Drawing Caricature with Charcoal

While not an ideal medium for on-the-spot caricature drawing because of its smearing and smudging properties, charcoal shouldn’t be disregarded for those times when there is time to use a workable fixative.

The art of caricature is simply the art of exaggeration—minimize the small features and maximize the larger features without insulting the subject. It’s important to be sensitive to outstanding features that the subject may be sensitive about, for example, large facial moles, obesity and, particularly with women, it’s often the neck.

Many caricature street artists work in marker, colored pencil, or a combination of both. The quick drying and smear-free properties of these mediums make them a good choice for doing a caricature every four to five minutes at on-the-spot events such as fairs and festivals.

Charcoal, however, is the perfect medium for caricature that isn’t done on-the-spot or when there is sufficient time to allow a coat of fixative to dry so there is no disappointment if smearing or smudging occurs.

I personally prefer charcoal for caricature art because I’ve never really mastered colored pencil and marker can’t be erased. That does limit my caricature work to sittings by appointment and events such as class reunions, birthday parties, and wedding receptions where there is drying time.

I was recently hired to do caricatures at a “barn” wedding reception where each guest could have their caricature drawn if they chose to participate. I brought an assistant with me who took the drawings outside to spray, and they were hung on a clothesline to dry, leaving my time free to draw. As the caricatures were added to the line, not only did it look awesome, but guests enjoyed viewing them. The drawing stopped one hour prior to the end of the reception to allow the last of the portraits to dry. When dried, they were packaged in a cell sleeve and hung back up so guests could take them as they were leaving.

For assignments of this type, I bring plenty of sharpened Nitram Charcoal, a sharpener, a box of perfume free tissues, and light gray or light beige paper with enough tooth to hold the charcoal as well as cello sleeves. I prefer not to roll and rubber band my drawings.

The advantage of Nitram Charcoal is that it sharpens to a fine point and is really break resistant—a feature that’s especially important when drawing quickly. I usually carry a Nitram bloc with me as well for the thicker lines. I determine the amount of supplies to bring by the number of guests expected to be in attendance.

When working an event, it’s best to determine the amount of exaggeration by the subject’s willingness to participate as well as their personality. If friends have to coax a subject to sit down, I typically go easy. If I’ve noticed the subject has been the life of the party, I take more liberties. If the subject says, “Have at me,” then you can be pretty confident that they will be pleased with whatever you draw.


Some subjects will be very specific as to what they do or don’t want exaggerated.

It’s good to be especially cautious with babies and small children. Parents can be especially sensitive if a feature is overly exaggerated. When working with babies and children, I draw more “cutesy” cartoonish. I tend to exaggerate the eyes and use a finely sharpened Nitram baton to avoid over exaggeration.

Caricature with charcoal is very simple and rewarding. Mistakes can be quickly and easily erased and if a client prefers colored drawings, charcoal combines nicely with chalk pastels.

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