Diego Velazquez needs little introduction. He was a rebel with a cause, and a brave man to paint nudes with live models (though only one painting exists today) during the time of the Spanish Inquisition! Later he transformed his style with more daring strokes and a lesser degree of refinement, though no less beautiful as a result. This may explain John Singer Sargents' eulogies to his idol, somebody who Sargent studied by creating his own small scale master copies.
The following 12in by 8in charcoal study is based on 'Portrait of a Man' (possibly a self-portrait), which was only officially attributed to Diego in 2009. The original painting was made informally as either a study or Velazquez was merely applying his more daring style, however British art dealer Joseph Duveen, 1st Baron Duveen is reported to have had the painting touched up, to make it appear more like something befitting an old master.
- Winsors & Newton medium sized vine charcoal
- Putty Eraser
- Paper - A3 (overall paper size approx : 16in by 12in). This was an old sheet of photocopy paper (possibly around 20 years old) I found in storage, slightly yellowed through age, and smooth, without tooth much like copy paper today.
Vine charcoal (made from the willow tree) crumbles into a fine dust when rubbed against light sandpaper. Some of these particles are lightly sprinkled over the paper, and then very lightly rubbed with a piece of tissue paper in random directions to cover the paper. This not only helps to tone the paper slightly (a little like toning a canvas before painting), but the layer of charcoal seems to help with the adhesion of subsequent layers of charcoal that little bit more.
The drawing itself is a fast process (especially contrasted to the task of adding values), which may stem from bad habit, but I find if I spend too long on something my studies end up quite stiff. Good drawing, in my opinion, is often about striking a balance between loose and spontaneous and slow and methodical. If you haven’t been drawing for a long time, I do recommend slowing down and making more checks, especially as there is a tendency to commit to the initial lines that are placed. The lines I make are merely guidelines and I am happy to deviate and correct as I go, though with that being said, it would be counterintuitive and a loss of time to not aim for something accurate.
By shading with the broad chiselled bottom, the sharp edge can be used for drawing. Alternating between the two almost eliminates the need for sharpening on sandpaper.
Velazquez's original painting, following restoration and cleaning
The simplest way to start any drawing is through straight lines. Drawing is a little like playing snooker and lining up your shot. You look at the curves of the face, and take the most direct line through a curve comparing it to an imaginary vertical plumbline, before taking your shot and following through. Some artists use an actual plumbline to measure everything against the vertical, which is good practice, though usually a pencil will suffice. My charcoal sticks are curved, so I tend to just eyeball it, but if I’m drawing with a pencil I will sometimes hold it vertically or horizontally to help judge an angle if I’m a little unsure of myself.
The second stage is a slight refining of the straight lines, but everything is still very angular. I mark in roughly where the eye sockets will go. It would be pointless trying to add details such as drawing the actual eye at this stage, especially with charcoal, where it will simply get lost when you come to add values. You have to learn to see in terms of value, light and shadow – if you can do that, the details generally tend to fill themselves in at a later stage, with less chance that they will be overdone. This way of drawing, with charcoal, is also a nice transition into oil painting, and is the reason why charcoal was used historically, by art students studying in ateliers, before being allowed to paint with oils.
The third stage to the basic drawing is a further refinement of lines – things are rounded off a little more, but again we are only dealing with basic shapes. For example the hair is a large mass that encompasses the basic volume. When the study is nearly complete, then it might be time to think about adding a few more curves, and the odd wispy suggestion of hair.
This following is just one method for adding tone, which I adopt often, but there are many techniques to try, and you will have to discover ones that suit you. Something I learnt from my practice of thumbnails is that you can get a good overview of a drawing and its composition simply by breaking light and shadow. If you squint at your source to effectively blur the values, you have to make a decision as to which of the light tones will be grouped together, and everything else can be filled with charcoal. I chose to hatch so that I didn’t lose my drawing. This is a quick process, and once complete I quickly rub down the charcoal with an oil painting brush, though being careful not to brush too much over the contours. The reason for using a brush is that it does not lift out as much charcoal as say a finger, or tissue.
The whole process is repeated for the darker tones. I squint, make informed guesses as to which areas stand in darker contrast to the rest and then fill it in with broader, heavier strokes of the charcoal.
This is blended out again with a smaller hog’s hair filbert oil painting brush.