Learning how to draw people and figure art is exciting and challenging in any medium - in this short art lesson we will produce a fairly small rendering of the female nude in vine charcoal.
Charcoal is typically a medium to be loved or loathed. In an instant it can create those rich blacks that any graphite artist will envy, having squandered hours to achieve the same result. However, there comes a price, and that price is dust. Charcoal (particularly vine charcoal) will do its utmost to distribute itself wherever it can: on fingers, under nails, unwanted smears across your page, usually everywhere except the very place you wanted it.
My own brief experiences with this ill-behaved medium have met against some resistance, until recently and somewhat ironically, I found dust to be a solution. I tried an experiment by grinding charcoal into fine powdery form and then painting it onto the paper, with instantly improved results, and it is these techniques I would like to share with you now...
How to Draw People - Human Figure in Vine Charcoal
Ideal for grinding down charcoal, or sharpening it to
Assorted sizes. (note: vine charcoal is made from the
This came from the garden of John Ruskin, and was formed
in larger sticks, though essentially it is the same as
Bought from a car shop and can be used to blend.
A rubber tipped tool designed for blending and shaping
pastel/charcoal and paint (available in artshops and on
Charcoal can be bought in pencil form. It saves fingers
from becoming blackened, and can be easier to control.
The white pastel pencil can be used for highlights.
Not as messy as the vine charcoal sticks, but is harder
A crucial piece of equipment that removes charcoal without
leaving a mess.
An old tic-tac sweets container to hold the charcoal
dust. Use whatever you like, but preferably something
with a lid.
Two cheap brushes that can be used to push the dust
around on the paper.
Left: Fixative- Brushing dry charcoal dust around with a brush makes it difficult to apply a dark tone in one take; spraying fixative allows me to build up two or maybe three layers to get the darker tones.
The larger can was the cheapest I could find, and as a consequence I have to spray three times as much to get any use from it. My recommendation would be to invest in something half-decent. The Windsor and Newton fixative may be smaller, but it is much more effective and ultimately lasts longer.
Right: Paper- You can use any paper from pastel paper (Canson is particular good from my previous pastel painting efforts), watercolour paper to bristol board. For the purposes of this article I have bought a pad of Charcoal Paper made by Daler-Rowney. It is 'laid' paper, giving it a texture that helps hold the charcoal, and is slightly tinted.
This is the messy (and fun) part! With your vine charcoal in hand, sand it down over a piece of folded paper (I've used an old envelope). If you do not have any spare sandpaper, you should still be able to create dust by rubbing your charcoal on a piece of paper. Take caution not to breathe in the dust.
You will probably need to obliterate two sticks, and once done carefully pour the dust into a container for safekeeping.
Making a Point
When drawing people, facial details can be very fiddly when working small and working in charcoal as it does not have the pinpoint accuracy of a sharpened pencil. If you rub it down you can form a sharp edge for more detailed work. Do not expect the sharp edge to last long though.