How to create a realistic charcoal sketch using Photoshop

How to create a realistic charcoal sketch using Photoshop

Create a sketch that looks like it was drawn by hand


  • Intro 1
  • 01 Make a layer 2
  • 02 Use a texture 3
  • 03 Layer attributes 4
  • 04 Create outline 5
  • 05 Configure and invert 6
  • 06 Create sketch layer 7
  • 07 Add detail 8
  • 08 Get your brush 9
  • 09 Set up brush 10
  • 10 Start sketching 11
  • 11 Carry on 12
  • 12 Hair features 13
  • 13 Clothing details 14
  • 14 The Background 15
  • 15 Final shading 16
  • Extra Tip: Alternative looks 17
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Step 1 of 17: Intro

There’s two obstacles to creating dry media sketches such as charcoal, using Photoshop. The first is that the built-in filters don’t do a very good job of brushstrokes. You can get a kind of line effect and some cross-hatching, but none of it follows the features of the subject and it doesn’t look very realistic at the end. The other obstacle to drawing using the brushes is one of natural ability. If you don’t have any, it’s nigh on impossible to draw something that doesn’t look like it was done by a seven-year old.

Fortunately that’s where this tutorial comes in because we’re going to create a charcoal sketch that does emphasise the different areas of the subject, yet doesn’t require any actual ability to draw. The only thing you need is a photo you want to use as the template. It also needs to be pointed out that it’s much quicker to do this using a pen and tablet than a mouse. With the latter you will need to keep changing the size and opacity, whereas with a pen it reacts to the pressure you use.

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Step 2 of 17: 01 Make a layer

The first thing to do is create a new, blank layer. Select a light grey colour with the colour picker and use the Flood Fill tool to fill this layer. Call this the ‘Grey Background’ layer. Use something like #c6c6c6 for the colour but anything similar is fine.

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Step 3 of 17: 02 Use a texture

In the Layers palette, click on the New Adjustment layer icon and select Pattern. Click on the down arrow to select the pattern then click on the options cog. Select Grayscale Paper as the pattern set to load. Load this in and select Fibres 2 from the swatch of textures.

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Step 4 of 17: 03 Layer attributes

Scale the texture up to 200%. Any more than this and the texture gets very soft. Now set the blend mode of this layer to Soft Light. Reduce the Opacity down to 50% to make this have a subtle look.

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Step 5 of 17: 04 Create outline

Select the Background layer and right-click on it. Select Duplicate Layer and call this ‘Outline’. Grab the layer and drag it to the top of the stack then go to Filter> Filter Gallery. Click on Stylize and then Glowing Edges. The idea is to create an outline to the main elements.

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Step 6 of 17: 05 Configure and invert

For this image settings of Width:3, Brightness: 10 and Smoothness: 15 worked well, but tinker with them for your own image. Now go to Image> Adjustments> Invert to make this a black outline with some colour detail. To remove the rest of the colour go to Image> Adjustments> Desaturate. 

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Step 7 of 17: 06 Create sketch layer

Set the blending mode of the Outline layer to Pin Light and reduce the Opacity to 25%. The select the Background layer, right-click and Duplicate it again. Call this layer, ‘Sketching’. Go to Image> Adjustments> Black and White and use the Default preset to convert to mono.

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Step 8 of 17: 07 Add detail

Go to Image> Adjustments> Add Noise and select 15% Gaussian noise with a tick in the Monochromatic box. This will add lots of detail to the white areas of the image.  Then, go to Layer> Layer Mask> Hide All to add a black layer mask to the image.

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Step 9 of 17: 08 Get your brush

At this point we are ready to start the sketching process. As mentioned, don’t worry, no actual skill is required for this. Zoom in then click on the Brush tool. Select the Brush Picker and click on the options cog. Scroll down and select Dry Media Brushes. Click and load this set.

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Step 10 of 17: 09 Set up brush

Select the Pastel on Charcoal Paper brush and then, tablet users, go to the Brush Options palette. Click on Shape Dynamics and set the Control to Pen Pressure. Set the Minimum Diameter to 65%. Close this palette again. Now, Pen users can vary the Opacity of the strokes by pressure, but mouse users need to set this to around 15% and increase it to 45% when needed. 

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Step 11 of 17: 10 Start sketching

Set the Brush size to 20px and set the Foreground colour to white. Select the ‘Sketching’ layer and set the blending mode Multiply. Click on the mask. Start drawing back and forth over the main facial features. Go back and forth to follow the lines of the features, blending the strokes in together where needed.

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Step 12 of 17: 11 Carry on

Carry on sketching to fill in areas. If you think one area is overdone, just increase the Opacity to 100% and switch to Foreground black to remove it. Also, when drawing down the nose, open the Brush preset palette and click on Brush Tip Shape. Rotate the angle of the brush around to make it wider on vertical strokes.

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Step 13 of 17: 12 Hair features

Having tackled all the fine detail on the face, increase the Brush size to 40px and the Opacity to 25%, or if using a Pen, press down a little harder now. Use this to sketch in the hair. Reduce the Opacity to around 11% for the rest of the skin tones. 

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Step 14 of 17: 13 Clothing details

To roughly sketch in the clothing, increase the Opacity to 50% and draw with circular motions to fill the detail in. For jewellery and the baubles in this image, sketch over once for one layer and then again to provide some 3D depth to it. For any gaps reduce the Opacity to 10% and just sketch them in.

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Step 15 of 17: 14 The Background

The background here is very light so you need to increase the Brush Opacity to 40% and the size to 74px. Make a couple of dabs around the head and body to fill it in. Don’t go over the figure too much or you’ll see large streaks appear. If your photo background is dark then only use 5% Opacity here.

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Step 16 of 17: 15 Final shading

The last thing to do is reduce the Brush Opacity to 10% but leave it at the large size. Look for gaps in the sketching and use this to fill them in. If you find it is leaving too much of a discernable stroke then reduce the Opacity further.

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Step 17 of 17: Extra Tip: Alternative looks

If you have a Pen and Tablet one of the alternative looks to the charcoal sketch it to make it much finer and have a pencil sketch. This is basically impractical using a mouse as it requires ten times more pen strokes. For this, have the width controlled by the Pen pressure and use very fine lines to cross-hatch the details into play. At the end, use 100% Opacity to finely draw in the more precise details. Another option with what we have here is turn off the visibility to the Outline layer. That gives more subtle shades. Another is to add some colour smudges to the proceedings. Right click on the Background Layer and select Layer from Background. Move this above the ‘Grey Background’ layer. Use a 50px Gaussian Blur and then reduce the Opacity to around 20% for a hint of colour throughout. Otherwise, flatten all the layers and save to finish. 

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