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Viral Charcoal Artist Josh Hernandez Explores the Gray Area Between Realism and Abstraction

Artist Joshua Hernandez with “And When I Lifted My Head You Saw Right Through Me,” a mixed-media on canvas. Hernandez likes working in a large-scale format (72"L by 48"W).

In his bold, chaotic charcoal and mixed-media portraits, Joshua Hernandez explores the boundaries between realism and abstraction.

Watching a face emerge from Joshua Hernandez’s swirls and smudges of charcoal seems like a sort of magic. It’s as if the image already existed, and Hernandez has simply pulled it out from the background.

His process seems almost random. He’ll take a stick of charcoal and start drawing loose, free strokes with no apparent direction. He uses his fingers to smear the charcoal, or maybe he’ll pull out an eraser and rub away some of what he’s laid down. A jawline begins to appear, followed by an eye or a cheekbone. And suddenly, there’s a portrait that hovers between abstraction and realism, calm and chaos. While Hernandez has a special passion for charcoal (Mad Charcoal is the name of his company as well as his social media handle), he also incorporates acrylic, ink and pastels. “There’s overlap,” he says. “I’ll use some charcoal on a painting or some paint on a drawing. I’m not too strict about that.”

He’s consistent in his subject matter, however. “I draw faces and figures because as humans, the thing we recognize most is other people. We’re naturally drawn to faces,” he says.

The portraits have an unfinished quality, as though the subjects have not quite escaped their backgrounds. “People will ask, ‘Is this piece unraveling or is it coming together?’ he says. “It depends on the piece. It depends when you ask me, and it might depend on where the viewer is in life. If they’re having a fantastic day, it might be coming together. If they’re in a difficult place, it might be coming apart.”

For a long time, Hernandez stuck to a palette of white to black, but recently he’s been incorporating color in small doses, in a blushing cheek or a rosy lip.

The artist enjoys working in large scale. His charcoal drawings are usually 3 feet tall, and his recent acrylic and mixed-media pieces, on display at The Marshall Gallery in Scottsdale, are 6 feet tall.

Gallery owner Peter Strub says the Hernandez’s success lies in his ability to straddle styles. “The market is poised between the realistic and the abstract, and Josh has picked up on that particularly well,” he says. “He has a natural gift for portraying the human figure, and he brings life and movement to what would otherwise be static figures.”

Scottsdale residents Steve and Erin Steinbruegge were driving past Strub’s gallery when they spied Hernandez’s work, stopped to investigate and wound up commissioning a piece for their Scottsdale home. “The style just fits our house and who we are,” Steve says. “It’s vivid and bold. We like the texture, the swirling images and the face emerging from it all. It tells a cool story.”

1. Hernandez has recently been exploring Biblical themes in his work. “Σου Θέλημά Γενηθήτω,” whose Coptic title translates to “There is no other God but He; the Holy One of the heavens and the Earth,” is acrylic on canvas (30″L by 24″W) 2. “Eternal,” charcoal on paper (24″L by 18″W). 

Hernandez wasn’t expecting to be a full-time artist. He had a thriving career as a graphic designer, work he began doing even before earning his degree in the discipline from Arizona State University. It was his wife, Jordan, who suggested he share some videos of his drawing process online. “I posted a video, and it immediately garnered tons of views on TikTok and Instagram,” he says. “I started making more videos and uploading my drawings, and it grew very naturally.”

Today his TikTok followers number more than 7 million, while some 700,000 people follow him on Instagram, and he has more than 600,000 YouTube subscribers. Making and selling art has become his sole business. “We have a team of employees that ship and package our merchandise, and my wife runs the business,” he says.

He credits Jordan’s entrepreneurial spirit for his success. “Without her, I’d just be another starving artist.”

“Find My Wandering Soul,” charcoal on paper (30"L by 22"W), exemplifies the artist’s technique of having the figure emerge from a chaotic background.
“To Dust You Shall Return,” acrylic on canvas (24"L by 18"W)
“When the Sun Sleeps,” charcoal on paper (30"L by 22"W)
“Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth,” acrylic on canvas (72"L by 48"W)

Jordan conceives many of the merchandising ideas, such as selling kits of his favorite materials to other artists or marketing T-shirts. “Instead of rags when I work, I use white tees,” Hernandez explains. “When they’re stained and painted on, we wash them and seal them, then screenprint the Mad Charcoal logo on the front and one of my portraits on the back.”

His work is constantly evolving. He’s experimenting with unconventional materials and techniques, such as adding concrete to his paintings or burning part of the paper or canvas. “I’m pushing the abstract nature so that the recognizability of facial features is challenged,” he says.

Wherever his experimentation takes him, Strubb expects he has a bright future. “With his portraiture, Josh is already a game changer.”

Sources

Artist: Joshua Hernandez, madcharcoal.com, represented by The Marshall Gallery, Scottsdale, themarshalgallery.com.

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