Anatomy of a Charcoal Self-Portrait

After learning how to draw using Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I started looking at YouTube time-lapse videos of portrait drawing and became interested in drawing portraits myself, especially in charcoal.

I like charcoal because it’s an evocative medium capable of expressing a wide range of values.  However, it’s also troublesome because it’s brittle and messy.  When drawing with charcoal, it helps to cover the parts not currently being worked on with tracing paper.  Some artists also recommend spraying workable fixative onto your drawing-in-progress every so often to prevent it from smudging.  (I don’t do this because fixative is toxic and the risk/benefit ratio isn’t particularly favorable in my mind.  However, I do use permanent fixative over dry media such as charcoal or pastel after the piece is completed.)

According to Betty Edwards, the 3/4-view portrait is particularly difficult.  I naturally gravitate toward “hard fun,” as Alan Kay puts it, so I couldn’t resist drawing a freehand 3/4-view portrait:

I started with the eyes, added the fedora, …


…then moved down to the face.


After many hours of work, I finished it:


I used compressed charcoal, vine charcoal, charcoal pencils, a kneaded eraser, a blending stump, tortillons, and a typewriter eraser–nearly all from the Prismacolor Premier Charcoal Sketching Set.  With charcoal, the paper one uses is particularly important; I used the Strathmore 400 Series drawing paper, which worked well for my purposes.

This was my second-ever attempt at a realistic self-portrait.  (My first attempt is here.)  Note that I had already tackled some of the fundamentals of drawing by carefully working through Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.  These fundamentals are line, value, (negative) space, and perspective.  (Other fundamentals include composition and color.)

As with writing, music, and other endeavors in my life, I feel I still have a long way to go towards mastery of drawing.  Over the past year, however, drawing has fallen on my priority list while writing and other priorities have risen.  Perhaps drawing will one day rise again.

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” – Chaucer