Portrait Drawing with Art Charcoal

Drawing portraits in charcoal allows the artist more flexibility with value and tone as opposed to graphite, but some artists are intimidated by the thought of using charcoal for delicate details. Charcoal can be used in the same manner as graphite for portraiture, resulting in more striking values. A portrait can be worked on any color paper, but the best colors to use are white or a light tan (flesh color) with a slight tooth. Keep a black and white copy of the subject next to your work area for reference. Not sure about paper tooth – learn more.

Where to Start on Your Charcoal Portrait

To begin, sketch the portrait lightly in graphite, using a 2B lead for easy erasure. Because the eyes are the most expressive part of the face, it’s best to begin working that area so that if the essence of the person isn’t captured, not a lot of time is wasted if it’s necessary to start over.

If there’s concern about soiling the paper, a removable tape can be used for the areas that aren’t being worked. When you’re ready to work the taped area, you’ll have a clean surface.

When the eyes are finished, use a soft Nitram charcoal baton to outline the shape of the face, blending with a soft brush or tissue. Working inward toward the center of the face, apply the charcoal and blend for tonal value, followed by highlighting with a kneaded eraser. The highlights give the face dimension and add character and expression to the portrait. Refer to the reference photo often to be sure the light and tones are being followed. This will give the portrait a more realistic look. To achieve the fine details when highlighting, mold the eraser to a fine but sturdy point.

Facial Features and Clothes

The nose, cheeks and lips should be worked in varying tones by laying down the charcoal, blending and highlighting until the desired look is achieved. The bottom of the top lip should always be darker and the teeth are never white. Only the highlights of the teeth should be white. If the gums show, they should be darker than the teeth. Each tooth should be drawn individually and the front teeth should be the lightest. Teeth can take some time to draw, but it’s very well worth the time. The lower lip tends to have several tone variations so attention to the reference photo is important.

When drawing a man with facial hair or stubble, to create the look of texture in the chin area, a trick that will give a realistic look is to use a baton that’s been sanded to an angle, and using the side of the charcoal, lightly drag it across the area, working slowly so the charcoal catches the tooth of the paper. This process can take practice, but once achieved, it’s not only a time-saver, but it results in a very realistic look.

Once the face is finished, it’s time to move on to the neck, using the same technique as with the facial area. Outline the neck with charcoal, blending and highlighting until the correct tone is achieved, again carefully referring to the reference photo.

With the neck finished, continue on with any clothing. To achieve the texture of clothing, the same dragging technique can be used that was used to create the stubble.


The hair can be the most time consuming part of any portrait. For long hair, apply the charcoal with loose downward wrist strokes, adding highlights with a kneaded eraser. This may need to be repeated until the desired look is achieved. To draw a man’s crew cut, short upward strokes work best. Little, if any, blending should be done to the hair. If any lines appear too dark, it’s best to use a kneaded eraser.

The engagement portrait featured in this article was drawn using a flesh colored lightly-toothed paper and charcoal with the techniques as described. The portrait was framed and given as a wedding gift.

When finished, use a drafting brush to clean away any charcoal dust. Framing the portrait under glass will preserve it for many years to come.

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