Monday, January 5, 2015

5 Steps to Beginning a Conte Charcoal Portrait

Conte Process
Recently I've been asked about the process of creating a conte/charcoal portrait. To answer some of those questions and give others a better idea of how a portrait comes to life this article shows the evolution of a portrait.

In this article, I'll share my process and discuss some of the drawing tools used while making a portrait of a young man. (In future articles, I'll discuss values and measuring in more detail.) This is a companion portrait. His sister's portrait had been completed, and I would use her portrait to ensure both portraits were visually similar.

As part of my process, I've included a photo timeline showing various stages of the portrait. Warning: sometimes the process is not pretty. Some of the stages are referred to as "the ugly stage".  As with the creation anything, you have to develop a knowing or a vision to get to the other side.


Before starting the life drawing session, I measured the sister's portrait for general size and placement. I then lightly marked guidelines onto the paper being used for the brothers portrait. This helps to denote the approximate placement on the paper and size for compatibility with the companion portrait.  

2 Hour Life Drawing Session
Life Drawing
For me, the first step is to have a life drawing session with the person. The life drawing session last normally 2-3 hours.  

This allows me the opportunity to learn more about the person and their likes. This young man is a musician and will soon be on his way to college. A time in his life of transition and I wanted to capture this in the portrait.

The life drawing session also gives me time to study, understand or read a person's features. This time is important because it helps me determine distinguishing features or characteristics. During the session I learned he has a cleft chin, something I had not noticed prior to the session.

First, I asked him to sit in a loose or general position. As I drew (and after breaks), I watched and waited for him to relax into a comfortable position, one more reflective of his personal body dynamics.

At the point when he looked to be relaxed and "in his zone", I set the pose and took photographs. Then I continued the drawing process until I had completed a rough sketch of him.

After two hours, I had his features sketched onto the paper and he left the session.  It was a good start with a long way to go.

Whenever we look at someone, part of what we recognize about them are their gestures and their body language. This is so important in a portrait. Capturing this essence helps to create a better likeness of the person.

Companion Portraits
My Studio
As mentioned earlier the portrait is companion portrait. In the photograph of my studio, you will see his sister portrait on the wall. While working on this portrait, I positioned his sisters portrait so I could observe it and keep it fresh in my mind. 

The siblings have slightly different coloring. The sister is a brunette with blue eyes and he has sandy blonde hair with blue eyes. My goal was that each portrait should reflect the individual. It was also important that the portraits be harmonious and provide a reflection of one another.

Drawing Process
There's a story by Zig Zigler about a pilot and an airplane and how the plane is off course most of the time. The pilot keeps making corrections all the way until they land. For me working on a portrait is similar to the pilot/airplane analogy. 

In this stage of my work, one of my favorite tools is accurate measuring. The time spent measuring and measuring again helps me ensure the person's features are aligned, in proportion and reflects an accurate version of the person. 

During the life drawing session, as I drew, I measured to get his features. There are several ways to measure, and over time, many artists develop their "eye" or natural sense for measuring. Sometimes I use a proportional divider, or my thumb, a plumb line or whatever's handy. One of my favorite tools is a bamboo shish kabob skewer because it's thin, portable and easy to use.

Transitioning to Conte
Next I loaded the photos onto the computer and after the likeness to be used was chosen it was time to switch from graphite to Conte. 

I set up at my larger easel and workstation as seen in the photo and switched from life drawing to working with a photo as reference material. 

After switching from life drawing to the image on my computer screen, I began to measure once again using a proportional divider. Once you set your proportional divider remember the zoom percentage on your screen. If you have a good monitor this method allows you to feel as if the person is still sitting with you for the portrait.

Glimpses into the Process
This is a snapshot into the process to create a conte portrait. Please pardon the variations in the photo quality. The lighting conditions and the use of 2 cameras created the contrast. It is however, the same portrait. 

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Until next time...

Artfully Yours,

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