Saturday, October 29, 2011

Doing a Background in Colored Pencil

Doing A Background In Colored Pencil

One of the problems with colored pencil is getting good coverage and saturation without creating craters and dents in the support. If you don’t get a good base cover, there is the real possibility of small white flecks ruining the overall effect of your work. These flecks are the result of the texture of the papers used for colored pencil.
All paper consists of matted fibers. For colored pencil you do need a support with enough tooth to hold many layers of colored pencil, but this tooth also is the problem: All those nooks and crannies. Working with very sharp pencils is necessary. Most CP artists sharpen their pencils every 5 to 10 minutes, with brush ups with sandpaper in between. Also holding your pencil more upright than when you write helps get into the crannies of the paper. But usually this is still not enough. So many artists spend lot of time burnished the colors to push them into the paper.

If you use enough pressure to fill these nooks and crannies on one pass, chances are you have crushed the very textures you need to hold the next layers. So creating a good background takes work. Layers and layers of pigment and hours of blending and burnishing.

Of course there are options.


One is using watercolor pencils. These are water-soluble pencils with pigments similar to watercolor in a nice, neat pencil format. The advantage is, that after the first layer is laid down, a light application of water will “melt” the binder and the pigment can flow into the lower nooks and crannies. I am going to talk about using watercolor pencils in two of my recent works, "the Singer" and "Cardinal" both done with colored pencil on mat board.

Doing the Background

Using short circular strokes, to avoid any linear definitions, the background can be covered in a single color, or several colors that can be “floated” together.

When covering the background or in fact whenever I use any pencil, as I work I keep giving the pencil a small, 1/4 inch turn every few stokes. It becomes habit after a while and you don’t even think about it, but it does keep the pencil point longer than if you don’t turn it. 

Once the first layer is on, it is time to use some water. I did try a new product to me, a waterpen. You fill it up like an old fashioned fountain pen, then squeeze to release a few drops of water. The tip is a long nylon brush. I thought it would be perfect for this, but to work I will need to practice. I bought a rather small one, with a medium tip at .12mm. This is fine for small detail, but not really good to float the background. I can see it being good for watercolor sketching, but not for this. I had trouble avoiding splotches and hard edges in the sky for the singing bird, not at all what I wanted.

I quickly went back to my watercolor flat brush. It did a great job with the yellow background of the cardinal. There the background was smooth. It quickly dried so I could apply another layer of watercolor pencil, adding splotches of green. With a filbert brush, I was able to work the green in smoothly with the background.

[Caution: when you use watercolor pencil, or any water-soluble medium, you have to remember you will be adding water]

Water + Paper = warping and buckling.

So use caution

Apply only as much water as you really need. Let dry completely between layers. Make sure you are using a support that can handle this. #140 watercolor paper, or thicker pastel boards, etc. also consider mounting the paper as you would for watercolor]

I am using heavy white mat board so I did not tape it down, but simply clamped it to my drawing board. I was very careful in the amount of water used to minimize and buckling. I did float some of the color, but only in a very controlled area. And I did the background in two layers. Since I did not mean to retain any white, masking was not necessary. But if you do need to retain white, consider different types of masking.

These layers are to establish the background and fill in the blanks only. They are not meant to be the final layer, so absolute saturation is not necessary. I will build up the background as I go.

Note: watercolor pencils are not the only way to cover the background.  You can also use Inktense pencils by Derwent. These have great coverage, but as the name implies, they are ink and once dried they are permanent. One advantage of the watercolor pencils is that they are not permanent. If you should happen to get some color where you don’t want it, it is a bit easier to “float” the color off. Like all watercolors, the more water you use, the less saturation. So you can wet and blot up mistakes, even after they have dried. You cannot do this with Inktense. You can also do the underpainting with standard, wax-based based pencils and then use a solvent to melt the wax and float the color. You will get much more saturation this way than with watercolor pencils, but again, mistakes are really hard to correct. So you can use the disadvantage of watercolor pencils, that they are not permanent to your advantage.

{Know your products. Know the pros and cons and use them to your advantage. Sometimes you choose your tools because of the cons rather than the pros.}

Solid backgrounds are the hardest to do and solid backgrounds in colored pencil are especially hard. The simple wear on the tips of the pencils make setting down a solid uniform layer of color difficult. While you can blend to a certain extent, taking the time to lay down the color as evenly as possible is a time consuming process. If your application is hurried and not careful your background will make all your hard work look amateurish and a waste of time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Erasable Colored Pencils –

Erasable Colored Pencils – 

These are really good for getting down your basic shapes and ideas without using graphite pencils, carbon or other transfer papers. These pencils allow you to draw with colored pencil. To think with them. Because they are actually erasable you can improve your composition and true shapes without extensive lifting and scraping, or contaminating your surface with graphite.

They tend to be a bit harder than Professional Colored Pencils, more like what you were given as a child, but became frustrated with. But unlike those, you can erase these. They take a point very well, which does improve on the drawing, but you also have to be a bit careful. A little too much pressure, and you can dent the paper/support surface. They are also a bit lighter in saturation when you use light pressure, but you would expect this.

Drawing in Pencil of
the Singer
I draw a lot of wild life, most of it rather small, so I find the light gray, more a taupe-y color, very useful in defining basic outlines.

Doing the underpainting in the erasable is also a plus, you can block in the basic shapes and see if the design is really working. If it needs adjustment, you can erase rather than having to abandon it and start again. Once the objects are lightly blocked in it is much easier to check your drawing.
Drawing and Underpainting of The Cardinal

Monday, October 17, 2011

Colored Pencils

I love colored pencils. Lets be honest, I love pencils, colored or otherwise.

Colored pencils have changed over the years. They have gone beyond those hard, lightly colored things we used as children. What has been happening with colored pencils thought is not short of being amazing. Pencil manufacturers have worked diligently to create pencils that are quality art tools.

Still there is a stigma to using them. Because colored pencils, like crayons are art supplies given to children, many artist and art critics dismiss them as child’s play. This is unfair, because many artists are missing some fantastic artistic experiences. This in general is how many view anything drawn. It is seen as preliminary, not serious artwork. This is prep work for serious art, not artwork in and of itself.

Both artists and art organizations are working to overcome this perception. Colored Pencil Society of America

Colored Pencils

How have they changed?

There are now many, many options for colored pencils. Each year a new brand comes out, new colors or a new format. One of the drawbacks of color pencil is that they are hard to make corrections. To get around this, a lot of CP artists do their layout drawings in graphite, then use transfer paper to get the basic outlines on the paper. Or they draw directly on the paper with graphite. Problem with this is that graphite and wax-based colored pencils don’t really like each other. You have to lighten the graphite lines a lot, and then hope you are not left with remnants that contaminate the colored pencil later.

Last year, with the recommendation of other artists in CPSA, I tried erasable colored pencils. Yes, erasable. Prismacolor has this great product, Col-Erase. I got a set of 24 to try out.

These are erasable colored pencils. Really. So erasable they come with erasers on the tips, like our familiar #2 pencils. Now you can do the initial drawing with colored pencil, eliminating any need to use graphite.

So how do they work?

Well, I am doing a couple of miniature drawings for the 11th Annual National Miniature Exhibition. I will use my Col-Erase for the layout and first underpainting of two of them. Come along and see what you think.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Preliminary Sketches And True Shapes

Preliminary sketches are just that, preliminary. You can concentrate on the overview, locating the major lights and darks, or you can isolate the objects/subjects you are interest in drawing. Preliminary sketches let you explore the details and analysis what you are really seeing. They can and should do a lot of things. Any really good work of art should have several preliminary sketches.

It is ok when you are out to do sketches of single objects. It is ok to do general landscapes. Sketches should be the way you explore the world around you, so be free with them. By sketching often, you can quickly come to understand how things really work.

Concentrate On That Object

When you have a subject that really interests you, concentrate on that. Draw it from many angles. Simplify it. Take it apart. Look for the basic shapes that make up that object.

Using A Photo Reference

This is true, even when using a photo reference. Or especially when using a photo reference. Photos can be misleading. Take the time to really explore what you are looking at. Don’t just jump into drawing it. Think. Art happens in the head, not on the paper. The paper just shows the results.

When using a photo reference, make a black and white copy of it. In fact, make several. Use a copy machine or print it from your computer on common paper, not good photo paper. These are working copies, not art. When you make your copies, lighten and darken the copy. Lighten the copy and even enlarging it will reveal details in the shadows that might be hard to see.

I tend to use my own digital photography for reference, so I have the files to play around with. Also I don't have to worry about copyright.

[note: never, ever work on the original file. Always do a “save as” and rename the file. Me, I put work at the beginning so I know this is the file to play with.]

With my software, I have several options to convert  a photo to grayscale. (this is what you are actually doing, converting to true black and white is not what you want to do!)Usually I use the desaturate option, as this allows me to play with contrast. You will need to learn what is best with the software you have.

True Shapes

With these b&w copies, you are ready to work out construction problems. Here I am not talking about layout and composition, but how you are going to draw individual objects. One reason I like to make the copies of my references is that I can draw right on them. This is helpful in finding the true shape of something.

“I can see the shape” you say, but do you really? How many times have you drawn a vase, then look back at your still life and find you have not drawn that vase? Not so easy, is it?

Ok now stop and think about drawing a bird or a squirrel. Looks can be deceiving! Try it, get a photo of a common bird or squirrel, then try and find the edges. Most photos tend to lose the details in shadows.

So we have the black and whites. Here the lighter versions will be helpful. Draw the true shape of things. I like to use tracing paper for this. Lightly draw around the actual edges. Now look. Surprised? They are fatter/leaner than you thought. Using tracing paper isolates the shape from the rest of the context in the photo. It isolates it from distracting patterns and shadows. You will find this especially true with wildlife. Nature plans it this way. Remember their patterns are supposed to make it difficult to see their true outlines. It is a survival thing. Once you have the true shapes, it is easier to transfer this to your drawing.