Tag Archives: charcoal

Part Two, Project 6, Exercise 3 -Tonal study

For this tonal exercise, work on a large scale (A2 to A1) and use light marks to map out the composition. Be sure to use all of the picture space.  Notice the lightest areas and map them in. Using charcoal, soft pencil, conté or pastel, work out the mid-tone areas and the darkest. Find a way to convey the subtle gradations within these areas. All of the media mentioned will give you problems of smudging, so work from the centre of a dark area outwards so that your hand doesn’t rest on an area of heavy charcoal or graphite. Don’t worry if you lose lighter areas; you can use a putty rubber to pick out highlights. You could also use white paint, chalk or conté for this, but be careful not to overdo it. Look for the lightest tones again when the drawing is almost finished.  Keep looking from your subject to your drawing while squinting to check on tonal values.

This is the view I was working from (as sketched in exercise 2).


Firstly I did a light pencil drawing to map in the main areas.  I used charcoal powder to smudge in the main tonal areas- medium and them dark areas (ie. the back of the sofa, shadows on the walls and the piano etc).  Then I worked in shading and detail using willow charcoal.  I tried very hard to respond to the tonal information before me rather than focusing on details.


“Music Room” Charcoal on Daler & Rowney 220gsm heavyweight A2 cartridge paper.


Assessment criteria points

  • Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills (35%).  I was very pleased with  this piece of work.  The charcoal and moody tones echo the victorian feel of the room.  I deliberately chose this interior because I liked the play of light in the room and I worked hard to observe and capture this.   I think the composition adds to the success of the work- I like how the sofa is situated perpendicular to the fireplace.  By leaving the white paper to shine through (e.g. on the mirror and cushions) this creates highlights which contrast strongly with the deep shading, to lift the picture.  I haven’t been over-obsessive about detail, and in my opinion, this looseness gives the picture life.  Careful observation of where shadows fall lends objects in the room a sense of form and mass.
  • Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas (20%).  I felt quite confident using charcoal for this drawing as I had developed knowledge of it’s limitations & its use from part one of the course.  It was the correct choice for this exercise, and achieves the effect that I wanted.
  • Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice (25%).  I had a strong feeling that I wanted to play with the light/shade in this picture before I started it.  Creativity was mainly in how I used the media.

Assignment One

Assignment Objective:  To create a still life using objects that have meaning to me- ensuring there is good lighting, making tones obvious, looking at spaces between objects, using A2/A3 paper.

I decided to draw my saxophone, some sheet music, a glass of water and a pencil using charcoal on A2 cartridge paper.  I gave it the title: “The Perfect Musicians Pencil.”  a reference to an in-joke with my piano teacher-  this pencil (The Blackwing 602), however worn down, always has a functional eraser on the end, which makes it perfect for adding and altering practice notes on music!! These objects tell a story about me, of being mid-practice session- making notes on the music as I go.   I picked these objects because music is a big part of my life and also because the sax is such a beautiful object for its own sake.  I was slightly concerned that the sax is also a very complex object but I had a very strong idea of what I wanted to achieve so wanted to have a proper go at tacking it.


I started with some thumbnail sketches and draft sketches in my sketchbook to plan the composition and try out graphite pencil versus charcoal.  I did not want to draw the whole sax- I wanted to focus in on part of it so that it put the other objects equally centre-stage.  I had to try this out a couple of times so I could get a feel of where I wanted the objects on the paper.  The charcoal resulted in a lively spontaneous sketch, while the pencil gave a more accurate but also a more stilted image.  I positioned the composition in natural light- this created more subtle tones than using a lamp.

IMG_0234I lightly outlined the main shapes and structure of the objects using a pencil.  I took a long time to measure and position each element of the drawing as accurately as possible.  The exact orientation of the objects was at this point determined by the fact I was working on an easel.  I had to stand back a bit and could not get quite as close to look down on the objects as I had wanted to.

IMG_0239I lightly sketched in the main tones and shapes of the objects using the side of some vine charcoal.  I built up form slowly, layering the tones to build mid- to dark-shaded areas, trying to leave the white areas clean.  I was able to remove the charcoal where it muddied the picture, using my fingers or an eraser, and kept working methodically until a structured picture emerged.  I was trying very hard to accurately represent the objects’ anatomy and highlights/shading.

The shape of the sheet music was surprisingly hard to get in perspective, especially where it emerged behind the sax.


For a long time I worked on capturing accurate detail, but the sax only started to come to life when I realised that I had to describe the negative space between the keys as well as the keys themselves.  The background was a black granite work-surface and when I started to add that in, the sax seemed to emerge from the background in stark relief and develop a 3D quality I hadn’t managed to capture up to that point!  The highlights and different shading on the shiny metal started to make sense as a representation of the instrument’s form.

The challenge with the water glass was very different.  There were a lot of mutated shapes (staves and shadows) wrapped around and through the glass.  I tried to just observe accurately and reproduce only what I could see.   Some of the detail of the sax was visible through the glass, above the waterline, albeit slightly muted.

The sax, the glass and the pencil are all reflected below in the granite surface- I tried to hint at this without detracting from the main objects in the picture.

Finally, I focused on detail- checking the accuracy of highlights etc.  I used a charcoal pencil to outline and darkening some of the tones to exaggerate detail and contrast.  I also tried highlighting some of the lightest areas with a white conte crayon and acrylic paint applied with a brush.  This was a mistake as I felt mixing the media took away from the freshness of charcoal alone.  Whites that relied on just the colour of the paper were much fresher.  Similarly in some places I tried adding finer detail using a rollerball pen, but decided very quickly that it just made it look over-fussy and detracted from the natural fluidity of the charcoal.  I should have tested out both before applying them to the finished drawing!


“The Perfect Musicians Pencil.” Charcoal on A2 cartridge paper

Assessment criteria points

  • Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills (35%).  I felt I exhibited technical and visual skills.  I applied a lot of what I learned in part one and was clear in my mind about what I wanted to produce visually- both in terms of style of drawing and composition on the paper.  Due to the complex nature of the objects chosen (I was worried the sax might have been over-ambitious) I was careful to focus on accurate observation and to draw only what I could see.  I like the looseness and expressive nature of charcoal and how it leads you to focus on shapes, contours and contrasts rather than getting too stuck on fine details.  I think I depicted the contrasting surfaces and 3D shapes of the objects, to create a picture that captured solidity and depth, with sufficient shadow  to ground the objects and give them mass/weight.
  • Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas (20%).  I felt I worked logically and developed my idea from concept to finished drawing.  From the start I had a very clear image in my mind’s eye of the composition of the still life and what I wanted to capture on paper.  I hope this is communicated above.
  • Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice (25%). Experimentation was through trying out a few different compositions and media.    I was clear from the start that I wanted to use charcoal,  but was less happy with different media I tried adding later.  I should have worked these through in my sketchbook beforehand! I don’t feel this assignment overly challenged my imagination as I more or less directly applied what I’d learned in part one of the course.  As a still life it says a lot about me- music and practice is a big part of my life!
  • Context reflection – research, critical thinking (learning logs and, at second and third level, critical reviews and essays) (20%).   If I did this again I might try using masking fluid to protect the highlight areas- so the paper underneath stays clean until the end.  I would also be interested to try using pen and ink or washes to try to smooth out the tones and give a more “shiny” finish.  In the course so far,  I have learned a lot about myself and my abilities – I am reading a lot and becoming more immersed in the subject and my confidence and enjoyment is increasing.

Part1, Project 2, Exercise 4- Shadows and Reflected Light (P26)

Draw two objects with reflective surfaces.  Using charcoal, putty rubber, on A1 or A2 paper fill the paper, showing the reflected light and shade.


Attempt 1- teapot and mug.  Vine charcoal on the smoother side of A2 mixed media paper.

I chose a shiny chrome teapot and ceramic mug with interesting contours on its surface.  I positioned them so that the mug reflected onto the teapot- there were also reflections of windows and the room in its surface.  I positioned them so natural light fell from the right- natural light gave a subtler range of tones than when I shone a light on the composition.  However, I read somewhere that a still life should be lit from the left so the viewer reads it like a book (L-R)- is this true?


I felt it was important to try to observe and protect the white areas from the start to prevent the drawing becoming dulled and muddy and to let fresh white paper shine through.  I used the side of the vine charcoal to lightly describe the main areas of shade and slowly built up tone from there using a combination of the side of the charcoal, its sharp tip and using the putty rubber to lift out the light tones where needed.  I was not altogether happy with the rough finish caused by the rough texture of the paper- even though i tried to smudge it smooth using my fingers.  I finished the picture by adding finer detail using a conte stick- this gave power to the denser blacks and lifted the drawing.

I am pleased with the shiny finish on the teapot lid, and the dark tones and textural contrast of the lid handle brings it to life.  I am also pleased with the reflection of the mug in the side of the teapot.  I was less pleased with the contours on the mug which lack subtlety and would have liked the side of the teapot to look more “shiny”.  I felt overall the proportions were accurate.  I Like the strong blacks created by the vine charcoal and how it can be smudged back to change and reduce areas as required.  It allows experimentation and enables the picture to be created in “layers” without spoiling the finished drawing.


Attempt 2. “The Odd One Out?” Vine charcoal on  A2 cartridge paper.

I wanted to try the exercise again to see if I could create a smoother effect on smoother paper.  I chose to draw salt and pepper mills and an oil diffuser which were similar shapes but differed in their details. They all had brushed chrome surfaces with interesting distinct patterns of light and card across their surfaces.  This arrangement made me think of playground infighting at school- how in a group of three friends, one is often left out!


I was concerned not to muddy the finished drawing- I wanted bright highlights and details and clear contrasts of tone.  I’m happy with the finished drawing- I finished it off with charcoal pencil.  I am not 100% sure I should have added the background shadow- it looked cleaner without, but having it in does contextualise it more.


Attempt 3. Compressed charcoal in shades of grey on grey A3 pastel paper.

Every morning I look at a vase on the fireplace in the bedroom and think I should try drawing it.  It is a large glass vase, against a grey wallpaper (hence the choice of paper).  Alongside it is a decoupage model- a giraffe dressed up as a zebra.  Using just grey compressed charcoal I did a reasonable background sketch of the subject but it looked a bit flat- partly because of the grainy texture of the charcoal and partly because the colours were not intense enough.  I used white chalk, white pencil, charcoal pencil and vine charcoal to intensify the lights and darks and to define detail.  Making the reflections whiter gave the picture more of an illusion of 3D form.  Also, using a blending tool to remove graininess and smudge the blacks and whites of the giraffe, brought it to life more.  I wonder if I have made the vase too distinct?- (looking at the actual object it almost disappears into the wallpaper).  Maybe I should have just hinted at its form more using light colours and fewer dark colours.  I like the highlights on the giraffe and its reflection in the vase.  It made an interesting change to draw something that was level with/above my eye-line.