll look for it. And try to do it, Then, I'll follow the instructions/steps of this one. thank you.

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on March 10, 2017:

Thanks for your comment, Craftybegonia! I'm glad you enjoyed my article. It sounds like you have some treasured memories of your art education and of your mother. I'm happy I could help you revisit those happy times.

craftybegonia from Southwestern, United States on March 10, 2017:

Very nice article! I remember all the charcoal drawings I did when I was an art student, especially a plant of begonias that my mom had planted in an empty can of house paint and which bloomed luxuriously in her patio. Those drawings can have a lot of charm. Thank you for sharing!

Dbro (author) from Texas, USA on March 10, 2017:

Thanks for your comment, RTalloni! I'm glad this article proved helpful.

RTalloni on March 10, 2017:

Thanks for this useful look at charcoal still life drawing on toned paper. The tips are going to be helpful in a project I want to do this year.