Charcoal Portraiture: Window on the Soul

When it comes to portraiture, the use of charcoal has a long and storied history. Its incredible malleability and fluidity lend themselves beautifully to the high degree of subtlety obligatory to the faithful recording of the human face. Over the centuries, charcoal was widely used as a foundation for paintings that would eventually document their subjects’ likenesses for posterity. For your own purposes, make every effort to draw from life, and never from photographs. Finding a model should prove relatively effortless, as you’re bound to find a friend or family member willing to sit for an impromptu session.

Getting Started

Helen Sears
To begin, add a light wash of tone to your paper by rubbing its surface with the side of your charcoal and smoothing it over with a chamois. Laying down this initial base will provide you with a textural foundation for removing tone, lifting value and creating dimension later. Next, record the basic shapes of your subject’s face and head, paying special attention to broader areas of light and shadow. You may wish to work on the placement of the eyes first, as they will contain the spark of the piece, the locus of expression informing the remainder of the composition.

Focus on the Eyes

The eyes also offer infinite opportunities for the application of tone and sculptural detail. Remember that no part of the human face, least of all the eyes, is ever perfectly symmetrical. Pay close attention to the angle and placement of your subject’s face as a whole, while also noticing the variety of angles contained within it. The gaze may well represent the most important part of your composition, as all veracity of life and animation resides there. Those viewing your piece will instinctively refer to the eyes first for confirmation of its realism and believability. Any specific shading you lay down will drastically affect the shapes you are seeking to convey, but as always, the charcoal medium gives you ultimate control, and you can back away from, or even obliterate, any erroneous choices if you choose.

As you progress, use your kneaded eraser to lift out tone and value from the face, illuminating areas touched by light while simultaneously clarifying its source and direction. Each of these will contain multiple, varied tones; there are no flat or monochromatic planes in portraiture if one is seeking a realistic likeness. Look for every perceptible subtlety. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards still stands as an extremely intuitive, effective means of learning to see this kind of detail, especially for beginners.

Finally, add finer elements of definition to the values and edges within your drawing. This point in the process marks the best time to add subtle lines; beginning your portrait with them, rather than with larger shapes and values, can make for an artificial effect. Use your chamois as often as you like to soften the entire composition, rendering a texture and smoothness similar to that of human skin. With the emergence of three-dimensional expression, you have achieved your goal.

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