Portrait Drawing in Charcoal

This technique shows a reductive method to charcoal drawing.

The drawing begins with an even layer of grey, from which highlights are created with an eraser, and shadows are blocked in with charcoal.

6 min. video

See how to layer and build up a convincing likeness with a range of specific tools that fit this technique. Demo by Art Prof Clara Lieu.

Video Walkthrough

  • This technique immediately gets rid of the white of the page, which often is intimidating to many people as they begin a drawing.
  • In the beginning of the drawing, when you are sketching with vine charcoal is the time to make major changes!
  • It’s easy and fast to take you hand and wipe out your vine charcoal sketch.
  • Major changes when you have been working on your drawing for a long time are much tougher to do.
  • The gesture of the head is more important than the details; this portrait has a tilt to the head that is critical to capture.
  • Take the time to change the tilt if you didn’t capture it, it will be worth that extra effort down the line
  • Often people think about the eraser as tool that is only used to remove mistakes.
  • Our supply list has 3 erasers, and 3 types of charcoal.
  • Every one of these tools has a special talent, using them as a combination will greatly increase the diversity of marks you can create.
  • Charcoal paper is such a gamechanger; regular drawing paper is often too smooth to hold the charcoal.
  • Charcoal paper has a texture to it, which essentially “grips” the powder of the charcoal.
  • In a portrait, search for the planes on the surface, that’s how you’ll get a more volumetric look in your drawing.
  • Texture is really important in a portrait, skin has a lot more texture and variation than we think!
  • An eraser is an amazing drawing tool, think about it as a tool the same way you would think about a piece of charcoal.

Prof Lieu’s Tips

I often times do the silly thing, where, when I am drawing a portrait of somebody, I invent a story in my head about who I think they are.

In the marker drawing below, I imagined that the model at life drawing was a Greek philosopher. He reminded me of the busts from Ancient Greece with really expressive beards.

Marker portrait drawing life drawing banner

This is especially fun when you were drawing an artist model am I from session. I find that if I don’t invent narrative, I objectify then portrait too much, and then it really loses the emotions I want to have in the piece.

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