Portrait Drawing My Way: Workshop 3 – Smudge It!

Now we’re going to produce an expressive drawing using charcoal. I’ll share some of my charcoal portrait drawing tips – also bear in mind the proportions discussed earlier and how to hold your charcoal to keep loose.

You’ll need at least one stick of willow charcoal and an eraser. Get the thick charcoal sticks if you can. Some newsagents with an art section stock charcoal. I want you to use the eraser as a drawing tool rather than a correcting tool. If you make a mistake, just smudge it with your hand and draw over it. The build-up of charcoal adds to the mood of the piece.

Here is what I used for this drawing:


Materials used in this drawing

I started with willow charcoal then used come compressed charcoal, black and white conte and a few touches of white pastel. That black blob is my well-used kneadable eraser.

We’re going to work from a photo this time so I can draw along with you. Here is our reference:

Mom at 85

Reference Photo from WetCanvas

Source:  http://www.wetcanvas.com/RefLib/showphoto.php?photo=48971

Old people have fascinating faces that give us a lot of expressive freedom.

Measure up

The first thing I do is check the angle of the eyes and the angle of the middle of the head. This is important to get the correct tilt of the head.

Whenever measuring, stretch your arm out completely straight in front of you and hold something long (usually a pencil, but I just used my short charcoal stick) at right angles to your arm. Close one eye.

Checking the angle of the eyes

Checking the angle of the eyes

Checking the angle of the centre of the head

Checking the angle of the centre of the head

You can see in the second picture that I have made a mark on my page following the angle of the eyes. I used the side of my charcoal stick to make that mark.

Next, draw the basic shape of the head taking into account the angle – a plain oval will do – but I made some allowances for the hair and the contour of the face.

setting out the tilt of the head

Setting out the title of the head

I should have placed the line for the eyes further down the face… but I will use this as a guide for the top of the eyes for now. Refer back to the previous workshop for the correct placement of facial features.



You can see in the photo above that I have drawn parallel (ish) lines down the face to remind myself of the angles. If the angles are not consistent, the face will not look right.

I find that getting the proportions right (or as close to right as you can) early on saves a lot of time later. I always start with the eyes.

Because the head is turned to one side a little, one eye appears smaller than the other. If you want to be super-accurate, you can measure the length of each eye on the photo and work out their relative sizes. Don’t forget to check the distance between the eyes.

When drawing from life you obviously can’t use a ruler. Use the same technique I mentioned earlier to  “measure” the length of each eye.

Measuring the eye

Measuring the eye

You can see here that I am measuring the eye – it is the distance from the tip of the pencil to where I have placed my thumb. I will then keep my thumb in that position on the pencil and compare that with the distance between the eyes and the length of the other eye. You should find that the length of her right eye is almost the same as the distance between the eyes but that her left eye is a little smaller.


Using the side of the charcoal stick

Using the side of the charcoal stick


Now I start using the side of my charcoal stick to fill in the dark areas. I start shading early because it often helps me gauge distances between the features on the face.

Stay loose

Usually when I draw lines, I use the side of the stick as that keeps the drawing loose. I only use the tip of the stick for detailed areas like the eyes and teeth. I snap long sticks of charcoal in half so that they are easier to use on the side.

Smudging following contours

Smudging following contours

Using my fingers, I smudge the charcoal. I will often follow the contours of the face when I do this – usually over curved areas like the cheeks. I also often work into the charcoal with my eraser to pick out light areas or again, to follow contours. I use this method to draw the hair.

Nearly finished

Almost there

Almost there!

Mouths are tricky. As you watch the development of this mouth, you will notice that I am trying to focus on tone rather than line. I try to avoid “drawing” the mouth.

You may be able to see here more clearly how I have smudged the charcoal over the contours of the cheeks and forehead. I have also tried to make the transition between light and shade subtle in these areas.

Finishing touches

I start to use some compressed charcoal here. It is darker and moves around less on the page. Where I need some finer lines or detailed work, I use the black conte. I use some white conte for the eyebrow hairs and a a few touches of white pastel where I want highlights in the eyes and on the eyelids.

Checking for errors

My set up

My set up

This is my set up. I step back from the easel frequently to look at the work. It is difficult to see where you are going wrong if you are too close. The eyes might be a little too far apart?

I also have a mirror behind me – looking at the image in reverse also helps to spot errors. Some artists like to turn their work upside down to check it.

Calling it finished

Calling it finished

This paper is not the greatest and can’t really take much more. I’m calling it finished. I have spent maybe 2 hours or 2 and a half on this.

You can see that in the end result the focus is not on line. There are some lines, but I have mostly created boundaries through the juxtaposition of light and dark. Hopefully I have created an expressive charcoal portrait drawing!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions. As always, I would love to see your work!

For a pastel and charcoal demo by a modern master, check out: David Jon Kassan


Post to Twitter


Filed under Portrait Drawings, Portraits, Workshop

2 Responses to Portrait Drawing My Way: Workshop 3 – Smudge It!

  1. Pingback: "Ashley" Week 1: Diary of a Child Portrait PaintingJulia Sattout

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.