Charcoal: An Artist's Process

By Dawning McGinnis

I turned on the television, but I never looked at it or even noticed the noise coming from it while I was eating. I just stared at my newest art piece. I looked deeply at the dusty charcoal, trying to find imperfections that I could fix. After I was halfway through my sandwich I realized that my self-portrait was done and truly was an amazing first attempt at using this medium. It wasn’t that I needed to keep working on this piece; instead I realized that it was time to move on to my next artistic venture. But, my self-portrait was still nagging at me.

                After another hour or so of contemplation, my husband got home and right when he walked through the door with his black hood from his sweatshirt pulled over his head I realized what I wanted to create.

                About a week earlier my husband had gotten the October 2013 edition of National Geographic, which was a 125th anniversary collector’s edition that celebrated photography. On the cover was the Afghan girl, that mesmerizing green-eyed girl who never knew the effect that her picture had on the world. Those intensely deep, yet glassy reflective eyes were the source of my inspiration. The severe look on that Afghan girl’s face was what my self-portrait reminded me of. I wanted more than a reminder of the look that this girl gave to the camera man, Steve McCurry, in the refugee camp in 1985. I wanted to capture that intensity with my charcoal. I felt that my self-portrait looked more scared or eerie than intense, so I needed a model that could convey strength in addition to intensity.

                I told my husband my idea. I had one caveat, I didn’t just want him to pose for my portrait of him, I wanted him to scan his face like I had scanned mine in my self-portrait. I loved the line of light reflected in the eye from the scanner. I felt that one bright line added to the intensity of the portrait and also reminded me of the large amounts of reflected light in the Afghan girl’s eyes. My husband agreed to the challenge of scanning his face, but first we looked up the Afghan girl’s story for inspiration.

                I had never gotten a chance to read the story of the photographer finding the Afghan girl as an adult. The revisited story that National Geographic put out in 2002 was more than I had hoped it would be for inspiration. The article gave a name to the woman who had stuck in my mind since I was a child and that was priceless for many reasons, but the largest reason was biblical in nature. In college I had taken a literature class covering the Old Testament, and in an attempt at feminism I had researched Jewish words to give names to some women that were pivotal in stories but were never named. I felt that having a name gave these women who struggled, and were prominent characters, their own identity and power which they never were allowed to have in their society or stories.

                Sharbat Gula, her name is Sharbat Gula. She has seen more war and suffering than I can imagine. It is not only ferocity that shines in her eyes, it is strength, it is endurance, and it is hope. Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula was first taken in 1985, when she was a young girl during the height of the war with the Soviets, and the photographer returned nearly 20 years later to learn what might have become of her and took her photo again, this time in the midst of another war. The pictures Steve McCurry took in 2002 show a woman that looks closer to fifty rather than thirty. In 2002 she was no longer beautiful the way she was in her first portrait, but she was still mesmerizing.

                After hours of scanning my husband’s face, and my husband getting way too into the process, I decided that one of the first scans was usable for what I was planning. Even though I found the right picture to work from, my husband insisted on scanning his face several more times to make sure I had what needed. I do not know how his eyes survived over seventy scans, but I do know that he is definitely devoted to the arts.

                I wanted to start working on the piece right away, but it was close to three in the morning when we stopped destroying my husband’s vision with our scanner. I was ushered to bed by the man who takes care of me when I become too obsessed with my projects.

                I slept hard and woke up around eleven in the morning with the same, if not more, zeal as I had before bed. I somehow found the will to get dressed, brush my teeth, run a brush through my hair, and feed my cat before I started working, but that is all I had the patience to accomplish before making a charcoal mess in my living room. 

                I grabbed my twenty-four by eighteen inch drawing pad and carefully tore out a piece of the toothy paper. I secured the paper to my wooden drawing board and laid the whole thing on the hardwood floor. Holding the tiny compressed black stick in my right hand, I made huge strokes pressing down on the paper. Once the entire paper was covered in black I rubbed it with a soft chamois cloth that was once a light tan color, but after my one attempt at using charcoal had turned just as black as the medium itself. After the paper was uniformly blackened I picked the drawing board up and set it on my easel. I took some tape and secured the picture of my husband to the drawing board for reference.

                With eraser in hand, I removed the black charcoal from the paper starting with my husband’s jaw-line working up to his nose. For hours I pressed my eraser hard into the paper, stopping occasionally to smudge some charcoal back over with a small piece of paper rolled like a tiny unicorn horn. Four hours of pushing the charcoal around the paper, removing where needed, then finally adding darker lines. My art teacher in college always told me, “You have to earn your black.”

I looked at the clock. It was almost nine at night and my husband would be home from work in about a half an hour. I stepped back to see what I had created. I was pleased, and it was time for the final touches. I was finishing up the white highlights that I was adding with Conté Crayons when I heard my husband’s car pull in our driveway. I listened to his radio belting out a funk song for a few minutes while I continued to fidget with his portrait. When he finally walked in I was standing back and observing the piece again. All he said was “creepy.” I gave him a minute to set his stuff down before I barraged him with questions. When he came back though, he answered all my waiting questions when he simply said, “It does have the intensity you were going for and it looks better than the scanned picture of me.”

My passion for recreating the feelings that were captured in McCurry’s amazing picture of Sharbat Gula in 1985 was sedated for the time being after making the portrait of my husband, but I have been thinking about revisiting this subject.  Sharbat Gula’s expression is impossible to recreate in the face of my wonderful peaceful husband. I think that if that expression is what I want to capture than I may need to go to the source. A portrait of Sharbat Gula will be on my list of projects.


Denker, Debra, and Steve McCurry. "A Life Revealed." National Geographic. N.p., Apr. 2002. Web. 31 Nov. 2014. .

·         Image 3 (Afghan Girl)

Draper, Robert. "Why Photos Matter." National Geographic Oct. 2013: 28-33. Print.

McGinnis, Dawning. Scanner Rich. 2013. Charcoal. Portland, Oregon.

·         Image 2

McGinnis, Dawning. Scanner Dawning. 2013. Charcoal. Portland, Oregon.

·         Image 1

Newman, Cathy, and Steve McCurry. "A Life Revealed." National Geographic. N.p., Apr. 2002. Web. 31 Nov. 2014. .