Category Archives: pencil/graphite/charcoal

oil on charcoal

More experiments with aluminium composite panels, this time on the smaller A5 size. I wanted to see how a vine charcoal pencil would behave on the acrylic gesso surface. Sometimes it’s useful to draw using the precision of a sharp point. And sometimes it’s easier to draw with a pencil grip rather than holding a brush that can only be moved over the surface in certain ways. The question is how to transform that drawing in to a layer of oil paint.

Many people draw directly on canvas then use a spray fixative. Cesar Santos uses this method but has warned against using too much fixative as it creates a weak paint layer.

I found the charcoal draws quite well (albeit with a line tone effect due to the brush strokes in the gesso) and can be lifted off with a kneaded eraser. The paint can be applied directly over the charcoal, but to avoid the whole thing turning into a grey mess it’s necessary to work on only one area of tone at a time and to make sure those values are matched before moving on to the next area.

It’s a bit laborious to do it this way (without the fixative) so I’ll probably stick to using a transfer drawing for any precision areas or to get the overall composition placed correctly. After that, I’ll use a block-in with a brush directly on the canvas, or a wipe-out method for a more tonal drawing. But drawing in charcoal is so much fun, and this alone will make for a more dynamic picture.


live memory

The end of the Royal Crescent in Bath, painted in oils on the new aluminium composite panels.

This began as a pencil sketch made on location but was painted at home on the easel. I revisited the scene a couple more times at the same time of day to make further pencil sketches of details and light effects. The late autumn mid-afternoon light created some interesting edge lighting on the trees and columns.

Various sketch references and an acrylic colour study. The vine charcoal sketch below was useful for overall composition. The original pencil drawings and other notes are in the spiral-bound sketchbook. The aluminium composite panel was attached to the easel with tape and Blu Tack.

I took a reference photo which was useful for correcting proportions and details, but many of the important light effects in the scene were lost. The strange thing was that they were there in the photo, but somehow they had been flattened out and weren’t noticeable.

In the continuing debate about painting from life against painting from photo reference, I found this approach of doing both worked quite well. The most important thing I found was that drawing anything for any length of time has the effect of imprinting the scene on memory — not so much the overall composition, I still needed the sketch and photo for that, but the sense of depth, the subtle lighting effects and the overall atmosphere of the scene. For instance, there was a shift in the warmth of the stone between the crescent in the foreground and the buildings behind. And the road in the middle-ground has a steep camber which somehow added to the depth of the scene.

As I was making the first pencil sketch, leaning on the cast iron railings in front of the crescent, the late afternoon sun came out from behind the clouds and flooded the scene with golden light. The edges of the trees and buildings lit up, and everything else was plunged in to deep, warm shadow. It was a completely different scene and it only lasted a few seconds. It would have made for a more dramatic picture, and it certainly made me aware of how ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in our visual perception are relative to their surroundings.

All these memories played in my mind as I was painting, and it certainly made the process of painting much more interesting. Whether I can capture these perceptions using oil paint is another matter, but I certainly won’t be able to paint what I didn’t see in the first place.


portrait practice

Sometimes it’s useful to copy a photo as if it’s a Bargue drawing, paying close attention to proportion and accuracy. I found that copying Bargue’s schematic drawings makes me more aware of how the contours of the features have distinct directions and angles in relation to one another, and it is useful to look out for these basic shapes when observing the model. For instance, the structures of the eye (including the eyeball) slope backwards when seen in profile, and the stair-step of the mouth has its own distinct pattern of slopes, bulges and overhangs.

At the other extreme is full-on caricature, which is sometimes necessary to get the life and gesture back in to a drawing after too much chasing after accuracy. Court Jones has an excellent series of videos on this subject over at

Another benefit of caricature is that it emphasises the three-dimensional structure of the features, so the final picture becomes a construction of cylinders, blocks and eggs. This is the opposite of flattening what you see into an abstract collection of two-dimensional shapes, like the pieces of a jigsaw. Both these ways of seeing have their advantages, and I find it useful to flip from one method to another as I build up a drawing.

These pictures were made with charcoal or graphite except for the second one which was black and white Conté crayon on a background of gouache. Buried under that grey gouache background is a wiped-out attempt at a gouache portrait where I quickly found out how difficult it is to create smooth blends in that medium. It can be done but it requires some skill. James Gurney talks about it in this post, and has some general advice on using gouache here. Gouache is good for constructing forms from confident, distinct brush strokes. I find it much easier to build up forms with smooth blends and sharp edges using graphite or charcoal, especially when combined with a kneaded eraser.

Photo credits (including some very useful instructional videos):

On Air Video and Croquis Cafe Heads Up

Vincent Xeus

Bradwynn Jones Wake and Draw

Draw This

Alex John Beck

New Masters Academy


flat or round

When I’m drawing, I find I frequently change the way I interpret what I am seeing in order to get it down on paper. Sometimes, the scene is an abstract arrangement of flat shapes, and the drawing is an attempt to copy that collection of unidentified blobs and curves as accurately as possible. At other times, I see the object as a construction of primitive shapes, where an arm becomes a foreshortened cylinder or a torso becomes a rounded block.

The Betty Edwards classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has a central message to draw what you see rather than what you know, and ignore the generic image of a cup, a tree, a face that we have stored in our minds and replace it with the collection of light and dark forms right there in front of you.

Of course, the labelling ‘left brain’ can have its uses, for instance to recognise that the eye is probably more important to get exactly right in a portrait rather than accurately drawing every last lock of hair. But once the important area has been identified, the ‘right brain’ can take over so that it is no longer ‘an eye’ but a collection of interlocking forms and shapes.

By contrast, using the construction method to draw takes what we see and transforms it in the virtual reality of our minds into a simple shape, and then we draw that shape.

One method isn’t necessarily better than another; they’re all useful tools to get an image down on a flat surface, and I find it useful to switch from one method to the other. So, as I draw, an abstract blob can turn in to ‘an arm curving around an elbow in to the forearm’, which in turn turns into a construction of cylinders, pyramids and elongated spheres leading in to the square block of the wrist. And as I draw that, the shadow shapes take over again.

[Photo credits for the three photos copied above: Martin Munkácsi, Neil Libbert, Pierre Parente via aucharbon.]


after Steichen

This charcoal sketch was inspired by watching an episode of Jennifer Marie’s Atelier Diary in which she talks about the book Camera Work by Alfred Stieglitz. Camera Work was a quarterly photographic journal which ran in the early 20th century, full of high quality photogravures. As she says in the video, some of the photographs in Camera Work look like charcoal drawings. So a quick image search lead to a photo taken by Edward Steichen and published in Camera Work in 1903, which had the tones and textures of a drawing rather than a photograph.

This drawing, based on the Steichen photo, was done fairly quickly with vine charcoal on the cheap printer paper I use for most of these charcoal or carbon pencil sketches. I wondered what it would look like with more of the tone and colouring of the original. So I took a photo of the sketch into Photoshop and added an orange/yellow gradient map which could be faded and selectively masked to create a more three-dimensional form. I also made some adjustments to the original sketch to alter the contour of the muscles attaching to the right shoulder blade.

The resulting picture only exists as a digital file. And that’s the lesson I learnt from this: to start as you mean to go on — a sketch will always be a sketch. To make a finished piece, it’s best to begin with the right materials and build it up with a proven method.


fixed lines

A vine charcoal copy of a drawing by Ernest Laurent of Georges Seurat. (I thought it was a drawing by Seurat of Laurent until I realised I was reading the caption incorrectly, though Seurat has made some beautiful tonal drawings.)

I copied this from a full page reproduction in Juliette Aristides book Classical Drawing Atelier at almost sight size. Even so, this is a different face from the one in the book. The forehead is higher and the gaze more stern. The features in the original are more round and gentle. The tiniest change made to the shape of an eye with the tip of a sharpened stick of charcoal could transform the face dramatically.

Laurent gives the illusion of a rough sketch with his quickly drawn lines around the edges of the picture. The face in the centre, however, has a precision and diffuse softness which was hard to reproduce. For some of the background areas of the drawing I tried blending the charcoal into the laid charcoal paper with a screwed-up piece of kitchen paper, but this creates an even smudgy grey rather than the clean halftones of Laurent’s original. Laurent’s mid greys seem to be a clean black dot on an untouched paper background, much like the halftone dots of a newspaper photograph.

As I’ve mentioned before, vine charcoal is lovely to draw with, being very maleable and erasable, but the finished drawing is so ridiculously susceptible to damage that I think even the process of putting a drawing behind glass in a frame would risk some smudging.

One solution would be to use a spray fixative. Up until now, I’ve had two reservations about this: that the fixative would darken or shift any delicate tone changes in the drawing, and that individual drops of spray would create a coarse, blotchy mess on a smooth areas.

To test this, I drew tone gradients on charcoal paper (Strathmore laid toned charcoal paper), then covered the left half with a sheet of paper before spraying with fixative from an art shop (Winsor & Newton Artists’ Fixative). Here it is before spraying:

I copied the printed tone strip on the right as accurately as I could, though the toned paper meant I couldn’t go lighter than about a step 3 or 4. I drew the tones indoors in relatively dim light. When I took it outside, the printed tone strip seemed much brighter at the light end. (The effects of consistent lighting are something I need to experiment with in detail.)

The top block of tone strips were drawn by varying the pressure of the charcoal or by crosshatching. In the lower block, the charcoal was blended using a stub of kitchen paper.

You can see a slight darkening effect on the right half, especially at the bottom due to uneven spraying. You can also see my smudge tests to see if the fixative was working after each round of spraying. How you would do this on a finished drawing, I don’t know. Perhaps just give it many coats and accept the slight darkening.

Even though it was darkened, the blended charcoal tones didn’t seem to be blotchy or grainy.

After these tests, I found that:

  • The drawing did darken a little, with a slightly yellowish cast, and perhaps this was more noticeable in the lighter areas.
  • The darker areas needed as many as 8 or 9 coats to really hold down the thickly applied vine charcoal. Lighter areas were fixed with just two or three.
  • The spray was very even and did not cause any noticeable blotching or splattering in the smooth tones.
  • Getting an even coat on the paper was another matter: the slightest breeze would blow the precious spray to land anywhere except on top of the drawing.

So, when I create my vine charcoal masterpiece, I’ll be able to use fixative without being too concerned about drastically changing its appearance. (Concern about my bank balance is another matter — this stuff ain’t cheap.)


too many photos

“Draw from life.” It’s advice I hear all the time, from the web, from books, from friends.

There is something different about seeing a real three-dimensional thing in front of you. Compared to a photograph, there is so much more information to draw from. In many ways, this makes it easier to pull out what you need for the picture. In other ways, you have more work to do: What do you do with that bright highlight when all you’ve got to represent it is the dull white of the paper you’re drawing on?

Playing here with some grey wash watercolour pencils, softened with a waterbrush and a touch of fountain pen black ink.


value studies

Inspired by a post by Terry Miura and the striking composition of Ed’s recent sketches, these are quick value studies of various photos. Value studies are a useful way to see if a picture will hold together as a composition before committing to a larger painting. Terry Miura’s post explains the process and thinking and is well worth a read.

I used vine charcoal on cheap printer paper for these studies. It smudges very easily which can be an advantage as you can lighten or even erase an area just by touching it. Large areas of tone can be laid down by quickly scribbling over an area then smoothing it over with a finger. Very often this process will erase or blur something you want to keep, so the darkest darks will need to be reapplied. Once you get used to this smudging-then-reapplying dance, it’s a very quick and satisfying way to draw thumbnail sketches.

Don’t wear white.

surface tension

I’m always impressed how different materials make for different types of drawing. With a large mop brush in your hand, you’re not going to make a delicate mark. A sharp pencil on silky, hard paper tends to lead to delicate lines and more detail, with smooth tones from teasing the graphite around.

This is perhaps why I haven’t been attracted to making digital artwork, despite its many advantages. A plastic stylus on a graphics tablet lacks the tactile joy of feeling the paint crush under the bristles or of a dip pen gliding over plate illustration board.

I keep this small concertina sketchbook in my bag for sketching when out and about. It’s a Moleskine, but only cost £1 in a charity shop. It has one long continuous sheet of folded paper, ideal for panoramas, and it has the advantage that the facing pages fold flat. The paper is more like thin card and feels wonderfully smooth under a pencil. My favourite weapon of choice is a clutch pencil with a 2B lead, but a thick, buttery Croquis 6B retractable pencil allows for more expressive lines and can take the graphite as dark as it will go.

The image immediately above can be scrolled left to right. It’s a cheat really as the pages aren’t in the correct order and I’ve rotated the horizontal ones, but you get the idea.

endless paper

Sketchbooks are great, I love them. They keep all your masterpieces, all your mistakes, all your experiments, all together in one place — a record of that time in a self-contained book. For better or worse, that is what you saw, and how well you could draw, at that time.

But sometimes you just want to experiment and not worry how this new page will compare to all those previous pages. When you manage to make two or three decent drawings, the next one has to be at least as good. That’s a pressure that can stop you from starting the next drawing. A pressure that can stop you from drawing altogether.

There are ways of getting around this expectation (in your own head) that you have to live up to the quality of the last drawing. One is to fill a page full of scrawls of pen testing — squiggles of run-out ink or freshly sharpened pencil. This spoils the page. The bar has been lowered. You no longer have to live up to that golden run of fine artwork. You are free to experiment and, possibly, fall flat on your face with a lemon of a drawing.

Sometimes you don’t even want to lower the bar. Sometimes you just need to scrawl, scratch and belly-flop your way through a whole bunch of drawings that will never be seen. This is valuable. It is important to practise, to get it wrong, again and again. The results will be a mess, arms will be drawn too long, heads will look like deflated footballs, hands will be stunted stubs, but it doesn’t matter. You have to make mistakes, takes risks, try things out, and do it all away from the public gaze. If every piece is for show then there’s a tendency to play safe and only use methods you’ve used before.

There are parallels to sports training or mastering a musical instrument — endless repetition, making the awkward and difficult rewire into muscle memory. And most importantly (otherwise you’ll never do it), you have to love the process of training.

Some time back I found a box of printer paper in the back of the garage. It was that perforated printer paper with holes in the side — one long, box-deep piece of seemingly endless paper. It was smooth on one side and rough on the reverse, much like shop-bought artist’s newsprint.

Lately, it has replaced the sketchbook. That’s not quite true: I still have a number of sketchbooks on the go — one stuffed in a rucksack for those moments of sketching on a park bench or waiting in a car park. Another, with thicker paper, has paint thrown at it. Yet another contains watercolours or gouache or ink. This computer paper isn’t a replacement, it’s a place to experiment.

Of course, the ones shown here are a selected batch — many of the sheets are filled with unremarkable 1 minute gesture drawings. quick sketches, warm-ups, or overworked dark-grey multi-lined smudges — a necessary graveyard of lemons. They all end up being stuffed into a corner of a cupboard, so I take a snapshot of some of the ones that have something interesting about them, or sometimes I’ll take a photo just to record the way I draw at the moment. Hopefully, I’ll be able to look back in years to come and see an improvement.

When this box runs out, I’ll go online and order a ridiculous amount of cheap paper, probably not intended for artists but sold to wrap ornaments for a house move or to wrap fish & chips.

Someone once said, to become good at drawing you need to encircle the world with newsprint. I haven’t encircled the world, but I’m approaching the Ilfracombe & Barnstaple section.