6 Tips To Creating A Realistic Charcoal Portrait

by Wendi OBrien

Tips for Realistic Charcoal Drawings

Today, I will be sharing with you 6 tips for creating realistic art in charcoal.  

Tip # 1:  Support

The support you choose is one of the most important decisions for any artwork.  It determines the final appearance of your piece and how much effort you will need to put in to get the results you are trying to achieve. 

I recommend creating a quick reference of all the papers you have using your favorite mediums.  This takes the guess work out of paper choice.  If this is something you are interested in doing, check out my paper swatching video I linked in the description.

Tip #2 Quality Supplies:

The quality of the mediums you use will also greatly affect the final outcome of the piece.  I am of the belief to work smarter…not harder.

If your materials are crumbling, breaking or not laying down easily and you feel like you are constantly fighting to get things to look right, then chances are you need to upgrade your materials.

This doesn’t mean the most expensive…it means materials that work for your techniques and desired outcome.

Tip #3 Application & Blending Tools

The final appearance of your piece also relies on the types of tools you use to apply and blend your charcoal with.

The first method of application is with your pencil directly on the paper.   The texture of the paper grabs the charcoal and automatically creates a rough texture.

I used this method in highly saturated dark areas where I blend with a blending stump. The blending stump smooths out the pencil to give you a more consistent appearance.

Also, the towel area where I blend with the brush. The brush fills in the lighter gaps between the texture and softens the edges at the same time.

The second method of apply charcoal is by using a brush.  This will give a very soft appearance and easily create light subtle gradients as in the skin texture.  I usually scribble a bunch of charcoal on a scrap paper and pick up from there…essentially using that paper as a palette.

This gives you a lot of control over your values and can easily be lifted off with a kneaded eraser for highlights.

A 3rd charcoal application is the blending stump.  I use the residual charcoal on the stump from blending to create more defined areas that are too soft for the pencil itself.  Always start in the darker area and work to the lighter when using this method.  Lighter values are achieved when there is barely any charcoal left on the stump.

If darker values are needed, as with using the brush, I pick up more charcoal from the palette.

Bonus tip: You can use your darkest areas to pick up from, but keep in mind you will most likely need to replace that charcoal that has been removed, so don’t choose an area that would be obvious when you rework it.

Tip # 4 Work Clean

There is nothing worse than putting hours into an artwork just to find a smudge or unintentional marks on your art in the final stretch. 

A good practice is to work left to right if you are right-handed or right to left if you are left-handed and top to bottom.  This will keep your hand off the worked areas and any loose charcoal from getting on already completed areas which, in turn, prevents a lot of smudging.

Secondly, tap or remove any loose bits of charcoal from your piece.  You lift it up and tap it off over a trash can, carefully use a handheld vacuum, or use a kneaded eraser to tap up those loose bits.

Whatever you do….do not brush or wipe across your piece.  Seriously, it’s just not a good outcome.

The final tip for working clean is to place something between your hand and your artwork.  This protect your art from transferring any charcoal or oils from your hands.

I prefer to use glassine paper, but you could use a paper towel or scrap paper.

Bonus Tip:  When moving the paper under your hand, be sure to lift the paper and not scoot or drag.  If your paper gets dirty, change it out to avoid transferring any charcoal to unwanted areas.

Tip 5 Accurate Drawing

Ever create a drawing and get halfway through just to find something is terribly off?  Starting with an accurate line drawing is key to getting your subject as realistic as possible. 

Until you are certain that your drawing is accurate, don’t start adding any shading, texture or details.  The slightest bit off, even in shadows, can completely change the appearance of someone… so take special care with your initial drawing and shading.

Tip 6 Value & Contrast

Since Charcoal is completely reliant on value, it is important to create the widest range possible for the piece you are working on.

If you have completed artwork that feels a bit unfinished or flat, chances are you are missing this contrast.  You can not have darks without lights and vice versa. The wider the range from your darkest darks to the lightest lights, the more depth and dimension you create.

As you can see, by using these tips, I was able to complete a realistic portrait of this “Fighter”. If you enjoyed these tips and would like to see more, let me know in the comments below.  Would love to hear what you would like to have more tips on.

Until next time…keep on arting!

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