Charcoal Portraits

Drawing Portraits with Charcoal and Chalk

 
 
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Our lesson on ‘How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Chalk’ is a step by step tutorial that illustrates all the skills and techniques you need to help you draw a realistic charcoal portrait.

We begin with a comprehensive demonstration of how to draw a charcoal portrait, from the initial line drawing to the finished work.

We then explore each stage of the drawing in greater depth explaining the difficulties you encounter with the individual features of the face:

This is followed by demonstration of the various ways that you can light a portrait to create a range of different moods:

Finally, we examine the range of materials you need for drawing with charcoal and chalk and look at some of the basic techniques you may use:

 

Charcoal Portraits Menu

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Louis de Boulogne (1654-1733) 'Study for a Kneeling Angel', Charcoal and white chalk.

Louis de Boulogne (1654-1733)
'Study for a Kneeling Angel', Charcoal and white chalk.

Louis de Boulogne's 'Study for a Kneeling Angel' demonstrates the traditional approach to charcoal and chalk drawing where the artist uses charcoal for the dark tones, white chalk for the light tones and the natural color of the paper for the transitional tones between them.

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) 'Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist', c.1500. Charcoal and chalk cartoon.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
'Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist', c.1500.
Charcoal and chalk cartoon.

Many artists use charcoal and chalk to draw preparatory studies for their paintings as it is a fast method for working out the tonal composition. 'The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist' by Leonardo da Vinci is a large 5ft x 4ft charcoal and chalk drawing on paper believed to be a cartoon for a painting that was never started.

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) 'Drawing of a Woman with Cape and Hat', 1897-1898. Charcoal and chalk.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
'Drawing of a Woman with Cape and Hat', 1897-1898.
Charcoal and chalk.

In his 'Drawing of a Woman with Cape and Hat', Gustav Klimt uses the natural expressive qualities of charcoal to convey the bristling fur of a woman's garments. He layers bold charcoal strokes that are successively hatched then smudged to fashion the dense texture of her cape and hat. A lighter variation of this technique using fine vertical strokes forms the flat background wall. To contrast the rough nature of these marks, he draws her head in delicately blended detail, subtly highlighted in white chalk light from the erased window shape in the background.

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) Head of Leon Kossoff, 1956. Charcoal and chalk on paper.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931)
Head of Leon Kossoff, 1956. Charcoal and chalk.

Frank Auerbach pushes the expressive qualities of charcoal to its limit in his drawing of the artist Leon Kossoff. In his search for the essence of his subject he builds up an intensely dark image, editing and reworking layer upon layer of the drawing until he finally reclaims its lost form in erased planes of light. Using an eraser as a drawing tool is common technique in charcoal drawing.

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Allan Ramsey (1713-84) 'A Country Girl at Surrentum, Italy', 1776. Red and white chalk.

Allan Ramsey (1713-84)
'A Country Girl at Surrentum, Italy', 1776.
Red and white chalk.

One popular alternative to charcoal and chalk is 'sanguine' (red chalk), so called as it resembles the color of dried blood. It was first used during the Italian Renaissance and has since become a traditional drawing medium. Made from red ochre, a natural earth pigment, it is often combined with white chalk on a light toned paper using the same techniques as charcoal drawing. Its soft red color is more gentle on the eye than charcoal making it a popular medium for rendering the human form.

The Scottish portrait painter Allan Ramsey demonstrates the sensitivity of 'sanguine' in his drawing of 'A Country Girl at Surrentum, Italy'. Using a technique that combines hatching and smudging, he highlights her light classical profile, gently tinted with white chalk, against a softly shaded background. He then counterbalances this with the silhouette of her dark braids and neck against a light background.

 

Charcoal Portrait Examples: Georges Seurat (1859-1891) Portrait of Paul Signac, 1890. Conté crayon.

Georges Seurat (1859-1891)
Portrait of Paul Signac, 1890. Conté crayon.

Another alternative to charcoal was Conté crayons which were invented in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. They were composed of powdered charcoal bound with wax to form round or square sticks which were manufactured in various grades of hardness. They extended the range of charcoal as a medium with the hardest crayons capable of greater detail than traditional charcoal.

In his portrait of fellow artist, Paul Signac, Georges Seurat uses a hard Conté crayon side on, dragging it over the surface so that only the 'tooth' of his heavy paper picks up the texture of his marks. Using this method, he carefully builds up the tonal form of the image where the pitted cavities of clean paper illuminate his shadows with a vibrant sparkle.

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A 'cartoon' in fine art is a full-size preparatory drawing that was used to transfer a large-scale image for painting. These drawings were usually perforated with pin-pricks around their main shapes through which powder was 'pounced' to leave a dotted outline of the image on the canvas or fresco wall. Few 'cartoons' of this type survive as they were naturally obliterated by the transfer process.