How To Draw Portraits In Charcoal In 4 Easy Steps

 an artist drawing a charcoal portrait

Have you ever wanted to learn how to draw portraits in charcoal but weren't sure where to start? Now you don't have to worry because we're going to show you what it takes! 

To get started with your charcoal portrait, sketch out the subject’s features, shade and highlight different areas, add details, and finally contrast the background. 

This blog post will teach you the four easy steps for drawing portraits with charcoal. We also added some tips to improve your techniques. So let's get started!

How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal

Charcoal portrait of a girl - Image by Kirtsy Patridge
Charcoal portrait of a girl - Image by Kirtsy Patridge

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Plan the facial features 

A portrait is a work of art that captures the likeness of someone. The first step in drawing a realistic picture is establishing where the head should sit on your paper and making sure you know how big it will be to plot out its proportions correctly. 

Seasoned artists do not usually use a grid to start with their drawings, but we feel this step is necessary to get the correct proportions for newbie artists. Observing the ratio between eyes, nose, and mouth is crucial for capturing an accurate likeness as well as curves around ears or along the jawline before you sketch. 

You must sketch more minor details on the face like the cheekbones, the folds on the eyelids, and the curves of the nose and ears to get an accurate drawing. Keep your sketch light, so you don't have issues later.

2. Block the shadows and highlights on the sketch

One of the most challenging parts of drawing portraits in charcoal is knowing where to add the shadows and highlights to your portrait drawing. The right amount can make your artwork stand out, and if done poorly, it will look amateurish. 

Start by toning the face, adjusting values where you see its darkest and lightest. One helpful tip is to use a grayscale swatch so you can compare the values of your shadows.

Gently shade to add values of the face by layers around eye level and identifying where the mid-tones and dark tones are. Add more layers to refine the form of the person's features. Use a makeup brush or charcoal to fill lightly in the areas where you want shading.

This step is vital so that you can determine the tonal values of the face. Next, take your stump over it again to blend things until they look more cohesive. 

However, remember that this step is not yet the final step. Whatever you add at this point may be erased or enhanced as you go. You'll also notice that the artist did not get very detailed with her strokes. 

At this stage, use a kitchen towel or parchment paper to protect your drawings from smudges. The hand may sometimes leave behind a trace of oil that will affect the quality of your work. You can also use a mahl stick or an artist bridge to protect your charcoal portrait. 

3. Add in details, blend and highlight your sketch

Now that you have laid the precise foundation for your charcoal portrait drawing, it's time to add the details with charcoal pencils for a realistic portrait. 

Erase highlights and lighter values using a kneaded eraser or eraser pencil, enhancing the highlights with the white charcoal pencil. You can also use your vine charcoal to add darker tones, then blend with a blending stump to have a more refined look.

Use a sharp charcoal pencil when adding details. Again, layer as you detail, especially when working on the hair. This technique will give you more control over your charcoal drawing. It also lets you focus on a specific portion of the charcoal drawing until you get a clearer likeness of the portrait you're drawing.

Blending is also essential. It is one of the most crucial techniques to remember when working with charcoal portraiture. Because the charcoal portrait is monochromatic, blending helps smoothen the transition.

4. Darken the contrast between the background and your portrait

Once you're confident that your portrait drawing (details, values, highlights) is good enough, increase the contrast between your background and your portrait. 

It provides the outline for your charcoal portrait without adding a line drawing that may affect the quality of your portrait drawing and result in a cartoony effect.

Add dark values behind the head using a charcoal pencil or compressed charcoal. Blend the charcoal using a blending stump or artist chamois to smoothen the background. The dark background heightens the portrait, letting it pop out of the drawing. 

Bonus Step: Seal your charcoal portrait

One of the issues with charcoal sketches is that they get smudged and ruined easily. To prevent that from happening, use a fixative. Hold the fixative about 12 inches away from the artwork, then evenly spray light but even layers of fixative. 

Here is the video showing the step-by-step process of drawing a charcoal portrait:

Tips for Beginners: How to Get Better at Charcoal Drawing

  • Know your charcoal supplies and use them properly

Know your preferences and the differences between various tools and supplies when buying. Here are some basic supplies you need to draw portraits.  


Charcoal is the main product to use when doing a charcoal portrait drawing. Charcoal supplies are not the same, so you need to find the right type for your needs. 

You will want to experiment with different brands or types of charcoal until you discover which one works best for your style. You need a charcoal pencil, compressed charcoal, charcoal powder, and stick charcoal.


Erasers are not only for erasing when you draw portraits in charcoal. It also provides highlights, even creates art using reductive style. You can choose from a kneaded eraser, eraser pencil, and pen eraser. 

Use the eraser as a medium to do hair detail and add shading. Although it is technically not an eraser, white charcoal enhances highlights on your charcoal portrait, so we included it here. 

Blending Tools

For blending, artists use a blending stump, brush, artist chamois, or tissue paper. Although other artists use their fingers for blending, we don't recommend it, especially if you've been working for some time. 

The fingers have natural oils that may smudge your charcoal portrait drawing. Aside from blending, an old paintbrush or makeup brush also works for applying powdered charcoal.

Charcoal Sketchpad

Another vital supply you must have is a quality sketchpad with a good texture (also known as tooth). This texture gives your charcoal portrait drawing a distinctive grainy look. It also lets the charcoal particles adhere well to the paper.


The fixative is an essential supply you need to have to seal in your charcoal drawings.  Tape your charcoal portrait on a piece of board, move it outside or in a well-ventilated room before adding a few layers of fixative to your portrait drawing. 

You can use a workable fixative halfway through your drawing and then add a permanent fixative when you’re satisfied with the portrait’s outcome.

  • Use paper with a good texture

Use an archival type of charcoal sketchpad, so your work lasts a long time, especially if working on a meaningful art piece. Archival paper is durable and acid-free, so you don't have to worry about chemical changes or discoloration in your projects.

  • Understand the importance of light

Light plays a vital role in your portraits. Beginners need to know how light interacts with their subject to represent this interaction on paper. This knowledge lets you add dark, half, and light tones to your drawings and create highlights. 

Using a grayscale swatch is one of the most recommended techniques of seasoned artists so you can compare how dark or light the values are in your reference image.

  • Work in layers

Work in layers instead of going for dark values because it won't be easy to correct them. If you start too dark, you won’t be able to adjust your details. 

  • Step away from your charcoal portrait

When you are too absorbed with your charcoal portrait, you may not see what's missing from it. Step away from your charcoal portrait for a few hours or a day to get a new perspective. 

You can also show it to a trusted friend to critique it. A fresh eye may bring you more insight to improve your drawing.

Charcoal Portraits FAQ

1. What is the advantage of using charcoal in art?

Charcoal is a drawing material that is very similar to graphite, but you can use it for other purposes besides basic sketching. It provides artists with an expressive medium for shading and blending without getting stuck on details. 

Charcoal sticks are especially great for broad strokes because they have blunt ends that force you to focus more on large shapes rather than intricate ones. 

On the other hand, charcoal pencils are easier to manipulate, less messy, and you can make finer details when you sharpen them to a point. 

2. How to get fine details with charcoal?

Use an H or HB charcoal pencil to make your lines, then use the side of a pointed charcoal stick to make delicate details. Keep your charcoal pencil sharp to create fine details on your charcoal portrait. 

3. How to get better at drawing with charcoal?

Constant practice is essential to get better at charcoal drawing. You should also understand the use of each charcoal supply and tool so you can use it for its specific purpose. 

When in doubt, step away from your charcoal drawings. Do not push yourself to finish it in one sitting since stress won't do you any good.  

For a more detailed tutorial, Nathan Fowkes’ How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal is the best book. 

4. How to store charcoal sticks?

Vine charcoal is very brittle, and you should know how to store it properly so you can still use it as a stick. Otherwise, you’ll have powdered charcoal the next time you use it. The best way to store your charcoal sticks is to keep them in small kitchen containers. 


We hope you've enjoyed this blog post on how to draw portraits in charcoal. The four easy steps we covered should help you get started, and now all that's left for you is practice, patience, and a lot of time! If drawing realistic portraits in charcoal has been something you're interested in but haven't tried yet, try this tutorial.

Do you have any tips or tricks when it comes to using charcoal for portrait drawings? Share them below in the comments to help budding artists improve their technique.

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