Charcoal, Gesso, and Over-shading


“Perhaps Bob Ross Lied: Some Happy Accidents Really DO Ruin the Picture”

I’ve been in the middle of a painting and illustrating binge for a couple of weeks now. There are plenty of projects calling to me for completion, yet I’m persisting in the artistic explorations. I find that I do a lot of thinking that applies to my writing (tweaking of story lines and character development especially) during my art binges. I’ve been reveling in Inktober as well and using it as a tool to discipline my practice of my illustration skills. After a good art binge, it’s time for a writing binge.

Today, I offer up to you a recap of a learning experience that I’ve had while experimenting with different art mediums. Today is about this piece and how it took me six and a half months to work up the courage to finish it:

the sketch that has begged for completion for six months
the sketch that begged for completion for six months

I love the art legacy of Bob Ross. Really, what’s not to love there? One of my favorite take-away lines from his show is the saying, “There are no mistakes–only happy accidents.” I try to make that my mantra as I learn how to create art and explore new mediums constantly. BUT (you knew that transitional but was coming), I think this may not always be a true statement. Why? Well, let’s just chalk it up to experience. Some pieces do not turn out at all like I envision they will. This first attempt failed because I didn’t have enough knowledge of the medium and because I didn’t know when to declare a piece finished. This led to overworking. Now, I tend to stubbornly dig my heels in and stop myself from going past the point of no return (anyone else singing the song from Phantom of the Opera now?).

Why did I hesitate for months and months? I hesitated because the first version of it ended up like this:

for image credit and more information on Fresco Jesus which is really the botched restoration of a painting called “Ecce Homo” see here:

Just kidding. That’s Fresco Jesus. But seriously, what I created wasn’t too far off before I threw in the towel and called the match over:


I can’t call this picture a happy accident, and I see how Fresco Jesus might have happened now.

To start, I decided to free-hand the entire sketch and to experiment with charcoal and gesso layering. There are great videos on YouTube that demonstrate the cool effects achievable by combining them. I just didn’t duplicate the coolness.

I normally use the grid method to create a piece on a larger substrate than the reference photo, but this was a PRACTICE piece, so I wanted to see how good I am getting at being able to “eyeball” proportions without the grid. I used my SoHo sketch squares to do the entire piece. Previously I had only used charcoal in pencil form.

sketch one
Freehand, eye-balling proportion, and practicing with sketch squares.

Things started well–they did. They were going swimmingly. I learned that your hands get incredibly messy using charcoal sticks to draw, but it was fun! Alas, the messy hands brought about my picture’s downfall.

Clean your hand, lady!!
Clean your hand, lady!!

I cautiously started adding in the gesso and then layering charcoal over it when it dried.

All was still okay enough as I added the layers–though the paper was starting to buckle with the gesso layers (I used clear, white, and black gesso on this).

before it went BAD fast
before it went downhill FAST

I was having a blast with how charcoal layered and smoothed and with how my fingers smudging the charcoal created the facial contours. Sheer magic was happening (and I should have stopped to take a photo of it, but my hands were too messy), and then I ran out of clean spots on either hand with which to smudge–so blackened fingers smudged and disaster ensued.

I now use blenders like these when working in messy, smudgy mediums.

blenders are my best friends now
blenders are my best friends now

I’ve been hesitant to go back to charcoal and gesso ever since I had the “happy accident” the first time. I spent too much time on the second sketch on a heavier weight paper (mixed media this time) to risk screwing it up.

Finally, I got up the nerve to try again, and this was the end result:

I decided to work in oil pastels this time
Afternoon Train Ride 18×24″ oil pastel on mixed media paper

I chose to work in oil pastels, and I had a blast! Was it scary? Absolutely. I am not entirely thrilled with how I achieved the shading in the subject on the left, but I am beyond thrilled with how the subject on the right came out. My greatest relief? That I didn’t recreate the failures that led to a piece that could not be salvaged like last time. I might try to go back to playing with charcoal and gesso layering on a new piece down the road, but for now I’ll just leave those two alone.

Learn from my mistakes. Oops. Sorry, Bob. Learn from my happy accidents. More than that though, just experiment with art. Be willing to fail. So far, every time that I’ve learned what not to do has helped my art evolve. I fail better each time. Don’t be scared to try.

Oil pastels blended with blending stumps. I used Gamsol to smudge and Gamvar (both are oil painting mediums from Gamblin) to create a gloss to the wood and seat upholstery
Mungyo gallery oil pastels blended with blending stumps. I used Gamsol odorless mineral spirits to smudge/blend colors and Gamvar varnish (both are oil painting mediums from Gamblin) to create a gloss to the wood and seat upholstery


Writer and Artist

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