The many shades of gray between pure black and true white are at the essence of charcoal drawings. It is this gradual transition from light to dark grays which allows for drawn objects to appear three dimensional. A lack of shadows and shading produces figures that are much more flat, and “cartoon” like. Charcoal is an excellent medium for artists wishing to perfect their shading skills, as the medium can produce a great variety of subtly different shades.
A problem that many artists encounter is difficulty visualizing their gray gradients. Once you are in the middle of shading your figures, it can become very easy to go “too dark.” A simple trick to help remedy this problem is to keep a collection of gray color swatches to help you visualize several different shades of gray. Your local paint store will typically have collections of different swatches (from a variety of different paint brands) on display. These are two or three inch cards that display a particular color, its name, and brand. There are so many different varieties, that you’ll probably find it amusing just how many different types of gray have been officially named and delineated (i.e. “sky gray,” “drab gray,” etc.).
Customers will often take a few of these swatches home in order to help them visualize a particular color in the room that is destined to be painted. At your local paint store, pick up a few gray swatches to take home to your charcoal studio. Most customers take 2-3 swatches home with them; hence, if you are planning on taking more than three swatches, check with a store clerk to make sure that they can spare these complimentary swatches. Taking your swatches home, line them up on your drawing table, right above your canvas. It is often helpful to line them up in order, from lightest gray to darkest.
Next, make the appropriate adjustments to your lighting conditions so that your subject is lit properly. Imagine a clock circling your subject. Typically, lighting sources for portrait figures fall at either 11 or 2 o’clock. Pay close attention to the shadows on your subject. With a permanent pen, mark your swatches with notes that correspond to your observations. For example, is the mouth of your figure more of a light gray, or a dark, muddy gray? Make these notes on the corresponding swatches. Now, with your swatches, charcoal materials, and subject ready, begin drawing. Try to train yourself to take short breaks every 20 minutes or so from your drawing to check your notes and swatches. Bearing this catalogue of grays in mind, it should be easier to create a rich variety of shadows in your finished work.