Capturing Likeness
International Artist|June - July 2021
John Fenerov demonstrates his technique for creating genuine portraits in charcoal and graphite
By John Fenerov

Amara, charcoal, white chalk and graphite on smooth cartridge paper, 12 x 8½ (30 x 21 cm) This drawing was made last year during Black History month in February. I toned the paper with a used napkin and ink to give it a timeless vintage look. I proceeded then with graphite and used charcoal, massed in, lifting out lights, drawing back in with charcoal pencil and chalk. I wanted to keep the work expressive, sensitive and as much accurate as possible.

For nearly a decade I have been using charcoal and graphite, and there is something vulnerable about them that makes me familiar with them. I feel like I am recalling a moment or a memory from the past. It feels timeless, vintage, even Victorian Romantic. I have a steady stream of ideas and inspirations that allow me to create a work with just a feeling that charcoal gives me. These two mediums together can be used to convey powerful messages or create beauty with a specific mood that not only you can feel, but others can feel as well. It can be happy, sad, melancholic, nostalgic and euphoric.

My process for a drawing composition can sometimes change and evolve repeatedly, often in a direction I hadn’t envisioned. Nevertheless, I intend to stay true to myself and express my feelings on paper without overexaggerating the nature of the project I’m working on. This is because I want to keep it as clean as possible—too much information in your work without understanding your intentions can be confusing. To prevent that, I do my research to establish a foundation to build on.

I research often about many fundamental topics such as the subject theme, materials, references either from life or photo, the mood settings, how well the light works in relation to the overall form and other technical and critical considerations worth thinking about before advancing to the practice. The most intimate process to creating a piece of work is researching, and I mean the integral research of understanding your subject and what is it about, and how you intend to approach it on a level that can be visually understood at first glance. The last part of the research are the tools you’re going to use because they have to be the right kind of tools for your work. Of course, it takes some time to figure out which tools are the right kinds after experimenting with them. You must be able to understand your tools and be familiar with them.

When I just started out, I found using charcoal to be the hardest application to work with because it’s a delicate tool. Charcoal has been utilized as a creative tool since the beginnings of human history, originating in caves where people drew using only burnt sticks of wood. With charcoals, I draw gently and softly, lightly controlling my pressure on the surface of the paper. I often use them together with graphite, jumping back and forth between the two mediums. I find if my pressure is touching the surface too boldly, the paper will suffer from smudging and marring, creating an overly shiny and muddled texture that nobody wants. For example, the less graphite I use, the less shine I get on the paper. This is why I alternate between the two mediums, creating the desired result based on my personal choices and approach to each work. With the blending stumps (and also graphite ranging from 2H to 2B) I gently construct the face, establishing a clear statement of the light. Before utilizing

the stumps I sometimes apply tissue paper with a little bit of charcoal, working to find landmarks within the darker facial features such as the nose, cheekbones and eyes.

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