Charcoal Underdrawing for an Oil Painting

by Damian Osborne


What is a charcoal underdrawing?

A charcoal underdrawing is the first stage in traditional oil painting. In the classical method, doing a charcoal underdrawing on the toned canvas helps to quickly visualize the placement, composition and proportions of the subject before starting the painting stage.

Using vine charcoal, it’s easy to wipe off and rework sections of the underdrawing. I love the tactile feeling of working with charcoal; smudging and blending with my whole hand, erasing with a rag, drawing with my fingers.

Stepping back is important when working so large in order to check the proportions. I also check my painting continuously in a large mirror behind me so that I can spot any glaring disproportions.

I sometimes draw with a piece of charcoal pressed into an old paintbrush with the hairs pulled out of the ferrule. This gives me some standing distance from the canvas.


Working without a live model

I did not have the chance to work with a live model in this case, as the commission is from a friend of mine in the UK. She emailed me a photo she wanted me to work from. But even so, I’m trying to keep my drawing lively and not be a total slave to the photo.

I try to use what bits of anatomy knowledge I have and find rhythmical lines in the drawing. This helps to prevent the drawing from looking too blocky, stiff, or simply like a photocopy.

I don’t trace the photo. I prefer to draw by eye. Although, I make sure my measurements are fairly accurate.

I always ask myself, while drawing, how large is the head relative to the rest of the body? I use a number of anatomical landmarks to make sure my proportions aren’t totally out of wack.

This is my lifelong pursuit as an artist: to gain more knowledge and prowess with drawing the figure so that my paintings breathe. I think this is a particularly long road.

I try to use more than one photo if I can, if I don’t have a live model, in order to cross reference and get more information about a person’s facial features etc.

In this underdrawing, I kind of got a bit caught up in trying to get the folds of the dress right. You can see how rapidly one can set down a tone with the vine charcoal and then erase and rework.


charcoal underdrawing of woman, Damian Osborne
The charcoal underdrawing in the first stage of an oil painting in the classical method.


Why start with a charcoal underdrawing?

Working with vine or willow charcoal first, makes it easy to correct your drawing before applying paint. The powdery nature of the charcoal makes it perfect for this purpose.

You can simply blow off any excess charcoal and it won’t bleed easily through thin layers of paint.

Be careful if using pencil or graphite with underdrawings, as it has a tendency to rise up through the layers of oil paint and over time, show through on the surface of the dried painting.

Working with these greyscale values right from the beginning is great for ‘designing’ your painting. You can think about the contrast of your tones and imagine how the finished painting will look.


The traditional methods

This was the method of the old masters. Sometimes the practice was to create a separate drawing cartoon on paper, then prick holes a long the outlines with a pounce or tracing wheel.

Then to transfer the drawing to canvas by dusting a pounce bag over the pinpricks creating a tracing. A pounce bag is a natural fabric bag like cheesecloth filled with powered charcoal or graphite.

This is quite a messy method. Usually this task was relegated to the master’s assistants and apprentices, who also had the menial tasks of grinding pigments, preparing panels and cleaning his studio. (The good old days).

Some underdrawings were slavishly precise. My underdrawing was fairly detailed, but it need not be so meticulous. Some artists begin with a very loose underdrawing. And some of the old masters’ cartoons are incredible artworks in their own right.

I simply drew directly onto the canvas with the soft charcoal. Sometimes I actually just draw directly with lean raw umber oil paint and a brush, and forego the whole charcoal process.


How to fix a charcoal underdrawing

To fix a charcoal underdrawing, the artist would traditionally go over it with sepia or bistre ink. Or trace over the charcoal lines with lean oil paint like raw or burnt umber. This seals in the charcoal drawing making a dark burnt-coloured drawing.

Once the pigment is dry, the remaining loose charcoal can be wiped away.

If the drawing was done on a white panel, the next step would be the imprimatura, whereby the artist would add a coloured transparent wash to the painting. The underdrawing would still be visible under this wash and the painting stage would begin.

In my case, I sprayed the charcoal underdrawing with artist’s fixative.

I’ve since done another 4-part figure painting series where I used slightly different methods. So check out Painting the Figure – Part 1 if you want to gain more comprehensive knowledge of these Old Master painting techniques. 

Continuing with this painting, I’ll begin painting the Painting the Imprimatura over the charcoal drawing in the next episode. So stay tuned for that!


Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions at all, or need help understanding these painting techniques. Don’t be shy to share your work. And I’m always ready to learn from others too.


Here are some of my figure paintings.


Latest posts by Damian Osborne (see all)

2 thoughts on “Charcoal Underdrawing for an Oil Painting”

  1. Damian,
    Thank you for your tutorial on underdrawing/painting. I haven’t ever done the underpainting and usually just jump right into my work. I have seen many artists who do a complete underpainting in gray tones or sepia and wondered why they did this as to me it seemed a hard way to start. I come from a background using pastels and there is no “under” work with chalk. What I am wondering is this and maybe you can answer my question. Is there really one way to begin an oil painting?
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Debbie,
      Thanks for writing to me. Sorry if this is a late reply. I didn’t know I had issues with my website’s comment section. There are many ways of starting a painting, but I like to simplify it into two main ways: layered painting/indirect painting (like you spoke of, using an underpainting) and alla prima (direct painting, wet-in-wet). Just put ‘alla prima’, ‘grisaille’, ‘underpainting’ keyword tags in the search bar of my website and check out some of the blogs I wrote. I hope this helps. Damian.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.