Would-be artists often don't know where to begin. The options for materials, subject matter, style, and a myriad of other considerations seems overwhelming. And what if you're broke? Materials can be expensive and make you feel discouraged even before you start.
The beauty of working with charcoal is that the materials are cheap, the basic techniques are simple to learn, and the results you get can be quite dramatic. Here I break down my materials and process, quick and dirty.
1.) Compressed charcoal, varying hardness.
2.) Chamois cloth (can find easily from big box stores: buy from an automotive section, less expensive than in art supplies...). This is a quick and easy way to lay down a medium tone over a large area. You can use a paper towel as well, but the chamois is nice because it holds onto the charcoal, so eventually you can "draw" with the cloth with no need to add new charcoal. And it lasts FOREVER. I've been using the same piece of cloth for six years.
3.) Fingers. I don't use gloves and I often rub my fingertips raw while completing a drawing, but I find it necessary to have direct contact with the paper to achieve my desired look. Because I work so large, I can get away with smudging with my fingers while keeping detail. For smaller drawings or more delicate areas, a smudge stick (more formally known as a tortillon) is recommended. A tortillon is a piece of tightly rolled paper with a point at one end. These can be purchased or made (tutorials abound online).
4.) Erasers. I use primarily kneaded but also like a harder, fine edge (useful for hair). Not only are they useful for, um, erasing, but also for blending. Don't be afraid to experiment.
I begin with a reference photo. For a commissioned portrait, like the one above, I try to stay true to the original image. For other artworks, I take the basic proportions from the original image but often tweak it to better tell the visual story. Either way, the goal is not to duplicate the original photo exactly (though some artists have this goal). That's what photocopiers are for. Your drawing should definitely honor the original, but should also possess a certain quality beyond the photograph.
Taking that reference photo, I make a black and white copy then draw a grid on it. Using a grid is an old and simple way to duplicate an image and alter its size while keeping proportions accurate. Some claim that true artists don't need to use a grid, though if it was good enough for Van Gogh and Da Vinci, it's good enough for me. With experience, you rely on the grid less and less, as your skills of judging perspective, depth, and distance increase. A basic video tutorial on using the grid to draw can be seen here.
From the process photos above, you can see that early on the drawing changes dramatically. As I progress, the differences between stages are less obvious. The details become crucial at this point, where changing just the shape of an eyelid can make or break the whole piece. Luckily for me, if I goof up, my trusty eraser is close at hand. Charcoal is a forgiving medium. Actually, for my drawings of elderly faces, multiple layers of drawing, erasing, and redrawing add wonderful depth to the skin. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, they sometimes add surprising beauty. Now go and create something fabulous!