4. Expression In Charcoal : Capturing Horse At Speed Demo

Expressive techniques in charcoal and conte

Lauren, leaning across her pony’s back. Conte on board

You may recall from the introduction, I explained that I work the same way whether in oils, watercolors, acrylics or even charcoal and conte crayons using the very same principles of ‘application/excavation’ of light and shadow.  (See Knowledge Of 12 Lights)  It’s time to see how the lighting theory works in charcoal; This time, instead of using temperature and color to delineate planes of light and shadow, we only use value (light and dark).

By now, I am hoping that you not only wish to paint and draw not what you consider visually appealing, but have decided to explore/include some expressive elements in your work.  The first step is to select something that is personal or meaningful to you, or at least, captivates your interest.  Here are some of my suggestions for selecting good source material/references for expressive painting/drawing:

  • An image that commemorates a special in time for you, such as an exciting or meaningful day in your life.  (Appleby Flasher – charcoal demo to follow below).
  • An image that is personal to you, such as a vintage or historical family photo (Lauren conte above)
  • An image that symbolizes a powerful/meaningful event (The White Horse charcoal, herewith.)

A vital component to expressive works are that you feel strongly about them.  Your intention then becomes to leave ‘marks of personal expression’ as well as the representative visual components in your work.

Charcoal Demonstration : The Appleby Flasher

It’s a sunny day at Appleby-in-Westmorland, an almost divine Cumbrian village nestled upon the River Eden.  It’s Appley Fair, a colorful riot of horses and humanity.  The River Eden a seething soup of horses and boys.

The gypsies, Romany and traveler communities have been gathering since the early 1700’s, by at Appleby to commune, celebrate and trade their marvelous horses.  You can have your fortune told at Appleby, or watch the traders “flash” their horses down the Main Street, before un-tacking and swimming their horses in the river.  (The term “flashy” was derived from the practice of “flashing” horses to potential buyers.)

I had wanted to experience Appleby Fair since I read all about it in the autobiography of one of my favorite horse painters, Sir Alfred Munnings.  To commemorate that special day, I wanted to capture the energy and speed of the horses in my work.  I selected charcoal as the perfect medium for this, and I will show you step-by-step how this painting/drawing unfolded.

Flashing down Main Street, Appleby Bridge, Cumbria, UK.


The ground:

  • My technique calls for wetting the paper/ground and using several different ways to add or remove charcoal.  Therefore, I would recommend that you use heavy-duty, high quality paper, illustration or drawing board for this exercise.
  • If you have paper that is fairly thick but not of a very high quality, you can use this also, I would just recommend that you put a thin coating of gesso upon it first (and let it dry) before you begin.
  • If you are a bold artist, I would recommend you add a thin coat of gesso to your paper anyway.  This will make it more robust and resilient to adding and subtracting media.

Left: Application/charcoal & conte. Right: Excavation/etching/erasing tools

Application (shadow) tools:

  • Charcoal pencils
  • Charcoal sticks (of various types).
  • Charcoal powder.  I to take old charcoal sticks and grind or shave them into powder.  Alternatively, you can purchase already powdered, fine charcoal (try General’s).
  • Paint brushes (I prefer bristles)
  • Painting rags
  • Spray bottle
  • Water

Excavation (light) tools:

  • You will notice that I have more excavation tools than I do application tools.  In fact, these are not my full cadre of erasers.
  • Missing in the photo is my very special mechanical eraser and kneaded erasers.
  • I will also take charcoal off with rags, stiff brushes, and fingers.
  • I will use white gouache to create image lights/sparkle on the last/highest lights.

Charcoal Demonstration:  The Appleby Flasher

Powdered charcoal applied with water, brushes & rags

Prepare the board/ground:

  1. Sprinkle the board with ground charcoal or conte.
  2. Spray lightly with water.
  3. Spread around lightly with rags, brushes, etc.
  4. Let dry
  5. Repeat as necessary

Applying Light And Shadow

You will notice that the board already contains a shadow/value pattern.  When painting or drawing a lighter image, as we are here, we can assume much of the shadow is already in place, necessitating more of an ‘excavation’ process, sometimes, rather than a drawing process.  Let’s take a look at how this drawing is ‘excavated’ from the already prepared, exciting panel:

Softly excavated first layers of light. Added form shadow for harness

Added deeper void shadows to harness. Wiped out higher lights with harder erasers.

Adding smaller layers of dark, and erasing smaller, higher lights, using the mechanical eraser for higher lights, and touches of white gouache for image/shiny lights..

The Appleby Flasher: 16 x 20 charcoal/gouache on board by Lesley Humphrey

Want to see the process in action? Click below.


Final Word….


My life is a living testament to the old statement “What comes around, goes around”’; or “What you do for others in an act of generosity, comes back tenfold”.  In honor of this code, I began writing down everything I know in these lessons in 2011 and began to offer them out, for free…. But it’s very valuable information.  The lessons constitute a lifetime of learning, and are lent to you as an act of generosity to help you on your artistic journey.  If you find this material helpful, continue to ‘pay it forward’ by sharing this website with others so that they too can be inspired with Art through "Lessons With Lesley."

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