Detailed Realist Drawings - By Joel Daniel Phillips

The following blog was written by Artist Joel Daniel Phillips:

One of the first things that I’m often asked about my work by artists and non-artists alike always makes me smile wryly and chuckle a bit. In fact, I’m so used to the question: “How do you keep the drawing so clean?!” that my standard, half-joking response “by drawing slowwwly”, is starting to feel a bit worn out.

I create realist, large-scale, charcoal and graphite drawings on paper, and am currently thirty-something portraits into a series exploring the social ecosphere and how it relates to poverty in my surroundings. Seeing that the drawings are life-size, the question of how I keep the drawing clean and smudge/smear free is quite a legitimate one.

Joel Daniel Phillips in Studio

The answer lies in my (admittedly rather absurd) process. In a nutshell, I draw from the top-left to the bottom-right of the drawing, more or less finishing as I go.


1. Quick, loose under-sketch:

For the biggest drawings, this involves transferring the initial image loosely via projection. For manageably sized works it is a quick, gestural sketch or a grid laying out the basic proportions and placement.

Drawing Progress

2. Tight block-in

Once the very general placement and proportions are in place, a much more thorough second pass sketches in a deeper and more concrete set of details and proportion.

Drawing Progress

3. Top to bottom rendering

After finalizing the sketch, I dive headfirst into rendering. My approach to this part of the drawing process is the answer to the ever-present question around cleanliness. To keep my hand from inadvertently smearing anything I’ve previously drawn, I work from top-left to bottom right, doing my best to finish the rendering as I go. While this creates its own set of challenges and frustrations, particularly in regard to value consistency and volume transitions, I find that it allows me the necessary control over the charcoal, which can so easily smudge out of control or smear where it isn’t wanted.

Drawing Progress

Drawing Progress

Drawing Progress

4. Final changes

After the meat and bones of the drawing is finished, I tend to let the piece sit for a bit and then go back in and fix anything that I misunderstood on the first pass - on a good day this is limited to shifting values here and there.

Finished Drawing


Paper: I use Strathmore 400 Series rolls for most of my large drawings. The light-cream tonality of the paper is wonderfully warm but light enough from a value standpoint to allow stark contrasts. The tooth is the perfect balance between accepting of charcoal and graphite and lifting ability. The 400 series comes in rolls up to 42inches wide, and my only complaint is not having it come in even bigger sizes.

Charcoal: Conté à Paris charcoal pencils and Cretacolor charcoal leads, in addition to compressed charcoal bars.

Graphite: Mars Staedtler Technico lead holders and a range of Staedtler leads.


Pencil Drawing Progression


Go back