How to Draw a Face with Charcoal- 5 Step Shading Technique
Charcoal is a brilliant medium to use for portraits. It allows you to easily achieve dark values and really smooth shading. I am going to take you through the 5 step process I use whenever I draw portraits in charcoal.
Before you shade with your charcoal pencils it is important that you start with a really accurate sketch outline. I like to do my sketches in graphite, even when using charcoal, as it is easier to erase if you make a mistake.
Make sure you do your sketch outline as light as possible, otherwise the charcoal may find it difficult to stick on top of the graphite surface. If you struggle to create an accurate sketch, check out this tutorial.
You do not need to include lots of detail in your sketch outline. For example, instead of sketching in every strand of hair, just sketch out each section of hair.
Once you have your initial sketch down it is time to start using charcoal! Make sure you are 100% happy with your sketch before you start shading, as once you begin shading it is difficult to alter any proportions.
Let’s go through how to render a realistic portrait in 5 steps. These steps can be applied to any portrait you are doing.
The great thing about charcoal drawings is that they really don’t require a lot of supplies.
I recommend using 2 different charcoal pencils, in order to add a range of values to your drawing. Pick a lighter grade (H or HB) and a darker grade (2B or 4B.) I use a HB and a 2B charcoal pencil for my drawings. Some sets may be labeled as hard, medium, and soft instead. In this case, pick the hard and soft pencil.
You will want to use paper that is designed for use with charcoal. The best type of paper to use is one that has some tooth to it, so that it can grip on to lots of charcoal. You can use any type of medium surface drawing paper, mixed media paper, or even watercolour paper. I like using the Strathmore Bristol Vellum paper for portraits.
For blending, I use a paintbrush. This is one of my favourite techniques for blending charcoal because of how well it removes graininess from the drawing. Any fluffy paintbrush with work for this. I also like using tissue to soften large areas of shading.
For highlights and adding texture to your drawing you will need a stick eraser. The Tombow Mono eraser is a great choice and allows you to create some amazing highlights. You can also use a kneaded eraser for more subtle highlights.
Now that you know the materials to use and have your sketch outline down in graphite let’s get into the 5 step shading process with charcoal.
Step 1: Establish the shadows
First, use your darkest charcoal pencil to get in the shadows. That’s right, we are going to work on the darkest values first. This will make it easier to judge your other values and takes some of the fear away from adding darker tones to your sketch.
A big problem many beginners have with their portraits is that they look flat. This is due to a lack of contrast. The most common cause for lack of contrast is insufficient dark values in the portrait. Many beginners are too scared to go in with bold, dark tones (mainly because they are worried they will ruin their drawing.) Doing this step first removes that fear because you are just starting, so there is nothing yet to ‘ruin.’
For this step, you don’t need to blend out the shading. You are just laying down the charcoal pencil in those darkest areas. We will blend it out later.
Identify the darkest areas of the portrait first by observing your reference. The common areas of the face that you will need to shade are:
The eyes- pupils, outer edge of iris, upper lash line, eyelid crease
The nose- nostrils and sometimes the side of the nose
The mouth- Inside of mouth/ outer corners of mouth
Side of face (where it meets the hair)
However, every reference is different. These are just the areas I shaded in from my reference.
Step 2: Shading in the mid-tones
Using the side of a lighter charcoal pencil (H or HB) gently shade in all of the midtone values - but not the highlights! It is very important that you keep the lightest areas free of any charcoal.
I recommend not pressing too hard on your pencil and instead shade in different directions to add more layers. This will make blending easier and will give a smoother look.
Tip: To reduce your pencil pressure hold your pencil further back and slightly on its side.
To make the skin look realistic make sure you study the reference and identify all of the contours of the face. As well as the side of the nose some other shadows are around the edge of the face (where it meets the hair), cheekbones, and the chin.
Don’t worry if your drawing looks really grainy at this stage. As long as you have been shading lightly that graininess will go away. Also, don’t worry about getting in lots of detail at the moment, as it will just end up being blended out in the next step. For now, just focus on establishing the values in your portrait. Details, like eyelashes, can wait until after blending.
Step 3- Blending the shading
Fluffy paintbrushes and tissues are great to blend your charcoal. Starting with the paintbrush I use circular motions to blend out all of the shading. When you blend with the brush you fill in all of the nooks and crannies of the paper with charcoal powder. This helps to eliminate most of the graininess. This technique also adds a base tone to all of the white areas as well.
However, it won’t get rid of all of the graininess! That is why I then go in with tissue. By blending any grainy patches with tissue you will create that smooth shading you dream of.
Note: Take care when blending the smaller details! Use a smaller brush or even a blending stump for these areas.
Step 4- Adding details
Thought you were done with shading? Think again! Blending makes everything a bit lighter, so we need to go back and make sure the shadows are as dark as our reference. Using your two pencils build up some more layers of shadows to ensure your values are dark enough.
Also, use this time to add detail to your portrait. Sketch in the eyelashes, eyebrow hairs and any skin texture (like freckles or wrinkles.) Make sure your pencils are really sharp when you add details. If you are struggling to add in details with your charcoal it may be because the charcoal you are using is too soft. Try adding the details with your HB pencil.
Step 5- Lifting up highlights
Now for my favorite part; adding highlights! I love this because highlights really do make your drawings pop! Use a stick eraser to brighten up the lightest areas of the face. You can also use the eraser to add texture, like wrinkles. It should be really easy to lift up the highlights because there shouldn’t be any ‘direct’ charcoal shaded on these areas (only some charcoal powder from blending.)
And that is the 5 step process I follow when drawing portraits in charcoal!
Now, if you want to learn how you can improve your art even further check out my FREE guide ‘10 Steps to Better Artwork.’
Watch the 5 step process in action to get a better understanding of these techniques: