Charcoal is a great medium for many reasons…

Reference photo used only as inspiration
Reference photo used only as inspiration.

First, charcoal is inexpensive, easy to find, and requires hardly any set up time.(First published in 2020).

Fingers can be used to smudge the charcoal quite effectively so no other expensive tools are needed other than a charcoal pencil (compressed charcoal) and an eraser, kneadable preferably.

Charcoal provides rich values from intense blacks, to subtle greys.

Want to try a monochromatic painting?  Charcoal can be used to great effect for such a painting.

Want to experiment before adding colour? Charcoal to the rescue.

Charcoal can be mixed with water or with gesso for even more variety. Mix charcoal with soft pastels or water soluble pencils. So many possibilities!

Most importantly, the more you layer it, the more you see the beauty of charcoal.

You can shave charcoal bits into a piece of nylon and see how swiping the paper with it will result in a soft hazy background. Try using your eraser on this background to etch your subject.

Charcoal is perfect for experimentation

Charcoal is really about being playful and experimenting. It is perfect for days when you need to get art out of your system quickly.

As I have a second look at this painting below, I could have continued to perfect the final portrait. There are improvements to be made, but I chose to end it at the last posted photo.

The point of this particular painting was not to achieve perfection, but to experiment with various techniques, some new and others not. The smudging, the white spaces, the line work, and the values all help to create the illusion of a face.

The steps in this portrait include sketching the portrait with charcoal, applying a light colour wash, adding details, and colouring the background.

Once I thought I was finished, I realized the shading was wrong and I had been too heavy-handed with the darks. I added white acrylic paint for the highlights where I saw them in the reference photo.

Finally, I was satisfied. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I had fun for a few hours.

Charcoal paintings over the years…

Below, are charcoal studies that I completed over the last five years.

Some portraits began with charcoal and then I transitioned to other mediums. I give myself a time limit of 30 minutes to three hours. Be aware that charcoal is messy and there will be dust everywhere. A damp cloth will help with cleaning up.

How do you use charcoal? have you any special techniques you would like to share with my readers?


6 Responses

  • Hi Louise, with all of the years of our friendship I had no idea that you had completed so many portraits in charcoal, they are amazing. I have gone as far as purchasing pencils and a stick plus paper but it is still a medium waiting on the back burner, one day…….

    • Sally, I hardly knew that I had so many studies myself. That’s the thing about a website and regular blogging…everything is documented in one place. Charcoal is rather messy. When you do try it out, if you can work outside, that would be best. If not, a wet cloth will keep the dust to a manageable lever. I look forward to seeing your own charcoal studies.

  • Nice post, thanks for the tips 🙂 Had not thought of using charcoal with other than pastels so far (and usually have also used just either one not both). Quite interesting to also mix it with water soluble pencils or water color.

    • Charcoal is definitely very versatile and a lot of fun to experiment with. I really like the XL charcoal and graphite sticks by Derwent in various colours. Then lend themselves to large gestural sketches/paintings. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hi Ely,…thank you for the kind words. They were quick studies while I played with charcoal. Thanks for stopping by and reading my post. I appreciate it! Louise

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