Updated date:

Charcoal Drawing Made Simple

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

Benefits of Charcoal

Many novice artists steer clear of charcoal because it is so soft, easily broken, and hard to control. However, with a little practice, you will find the benefits of charcoal for drawing. Here are a few things to think about when using charcoal for drawings.

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

My Process

My process goes like this: I draw the sketch, measure the proportions and block in the shapes all with the vine charcoal. If I need to rub out an unwanted line, I can. When all the proportions and shapes are the way I want them I go over them with an HB charcoal pencil, adding more details but still drawing lightly in case I want to make changes still. Next, I pick up the 2B and commit to some of the shadow areas. Shadow shapes are very important. The shadows really define the subject almost as much as the positive or lit sides. If the shadow shapes are accurate you are more likely to have an accurate rendering. Next, I pick up the 4B or 6B pencil and drawing lightly at first, build up the layers of deep shadows. In the end, I pull up the light and highlights with the kneaded gum eraser.

When it is time to take a photo and share on social media or elsewhere digitally, these charcoal drawings photograph perfectly, with lovely dark to light shapes and lines. Carbon pencils don’t photograph well because the darkest marks are shiny and cause a glare on the paper when being photographed.

Doing what you love is the cornerstone of having abundance in your life.

— Wayne Dyer

Finished drawing

Finished drawing

A Word About Copying

Copying the work of the "masters" has been an age-old practice of great artists to expand their skill and increase their knowledge of color and texture. Many of the great artists in history learned from their former generation's work by becoming apprentices under them. Today, we cannot talk to Raphael or Da Vinci, so we must rely on their work to tell us what we want to know about "how they did it." In order to achieve the same effect the masters did, an artist has to discover the way the master layered the colors or positioned the figures or used shadow and light to best effect, sometimes by copying his work. Once the artist has discovered this, he can return to his own work and use that knowledge to make his own project better.

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

Photography

Working from photographs is best for realistic drawing. Your own photos are best to work from since they are not copyrighted. In fact, if you took the photo yourself, you own the copyright. However, if you see a photo in a magazine or book that inspires you, copying it for experience is fine. But you should never sell it, especially if it still looks very much like the original photo. Those published materials are copyrighted and to sell your drawing from copyrighted material is stealing. The rule of thumb is that you must change the picture/drawing in several (usually 5 to 7) ways to make it your own creation. Change the background, reverse the face or figure, add something significant or take away some key element, etc. As you can see, it would be easier to take your photograph to draw from or draw from life whenever you can. Just to get used to the exercise, even your own photos should be changed in your drawing by add or subtracting things.

Exercise in the turning face

Exercise in the turning face

You might not make it to the top, but if you are doing what you love, there is much more happiness there than being rich or famous.

— Tony Hawk

Studies of hands

Studies of hands

Paper

Buy a small tablet of drawing paper and keep it with you at all times. You never know when you will have a few minutes to spare, or when something inspirational will appear before you. The tablet need not be the most expensive leather-bound 9x12 inch book on the art supply store shelves. A simple ring-bound 5x8 sketchbook will do nicely. Doodle often, sketch constantly. Just as a writer must write every day to keep in practice, so must an artist draw. These little sketches may be serviceable or future reference in some work of importance.

When working on a piece, you may wish to frame, don’t use the smaller paper, 9 x 12 or less. Force yourself to use larger pieces whenever you can. Use 18 x 24 or better. The larger paper will help you to work on smaller details, as they will be larger. Small details on small paper will be infinitesimal. Also when you finish a piece that you really like, larger pictures look much nicer framed.

My friend, Lupe

My friend, Lupe

Before a child talks they sing. Before they write they draw. As soon as they stand they dance. Art is fundamental to human expression.

— Phylicia Rashad

Study of nail polish bottles

Study of nail polish bottles

Archival Quality Paper

Try to use archival quality paper whenever you can. Even the cheaper paper will say if they are archival quality or not. This means that no wood pulp was used in the making of the paper and it will therefore not yellow with age. Newsprint and children’s construction paper are both made with wood pulp and yellow quickly in the sunlight. For fast sketches, newsprint or construction paper is okay, but for finished drawings, they are terrible. I use a grey construction paper when I do my life drawings (quick drawings of live models). The paper is cheap enough to do some fast drawings, plus it is toned so I can use black charcoal and white Conte crayon or white pastel stick for highlights. These are nice to transfer to paintings later. I know I will not keep the drawing for long. It is only for practice.

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

You might not make it to the top, but if you are doing what you love, there is much more happiness there than being rich or famous.

— Tony Hawk

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal comes in many forms and degrees of softness. The easiest to work with are charcoal pencils. Pay attention to the letter codes. HB is the code for half-hard, half-soft. The next is 2B where it is twice as soft. The codes go up the 6B which is a very soft, dark, rich black charcoal. This means it is much easier to break if not handled with care. Also, they have to sharpened using a knife and not a pencil sharpener. Check out my video on sharpening your charcoal pencils.

charcoal-drawing-made-simple

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

— Pablo Picasso

charcoal-drawing-made-simple
charcoal-drawing-made-simple

Final Thoughts

Feel free to ask me any questions or advice in the comments below. I’m happy to help people and talk about art.

Comments

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on August 07, 2019:

Lorna Lamon,

Thank you so much, Lorna. Most people don't think of charcoal drawings as "finished" but that depends on the artist and the work put into, I think. Thanks for commenting.

Blessings,

Denise

Lorna Lamon on August 07, 2019:

Years ago I bought a little charcoal drawing of an Italian town where I had lived. I recently had it framed and it gives me such pleasure to look at. Your artwork is incredible Denise and I enjoyed reading your interesting article.