I prepare my charcoal sticks first. To do this I sand them by holding them at an angle – between flat and 25 degrees – and sand them back and forth sideways, rotating the sticks. Take care as sticks snap easily. Do keep your charcoal sticks needle sharp as much as possible, although hair is one area where you can mass the charcoal in without a fine point.
If you work on toned paper you can shade less with the charcoal and use a white pastel pencil for some light halftones or the odd highlight as shown in the demonstration below. If you are working on white paper then don’t use the white pastel pencil and complete the drawing with charcoal alone, using your putty rubber to maintain light and pick out highlights.
Place your paper right up to one edge of your drawing board so that your eye can flick from the sitter to your drawing without the space of a board in between – the less interference between your view and your work, the better. Use an HB stick (with a light touch) and begin with the angle of the shadow side of the nose to eyebrow. Make sure you place this well on the paper, pending what facial pose you have (full frontal, three quarter, etc) as you don’t want to run out of space horizontally or vertically. To avoid the latter, place the nose approximately half-way down the paper. The scale you give the nose-to-eyebrow relationship will determine the rest of the portrait because the proportions are relative. Oversized to life gives a more contemporary feel but if you can spot life-size or a little under it is more charming, especially if the subjects are women or children, but this is a personal preference.
Set up your model so that your eyelines are on a par. You can play, though; for example if your sitter’s eyes are a little higher than your eye level you can make them look more aristocratic or even haughty. You just have to be careful that you don’t start looking up the nose too much as this is unattractive, especially if you are working to commission. Likewise, if you are drawing a child it might be quite pleasing to be looking down on your subject a little. Standing to draw is ideal as you can easily stand back to review your work. However, these are just guidelines – you are the artist and can do anything you like.
It is always more desirable to have a directional light when you are drawing in tonal values. I recommend LED daylight or, if you are lucky, a north-facing studio with high windows allowing light to come in at a 45-degree angle. If that is the case place your sitter a good 12ft away from that light, facing the window. It is helpful to fix a backdrop cloth of a neutral tone behind the sitter, preferably darker than the sitter’s skin tone, as this gives contrast against the face. Any unwanted reflected light can be reduced by covering the near areas with a black cloth.
If you are unsure about any angle, hold any straight edge at one end (you can bend your elbows as this is not about measurement but about angle-finding), close one eye and align it with the angle you are trying to get. Once your straight edge is parallel to the part you are looking at, transfer this angle by twisting your waist without moving your arms or the straight edge in your hand. Remember it, or have a charcoal in your hand as well and draw the angle. It sounds complicated but it is a simple and effective way of translating angles you see onto a two-dimensional surface. You can do this for any part of the face, especially the nose. Characterisation of a nose as in bumps or little meanders can be modified later but the angle of the nose gives you the pose of the face. There will be shadow under the tip; there is usually shadow under and to one side of the nose, across the cheek, especially if the head is turned slightly, and shadow between the shadow-side of the nose to the eye and also leading to eyebrow.
Stumps are useful for finer details, especially if reworking form. The best way to judge your values is to squint at your model so that detail vanishes and you just see values, then squint at your drawing. Are your tones too light or even too dark in areas? Keep squinting, it’s a great tool and one often forgets to do it. Highlights in the hair can be pulled out with a putty rubber using a soft to a more pressured touch.
Charcoal is very adjustable, even when drawing carefully, so nothing has to be set in stone. Even if you spot mistakes when you are nearing the end of a portrait, it’s not too late to adjust; your model moves and, in this example, my sitter had a habit of tilting her face up, which alters perspective and your drawing. This is why the nose is a good constant base to refer to so, when you notice it, you can ask your model to move back or accept that perhaps this is the pose, which is what I did in the end and at the final stage!
Your reference photograph