Quick Sketch Process in charcoal

I have battled with portrait drawing since I can’t remember.  Despite drawing portraits pretty much every day, I still get it badly wrong more times than I get it right.

I don’t have any particular ambitions to be a portrait artist, there are too many artists that are so much better than I could hope to be whom I admire and am in awe of pretty much permanently.  However, being able to competently draw portraits helps me in all areas of my art.  My cricket and sports drawings will be so much easier if I didn’t spend days sweating over the faces and indeed any animal or bird drawing will be helped no end by increased portrait drawing skills.

I strongly believe that since portrait drawing is the hardest thing to master, there are those that will disagree, but I seriously believe that, then everything else should therefore be easier as a result of an increased skill in this area.


Well, here lies the problem, I have a big imbalance in my art.  I sit down to draw a cricket drawing and without thinking my charcoal glides across the paper, I flit between the different grades of charcoal, the blender, the putty eraser and before long I have pretty much what I want. Ok, not every time – I’m not that good, but most times.

However, when it comes to portrait drawings then I have about at 10% success rate.  So pretty much 1 in 10 drawings turn out with the following attributes.  It’s a good likeness (good but not perfect – photorealism is not what I want), its loose and its expressive.  So it’s basically like my sports art but in portrait format.

I can not tell you how many times I have watched you-tube videos (my current favourite is Zim Lin and if I could afford one of his workshops then I would be there!), how many downloads, books, magazine articles etc I have pored over, made notes, checked and double checked their methods over and over to still pretty much not have a system that I can rely on.

Yesterday however something changed……

I thought to myself this very question – If you want to draw portraits like you do your sports art then why don’t you do that?  Well because I don’t know how I do my sports art, I just do it!  Well why don’t you write down what you do as you do it and then apply that to a portrait? Erm, indeed, Why not?!?!

So I did indeed do that.  I did this drawing of Ian Poulter hitting towards the 18th tee in the recent Ryder Cup and I broke it down stage by stage, writing notes as I went along…..

ian poulter hitting towards the 18 tee in ryder cup 2018 drawing sketch charcoal

I then used those notes to draw a portrait taking photos as I went along so I could share them with you and more importantly to help me with any future portrait drawings.  I am not an art teacher, this is simply my method, in my words.

  1. Use soft charcoal (now I used Nitram soft charcoal sticks with the yellow sticker) I also use the big sticks and even chunky willow charcoal.  It is basically whatever form of charcoal you can use to get dark quick thick strokes.  Use the soft charcoal to roughly sketch in the big dark shapes.  It helps here if you have a correct portrait model or photograph that creates some nice defined dark shadows.  I didn’t really but I muddled through anyway.  Try to make those lines long and straight, like blocks APC_0321
  2. Once you’ve done that its important to take a measure.  No matter how good your artist eye is you are never going to get proportions spot on.  Taking a measurement can be simple with a figure drawing it can be finding out where the waistband is in relation to the head and the legs.  With a portrait I try to find out where the middle of the face is which is going to change dependent on the position of the head.  Once you know you’ve got that right it can become a marker off which you can position everything else – the eyes, the eyebrows, the nose the chin and mouth, the arms, legs, feet etc.  Measuring in your artwork is actually quite a personal thing.  People have written books about it – lots of books. So there is no way I am going to get into it right here.  One thing I can tell you is that you’re probably not measuring enough, we never are, we just want to get on with it.  I always draw freehand – never with a grid for my own personal reasons but this is just a pause to remind you to now measure.


3.      Still using the soft charcoal go back over the shadow shapes you have laid down and darken up the really dark areas.  Even within dark shadows there are darker bits and lighter bits.  It really helps if you perfect the art of squinting.  My eyesight has got worse over the last few years so I need to use glasses to do details when I’m drawing.  In a way this is handy as when I take my glasses off and look at my reference it is a little bit blurry.  Squinting makes everything blurry.  I have found the best method is to move my glasses away from my eyes and literally screw up my eyes and nose.  This sends my whole reference into a series of shapes and helps me to see the shadows there.  At this stage I am looking at my shadow shapes and looking for the darkest parts.  Then I’m adding them again with the soft charcoal…..


The eyes and the eyebrows and the nostrils are probably going to be the main thing you darken here, or the hair, hat etc.

4.  Next job is to think about highlights, take your putty eraser and clean up the areas of your drawing that you want to stay white.  Make some definite decisions about which parts of your drawing is not going to have charcoal on.  This is mega important.  You need that contrast between the dark darks and the light lights to get a successful drawing.

5.  My next bit is all about negative space, or what I call negative space or indeed vanishing edges and the kind of things that I’ve read about but never really got my head around.  All I know is this, you don’t need to draw all the drawing.  If you look at my sketches there are often bits that just aren’t there, the edge of an arm or a shoulder, missing bits of cricket pads etc.   I have not forgotten them, it’s a definite decision that I have made to leave it out.  The more you leave out and the more you just hint at then the more the drawing becomes expressive and impressionistic.  Remember we aren’t into photo realism, we don’t want to copy the reference we want to share with our viewer what we see, the bits of the reference that we find the most interesting.

Look at the following drawing of Moeen Ali, half of his cricket pads are not there!! Did I forget them?  No, of course not, I left them out deliberately because let’s face it we know by looking at the drawing that he has cricket pads on.  His cricket pads are not the focus of this drawing.

Extra Special (20) (1 of 1)-002

Making decisions like this really gives you control of your art.  You stop being a slave to your reference and you start thinking out of the box.  So take a look at your reference and make some decisions…

6.  Now switch to a charcoal with a bit more control, I tend to use the Nitram HB at this stage.  I am thinking mid-tones now.  I want to bridge between the darks and the lights by using light strokes of charcoal to do this.  I also use a blender, a paper towel and my putty eraser to lift light areas…


I am laying down light strokes and blending it towards the light areas, making them go softly into the light areas.  Notice the lines, I do this too,  basically by examining how I draw my sports figures I noticed that I find a shadow area, draw a line to mark the boundary of that area and then shade it in.  Somehow I never brought that technique to my portrait sketches so I thought I would start to do that too.  Measuring lines off the eyes and nose features and making marks so I know where to place features and shadows.

Note, I don’t always erase these lines and I don’t always tidy up the dark shapes from the first stage.  Sometimes I need to tidy up using a putty eraser but I try to keep my original marks in, its another way of keeping the drawing expressive.


7.  At this final stage you can see that I have distinctly dark, light and midtone areas.  My features are all pretty much in place but it probably needs a little bit of definition.  Making things more 3D.  The nose is the feature you can enhance, rather than the eyes that most people tend to go for.  The nose is the one feature that sticks out from the face so it’s the one thing that you really could work on if you want.

So use the sharpened HB to refine any lines and highlights looking to provide shape and 3D….


I would leave this here because it is a quick sketch.  You can obviously work further on it if you wish.

I hope you have found this useful, I certainly learnt a few things about my drawing process when I actually sat down and noted how I did it.  Obviously this is not an academic process, it is simply my process at this moment in time.  I will still be looking at other artists’ processes and learning and learning and learning….

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