Workshop Wednesday: Casey Childs’ Charcoal Portrait from Life

Casey Childs demonstrating his charcoal drawing technique.

The following are my personal notes that I took at Casey Childs charcoal workshop last Fall. Altogether I have taken 4 workshops with Casey.  With each opportunity to study with him, I truly feel myself growing as an artist. And as a rather frequent workshop attendee–I can tell you that is a rare thing.

Normally I am happy if I can walk away with one or two new aspects of technique or approach in my painting after a workshop. Rarely do you attend a workshop where the instructor literally changes the way you THINK. And that my dear artistic friends, is really where improvements happen. We could talk all day about what brushes to buy and what paint to use but what truly matters is what you are thinking in that complex brain of yours that drives the brush in your hand. Seek enlightenment and your painting will automatically get better.

Casey himself is a friendly, laid back and humble kind of guy. He does not carry airs—he does not need to. His work speaks for itself. Casey is a regular finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. He is a sought after portrait and gallery artist and is represented by Principle Gallery, Haynes Gallery, Meyer Gallery and Illume Gallery.

Without further prologue, here are my notes from two relatively recent workshops I took with Casey at Francie’s Studio, a private and intimate work space in Purcellville VA.  I will divide up these notes between two blog posts that I will release over the next two Wednesdays as part of my “Workshop Wednesday” series. This particular blog post will concentrate on Casey Childs’ Charcoal Portrait Drawing From Life Workshop. The second post will be on his Painting Oil Portraits From Life Workshop.

Our lovely model enjoying her Casey Childs’ portrait in process.

Charcoal Portrait Drawing From Life Workshop

-Casey says he draws and paints in the same way. He thinks the same things when he approaches both drawing and painting.

-He begins by taping two pieces of willow charcoal together to simulate a long handled brush. He uses a razor blade to sharpen it to a “big long needle point.”

-Measures in the traditional way with his arm extended and straight taking comparative measurements, not sight size.

-Uses a brush to gently knock off or soften “area ridges” made from the charcoal line.

-Casey personally believes in using just a little bit of white chalk as an accent in his charcoal drawings. He says to look at the drawings of Fechin and you will see the same restraint.

-Prefers Canson Mi Teintes paper (in Pearl) and uses the smooth side (the side normally with the sticker).

-Be vertical with your easel and keep line of sight (eye level) right at the middle of your paper.

-Use your whole arm when starting out. Place “tick” marks to define the outer dimensions of your subject. Top & bottom, right and left etc.

-Shoot for life size of your subject or just under.

-Outline shapes. Think flat, think proportions.

-He uses the side of his charcoal too so he doesn’t break the point.

-“Charcoal is similar to painting in that if you lay too much down initially you can’t easily work with it.”

-Often uses hard charcoal as a “stump” to push around and refine things more.

-He feels free to leave unintended marks — “because it could add interest later on.”

-He does use some lines as contour.

-Prefers to break up his drawing workshop over two days in this manner: Day 1 focus on shapes and drawing, Day 2 Finish & details.

Casey Childs portrait demo in process. This photo shows the point in his process where he begins to turn the form in the larger shapes (after his proportions and overall values have been well established).

-From the initial 2D block-in he begins to look at large forms first, turning form, thinking planes & light transitions but just on the larger forms. “Only once you have resolved that do you move on to resolving smaller forms and details.”

-“The key to likeness is proportion. It is not hard to get a likeness if your drawing is correct.”

-Casey uses calipers to measure proportions more accurately. He looks for areas where the vertical and horizontal are in proportion. Always measure horizontally & vertically.

-After a while trust your eyes if you have spent considerable time measuring.

-Hard charcoal is used to fill in the value (i.e. the gaps left in the paper from the initial med. charcoal pass).

-Uses soft charcoal to gradate flesh tones.

-“In the painting you can get value relationships much quicker. You must work at it in charcoal.”

-Uses his mahl stick on the second day (details).

-Doesn’t blend with his finger at all or stump. Doesn’t like the look of smudges. Uses a piece of hard charcoal as his stump.

-He is most interested with getting his big forms right (turning forehead, shape of eyes etc. …)

-Uses the hard charcoal to get the turning of the mid-tones.

-Recommends thinking of Andrew Loomis’ “head in a box” when turning facial planes. “Helps you to think in a more structural way”.


-Casey avoids working in a “window shading” kind of way (where one fully renders an area before moving on to the next) so that he doesn’t get distracted. “You must be aware of the whole form.”

“Form is edges. What makes an edge soft? Is it the light/shadow? Its all about relationships and how they relate.”

-He takes it very slow when modeling the surface. Slow and deliberate drawing built upon observation.


Casey will be teaching his 5th workshop at Francie’s Studio April 14th-16th, 2018 and there are slots still available. As an instructor I could not recommend him more highly. If interested please contact me directly at for more information.

On a personal note I want to thank Casey for his generosity in sharing all that he knows with his students, and in particular with me. 🙂 Thank you so much Casey!

The finished Casey Childs charcoal portrait demo of our lovely model Stephanie. Notice the restraint in his application of white chalk highlights and the “unintended” random marks deliberately included in the final piece.


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