1. Design & Illustration
  2. Charcoal

How to Sketch the Human Body with Charcoal

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

For centuries, artists have sketched the human body with charcoal. While it can seem intimidating, it's actually quite a forgiving, and fun, medium to work with. In this tutorial, you'll learn the basics of using charcoal and create a beautiful sketch. While the end result will depend on your drawing skills, you'll learn how to properly use charcoal to push value and block out the human form.

What You'll Need

Charcoal sketching supplies
  • Drawing Paper or Newsprint
  • Drawing board (optional)
  • Masking tape
  • Charcoal stick
  • Kneaded eraser
  • Chamois
  • The photograph you'll use as a reference

1. Practice

Step 1

Before we start on our big sheet of paper, let's practice on a piece of scrap. There are two ways to hold your charcoal stick. The first is like a pencil.

Holding charcoal stick to use the end

Step 2

Make a series of lines to see how sharp and dark a line the end of the charcoal stick can make.

LInes made by end of charcoal stick

Step 3

The second way to hold your charcoal stick is on its side.

Holding charcoal stick to use the side

Step 4

Practice making lines with the side of the charcoal. Notice how different it is from the end of the charcoal. You'll use the side of the charcoal to fill in large areas.

Line made by side of charcoal

Step 5

The chamois is going to be your best friend. Take your chamois and rub over an area that you drew lines in earlier. Notice how it softens your lines and blends the side rubbing marks. If your chamois is like mine, it already holds a lot of charcoal dust, which means it will evenly tone your ground.

Holding the chamois

Step 6

The last tool to practice with is your kneaded eraser. These erasers are ideal for charcoal because you can knead them into any shape you need. As it gets darker, you can knead the eraser over and over to turn it back to its beautiful light grey. Where the charcoal goes, I have no idea.

Holding the kneaded eraser

2. Prepare Your Paper

Step 1

Tape your drawing to a drawing board or a table so that it doesn't move around on you as you're scribbling hurriedly with your charcoal stick.

Step 2

Get some wet paper towels ready so that you can clean your hands as needed. You might also want to put a drop cloth or piece of paper under your art board as charcoal dust will drop off the paper as you work.

3. Draw the Basic Shape

Step 1

Now it's time to start on your drawing! Looking at your photograph for reference, draw in the major directional lines for the limbs using the side of the charcoal. Start to feel not only the angle they lie on but also their length. These directional lines will serve as a sort of skeleton on which to build your body.

Drawing in directional lines for your charcoal sketch

Step 2

Now that you have the directional lines, you can start to feel our where the joints and large shapes of the body are going to be. You can draw in the joints such as the shoulders and elbows with circles. 

Drawing in joints in your charcoal sketch

Step 3

Go in with the edge and side of the charcoal to begin to define the outside shape of the body.

Defining the edges of your charcoal sketch

4. Darken the Shadows

Step 1

Now that we have the basic shape of our body defined, we can go in with the side of the charcoal and put in the bigger shadow areas.

Darkening the shadows of your charcoal sketch

Step 2

After the large shadow areas are in, you can go in and carefully put in the smaller shadow areas with the side of the charcoal. If need be, you can snap your charcoal stick in half to get a smaller piece.

Adding in darker shadows to your charcoal sketch

5. Use the Chamois

Step 1

Take a deep breath and then wipe your chamois evenly across your entire drawing. This allows you to evenly tone the background of the image. It also teaches you not to get too attached to the lines you're putting down. Don't worry, the chamois won't entirely erase what you'd done so far.

6. Pull Out the Highlights

Step 1

Now that everything is evenly toned, you can take your kneaded eraser and pull out the highlights. You can squint at your photo reference to see where the whitest whites in your drawing will be.

Pull out the highlights

7. Go Back Into Your Shadows

Step 1

Using the side of your charcoal, go back into your drawing and darken the shadows. You can also darken the background of the piece. One good tip when drawing in black and white is to put your lightest areas next to your darkest to make your piece pop. That's what I'm darkening the left side of my piece to make the left shoulder pop.

Darken in the background of your charcoal sketch

Step 2

To make your deepest shadows as dark as they can get, go in with your chamois. Wrap the chamois around your finger and rub the charcoal into the paper. Then go back over the top with more charcoal.

Darkening the deepest shadows of your charcoal sketch

8. Chamois, Charcoal, Repeat

Step 1

Use your chamois and charcoal in conjunction as many times as you need to get your piece to the final state where the darks are deep and the lights really pop. Squint your eyes to see if you have a nice range of value in your drawing.

You've Created a Masterpiece!

Charcoal is a medium that has been used by countless artists to sketch out their ideas. While it can intimidate some, it's actually a quite forgiving medium with a chamois and kneaded eraser. Now you're ready to sketch away and fill your walls with charcoal drawings!

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