Skulls are one of my all time favorite subject matters. Skulls create eerie, yet beautiful, shapes and it is such a great tool for focusing on value and shading. It is also a great opportunity to explore symbolism. I teach in Oklahoma, and my students have always been very responsive to this subject matter too! I set up a still life with the variety of bones, skulls and antlers I’ve collected throughout the years. This post will describe my charcoal deer skull process with my giant classes of 39. I did this artwork in my Art II class, which is a mixed bag of 10-12th grade high school students.
We used compressed charcoal, homemade vine charcoal, blending stumps, erasers and inexpensive charcoal paper. I would love to try this again with a variety of toned paper and black and white charcoal sticks. My class sizes and access to materials limited my vision a little but, but I have no regrets once I saw the finished results!
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Practicing Charcoal Value Scale
The first step is practicing using charcoal by creating multiple value scales. We used compressed charcoal, but charcoal pencils are also great! It depends on your budget and your class sizes. I did not use white charcoal, even though I LOVE blending with it. I have classes of 39 so my supply list had to stay minimal.
We did a value scale with a blending stick, our finger, a paper towel and just the charcoal stick. I think using just the charcoal stick is so much more challenging! I did an in class demonstration, but I posted this video in my Canvas page for absent students or students who needed more visual instruction while working.
Charcoal Skull Practice Artwork
After we practiced blending and creating a full range of value, students sketched the same black and white skull photo. This was to give students a chance to practice drawing their subject and utilizing value without the pressure of a formal grade. I posted the picture in Canvas but also printed about 10 copies for students who do not have access to technology or work best without the distraction of technology #2021.
Charcoal is SO MESSY and I encouraged students to wash their hands before sketching the skull in pencil. Most students took about 15 minutes on the value scales and then the rest of class sketching out the details of the deer skull photograph.
The next class period we discussed value mapping and looked at the photograph together as a class. We pointed out the darkest areas, the lightest areas and then moved on to light, medium and dark gray. We also looked a the variety of textures in the skull and discussed where the areas with the most detail were.
Students were able to move on the adding charcoal at their own pace. I recommended doing the lightest values in the skull first and then finishing with all of the darkest areas in the background. This is after I practiced doing it the opposite way and was frustrated with the amount of black charcoal I had to avoid on my paper.
Photographing the Skull Still Life
While students were practicing, I called them up to the still life table to photograph their compositions. I gave them these set of guidelines and they edited the photograph on their own devices. I have a couple Ipads for students that don’t have access to technology and I print photographs for those small handful of students.
The still life was set up on a cart in the front of my classroom using a variety of bones, skulls and fabric I have collected throughout the years. My school is in Oklahoma and one email out to my coworkers resulted in a wonderful collection of deer skulls and random bones. I practiced taking pictures and editing from multiple angles before students took their turns. I included a piece of black fabric, white fabric and pink so the background would have a diverse range of gray values.
Students moved on to sketching their compositions once they finished their practice piece and edited their composition. This took about a class period depending on the student. I encouraged students to look carefully at the objects in their photograph and in real life. This is a 10-12th grade Art II class and there are a wide variety of abilities all mixed together. I told students their drawing should resemble the photograph as much as possible as far as composition (size relationships and details) but that photorealism was NOT our goal.
Charcoal Blending and Value Mapping
Once their compositions were sketched out, it was time to add charcoal. By the time we got to this point, students felt very comfortable with the technique and were quite independent. I had students look at their photographs and do value mapping, finding the darkest areas, lightest areas and every value in between. I encouraged students to focus on the lightest values first to avoid the giant charcoal dust cloud from their pitch black backgrounds.
This step took several class periods and I was fortunate to have large paper for all 110 Art II students. I love when I can push students to work in a larger scale, which isn’t always possible with our public school budget.
I used this video to review different blending techniques. Students tended to want to black out their backgrounds entirely so I encouraged them to look at the values, fabric folds and details. As we were wrapping up the artwork I encouraged students to pay attention to edges where objects stop and start, making sure the nuances of value were captured in each object that interacts with another one.
A huge component of my classes is our daily Art History warm-ups. We spend the first few minutes of class each week looking at the same artwork and writing and discussing aspects of it. I model it after the Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism and we Sketch (Describe), Analyze (Elements and Principles), Interpret and finally Evaluate each piece. Friday I grade sketchbooks for their weekly grade. It seems like a lot of work at first, but I swear it is the best thing I do in the classroom. It sets a routine for coming into class, allows for deeper investigation into art and makes for a consistent weekly grade administration is asking for.
Georgia O’Keeffe is an obvious artist to investigate because of her vast body of work exploring bones.
I found contemporary artist Liu Ling and I loved her dynamic handling of charcoal.
Finished Charcoal Skull Artworks
My students are rockstars. They buckled down and worked so hard to create these charcoal skull artworks with an amazing range of value. I could not stop walking around the room peering over their shoulders as they worked. They were such good sports about the mess, and I was very thankful to have more than one sink for them to repeatedly wash their hands.
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Are you an art teacher? I’d love to hear from you! What is your favorite charcoal lesson?