This tutorial explains how to draw pine trees with charcoal from life.
Why Use Charcoal?
Charcoal is a fantastic drawing medium for several reasons:
1. It is fast, much faster than pencil or any other dry medium except pastels which can be used in similar techniques as charcoal.
2. Charcoal allows to draw easily from darkest darks (black) to very light greys, thus the range of possible tonalities is bigger than in any other drawing medium.
3. Charcoal is very versatile; from line drawing to painterly drawing everything is possible.
4. Charcoal is a cheap and readily available medium.
There are different charcoal qualities available. Some of the qualities are harder other softer. The somewhat harder type will give a lighter line at same pressure as the soft one will. The soft charcoals are mostly those with the darkest black too.
I recommend to buy different types of brands of charcoal to test their handling, and discover one suits you best.The image below shows the difference between soft charcoal and harder qualities at approximately the same pressure on the paper.
Charcoal pieces come in various thickness. One should have thicker and thinner charcoal pieces ready for drawing just like a painter keeps brushes of different sizes. The thin pieces are helpful to draw details, whereas the thicker pieces are great for drawing with the long side, which will be explained later.
Before drawing I recommend to break the long charcoal pieces in smaller ones with about half an inch length.
During use the shape of the charcoal pieces will change to conical forms which is the perfect form for drawing (see image). The long side can be used to make marks of a certain width, just as with a brush, the tip can be used to draw details and spots. Depending on the length of the pieces there will be shorter or longer cones or pieces with a conical tip.
I always have a tray with many used pieces with me. Thus I can select a suitable piece for the drawing situation. Usually I select one of the harder pieces for the beginning in case I want to put down the outlines of the major elements in the composition. Later a variety of different pieces of charcoal will come to use depending whether I want to draw more detailed forms and how dark I want to draw.
It is recommended to hold the charcoal as shown between thumb and the first two fingers. There is some exercise required to develop precision with the charcoal in this position, but after a short time this grip is very comfortable for drawing.
Sometimes it can be necessary to hold the charcoal similar to a writing tool also.
Of course there are no firm rules how to hold your drawing tool. It is always worthwhile to try something unusual.
The choice of paper is important or course. Papers with a very smooth surface can be used for charcoal drawings, but I prefer a paper with some “tooth” because such a paper creates a greater variety in structures from a stroke with the charcoal. I recommend to test various drawing papers until you find your favorite.
I like to use a soft kneaded eraser in combination with charcoal as an additional drawing tool rather than a tool to eliminate “mistakes”. With the eraser pigments can be removed and thus light areas can be put into dark areas later to create interesting structures or to create the illusion of light. (see image right)
A piece of soft cotton cloth
I have the eraser wrapped into a small piece of cotton cloth that I sometimes use to wipe out failed drafts. This mostly occurs in the very early stages of a drawing when I am not satisfied with the basic construction lines. Those can be wiped out with the cloth.
One can use the cloth also to create areas of certain tonality and more even distribution of the charcoal pigment.
One can think of further tools to manipulate the charcoal pigment on the paper such as brushes for example.
Drawing two pine trees in a distance
With a study from a further distance it is possible to get familiar with the proportions of a tree species without getting confused by too many details of foliage or needles in the tree top.
Starting from the tree top I draw with a light touch (so I can wipe out if necessary) and mark the tree top in simple forms and add the tree trunk downwards. Holding the charcoal as demonstrated between thumb and first two fingers allows to mark the tree trunk with short side-ward movements. With stronger pressure it is possible to represent the deep darks of the trunks ins shade.
Squinting helps a lot to discern lighter and darker areas. The light areas in the tree top are either drawn with light touch or by putting light in darker areas with the kneaded eraser. It is very helpful that the kneaded eraser can be shaped to a thin flat form that allows to add detailed lights. (See video below). I used the eraser also to put lights and structures on the sunlit side of the trunks.
I recommend to add the darkest darks that need strong pressure on the charcoal at the very end of a drawing because corrections are the more difficult the more the charcoal pigment is pressed into the paper. For the same reason I avoid to rub the charcoal with finger tips into the paper. Also rubbing destroys often the nice structures that are created naturally by the paper surface.
Starting with light touches (1), Adding dark trunks (2) Further developed details (3)
Detail view of trunks and tree top. The eraser was used to add lighter areas on trunk and branches. As long as the pigment is not pressed to hard into the paper it can be lifted off again.
Left: Details of tree trunk Right: Details of tree top
The finished study with typical pine tree characteristics