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Portrait Sketching in Charcoal, un tutoriel Stars Portraits

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Portrait Sketching in Charcoal

par G.Banns

Portrait Sketching in Charcoal

Auteur : G.Banns

Tutoriel posté le 23 juillet 2006

Sketching the human face with charcoal (using brush techniques).


Portrait Art - Free Charcoal Lesson

Sketching the human face with charcoal (using brush techniques)

Originally written Jan 2004
Copyright: G.Banns

Like the previous Drawing People - female figure in charcoal, this free art lesson on sketching faces again uses charcoal and a brush, though this time the water is added to charcoal particles, a red earth-like pastel is used, and the paper is prepared before use.
The walrus moustache and hair of this 19th century philosopher, make it an ideal subject for the medium using a more coarse, hog's hair brush to render the textures in a rapid manner. Following paper preparation the sketch took about half an hour to complete.

free art lesson - portrait charcoal sketch drawing


equipment for portrait sketch
A Charcoal (thick stumps as opposed to the thinner vine charcoal).
B Pre-soaked watercolour paper, attached to hardboard by means of masking tape. White acrylic gesso (tinted with yellow ochre acrylic paint) has already been applied.
C Piece of cloth (cut off an old t-shirt). Useful for dampening and removing unwanted charcoal.
D Glass jar to hold water. Used to dampen the cloth (C), and for moistening the paint brush when dipping into the charcoal dust.
E Paper plates. Cheap, and useful for holding the gesso paint and/or dust particles.
F Putty eraser. An alternative to the cloth for creating highlights or effects (I didn't use the putty in the end).
G Dark Conte pencil (though a charcoal pencil would have been just as appropriate).
H Packet of vine charcoal, of the thin twig like.

Paper Preparation

galeria acrylic gesso and yellow ochre plus bristle brush + free portrait art lessonPaper is completely a personal choice. I used a 40 cm by 30 cm sheet of thick watercolour paper, but acrylic gesso has a tendency to warp even tough paper, and so before I began I filled up the bath tub and let the sheet soak for five minutes. Next, I turned the sheet over and gave it another five minutes or so before pulling it out of the tub, giving it a quick and gentle wipe with a towel, and laying it down onto a rigid sheet of MDF board (use whatever you like - Masonite, foamboard - any rigid support should do). Working quickly I taped the four edges of the paper with masking tape, adding extra tape across the corners as there is a danger that when the paper dries, it will break free of the tape.
Having pre-soaked the paper in this manner, I felt fairly confident that when I came to add the gesso, the paper would remain unbuckled.

A quick word about acrylic gesso for those who do not know about this paint. There are many brands available, you need only pop down to your local art shop, or order online. For those new to art, art shops can be a little intimidating with so many unknown products on the shelves. I recall my first visit to an art supply chain, and as I wandered amongst the alien shelves, filled with so many unknowns, I could sense the eyes of artists aware of my inexperience as I awaited the cries and jeers of, 'he's not a real artist. Intruder! - throw him out!!'
I had vaguely heard about odourless turpentine, and so approached the shop assistant and asked if they had any. She mouthed the word back to me "odourless?" as though I had tried to order an Indian take-away, and I recall thinking, oh god I've just asked for a fictional product! She had not heard of the product, and so asked the shop manager. I stood there contemplating whether to make a run for it and never showing my face in their establishment again, however, before the flight response kicked in, the manager looked at me, and said, 'yes we have some on the shelf over here'! I picked up a bottle, handed it to the shop assistant, smiled, possibly with just a faint trace of smugness, for I was now an expert in art materials!

Anyway, back to gesso!!... The paint is fairly inexpensive, and used extensively by oil painters in preparation of their canvases (if oil paint comes in contact with canvas, wood or paper, the surface will eventually rot). I decided to use acrylic gesso, in part to add more tooth and texture to the paper, and also that I might tint the colour with a little added yellow ochre acrylic paint.
You can see from the photograph below, that I used a cheap paper plate to mix the yellow ochre acrylic and gesso together. The brush I use is a cheap all-purpose one, with fairly sturdy bristles which added 'tooth' (charcoal adheres more easily to a rougher surface).
Please note, that if using acrylic gesso (or any acrylic paint) you must wash your brush promptly after use. Failure to do so will result in the paint drying solidly on your brush, which you can then pretty much kiss goodbye.

Applying Gesso to Paper

Here I apply the gesso to the paper with a crisscross motion of the hand until it is covered up to the edges of the masking tape.

how to sketch faces, paper preparation
charcoal portrait demonstration

Toning the Paper

Having ground the red pastel and charcoal into dust, I decided to use the same large bristle brush I used to apply the gesso, to spread the dust particles around. Although it may vaguely look like I know what I am doing, it is all rather haphazard, and my only real forethought and intention at this moment, is to roughly place the red dust within the general area of the face.

faber-castell germany pitt 122822 - red pastel

The Brush

Just a quick mention of the brush I use for the majority of the following work. It is a oil painting bristle brush, bought from "The Works" bookshop, and made by Crimson and Blake. It is possibly the cheapest brush you can buy, but the hairs seem to stay fixed (although the handle shed its thin veneer of paint within a day!), and it lends itself ideally to any messy charcoal particles and creating the sketchy textures that make up the shading of the face and hair.

bristle brush for facial textures and toning


marking out the guidelines for the portrait

I have always found straight lines easier to visualise and reproduce than a curved line. A prime example is when drawing an ellipse - if a box is drawn first, it is easier to then draw the ellipse to fit inside.

With a piece of vine charcoal, I quickly mark a few guidelines denoting the major angles of the face and hair from which I can later build up the facial features. A tip I once learnt from Andrew Loomis' books, is that an idealised, proportionate face has these landmarks at equidistance from one another: hairline to eye line; eye line to base of nose; base of nose to bottom of chin. Obviously it is just a guide, but by using it as a guide, it is easier to draw a better proportioned face.
charcoal portrait sketching a face

The Initial Block-in

I keep a jar of water beside me and periodically wet, or lightly moisten my brush. Doing so allows me to partially control the darkness of the charcoal. If the brush hairs are just slightly moist, they lend themselves to producing interesting textured lines, something that would take much longer to reproduce without the aid of a brush.

Although I build up the tones within a few layers, I try to place each stroke with a degree of accuracy. The worst thing you can do is overwork an area (sometimes called 'licking'). Quite a few of my strokes are 'feelers': the brush does not actual make contact with the paper, but by imagining the stroke (in a similar way that a snooker player visualises potting the next ball), I stand a better chance of placing it in the desired place.

I typically adopt a different approach to each sketch or painting I undertake. In the case of this portrait I liked the spontaneity of working on all areas at once, letting the unconscious mind roam free of the analytical. My intention from the outset is to give the portrait's eyes a little more attention and depth from the rest of the drawing, so that by the end, they subtly draw the viewers attention.

how to sketch a faces, applying charcoal

Block-in, First Stage

portrait sketching first stage

I use a combination of brush and vine charcoal to mark in the area of the eyes. You will notice that the edges are fairly hard and crude, but at this stage I am just trying to establish the general positioning. A great tip to learn is that good drawings/paintings have very few 'hard' edges, and many soft. By 'hard', I mean having a crisp, and distinct edge which the viewer's eyes will be immediately drawn towards. To loose some of this hardness, a few light strokes of the brush, or a little rubbing from a finger can soften and blend, though I don't recommend over doing it.

Once I darkened the eyes, they inevitable stole the attention, and so I quickly established some more darkened areas around the face in an attempt to balance the sketch.

philosopher portrait sketch

Hightlights Through Erasing

This is where the small piece of t-shirt comes in handy. Wetting a piece of the material in my jar of water, I was glad to find that the red pastel could be removed without too much of a fight. I would imagine that the gesso underlayer helped in this respect.

Although areas of light and dark are easy enough to see in my small reference photo, squinting your eyes to see tone is an invaluable aid to visualising values.

highlights on face

Block-in, Second Stage

In this stage, I'm simply interested in increasing the tonal range, by establishing some darker areas.

portrait sketching in charcoal -
drawing people, eyes, iris, pupil, tear duct, nietzsche block in - third stage

Block-in Third Stage

On the third iteration, I try the conte pencil to add depth to the eyes, but then decide to switch to the vine charcoal. Again the eyes are still at a fairly crude stage with a number of unwanted hard edges. I balance these hard edges by drawing in several more across all areas of the face, with the intention of going darker still in the finishing stages so these edges are not so prominent.


In this stage, I'm simply interested in increasing the tonal range, by establishing some darker areas.


This is the second charcoal portrait I have attempted almost predominantly with a brush, and I've found this method of approach not only so much cleaner on the hands, but the juicier thickness, and texture of strokes allows for rapid sketchwork and fine parallel lines that would be far more difficult and time consuming to attempt any other way.

There's some guess work in how wet to soak your brush before dipping it into the charcoal powder, but such guesstimations resolve themselves after a few strokes. When the brush dries the tone lightens, and you can create some interesting dry brush techniques.

I believe the same techniques applied to a more time consuming drawing, could yield in some excellent results - I hope to try it soon, and I hope I've inspired a few of you just enough to try your hand with these methods. A brush in your hand may feel very foreign and can be the difference between using chopsticks and a knife and fork. Some people will pick it up quicker than others, but with a little practice, anybody can easily wield a brush.

charcoal face demonstration - portrait demo

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