Charcoal portrait step by step

Charcoal portrait. Nitram charcoal on Canson Mi-Teintes. 

Charcoal portrait. Nitram charcoal on Canson Mi-Teintes. 

I wanted to share my process for charcoal portraits, as I have gotten several questions regarding my approach. 

I'm going to keep this step by step simple, and right to the point. I am working on a serious of more in depth tutorials which I will post once I complete them. Any of these step by step's or tutorials will compliment my live workshops and classes starting this fall. I'm looking forward to that and will share more details when everything is ironed out. 

First, lets take a look at materials. 

Nitram charcoal, chamois, kneaded eraser, and Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper. 

Nitram charcoal, chamois, kneaded eraser, and Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper. 

When doing portraits I always use the smooth side of the Canson Mi-Teintes paper, and I prefer the soft round Nitram charcoal sticks compared to the harder varieties. The nice thing about this combination of materials, is being able to pick up the charcoal using the chamois. This offers a lot of flexibility when laying in your construction lines. It allows you to be more fluid and free with your marks, knowing you can erase them easily in the beginning stages on the drawing with either the chamois or kneaded easer. 

Initial lay-in

Step 1: Lay-in

Step 1: Lay-in

Staying very light and loose with my mark making, I place the face on the page and start making note of the structures of the face. Making sure I have my proportions correct, as compared to the model. I gave myself some indications of the shadow shapes in the hood, and noted the dark occlusion shadow along her jaw and chin line. 

Shadow patterns

Step 2: Shadow patterns 

Step 2: Shadow patterns 

After I am satisfied with basic shapes and proportions of the face, I turn my focus to the shadow shapes in the face. Since the face is obviously the most important part of the drawing I wanted to make sure I had a full value range in the face before turning my attention to her hood. 

I start the shadow process by placing the areas of shadow with a mid tone which I can darken later as I start adding and blending the half tones of her face. This part of the drawing takes the most time, and also careful observation of the model and lighting situation. I push and pull the tones until I feel I have achieved a full value range. 

Balancing act

Step 3: Value composition

Step 3: Value composition

Once I am happy with the features and face as a whole, value, proportions, and contrast, I move onto the other elements in the drawing. In this case, its just her hood. So I go to work roughing in the shadow shapes of the hood, indicating the darkest darks and lightest lights. I don't want her hood to distract from her face so I make sure I build up a strong value range within the hood, but leave the darkest darks and lightest lights of the drawing in her face. 

By doing that, there is more visual contrast within her face versus her hood. This will draw you to her face first, then allow you to work through the drawing and ultimately back to her face. This idea works on a smaller scale as well. While we want more contrast in her face then in her hood, we also want more contrast in her eyes then any of her other features. 

Finishing touches

Step 4: Final touches

Step 4: Final touches

With the basic shadow shapes of her hood worked out, I follow the same process as I did when rendering her face. I place my darkest areas of shadow, then work out from there developing the half tones as I go. 

Just when I feel like the drawing is close to completion, I turn my focus to emphasizing the contrast, not only in the whole drawing, but the smaller individual aspects as well. Making sure the overall drawing reads properly. The kneaded eraser is great at this point, whether you need to dumb down a shadow, or pull out highlights to really bring features of the face forward in space. 

This is my basic approach to my portrait work at the moment. I am always trying new things and figuring out a way to make my process more efficient. 

I would love to hear your thoughts, how do you work? Also, any suggestions or ideas for follow up tutorials or blog posts, please let me know, I would love to hear from you!

Hope you found this helpful, I had a blast working on it, and will have more coming soon.

Thanks for looking and keep on drawing!!

-N