Student blog part 2: drawing bigger and going charcoal crazy

We’re lucky to have Mayko and other experienced artists here to give us professional support and advice. Sometimes though students can also learn from someone that is going through the same learning process, so I’ll be writing articles on my experiences implementing life drawing advice. I’ve always loved drawing from my imagination but have little life drawing experience. So far I’ve been to around 25 life drawing classes.

I’ve had three life drawing sessions since my last entry, and each time I discussed life drawing technique with a couple of teachers and experienced artists. Knowing that I would be posting my work and experiences to this website have really helped keep me disciplined about attending classes, soaking up as much guidance as I can and staying focused on implementing the lessons learned. Making progress visible to others and sharing experiences is a powerful way to keep ourselves motivated (I’ve noticed it with exercise too). On, we would love to also document your figure drawing experiences and work, as it would be interesting and useful to the rest of us and also beneficial to you, so I’m working on a forum on the site so everyone can share.

The two main things I’ve been working on are trying new materials and making my drawings larger. I had been doing a lot of small pictures with pencil, and found them to have a laboured and stilted feeling, as I become pre-occupied making minute adjustments to small lines. Arists that I admire are able to achieve smooth and expressive lines, and they advised me that as a beginner I ought to draw bigger and try a different drawing medium to achieve this. I don’t think that it’s impossible to produce drawings that are full of life with pencil on a small page – Watteau seemed to be great at it. However, larger drawings with charcoal or pastel seem to be a great way for a beginner to bring their pictures to life. I got myself some A2 sheets from [] and some Nitram charcoal.

One thing I noticed is that transitioning to a large sheet with charcoal encouraged me to use my whole arm and elbow, rather than just wrist and hand. I realised the lines I had been drawing with pencil were actually each comprised of multiple tiny lines combined together due to the limited motion of my wrist with the side of my palm resting on the sheet. This gave them a ‘furry’ look and lacked the clean flowing lines of experienced artists. A good example is the forearm on this sketch:

At first, I used the same technique with charcoal and a large sheet of paper. My pictures looked extra messy in charcoal and naturally became small – which really stood out on the large sheet of paper. Take a look at this first attempt using charcoal – it’s very messy and laboured.

Trying out charcoal (figure drawing)

First attempt with charcoal – need to change my style

So I was forced to change my technique and have slowly started to learn to draw bigger to fill the larger page, and use the full motion of my shoulder, elbow and wrist to make stronger and cleaner lines. It’s slow progress, but I’m pleased. This is another attempt – it’s bigger than pictures I’ve tried before and I think the lines have started to become cleaner and smoother. I’ve started trying to emphasise certain areas with dark strong tone and use lighter tones elsewhere, to give the viewer’s eyes somewhere to focus on. In previous pencil outlines were always too uniform and showed nothing about the light falling on the body.

Charcoal attempt – woman’s back

I also started trying pastels. My first few attempts have been pretty disappointing. I drew an outline in charcoal and coloured in with the a yellow pastel, which was all I had. Drawing an outline with pencil or something and then colouring it in is pretty much how I operated as a kid and I’ve never gone beyond that. The model ended up looking like a Simpson:

Failed attempt at using pastel

Another attempt had me using more appropriate colours – a brown and a white. Other artists are able to do huge amounts with just these colours. Unfortunately, my first attempt had me misusing these colours, and using them to ‘colour in’ a charcoal outline again.


Used properly, the brown is great and can create a wide range of tones. Simon, the fantastic teacher at the ULU art society, explained that charcoal or white pastel takes you immediately to quite an extreme tone (of black and white respectively), while the brown (I’m sure the proper name is not just ‘brown’) is capable of more subtle gradations. I tried again, and while it was another failure, I think that some serious practice I will get the hang of it.

However, since these materials are new to me, I’ve realised that it’s best not to try to go crazy experimenting with new techniques and materials, and take my time with each one. So I’ve gone back to just charcoal and allowed myself a little bit of white to highlight things. I’ve tried to focus on using my arm rather than just wrist, go bigger and be bolder, and use more variations in tone and darkness/strength of lines, to bring the picture to life. This is my latest drawing, and I’m pretty pleased because I think I’m slowly moving in the right direction. My flatmate thought her bum was her head and gave me the comment that ‘it looks like an alien or something’, so there is a long way to go still:

Charcoal drawing of a woman lying down twisted over a cushion

Quick tip for those uninitiated to charcoal: don’t write or draw anything in charcoal on the outside of your sketchbook. Charcoal rubs off on things, like your white couch. I’ve already flipped the couch cushion to hide a chocolate stain from my girlfriend, but fortunately charcoal rubs off from a couch pretty easily as well, so no permanent damage done.

Avoid the big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

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