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.

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