Charcoal with Other Media

There are times when monochrome just won’t suit a portrait or landscape drawing, but it doesn’t mean the charcoal batons need to be abandoned. Charcoal is perfect for preliminary outlining and adding darker details. Charcoal works well with quite a few mediums, including watercolor, gouache, acrylics, conte, soft pastels (non-oil) and chalk, allowing you to use as little or as much as desired.

One advantage of charcoal is that it can be easily removed. For that reason, I’ve switched from graphite to charcoal for drawing my preliminary sketches when painting portraits. For years I used 2B graphite to sketch my watercolor portraits, but there was always a problem of a faint line showing once pigment hit the paper because of watercolor’s transparency.

When Nitram reintroduced their batons, I gave them a try for sketching and, although I still use a 2B mechanical pencil for the light draft placement, once I’m satisfied, I erase the light lines and replace them with a bit of slightly darker charcoal.


The example above has a combination of graphite, dry charcoal, wet charcoal and watercolor. As you can see from the original photo, there’s quite a bit of black to work with, and I personally have never been pleased with black watercolor. Watercolor, charcoal, soft pastels, conte, and anything else I might need will be used for the finished portrait. This is a portrait of a friend who was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on an interstate. Because it will be given to a family member, I want it to be perfect and as true-to-life as possible so I’m not allowing myself any room for error.

I have never been able to find a nice thin brush for eyelashes, so I use a finely sharpened Nitram baton to draw them in. Because I don’t want bright whites around the eyes, I’ll shade them with charcoal. When using a beige, blue, or gray paper, white charcoal mixed with a touch of black will give a good effect for the whites of the eye because you can manipulate it so that it blends with the paper. Even though the whites of our eyes are just that—white, on a portrait it can be overpowering so I like to tone it down to a very light gray that will look white when the portrait is finished.

White watercolor is too difficult to work with when detailing finer features. In fact, I find little use for white other than for mixing. For me, charcoal is much easier to use for the features I need to manipulate because watercolor can be so unforgiving.

When using charcoal with another medium, it’s best to use a fixative spray when you’ve reached the desired effect. Be sure to spray in a well-ventilated area and not overly spray. I generally spray only the areas where I’ve put down charcoal and allow it to completely dry. I’ll work another area while the fixative is drying.

When I do mixed media portraits, I layer thinly and build up many layers of color. As you can see from the crown of the hair in the example, there are layers of diluted Payne’s Grey with Nitram HB. I don’t wet the paper. Instead, I really saturate the watercolors so I have only a hint of color. When I need to add wet charcoal, I do so when the paper is slightly damp, not wet. If I add too much, I lift with a unperfumed tissue.

The process is slow, but I like the results much better. I don’t use a hairdryer to speed the drying process when using mixed media, because I’m not experienced enough to know how other media will react to the heat.

When the portrait is finished it will be given two coats of fixative, matted and framed. While I envision how I want the finished portrait to look, at this stage I have an arsenal of mediums ready to use. Because I am going to be adding many layers, I am using Lanaquarelle watercolor paper. I find it takes my many layers quite nicely and it’s very charcoal friendly.

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