How to Draw Por­traits in Char­coal

Black beauty The vet­eran an­i­ma­tion artist shares his tech­niques for draw­ing with char­coals, and presents a se­lec­tion of his im­pres­sive art­work

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An­i­ma­tion artist Nathan Fowkes shares his tech­niques for draw­ing with char­coals.

As well as be­ing a con­cept artist for the an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try, work­ing for the likes of DreamWorks, Dis­ney and Blue Sky, Nathan Fowkes is also an art teacher who’s won the hearts of the wider art com­mu­nity through his blog, where he posts a lot of his work. He draws on all th­ese var­ied ex­pe­ri­ences in this guide to char­coal por­trai­ture.

The book con­tains some fine ad­vice, beau­ti­ful art and plenty of orig­i­nal touches

This book is not so much a lin­ear ‘how to’ guide to char­coal draw­ing as a broad over­view, out­lin­ing the ba­sic prin­ci­ples and con­cepts you need to un­der­stand in or­der to mas­ter the dis­ci­pline, doc­u­ment­ing the au­thor’s own pro­cesses, and adding lots of tips and in­sight along the way.

Nathan be­gins with an ex­plo­ration of some sug­gested ma­te­ri­als and how to use them, via walk­throughs that out­line his own pro­cesses. The next sec­tion is based on four ma­jor road­blocks he’s ob­served in his stu­dents. In­spired by this, he sets four chal­lenges based on th­ese con­cepts of prac­tice, time lim­its, value lim­i­ta­tions and per­cep­tion, to get th­ese ob­sta­cles out of the way from the get-go.

Nathan then out­lines what he sees as the fun­da­men­tal build­ing blocks of char­coal por­trai­ture, namely struc­ture, clar­ity with artistry, the val­ues of light and shadow, the de­sign of edges and com­po­si­tion. There’s also a chap­ter on com­mon mis­takes.

The fi­nal 70 pages of the 182-page book is more or less a gallery of draw­ings. Though Nathan’ work is stun­ning, this feels like a bit of a missed op­por­tu­nity, tak­ing up space that could have been given to some for­mal ex­er­cises, or step-by-step tu­ition. The book’s blurb prom­ises “in-depth tu­to­ri­als and valu­able ex­er­cises”. In truth, it doesn’t de­liver on this.

Over­all, How to Draw Por­traits in Char­coal con­tains some fine ad­vice, beau­ti­ful draw­ings and plenty of orig­i­nal and wel­come touches that pass on the ben­e­fits of Nathan’s class­room ex­pe­ri­ence. But on the whole, it feels a lit­tle un­fo­cused.

To con­clude, if you’re look­ing for a for­mal study guide or ref­er­ence work, then you may be dis­ap­pointed. But if you’re seek­ing to sup­ple­ment ex­ist­ing knowl­edge and be in­spired by a lead­ing ex­pert in char­coal draw­ing, then this book is still packed with im­pres­sive art and use­ful ad­vice.

On the left, Nathan demon­strates the mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion of light; on the right, he cor­rects the im­age.

Here, Nathan ex­plains how to give a good head of hair a tan­gi­ble, three-di­men­sional struc­ture.

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