Hello everyone. My name is Kate and I am a charcoal portrait artist. I am going to take you through my creative process step by step. I want to share how I draw a Golden Retriever puppy in charcoal pencil (named Jessie!) for a client of mine.
It starts with the right paper. I have chosen Strathmore Bristol Board with a Vellum Finish. This is much thicker and higher quality than regular drawing paper. The vellum surface allows the paper to hold the charcoal but is still smooth enough to be able to add fine detail. It is also acid-free. I will also be using charcoal pencils, tortillions or blending stumps, a kneaded eraser, and Prismacolor archival fixative. See my other blog post “Charcoal Drawing and Sketching Tools” for more information on this.
Here are the reference photos that I will be working off of. These are taken in natural lighting, down at eye level with the puppy, and the puppy fills most of the frame. This is very important! Which charcoal, the lighting needs to be just right because light and shadows are all you have! The better the reference photos, the better the end result. Photos in which the flash fired, or ones that are taken indoors, are much more difficult to work with.
The first step in drawing is block out the shape of the subject. At this stage I am paying attention to the relationship of all of the shapes that make up the puppy. I am concentrating on proportions, not details. This is laid down with a regular drawing pencil, not charcoal. This allows me to rework and completely erase any mistakes until the proportions are all just right. Some attention is paid to direction of fur in this stage, but the most important thing is the big picture. I like to use the “Rule of Thirds” in composing my image. The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. If possible I try to have at least one point of interest placed along these lines or their intersections. The main points of interest in portrait drawing are the eyes. I decided to show the puppy sitting up instead of laying down like she is in the reference pictures so that her eyes fall along the top imaginary line, about 1/3 of the way down. The rule of thirds may SOUND confusing, but it’s actually quite simple. Just Google images for the Rule of Thirds and you will see what I mean right away. These big decisions should be worked out now – position of ears, nose, eyes and body.
Once I have the basics the way I want them, I use an Extra Soft Charcoal to sketch roughly in the major shaded areas. You can’t totally erase charcoal so you do need to be mindful of the direction of the fur but this is just the base layer and will be reworked considerably. Although its hard to see in this photo I have also marked with white charcoal lines that will be highlights: The front flaps of her ears, the light catching in her eyes, a reflection on her nose, a few hairs on her forehead, and her whiskers in this case.
Using the charcoal laid down in the prior step I use a tortillion to blend the entire form. Even though the puppy is light colored, a light grey will represent white in the final portrait. The only true white will be where I put the white charcoal in step 2. The reason I used extra soft charcoal in laying down this first layer was so that it would spread easily to color all areas. I blend in the direction the fur is laying.
Using a kneaded eraser shaped to a point, I lighten the lightest areas on the puppy. Now you start to have a sense of the shape of the head because of the light and dark areas. When lightening, I erase also in the direction of the fur using short swiping motions.
Time to add more detail. I now switch from extra soft charcoal and start using a medium or hard charcoal. The harder the charcoal, the finer the point. Hard charcoal is great for details, but more difficult to blend. I am blending using my tortillion and kneaded eraser as much as I am laying down charcoal. From this stage on I use extremely short lines to look like fur. No more big, bold lines are drawn after the initial layout.
Back to Blending. Again using the tortillion and kneaded eraser, I blend the more detailed lines. This will be repeated several times until I have it just right. Draw, blend, lighten. Draw, blend, lighten. This may seem repetitious but if you want lots of detail that really looks like fur, this is the only way to get it. Patience is key.
To complete the portrait, I work on the details in the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. The eye is the most important piece of any portrait. They are the focal point and as such deserve a lot of attention. I get my charcoal to a super fine point and spend a lot of time getting the detail just right. I don’t rush, often sitting back to just stare at the reference photos as well as the drawing. Then I use white charcoal to show the light catching in her eyes and add some extra sparkle. When blending the eyes, nose, mouth etc, I switch to a much smaller tortillion so I can have more control. Now I lay down some lines that will not be blended but remain sharp. I use hard charcoal to get fine detail. The most detailed area should be the eyes. Again I lighten the highlights using the kneaded eraser and white charcoal. Again pay attention to the big picture as far as shading and lighting goes. Slowly add the final touches like whiskers. It is important to try and remove any smudges in the white of the paper with the kneaded eraser. Last of all, when I am satisfied with the portrait, I sign it.
To keep the portrait from smudging in the future I spray an archival fixative, I like Prismacolor Matte finish.
This may look quick, but I like to add a
LOT of detail which is meticulous and takes time. This portrait took me about 3 hours total to draw. I have a lot of experience and so it will probably take an amateur much longer. Patience is key. Take care not to lay your hand or fingers in the charcoal as you work. Work from light to dark. It is much easier to add than take away when it comes to this medium.
I hope you have enjoyed my blog series on how I create a charcoal portrait. I have tried to share in detail how I work, but if you want to try this yourself remember to have fun and do what feels right to you! Work in your own style and develop your own techniques. The beautiful thing about art is that there is no right and wrong. Remember: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Joseph Chilton Pearce