Ask the Art Prof: When and How Should You use Photo References to Draw?

Tone project

Newly updated version of this popular Ask the Art Prof column!

by Clara Lieu

“When and how you should use photo references to draw?”

Too often I find that people use photo references out of laziness.  Be careful that if you decide to work with photo references, that it’s for a very specific need, not because of convenience. Photographs should only be used when direct observation of a subject is absolutely impossible. If you’re an illustrator and you’re creating a illustration about dinosaurs, obviously that’s not an image you can draw from life. However, there are many subjects where it’s very possible, and in some cases very easy. For a still life drawing, get the actual objects and set them so you can directly observe them from life. I’ve literally seen students search for a photo of an apple online so that they can draw an apple.  Is it really that hard to buy an apple to draw from life?!?

If you are drawing a self-portrait, it’s easy enough to get a mirror and draw from that. The 15 minutes it takes to figure out how to set up your mirror and drawing board to draw a self-portrait are seriously worth the time. Anything that you can possibly observe from life should be done in this way. Nothing can substitute experiencing a subject in real life: being able to touch it, smell it, walk around it, inspect it, experience it, etc. Staunchly set direct observation as your number one priority whenever possible.

Illustrator James Gurney

Illustrator James Gurney

I’ve also seen many professional artists work with a variety of other references that are just as effective, if not more so, than photo references.  Artist James Gurney fabricates sculptures of dinosaurs for his paintings. After sculpting the dinosaur in clay, he paints the sculpture and then draws from the sculpture as his reference. You can watch him go through this process in this terrific video below.  It goes to show that photographs are not the only option, and that other methods can provide a level of depth and understanding of a subject that photographs are incapable of providing.

Artist James Gurney  on how he paints dinosaurs by sculpting clay models.

My RISD colleague and former professor Andrew Raftery painstakingly creates complex 3D models of interior spaces using wood and wax figures as references for his incredible engravings.


You can visibly see in this side-by-side comparison of Raftery’s 3D model  and finished engraving how critical the creation of the 3D model is in constructing the interior scene. The lighting and spatial relationships are literally re-created in the 3D model and are thus incredibly convincing in the completed engraving.


If you’ve decided that photographs are indeed the only option for your drawing, the next stage is to do everything in your power to shoot the photographs yourself. If that means taking a trip to the zoo to take photographs of the gorillas, then do it.  I know it’s very tempting and easy to go on Google Images and simply pull a photograph off the Internet. However, when you use someone else’s photograph, your drawing will be vastly limited. You won’t be able to control the point of view, you can’t zoom in to get more details, and most likely the resolution of the photograph will be poor.  Take the initiative to go to your subject and photograph it from every point of view.  Shoot close up shots of specific areas so that you have all of the information you need.

The only time I would advocate using someone else’s photograph as a reference is if there is absolutely, one hundred percent, no other way to get the visual information you need. For example, if you are doing an illustration of an elephant, and you need details of the wrinkles in the skin, that’s a circumstance where you’ll need to use someone else’s photograph. In general though, someone else’s photograph should be the last resort in terms of references.


When you do get to the point where you are working from a photograph, think about it as a process of gathering raw information which you then edit and manipulate. There is nothing artistic or creative about copying a photograph verbatim.  If that is your intent, you might as well xerox the photograph and be done with it.

Instead, take the raw information from the photograph and process it and shift it. change that raw information into something new and engaging. Be highly selective about what visual information you choose to use.  Just because something is in the photograph, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to use it in your drawing. Think about yourself as an editor, where you get to choose from a vast buffet of visual information. Comb through all of the visual information in the photograph and use only what is going to help facilitate your drawing in a positive manner. I also find that it’s very helpful to work from multiple photographs, so that you are not so reliant on a single photograph for all of your information. You can take visual portions from each reference photo and mix them together according to your needs.


Drawings that use photo references successfully always look better than the photo reference.  If the reference photo is more engaging than the drawing, then it means that the drawing hasn’t done anything to fully manipulate beyond just copying the reference photo.

In the above image, you can see that the drawing at the figure gripping it’s face has very aggressive charcoal marks that are not apparent in the reference photo.  The reference photo looks static, flat, and posed.  The drawing took major liberties with the charcoal marks and therefore is much more full of action and tension.

In the image below, you can see the student’s reference photos that he shot at the bottom.  The reference photos provide raw information, but the two drawings are far more interesting than the reference photos.  The reference photos have very flat, boring black backgrounds and the facial expressions are not very dynamic.  In the final drawings, the student greatly manipulated and distorted the facial expressions to make them much more dramatic and exaggerated.


It’s extremely difficult to use a photographic reference well, very few people do it successfully.  In my drawing classes at RISD, I spend half the course giving assignments that must be done from direct observation the entire time. In the second half of the course, I open up references so that students can work from a variety of visual references:  imagination, from photos they shot for the specific drawing, from photos online. When I switch over to open references in my courses, the reaction of pretty much all the students is: “Thank goodness, this is going to be so much easier now that I don’t have to draw from life and I can work from photos!”

Actually, the complete opposite happens: students realize after the first critique that creating excellent reference photos is an art in itself.  I critique their photo references:  we talk about their light source, choice of location, their choice of models, what their models are wearing, the posing of the models-the works. So many problems emerge in the reference photos: tons of factors distract in the reference photo, the set up looks fake, etc. Making the transition from the reference photo to the drawing presents its own unique set of challenges which is not nearly as straightforward as many people initially think. Personally, I find drawing from a reference photo much more difficult than drawing from life, because the temptation to simply copy the photo is always there.  When you draw from observation, you have to visually interpret and innovate.

I firmly believe that the only way to truly learn how to draw from a photograph well is to establish a solid understanding of fundamentals in drawing with years and years of experience drawing from direct observation. Once you have solid skills drawing from direct observation, these skills will allow you to draw from a photograph successfully. This article talks about how direct observation will provide the basic foundation to be able to work from any visual references successfully.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related Videos
Youtube Playlist: Video Critiques on Art School Admissions Portfolios
Youtube Playlist:  How to Draw a Portrait with Charcoal and Cross-Hatching
Youtube Playlist:  Crit Quickies, 1 min. critiques on artworks

Related articles
“How can I tell if I’m skilled enough?”
“How do you find your own individual style?”
“How do artists manage to get their soul out into images?”
“How do you develop an idea from a sketch to a finished work?”
“How do you make an art piece more rich with details that will catch the eye?”
“How do you learn the basics?”
“Is it bad to start another piece of art before finishing another one?”
“How do you work in a series?”
“How do you know when to stop working?”


Recent Video Critiques of Student Art Portfolios for College & Art School Admission

Student Portfolio for college/art school admission by Emily Jiang

I’ve been doing video critiques on student portfolios for college/art school admission for a few months now, and just recently began doing video critiques for professional artists. Many people have commented what a great learning experience it was for them to listen to these critiques. For this reason, I’m now offering the option to have your video critique featured here on my blog, on my Facebook page, and on my Youtube channel. You can choose to have your critique featured anonymously, with your name, or to keep it private.

I’ve also had people inquire about purchasing artworks seen in the video critiques. I am happy to connect artists with anyone who is interested in their artwork. More information on my video critique program is here.

Student Portfolio for college/art school admission by Dessery Dai

For many students who begin art school, group critiques are an unfamiliar format of discussion that takes some adjustment. It’s quite common that the vast majority of students people make an initial assumption that the only interesting part of a group critique is when their own artwork is being discussed.  On the contrary, pretty much all of my students talk about how beneficial it is to hear how someone else’s artwork is received and discussed.  What’s especially interesting is to witness the range of reactions and feedback other artworks facilitate, this really can dramatically broaden your awareness as an artist.

Final Crit

One of the reasons hearing other people’s critiques is so effective is that when it’s not your artwork being discussed, you can listen to the critique much more objectively.  I know for most artists, (myself included) at times we are so close to the artwork and stuck in our own heads, that it can be tough to distance yourself and absorb critical feedback.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related articles
“What are common mistakes in college portfolio submissions?”
“What should you include in an art portfolio for art school or college?”
“7 tips for surviving art school.”
“To what extent do grades define an academic career in visual art?”
“Should I drop out of art school?”

The Biggest, Scariest, Most Exciting Project I’ve Ever Worked on


Throughout my life as a student, professor, and artist,  I’ve worked on numerous projects, all of which have challenged me in different ways. I’m always looking for new artistic initiatives that will build upon my prior experience, but that will get me to exercise new muscles and take on new risks that will stretch me to new places I didn’t even know existed.

My graduate thesis Digging was the first time I had considered creating an interdisciplinary project, where multiple bodies of work in contrasting media existed under the umbrella of one core concept. Wading was a project where I began to explore a new depth of emotion and atmosphere in my work  that I had previously avoided. Falling was by far my most ambitious project at that point: the sheer quantity of drawings, prints, and sculpture that I produced, combined with the deeply personal subject of my long history with depression, demanded an immense emotional and professional investment that I had never experienced before.

Clay Portrait Sculpture

My mystery project, which will be announced in a few weeks is a completely different beast than all of these prior projects.  I see this new project as a culmination of literally every single experience I have ever had in my entire life.  It encompasses the moment I was able to pick up a pencil and draw as a young child,  the rush of joy working in my elementary school art class, my anger and frustration as a high school student desperately to find a way to rigorously study visual arts, the euphoria of attending art school, teaching studio art at the elementary, high school, and college level, working as a gallery director, and finally, my ongoing studio practice as a professional artist over the past 16 years.

The tasks involved in this project could not be more diverse and different than what I’ve done in the past: I’ve sifted through archives of photos I shot 15 years ago, revisited wrinkled paper handouts given to me by my professors when I was a student, rummaged into the corners of closets to find tools and art supplies that have been hibernating for years, reconnected with former students, colleagues, and friends, and asking for help and favors from people I’ve never met before-and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Inevitably, everything I take on asks me to draw from my previous experience in some form, but this project is on an entirely new scale that for me is completely unprecedented. In general, I have a monstrous work ethic, and I’ve always been known for attacking my projects and teaching with a feral vigor that can be intimidating for some people. Relatively speaking, the intensity and amount of work I’ve invested into this project makes it appear as if I’ve been slacking off for the past 20 years.


Sara BloemCasey Roonan  •  Annie Irwin •  Lauryn Welch
Yves-Olivier Mandereau  • Alex Rowe

Another major difference is that I’m not alone in this project.  I have an amazing partner who I feel so incredibly fortunate to have met, an outstanding team of 6 former students, (see above) and a group of 9 interns.  The extraordinary momentum that we’ve built together over the past year and a half has been tremendous.  In my rough moments of doubt and worry, my team has picked me up and pushed me forward with their unwavering support and zeal. They have brought a range of expertise, opinions, and perspectives that cannot exist in one person. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I feel constantly energized by everyone’s collective passion and dedication to this project.

Related articles
Pie in the Sky
Researching Art Tutorials

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.


“Ask the Art Prof” on Facebook Live on Thursday, April 7 at 9:30pm EST


Many of you have probably noticed that my “Ask the Art Prof” advice column for visual artists on the Huffington Post has been on hiatus since last August.   Last September, an enormous project kicked into high gear that has been consuming all of my time since then.

A few weeks back, I actually had some spare time for a change, and I started writing a new column.  I have to admit that I felt bored.  The writing process felt tedious, slow, and limited. This had never happened before when I was writing a column.  Previously, the words always seemed to spill effortlessly on the page, and I really enjoyed the process of gradually organizing and editing my thoughts into a coherent form.  I didn’t want to, but I abandoned the new column after about an hour of frustration.

I started wondering whether my advice column needed a change, perhaps a new format or direction. After all, I’ve been writing “Ask the Art Prof” for 3 years now, and I’ve written over 120 columns at this point. So I think it was synchronicity that I started reading about Facebook Live in the news at the same time that I was re-evaluating the format of my advice column. On top of that, I noticed in my Twitter feed that New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Nicholas Kristof has started doing Facebook Live posts recently on his Facebook page. Just thinking about all the possibilities with this new format got me excited.

I’d like to invite you to join me for “Ask the Art Prof” on Facebook Live on my Facebook page on Thursday, April 7 at 9:30pm EST (Eastern Standard Time) Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when my live video begins.

This live video will be similar to my advice column, in that you’ll get to ask me anything you want that’s related to being a visual artist: the creative process, art school, career advice, art techniques, teaching art, how to be a working artist today, and much more.

Show up for the live video and ask me questions by commenting on the post while I’m live, and I’ll answer right then and there.

See you then!

Final Crit

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Supplies for Charcoal Drawing


Charcoal is an effective material for developing various approaches to drawing because of its versatility and flexibility. Charcoal is a relatively fast drawing material, and encourages students to draw in a bolder, more aggressive manner.   The range of contrast you can achieve in charcoal is unrivaled, and there is no limit to the kinds of marks you can make. There’s a strength and body to charcoal that will never be present in pencil, which as a medium is inherently more grey and weaker in tone.


Below are my supply recommendations for drawing with charcoal.  I’ve spent over a decade troubleshooting various brands in my drawing classes at RISD, and these are the most effective supplies I’ve come up with.

This charcoal drawing tutorial shows the entire process of creating a portrait drawing in charcoal using the techniques described below. (see the tutorial playlist below)

Charcoal paper

I recommend Strathmore 500 Series Charcoal paper pads. You can buy a roll of Strathmore drawing paper if you want to work on a larger scale.  Charcoal paper has a slight texture to it, which allows the powder of the the charcoal to grip the surface of the paper more effectively. Since charcoal is so powdery, it will not adhere to the smooth surface of regular drawing paper very well. With charcoal paper, your drawings will have a slight texture to them which I think is quite beautiful.

Vine charcoal

I recommend buying Bob’s Fine Vine Charcoal pack.  The sticks in this pack are very soft with all different sizes of sticks, with some sticks that are very large and wide. When you need to cover a large area of your drawing, the large sticks make this task very quick and efficient.  Some of the other brands have vine charcoal sticks that are way too skinny, making this task difficult and time consuming.

Vine charcoal is an excellent charcoal material for the initial stages of a drawing because it is very soft and easy to erase.  Therefore, it’s a great tool when you are in the very beginning of a drawing, and you want to be able to sketch lightly and make many changes to your drawing quickly.  If you draw lightly enough, you can erase the vine charcoal with just a wipe of your hand which is very convenient.  In that way, vine charcoal is very forgiving and easy to get rid of.

However, I don’t recommend using vine charcoal beyond the first 20% of your drawing.  Ultimately, the majority of your drawing should be made of compressed charcoal. Once you establish the fundamental composition of a drawing with vine charcoal, move on to compressed charcoal and don’t add any more vine charcoal at that point. One of the major drawbacks of vine charcoal is that it is an incredibly fragile material; even the slightest touch of a finger will mess up an area of vine charcoal. There is also a limit to how dark vine charcoal can get, no matter how hard you press, vine charcoal will never compete with compressed charcoal in terms of achieving a deep, black tone. I find that most students limit themselves to drawing exclusively vine charcoal, and consequently, their drawings are too grey and lack the permanence a drawing with compressed charcoal has.


I like to start my charcoal drawings by toning my entire paper with vine charcoal. (see above image) Get a giant stick of vine charcoal and color the whole paper in, and then finish it off by wiping your hand over the entire sheet of paper to create a smooth, even tone of grey. This middle grey tone creates a foundation from which you can add charcoal or remove charcoal to create highlights with erasers. Because the grey tone is already present before you start drawing, the drawing will develop much faster than if you started with a white sheet of paper.

This toned paper technique gets students over their fear of the white paper. Since the paper is already full of vine charcoal, students don’t feel that they can make noticeable blunders, and if they do, mistakes are very easy to get rid of with a quick wipe of your hand.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how to tone your paper with vine charcoal:

Below is a torso drawing by one of my RISD freshman drawing students that was started by toning the paper grey with vine charcoal, the drawing has a very loose, painterly appearance.


After toning the paper all grey, you can do a line sketch on top of the grey tone with vine charcoal.  Because the paper is toned grey, you can easily wipe away the line sketch with your hand, and the line sketch will quickly disappear into the grey tone.  I encourage my students to keep wiping away at their initial sketch until they’re satisfied, most of my students will wipe out their initial sketch at least 7 or 8 times.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how to do an initial line sketch with vine charcoal:

Compressed charcoal

There are many brands of compressed charcoal, and I find that most of them are far too stiff. Read the packaging carefully and don’t buy black “soft pastels”, these are not the same thing and will not provide good results.  I recommend Art Alternatives Charcoal Drawing Sticks.   These sticks are strong and dark, but also soft enough that when you draw with them, the sticks can create a soft powder.

Many students are afraid of compressed charcoal, it is a very dark, powerful piece of charcoal that is blunt and permanent. You can definitely lighten an area of compressed charcoal with an eraser, but only to a degree.  Once the paper has been touched with compressed charcoal, you can never go back to the perfect white of the paper. While drawing with compressed charcoal is certainly a bigger commitment, the advantages of compressed charcoal are huge.  Compressed charcoal has a wonderful strength and body to it, and there is nothing more dramatically black than an area of deep compressed charcoal.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to lay out the fundamentals of a drawing with vine charcoal first.  When you feel confident about that initial sketch, you will want to transition to compressed charcoal, and stop using the vine charcoal altogether at that point. Many students run into problems because they refuse to transition to the compressed charcoal, resulting in grey drawings that are dull with low contrast. Ultimately, your drawing should be about 20% vine charcoal for the beginning stages, with the compressed charcoal being used for the last 80% of the drawing.

Break your compressed charcoal stick so that it is is about 1″ long; this will allow you to draw with the side of the compressed charcoal.  Drawing with the side of the charcoal allows you to block in areas of tone.  Most students limit themselves to drawing with only the tip of the compressed charcoal, which is slow and will make your drawings flat and too reliant on outlines. When blocking out areas of tone, exert very little pressure with your hand and build up the darkness of the compressed charcoal slowly. If you start by adding pure blacks everywhere, you’ll have to do a lot of backtracking later with your erasers.

Charcoal pencil

Charcoal pencils come in a range of hardness, but I can say that I have never enjoyed using the hard pencils. The soft pencils are so much more flexible and easy to work with. I recommend General’s charcoal pencils.

To sharpen a charcoal pencil, do not put the pencil in an electric or manual pencil sharpener.  The charcoal inside the pencil is so fragile that it will always break. Instead, use a utility knife or razor blade to sharpen the charcoal pencil by hand. Position your thumb behind the knife or blade, and push it upwards on the pencil to slice off shavings of the pencil.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how the charcoal pencil can be used in the context of a drawing:

Charcoal pencils should be reserved for the final stages of a drawing, when you need to articulate small areas and details.  Frequently, I see students starting with charcoal pencil far too early, and they start working on details before the fundamentals of the drawing have been established. Charcoal pencils can also be effective for cross-hatching techniques, which can be layered and embedded on top of tonal areas. The portrait below has a significant amount of cross-hatching which has been done with charcoal pencil over a layer of vine charcoal tone.



Most people think of erasers as tools whose sole purpose is to remove mistakes from their drawings. Instead, see your erasers as drawing tools, commanding just as important a role as your sticks of charcoal. If you tone your paper entirely with vine charcoal (as mentioned above), you can use your erasers to block out dramatic highlights out of the grey tone of the paper. This approach really makes you feel like you are drawing with white paint because the eraser marks are so visible in the toned paper.

Many students draw white chalk into their charcoal drawings in order to create bright highlights. I don’t recommend this approach, because the white of the chalk never matches the white of the paper.  Inevitably, either the paper or the chalk always looks more yellow than the other, and having two different whites in your charcoal drawing looks sloppy and inconsistent. The white chalk is too noticeable and looks like you’re trying to clean up mistakes in the drawing.

If you really want a very bright, luminous area of white in your drawing, plan in advance which areas of your drawing you want to remain the white of the page, and leave those areas completely untouched by the charcoal. Remember, once the vine or compressed charcoal touch the paper, you will never ever get the paper back to it’s original brightness.  Planning in advance is a win-win situation; if you ultimately decide you don’t need those areas to be so bright, it’s easy to cover them with charcoal.

White plastic eraser

I recommend Staedtler Mars white plastic eraser, don’t use the Pink Pearl erasers which are awful for charcoal drawing.

A white plastic eraser is terrific in the beginning stages of a charcoal drawing when you are trying to block out dramatic areas of highlight. These erasers are very strong and can create bold passages of light in the vine charcoal tone. If you tone your paper grey with vine charcoal, you do have to put a lot of muscle when removing from the vine charcoal tone with the white plastic eraser.  Without fail, at every drawing class, there is always one student who complains that their white plastic eraser doesn’t work for removing the vine charcoal tone. Actually, it means that the student is being wimpy and not putting enough pressure into the eraser.


Kneaded eraser

I recommend Sanford Design Kneaded Rubber Art Eraser, although I have rarely encountered a kneaded eraser that was ineffective.  When you buy a new kneaded eraser, remove the packaging, and then stretch it out several times as if it were a piece of gum. After you use the kneaded eraser, it will appear to have tons of charcoal in it.  The eraser will absorb the charcoal and clean itself if you simply stretch it out a few times. Eventually, the eraser will absorb so much charcoal that it won’t self clean anymore, and it will look like a big black ball of gum.  At that point, purchase a new eraser.

Kneaded erasers are great to use once you’ve blocked out the brightest highlights with the white plastic eraser.  A kneaded eraser is not as strong and stiff as a white plastic eraser, so it is better when you want to make more subtle changes in the tones of your drawing.  Because you can mold the kneaded eraser into any shape, it is also very versatile in terms of the variety of marks it can make.

Many students over smudge their charcoal drawings with their fingers.  While smudging with your fingers can sometimes be effective, I find most students rely on smudging as a crutch.  Students often times end up buffing their drawing to death and everything in the drawing ends up looking too smooth, giving the drawing a fake, artificial look. Smooth areas are not inherently better, in fact, creating a variety of textures in drawing is just as important. Employ your kneaded eraser to do most of the work, smudge with your fingers in moderation. With the kneaded eraser, you’ll have much more control over your marks, and your marks will have more energy and tension. The kneaded eraser can help you move the charcoal across the surface of the paper.

Eraser stick

I recommend Papermate “Tuff Stuff” eraser stick, this is by far the best eraser stick I have encountered. Some of the other eraser sticks are no good because the tip is too wide and you won’t be able to get thin enough lines. You can even buy refills for the Papermate eraser stick, although the stick does last for a while.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates how the eraser stick can be used in the context of a drawing:

The eraser stick is a great tool when you are putting the finishing touches on your drawing.  I don’t recommend using an eraser stick too early in a drawing, it will cause you to tighten up and focus on details before you’re ready. The cross-hatching marks in this drawing below were done entirely with a charcoal pencil and eraser stick. The multiple layers of cross-hatching give the drawing a rich, substantial look.



There are two kinds of fixative: there is workable fixative which allows you to go back in and work on the drawing even after spraying it.  There is permanent fixative, which you cannot work back into.

Charcoal drawings are very fragile, and thus are susceptible to damage. Even a slight smudge of a finger can ruin a carefully drawn area. One option is to use fixative, a material you can spray over the surface of a charcoal drawing to make the charcoal adhere more permanently to the paper.  Always spray fixative on your drawings outdoors, the fixatives have chemicals that are dangerous to breathe. Some people use hairspray instead of fixative, which I do not recommend.  If you are at all concerned about your drawing lasting long term, hairspray is a bad choice because it is not an archival material.

I personally have never been a fan of fixatives; while they do make charcoal drawings more resistant to damage, you will notice that your charcoal drawings will darken slightly after spraying it with fixative. The darkening is not that dramatic, but it’s enough that I definitely notice the difference in my drawings. A compromise is to gently place a sheet of newsprint of tracing paper over your charcoal drawing when you store it, and know that you might have to do some last minute touch ups before displaying the work.

Layering & Mixing tools

Finally, the two most crucial principles in charcoal drawing are 1) layering and 2) thoroughly mixing all of the above tools together into a cohesive whole. The chronic problem I see in students is when students limit themselves to only using 1-2 charcoal supplies.  If you are failing to see the importance of one of the above listed supplies, then you need to start experimenting with that supply and figure out what it’s good for. In this drawing below, the student only used vine charcoal and did not take any initiative to add compressed charcoal or engage with the erasers.  Consequently, the drawing has a very thin, washed out look because the range of tones is so limited.


Another common issue is students isolating each supply into one area of the drawing. For example, in this portrait drawing below, it’s evident that the student only used charcoal pencil in the hair, and used a lot of smudging of compressed charcoal in the face. These two areas are drawn so differently from each other, that they fail to integrate within the drawing, giving the drawing a fractured appearance.


Layering is critical in a charcoal drawing, most students only do 1 layer of charcoal in their drawings and stop working prematurely. For a charcoal drawing to demonstrate a significant sense of depth, texture, and substance, a minimum of 4-5 layers of charcoal marks on top of each other is necessary. In a charcoal drawing, you’ll remove and add to each area repeatedly, this builds a visual history for your drawing that will show a rich feeling of depth in the marks.

This video in my charcoal drawing tutorial demonstrates to refine your drawing by layering different tools together.

Get more information on art supplies in our Art Supply Encyclopedia!

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email


Ask the Art Prof: How do Visual Artists Handle Commissions?


“I am currently an art student, and a local company recently contacted me about creating some artwork for their office space. It’s a great opportunity, but I am worried because I have never done a commissioned work before and I don’t know where to start!”

Artists are usually excited to get a commission, but most are not prepared for how dicey commissions can be. Commissioned artwork can be anything: a portrait, a wedding gift, artwork for a hotel, etc. Unfortunately, there are no universal rules for art commissions. Consequently, many clients take advantage of artists, so follow these guidelines to protect yourself.

1) Inform your client about your art making process.

Most clients have no idea what goes into creating an artwork; it’s up to you to lay out a concrete plan for the commission. Clients have to understand that a commission is a mutual commitment, and that their continual involvement is mandatory. Walk your client through every step of the process from beginning to end. For example, steps to create a painting might be listed like this: 1) pencil sketches, 2) colored pencil sketches, 3) small acrylic paintings 4) final acrylic painting, 5) framing, delivery, and installation.

2) Clients who commission artwork usually have no idea what they want.

Assume that a client’s verbal description of what he or she wants is not going to align with your visual interpretation right away. Don’t rely on anything a client says until you’ve actually put the results in front of them. I had one colleague who created a commission exactly as agreed after many rounds of presentations. Despite how faithful my colleague had been to the client’s wishes throughout the entire process, the client’s reaction to the finished piece was “I just don’t like it.”

Clients do however, seem to always know what they don’t want, which is much less useful. I did a portrait commission once, and the client told me that the cheek of a person in the painting was “too pink.” I lightened the cheek slightly, only to be told “now it’s too pale.” One of my former professors who was a portrait painter for over 20 years told me that he was sick to death of endless complaints from clients. He used to intentionally do an exceptionally bad job on one area of the painting so that the client could complain about that area, (usually a trivial detail like the collar of a shirt, which would be easy to fix) instead of some other area on the face that would take weeks of shooting in the dark until the client was satisfied.

3) Write a detailed contract.

A contract is mandatory for any commission. Write down every detail in the contract, such as the size and media of the artwork, your compensation, due dates for payments, who is responsible for framing, installation, delivery of the artwork, etc. If your client balks at signing a contract, WALK AWAY.

4) Have down payments and/or kill fees.

Down payments and kill fees protect artists from investing labor without pay. A kill fee is charged if the client decides to end the project prematurely. Some artists don’t have a kill fee, but ask for a 50% non-refundable down payment . Other artists will ask for a smaller non-refundable down payment and have a kill fee. Clients are also less likely to end a project if they have already invested money.

5) Do not commence work until a contract is signed.

When I was a recent graduate, I received a commission from a local community center. I met with one person, who said they were thinking about a painting of a klezmer band, painted with bright colors. I got to work right away, it didn’t occur to me at the time that I had no contract. I called up a local klezmer band, drove 40 minutes to one of their performances, and shot reference photos for the paintings. I drew many sketches, and made small scale paintings.

I presented the sketches and paintings at a meeting with four people. They hated everything, in fact, one person said that the paintings looked “scary” to her (how a colorful painting of a klezmer band could be scary is beyond me). By the end of the meeting, they said they wanted to see a “mixed collage that featured singing children in a garden.” After that meeting I never heard from them again, and I lost my own time and money.

6) Have an approval process.

Divide your process into stages, and require your client to approve each stage before moving forward. Working in stages lets you catch client concerns before you get too far into the process. I once did a portrait commission where the client approved the sketches, so I proceeded onto the final painting. I was about 75% finished, when the client decided last minute that she wanted to change the black background to yellow, and her daughter’s black shirt into a red sweater. I essentially had to start from scratch. I had written nothing in the contract about making changes after approval, so my workload doubled without any additional pay.

When the commission is complete, ask your client to sign another contract that states that they have accepted the commission as complete, and that any changes made beyond that point will incur a fee.

7) Keep framing, installation, and delivery separate from the commission.

If applicable, ask the client to take financial responsibility for any framing, installation and delivery. These costs can add up quickly for an artist: professional framing is always expensive, delivering a large work involves renting a truck, and installation of the work really needs to be done by a professional art installer. You don’t want to risk a large painting falling off the wall and getting damaged, and most clients want artwork that can remain on permanent display.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related articles
“How can an artist overcome their financial issues?”
“How do you explain to potential clients that artists need to be paid?”
“How do you price art?”

Ask the Art Prof: How Can I Balance Planning and Spontaneity in My Artwork?

Chipboard Personality Sculptures

“I paint based on my intuition, and I usually do not know what the message of the painting is until the draft is down. This usually evolves over a few weeks, with new insights and connections happening. I feel rather out of control, and my tutors say I should finalize a plan and then execute it. Instead, I modify during execution. Is there some balance between planning and going on impulse that is ideal? “

The key is to strike a balance so that planning and spontaneity are mutually supportive. You can maximize the benefits of both by organizing your time and fostering work habits that will allow these two approaches to complement each other. I organize my time so that I have periods that are dedicated to loose experimentation that are balanced by periods of executing finished pieces. Managing these periods in this way keeps me focused and provides a well-rounded experience.

The ability to think and work in an unpredictable manner is most useful in the beginning stages of an artwork. This approach significantly expands the range of work you can create, and is especially critical when brainstorming ideas for your artwork. From a practical standpoint, it’s crucial to limit the physical execution of the artwork to small scale sketches. This strategy allows you to quickly make fundamental, sweeping changes without the consequences of wasting expensive art materials or needing to start over a time-consuming piece. You can explore many options without investing large amounts of time.

At this early stage, spill everything on paper and entertain every option without passing judgment prematurely. Maintaining flexibility is hugely important; you have to give yourself the freedom to react to anything that arises and then run with it. If you are too fixated and on your first ideas and unwilling to make impromptu changes, you will shut down potential options that might have been great.

An impulsive approach can lead to fresh and exciting ideas that might otherwise not come up. Excessive planning and thinking can sometimes paralyze your creativity. The equivalent would be a baseball player who ruminates about how to hit the ball, when really, no amount of thinking will help when the ball is being thrown at you at 85 mph. I frequently tell my students to turn off their brains and just touch the paper with the charcoal. Start a physical action and then let yourself react to those actions in the moment. This approach will get your creative juices pumping and push your progress forward.

However, you can’t do this forever, and ultimately you have to arrive at a cohesive vision. At a certain point, you will start feeling scattered and overwhelmed. When jumping around becomes detrimental to your process, it’s a signal that it’s time to start making decisions and nailing down what you want to do.

If the preparatory stages of your work was substantial and exhaustive, fabricating the final pieces should be fairly straightforward and smooth. In my own artwork, executing the final pieces always takes much less time than the planning stage. Frequently I spend months, sometimes even up to a year brainstorming and sketching. As a result, I reap many rewards; my preliminary work is comprehensive enough that by the time I’m ready to make the final pieces, I’ve anticipated and ironed out almost all of the problems. I can concentrate exclusively on the technical aspects of interacting with my art materials. This allows me to work without the distraction of troubleshooting unresolved issues.

Keep in mind that fundamental, sweeping changes at the execution stage can be disruptive, expensive, and impractical. You can waste a lot of time and art materials, and end up doing a lot unnecessary backtracking. Once you’ve spent $300 on canvas and paints, and invested 12 hours working on the painting, it can be painful to discover that deep into the process, you want to scrap everything and create a pastel drawing instead. Once in a while, the situation can be so dire that starting over really is the only solution. After all, no one wants to squander their time beating a dead horse. So, be thorough in the brainstorming stage, and avoid this situation if you can.

I’m not saying you can’t make changes while you execute the final work. Inevitably, new challenges emerge that you couldn’t predict, and you have to build in room for adjustments. Modifications made at this point should be minor, so that they enhance the overall work without sabotaging your progress.

Sometimes major changes are just not possible because of a professional commitment you’ve made. When I’ve spent a year creating a body of artwork for a solo exhibition, I cannot make hasty decisions one month before the exhibition opens. Despite a burning desire to investigate a new idea, I’ve had to immediately reject radical changes because it was just too late. Running with a last-minute idea at that point would have been foolish, and I couldn’t risk everything I had accomplished.

Take the initiative to exercise both spontaneous and planned approaches in your work process. If you limit yourself to only one way of working, you’re missing out on everything the other has to offer. Let these methods influence each other in a positive manner, and you’ll begin to achieve a balance that will make your overall studio practice more fluid and coherent.

ART PROF is a free, online educational platform for visual arts for people of all ages and means. features video courses, art critiques, an encyclopedia of art supplies, and more.

FB    Youtube    Pinterest     Instagram    Twitter    email    etsy

Prof Lieu offers video critiques on portfolios for students applying to art school and working artists. More info.

Every month, we assign a topic for you to respond to with an artwork. We give out prizes in several categories!  More info.

ASK THE ART PROF was a written column in the Huffington Post from about art related topics. Visit our Pro Development page.

Related articles
“How do you keep pushing yourself to get to that next level?”
“Would you improve more if you took art classes than just studying on your own?”
“How do you break out of your comfort zone?”
“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get any better?”
“How do you develop patience for learning curves?”
“When do you let go of an idea?”
“How do I help my daughter reach her potential in art?”
“How can I study to become a professional artist on my own?”
“How do you begin to think conceptually as a visual artist?”