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Questions and answers about colored pencil techniques and materials

Q. I want to find more time for working on my art but I work and support my family. Plus when I do have some extra time I don't have any energy left. What do people in this spot do? Or should I just put aside my love of art and wait until my kids are older and not so time intensive? I hope this isn't beyond the scope of your questions.

A. The mistake is just looking for more time. Instead, look for motive.

Look for compelling reasons to develop your art. Be honest--what do you really want from art? Shuck off genteel answers. Is it to sell artwork in a gallery? To have some special regard from your friends and family? To be independent and not tethered to a job? To count for something? Once you nail down your true motive and realize that you really need this thing, I think your time will open up for art. And then you just need to bring some added "structure" to your art time in order for it to compete with other things going on. 

Q. I've been buying 2-ply white Rising Museum Board from a certain supplier but have learned that they are not going to carry it anymore. Are there any other suppliers?

A. Rising Museum Board is one of the very best drawing surfaces for colored pencil and is recommended by many teachers including me. Where to buy it now? Rising Museum Board has a website. A search using "rising museum board website" will bring it right up. Then select "Where to Buy" on their menu. This page displays a map and list of their many outlets for the boards throughout the world. To help you decide which online store to buy from check their minimums and make sure they will cut the board--at least in half--for easier shipping.

Q. My wife and I are interested in painting on location. I work in watercolor, but she uses colored pencils, and we don't see any painting easels suitable for colored pencil. How do you handle this?

A. A second-hand camera tripod, supporting a piece of 2' x 2' plywood can serve as a sturdy "Field Drawing Easel." Solving this outdoor easel problem is worth thinking about because it is difficult to draw tonally in colored pencil with a wobbly board. Here--very briefly--is how it goes together:

Tripods usually come with a "head" to which a camera can be attached. But we can use it to affix an easel.What you see here is also a "quick release" accessory---one part on the tripod head, the other screwed into the underside of a 2' square piece of plywood, which serves as the drawing board. This allows the board to be taken on and off in an instant.

Should you seek a likely tripod for your drawing board, make sure it and any "quick release" accessory are both sturdy. This is the bottom line. If it is sturdy and will bear your leaning weight, then you can, one way or another, affix it to a solid feeling 1/2" thick plywood board of up to 24" square.

Q. How do you create a metallic effect like gold?

A. To successfully render reflective metallic surfaces, extra value contrast (lightness/darkness scale) is usually required--even more than you actually see on the object's surface. And gold is no exception. But making a metallic surface look specifically like gold and not another metal, is determined by color. Value effects reflectivity; color effects metal identity.

I tend to avoid color mixing formulas, but here are some suggestions to help you find your own way to mix a credible gold color:

Green is the surprise ingredient.

To determine the colors necessary for the particular gold you want to express, try to identify the color families you see. Obviously you will find light yellows, yellow-oranges, oranges, and red-oranges. But, in order to make a rich dark value of gold--needed to help the illusion of a reflective metallic surface--you will also need some greens and dark greens.

In the detail at right, the metallic gold glaze on the vase's lip is made of 916 Canary Yellow, 917 Sunburst Yellow, 918 Orange, 922 Poppy Red, 908 Dark Green, and 909 Grass Green (all Prismacolor pencils).

Q. I've just finished a still life that has a large section of white fabric in it. I used white pencil but wonder if I used too much pressure. It now looks waxy and doesn't mix with colors I wanted to use for shadows. Maybe it's too late for this drawing, but how can I avoid this kind of mess next time I use the white pencil?

A. First off, avoid using white pencil to render white. When you work with any kind of white or very light element, it is best to use just the white of the paper. But not just untouched paper, for that will result in an overly opaque and marshmallowy appearance--unlike other parts of your drawing.

Try this technique for rendering delicate whites: First, apply some side-by-side light to medium tints of several different pencil colors. Because it is difficult to have control with very light-light applications, apply them at a more comfortable and manageable value level.

Then lift away (with kneaded rubber, tape, or frisket film) as much as possible of your applied color. The residue remaining--very light hints of color--is what you are after. These areas can then be shaded where necessary.

Which colors to best use for white passages? I have no formula, but good choices would likely come from other colors in your drawing. I like warm darks and cool lights, but it really depends on the piece you are doing.

Q. I would like to have just one print made of one of my colored pencil portraits. I would also like it to be of good quality. Do you know how to accomplish this? I think Giclee is too expensive for one print.

A. Probably the best solution is to go to a full service copy center in your area and price what a custom print would run. There are also some full service copy centers online and checking them would be a good introduction to what is available today...and it's pretty impressive. All kinds of options are available and prices start at around $25. for one print.

Q. I am working on a night scene with a horse in a landscape. Things seem blue at night to me, but I'm worried about just applying blue all over the horse and brush. Is there a general method of making things appear correct in the darkness of moon and star light?

A. When we look through the books of art history, we see that many versions exist of how a night scene might be handled. So the first thing to know is that there is no single sure-fire set of rules to be followed. But in one way or another, solutions are almost always about contrasts between light and dark.

Historically, there is a principle called tenebrism, which refers to making subjects appear very light and vivid where a light source strikes them, and very dark where the light does not directly fall. Reflected light is usually included only minimally, just enough to barely indicate form--and sometimes it isn't included at all.

In order to see key elements in darkness--such as your horse--it is necessary to have some kind of illumination. Artists have illuminated subjects with moonlight, lightning, fire, candles, lamps, street lights, neon signs and the like. At times they have even had the light source emanating from within the subject. But whatever the source, it is largely rendering the path of light through darkness that finally makes it credible. Tenebrism tends to work very well with realism. It is certainly a sound departure point in any kind of art. For your horse and night landscape, no overall blue would be required, unless it works simply as part of your overall hue scheme.

Q.When using colored pencils, colored paper is my favorite support. I like the way the pencils react to its texture and how the paper's color sets the mood for the piece from the start. However I can never really get good, bright highlights to complete the value range. Do you know of any way to bleach the highlight areas without damaging the paper? I'd like to do this prior to beginning the actual drawing.

A. There seems no way to bleach paper without damaging the paper's fibers. Colored papers provide a wonderful surface on which to work although you usually have to resort to using pastel or other media for brilliant white areas. But what's more problematical is that colored paper tends to fade. What I would suggest to address both of these issues is to color white paper with liquid acrylic or watercolor first, but leave your white areas uncovered. In essence you will be making your own colored paper.

Putting a colored imprimatura on your paper also builds an interesting grabby surface for colored pencil--better than many ready-made colored papers--because the new texture is very irregular (especially when using watercolor). And you are completely in control of the color. Not only can you leave whites, you can also develop other attributes such as texture, color changes, gradations.

Use a 100% rag paper or board that you like to work on which will take aqueous media without buckling. And for the liquid acrylic or watercolor, use those that are lightfast.

Q. Has it been your experience that colored pencil leads frequently break while being sharpened? If so, do you have any special techniques for overcoming this?

A. Colored pencils are often used so intensively and sharpened so frequently, that breakage can really become an issue. Several conditions can cause such breaking. Here are some possible causes and remedies:

1. UNCENTERED LEADS - These will give your hand-held sharpener problems. Try to purchase only leads that are well-centered, and that look good and tight. If you discover some miscreants, then using an electric sharpener may help. You might also complain to the manufacturer when you run into a spate of bad pencils. This could help us all.

2. MISMATCHED WOOD - Leads are usually clenched between twin crescents of cedar. In my experience, if one crescent is light and the other dark (suggesting different wood grains), the pencil's lead may break frequently while sharpening. When you find this kind of "breaker," it's usually a good idea to move to the larger opening of a two-hole sharpener. This will generate a short shaft, removing less wood and being more "forgiving."

3. DULL SHARPENERS - I use small hand-held sharpeners with replaceable blades, and change blades at the start of each new drawing. I frequently hear that it is difficult to find replacement blades. The store or catalog that sold you the sharpener originally, should also carry the blades. But you may have to educate them about this. Before colored pencils became popular, blades weren't much of an issue. And some stores still don't realize their importance.

I personally haven't had much luck in "jigging up" to resharpen these little blades in my studio. If you know how, I think a lot of us would like to hear how you do it. Drop me an email.

4. FRACTURED LEADS IN THE SHAFT DUE TO DROPPING - This means that your sharpening isn't causing the breakage. It just reveals the broken lead. It's impossible to know who is responsible for accidentally fracturing colored pencil leads--shipper, store clerk, manufacturer? But this is another good reason to purchase your pencils from open stock. Buying a badly dropped set of 120 pencils or more could become the stuff of nightmares. Yikes.

Q. I feel about to come to a standstill with my colored pencil art. As a newcomer to this medium, I have begun to love it. But I recently came across an article in which this established colored pencil artist states that one of his colored pencil pieces can take him from 200 to 400 hours to complete. That's about 25 to 50 solid eight-hour days! Is this the kind of time this medium demands?

A. No medium makes demands. Only its users can do this. The simple reality is that all the tools of art can be used in a variety of ways for widely different effects, and to accommodate the personal needs of differently driven artists. Oil painting, for example, can use extremely time-consuming and esoteric glazing methods, or be done swiftly as alla prima. Yet both approaches remain valid painting techniques.

And it is the same with the colored pencil medium. Each of us must find the methods that fit our own lifestyles and temperament, and satisfy our own needs of accomplishment.

Q. I'm a little confused about where to sign my name on my colored pencil art. Are there rules about where to sign? Should my name be outside the drawing or inside? Is the signature supposed to be a half inch from the bottom or more? Is the right side better than the left side?

A. These are serious questions and a lot of artists ponder them. A signature is an additional element in a composition. Just as other elements are carefully placed for balance and effect, so too must an appropriately-sized and placed signature be.

One way of determining this is by first signing your name with a pen in various sizes on several small slips of clear film or plastic--then moving these around the drawing for best placement and size. This can be done at any stage in a drawing's progress or at completion.

Q. What is the best way to store unframed colored pencil drawings? I spray all my drawings with a fixative. Is it harmful to store them in the sheet protectors of a presentation portfolio?

A. One of the best ways to store drawings that are 20" x 24" or smaller is to loosely stack them with acid-free interleaving sheets between them in archival boxes made for this purpose. These boxes can be found in well-stocked photo stores. Some art supply stores and mail order catalogs offer acid-free tissue-like interleaving sheets, but sometimes it is cheaper to buy lightweight acid-free drawing paper instead.

The big flat multi-drawer cabinets also work well, although they are hugely expensive. Archivists frequently recommend the wooden kind. But although metal cabinets are frowned on, I've used one for this purpose for over 25 years with no ill effects of mildew or foxing.

Always keep artwork--stored or framed--in a place that doesn't have wide swings in temperature or humidity. Avoid using silica gel, even though it may seem a good idea, because paper sheets can become dehydrated.

Regarding spraying drawings, and using portfolios for storing work: Avoid spraying unless you expect your drawing to bloom. Spraying a fixative adds only a modicum of protection, and the tradeoff of possible damage to colors is too high a price to pay. Nor is leaving drawings enclosed in the acrylic sheets of some portfolios a good idea. Paper needs to breath and plastic holders don't encourage this. Plus, after awhile, some of the color will probably migrate to the sheeting material.

Q. While drawing with colored pencils, my piece gets very dirty--not just the margins, but also any light areas inside my drawing. I use very hard pressure and this seems to make little pieces of color that leave marks. Is there a way of preventing these constant blemishes?

A. Heavy pressure (and to a lesser extent light pressure) techniques do generate a lot of color flecks that can migrate onto a drawing's surface, spoiling colored and light passages alike. Keeping your drawing board at a near-vertical position helps. Fine pigment particles will tend to fall away, rather than being ground in by your hand or a scratch sheet under it.

The biggest help however is keeping a small utility brush nearby, and using it routinely for lightly brushing away pigment particles. My brush shown is a 2" natural bristle brush--the inexpensive kind found in variety and paint stores. It also has a hole in the handle which can be threaded with a neck-cord for working on location.

Q. I have a craving for working on black. Can colored pencils be used on black paper, and if so are there any special techniques?

A. Yes, colored pencil can be used successfully on black paper, or on other colored papers too. In my books, The Colored Pencil, Revised Edition, and Basic Colored Pencil Techniques, there are chapters on using colored surfaces, including black. But here is some immediate information to get you started satisfying that urge:

1. Black paper isn't really black but is actually a dark gray--in any brand. To truly work with a black paper you would have to create your own by using watercolor, or liquid acrylic on a board.

If you opt to use manufactured black paper or matboard, just remember that you will still have to use a black c/pencil for your darkest darks--because the paper will not be dark enough to serve that function itself.

2. Most ready-made dark papers and matboards won't take more than about two layers without looking a bit "greasy" or overworked.

3. Colored paper also tends to "eat" c/pencil, because it takes more pigment material to register on black than on white paper. Some artists even go so far as to put some white pencil down first, and then add more and different color over that.

4. C/pencil color appears different on different colored supports. In order to devise a palette to work on any colored or black paper, make a sample page (on the paper color you plan to use) of all the c/pencils you are interested in using. This way you can predict how effectively each one will actually appear in your drawing.

Q. I'm planning a large work using wax-based colored pencils and Art Stix [the broad stick-like versions of Prismacolor pencils] on watercolor paper. I also plan to use some thinner to smooth the first layer, but I worry about the thinner eating the paper. Would applying a protective coat of acrylic wash first be necessary?

A. Exposure to petroleum-based solvents may contribute to a paper's gradual deterioration; even using thinners or mineral spirits that are volatile and evaporate quickly may gradually cause problems. But because some such solvents are also toxic to humans, I try to avoid incorporating them into the c/pencil medium which is itself non-toxic.

Instead, you might consider using water-soluble c/pencils and water as a thinner. There are many brands of these available. You also mentioned that you plan to use the broad-shaped Art Stix; finding a water-soluble clone may be difficult. How about using a regular c/pencil but with greatly flattened points for a wider stroke. To prepare this kind of pencil tip, simply hold the pencil in your usual way. Then, with firm pressure "scribble" back and forth until you've ground an angled flat tip. It won't be as broad as an Art Stix, but will be much wider than usual.

Q. Does it matter how colored pencils are stored from day to day? Does light, temperature, or humidity affect them?

A. Colored pencils are pretty forgiving tools, and are not much affected by normal exposure to light, temperature, and humidity. The real concern is to avoid dropping them. Make sure that wherever they are put down they cannot roll away and drop onto a hard surface, for this can fracture their leads and make future sharpening of them a nightmare.

Interestingly, although the pencils themselves are actually tough little hombres, the drawings or paintings on paper made with them are susceptible to all the conditions you mention. So paper and drawings are what must be stored in a sheltered place, away from extremes of light, temperature, and too much humidity, or from rapid changes in humidity.

Q. How do you draw clear glass objects?

A. To draw or paint anything well it is necessary to resist falling back on most "tried and true" formulas or techniques. Yet there is a piece of advice that is helpful for creating an illusion of glass. This is not to draw it at all, but to just draw what is inside or behind it.

When drawing tinted glass, it is generally not a good idea to use white pencil as a lightener, as this tends to make glass look ceramic. It is better to use the paper itself as a light value, then add a bit of color as a tint for the glass.

For glass that is not clear, but is etched, engraved or cut (as in crystal or beveled glass), a close observation from life becomes critical for seeing surface details or distortions. These more complex glass surfaces often seem to intimidate and mystify. Combat this by remembering that detail is simply detail, whether on tree bark, glass, or anything else. And detail, in its richness and complexity, is really like signs on an unfamiliar road, telling you where to go, where to guide and move your pencil.

More about drawing glass in "Hands On Practice", another page on this site.

Q. You suggested in "Professional Q & A" that juxtaposing color is often more effective and less time consuming than deep layering. Can you give us more details on this?

A. Juxtaposed color means applying different colors side-by-side rather than layering them on top of one another. What this does in effect is mix the colors optically instead of physically. Very little layering is used--usually only enough to convincingly blend or melt the different colors together. And the colors can be applied as small fragments or as larger areas.

Selection of colors for combining are practically limitless. Of course there are combinations that actually mix to a preconceived color. But other agendas can work too: all warm or cold, all vivid or dull, sticking with hue families, using triadic hues, or complements--almost any combination will work. You can work methodically, or be slap-dash. What makes juxtaposing colors a great time-saver is that layering is so minimized.

And there is no loss of quality. In my own work I usually only layer now to correct or adjust color passages, or to mix certain favorite colors. Juxtaposing color is in fact seldom recognized in a finished piece--except that its color results may be more clearly or directly experienced. See my colored pencil drawing, 4Mono (right).

See step-by-step how "4Mono" was developed using juxtaposing colors in Inksmith.

Juxtaposed dark colors can be seen on this (inverted) Railroad Property from 4Mono (at left.)

Q. Are different brands of colored pencils compatible with each other?

A. Yes. Although some are wax-based and some oil-based, some watersoluble and some not, they all may be freely used together. Every now and then you might run into a maverick pencil that doesn't want to coexist with others, but this happens only occasionally.

Q. Should work done with colored pencil be labeled drawing or painting?

A. An art medium itself does not determine whether a piece is a drawing or a painting. The artwork determines this. If its structure, presence, and goodness depends more heavily on linear relationships than on something like tonal-shape relationships, it is probably a drawing, and vice versa.

When I refer to c-pencil work in general I use words like drawing or draw in deference to its pencilness. But if I were referring to a specific work I would use terms that were appropriate to its imagery. And sometimes finding a one word tag pretty inadequate, I reach for more descriptive phrases like painterly drawing or drafty painting, etc. But when people ask this basic question I believe there is usually another issue that is left unspoken. See the related question regarding categories in art competions in the Professional Q & A section.

Q. Should colored pencil drawings be routinely sprayed as many pastel drawings are?

A. Fixatives are not needed to protect the surface of c/pencil work as they are needed to protect the more fragile surface of pastels. Nevertheless, spraying is recommended when using wax-based pencils to mitigate wax bloom (see below). Oil-based, or water-soluble pencils don't require spraying at all.

Q. How can I avoid the hazy quality that developes over my colored pencil artwork?

A. That's an effect that happens with wax-based pencils and is most noticeable on dark colors. It's called wax bloom and is caused by excess wax exuding to the surface then oxidizing. This happens in about a week. It can be wiped off with a soft tissue or cloth but may return if the artwork is not sprayed with a fixative. Just spray your drawings at the finish to avoid bloom. Three very light coats should do it. If your work takes longer than a week then you might want to spray with a workable fixative during the drawing's progress.

But there is another way and I recommend it: Since darks are the main problem, I usually establish darks as I draw, but apply the "finish darks" at the very end. The act of applying the final darks will also remove any bloom that has happened. Then after this, spray. All of my books include discussions and tips on spraying.

Q. You recommend the small metal hand-held, two-hole sharpener. Do you have anything against electric sharpeners?

A. Not at all. I recommend the right sharpener for the right task. Generally, some electrics tend to eat pencils, get bogged down in wax, deliver inferior points, and produce a uniformity of point that cannot be customized. But even so, there are uses for it. I use my electric to start the sharpening of new pencils (although I finish with a hand-held type), and also to plow past the occasional recalcitrant and fractured lead. From then on I rely on my small hand-held type.

On location a battery operated electric may be useful. In a courtroom or other quiet space however, it would intrude. But artists with hand-wrist problems (arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome) report that the hand-held aluminum ones are just too difficult to use and absolutely depend on the electrics. It's a matter of matching the right sharpener with a particular use...and personal temperament.

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