Challenging the Eye

My fall colored pencil class is in session and my students are working on this butterfly as their first project. As usual, I introduce the materials and techniques in how to use colored pencil, but this is also a great exercise in challenging the artist’s eye. We start with a simple contour drawing to sketch the basic lines of the butterfly. There are three main sections of its wings, the body, head, legs, and antennae. Most students assume the next step is to draw the patterns on the wings and then start filling in color. Some are surprised when I explain that the detailed patterns are the last step in creating the drawing. I instruct them to first fill in the entire contour drawing of the butterfly with creme as a base color. The next task is to add values by applying patches of other colors like olive green, gray, and darker shades of yellow. In this part of the process, multiple layers of color are added, giving more dimension to the drawing. The final stage is to add the details of the black patterns. A battery powered eraser is a useful tool at this point to create the highlights on the body. It can also be used to remove spots of underlying color, and then fill in the areas with red and blue. This process might seem counterintuitive at first, but it trains the artist to break down their subject into it’s simplest form, leading to a much more accurate, realistic finished drawing.

Unconscious Inspiration

My artistic inspiration is usually straightforward — for example when I’m drawing a dog portrait, my energy focuses on capturing the spirit and likeness of the animal. In some cases, though, the source of my inspiration is not as obvious. Artists like Salvador Dali took this concept to the extreme during the surrealism movement, by trying to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Many of Dali’s paintings contain oddly juxtaposed images, some of which were inspired by his dreams. While I am not a surrealist, I find this whole idea really fascinating. In my more recent wildlife and nature pieces, I’m moving away from pure realism and including elements that have an unexpected twist. I also aim for a certain flow or movement within the composition for the eye to follow. I want the viewer to pause and notice something different about the piece, rather than just seeing an image in its usual context.

I’ve drawn several cover designs for the Wilton Continuing Education course catalog, and this drawing is for the fall 2019 catalog. I was asked to incorporate playing cards in the design to highlight adult education classes for bridge and canasta. I also wanted to include nature in the design, as well as a feeling of motion, so the leaves and cards are fluttering down and causing movement of the water.

One of my colleagues was curious as to why I selected the specific playing cards in the drawing. The ace of hearts with the “W” logo was the only one I specifically chose to signify our town’s spirit behind the “Wilton Warriors.” Aside from not choosing face cards, the others were completely random. She shared with me the meanings associated with the numbers and suits of each card. It never occurred to me that the cards had a hidden meaning or how closely they related to my life at the time I was making the drawing.

I was struggling with a difficult challenge in my personal life, which led me to put my art teaching on hold for several months. This drawing project was a much needed creative outlet as I was trying to sort things out. The meaning behind each card and the order in which they are falling tracks very closely to the life experiences I was going through during that period. I’m usually a huge skeptic with these things, but the similarity is pretty astonishing. Maybe it was all just a coincidence, but I have to wonder if this was a case of my own unconscious inspiration.

Man’s Best Friend

I drew this portrait of Bauer as a surprise Father’s Day gift for his “dad.” It started with a grayscale drawing to block in the initial values of his fur, and then I added multiple layers of every gray pencil I have — warm grays, cool grays, and French grays, followed by black. I could call this one “Eighteen Shades of Gray.”

The Eyes Have It

I’m sometimes commissioned to draw a pet who has passed on from this earth, and I’ve drawn others in life, who have since departed. In any case, it reminds me of how fleeting our beloved pets lives actually are. My goal as an artist is to create a lasting memory, while infusing my energy into the process. I approach the blank paper with a structural sketch, followed by a base layer of pencil to block in the values. But then I move on to drawing the fine details of the eyes. The eyes are truly the life of the portrait and they reveal the spirit of the subject — whether animal or human. RIP Bella.

A Blending Conundrum

Soft core colored pencils are uniquely challenging when it comes to blending. Smudging and mixing are not an option, so what it is a colored pencil artist to do? It helps to understand a little bit more about these waxy, vibrant pencils and requires a shift in thinking from other mediums.

The most important thing to understand is that applying colored pencil is all about layering. The first step is familiarizing yourself with all of the colors you have. It can be very helpful to create a color swatch chart, so you can see how each pencil looks on paper at a glance. Eventually, reaching for the right color becomes second nature. I will often apply six or seven layers of pencil, because I want my finished piece to look like a painting. By applying many layers, I’m visually blending the colors and eliminating any visible pencil strokes.

Layering, or visual blending, is the primary colored pencil technique, but there are a couple of methods by which you can physically blend the pencil. With these methods, you are actually moving the wax around on the paper. In some cases, when you’ve added as many layers of pencil as possible, a colorless blending pencil (such as one made by Prismacolor) can be useful in pulling the colors together a little more. I sharpen mine in a pencil sharpener and then rub the tip on artist’s sandpaper to flatten it. Then I hold the flat tip against the paper and move it around in a circular motion. This method works well in small areas but isn’t very efficient for blending larger areas.

When I have a large area to blend, such as a background, I use odorless mineral spirits (OMS) to dissolve the wax and physically move it around. I dip a cotton swab in the OMS and apply it in a circular motion. The cotton swab should not be too saturated. You can blot it on a paper towel before putting it on the paper. It takes a minimum of 30 minutes for the OMS to dry. The great thing about this technique is that once the OMS is dry, you can continue to layer the pencil and even erase it as usual. I’ve even repeated the OMS after adding subsequent layers of pencil. It’s a lot of fun and a huge time saver.

Blending can be a little puzzling and even intimidating when you’re new to colored pencils. However, once you learn these techniques, the true beauty of the medium begins to unfold.

Colored Pencils 101

One of the things I like best about colored pencils is their simplicity. Unlike other mediums, they are portable and require virtually no clean up. Very few materials are needed to get started, and none of these items are particularly expensive. I recommend the same tried and true list of materials to my students that I use myself.

I discovered Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils when I was a high school art student 35 years ago, and I am still loyal to them today. They work perfectly for my colored pencil painting techniques and I’ve never had a reason to switch. A great starter pack is a set of 72 pencils, which includes a well rounded selection of colors. Larger sets are available, but you can always buy individual pencils in a wide array of colors to supplement any set. Inevitably, certain colors get a lot more use, so they can be replaced periodically with new individual pencils.

My short list of other basic materials includes a battery powered eraser (Derwent makes a great one for under $10), drawing paper for colored pencils (Strathmore 100 lb. colored pencil paper is excellent and inexpensive), and a pencil sharpener. Other colored pencil artists might disagree with me on this one, but I never use a manual pencil sharpener. I keep my pencils extremely sharp, which requires continuous sharpening while I am drawing. I’ve never found a manual sharpener that does the job. Instead, I use a good quality electric pencil sharpener intended for heavy office use, which you can buy at an office supply store. Since soft core colored pencils are waxy and can build up inside the pencil sharpener, a great trick is to occasionally sharpen a graphite pencil. This will clean the blades and keep the sharpener running perfectly.

While you won’t need an art studio to work in, it’s great to have a designated work space to leave your project and materials set up. It should be in a well lit area where you have control over the lighting situation. Also, it’s a good idea to organize your pencils. There are many ways to do this, but I prefer to stand them up in cups, categorized by color. This way, I can always see what I have, and they are quickly and easily accessible. It also prevents the pencils from rolling and falling on the floor, which inevitably results in broken tips.

I like to work with my paper upright and slanted, rather than sitting flat on a table. To me, it’s very difficult to sit over a flat drawing and see it from the correct perspective. This can be accomplished by using a tabletop easel or a drawing board, which you can rest on your lap leaning against the edge of the table. Finally, it’s best to work on a cushion for soft core colored pencils to go on properly. I clip a large sketch pad to my drawing board or easel and then attach my project to the pad using removable artist’s tape. This also gives me a “scratch area” along the side of my drawing to swatch color combinations.

With a fairly small investment in materials and these organizational tips, soft core colored pencils are an easy medium to get started in. Despite their simplicity, they can produce drawings that will easily rival any painting.

It’s Never Black or White

Drawing pet portraits has made me an expert in rendering fur, none of which is ever entirely black or white. If you met my sister’s dog Emily, chances are you would say she’s a black poodle. However, if you look at her coat closely, you’ll see more than just black. Depending on the lighting, black fur can take on shades of gray, brown, blue, or even purple. Similarly, white fur is reflective of light and other colors. I often use neutrals, peach, light blue, lilac or light pink when rendering white fur. In either case, the fur is never pure black or white.

My colored pencil process begins with a blank “canvas” or single base layer of pencil, to which I add many subsequent layers. Most of these layers are different colors, which add a multidimensional quality to the drawing. I usually begin drawing black fur with a base layer of light gray colored pencil. I then add multiple darker shades of gray and finally, black, to represent darker values. I’ll then add blue, purple, brown or other colors as highlights. I never start with black, because that would leave me with a dark, flat canvas and nowhere to go from there.

I try to train my colored pencil students to see through an artist’s eye. When you study your subject, you begin to see color in a much more complex way. I sometimes overemphasize subtle colors that I see in photographs, because I think it makes my drawing more interesting. Occasionally, I’ll even use a color that isn’t there at all, just because I like the effect. While I’m a realist, I never want my artwork to look like a copy of the photo I’m working from. It’s my interpretation of black and white and everything in between.

Highlights, Not Mistakes

Soft core colored pencil is a medium that doesn’t require many additional materials, but one essential tool is the battery operated eraser. These pencils are highly pigmented and waxy, so when you build up multiple layers, your drawing will take on a lustrous, painting-like quality. The downside is that soft core colored pencils are a bit unforgiving in terms of erasing. You can never erase completely, and manual erasers tend to smudge the pencil, rather than lifting it off the paper. This is where the battery operated eraser becomes so important, because it will effortlessly lift off multiple layers of pencil.

That being said, a hint of color will always remain on the paper, and erasing becomes a different process with soft core colored pencils. Rather than eliminating or correcting mistakes, erasing is a step in refining your drawing. It removes material that will later need to be replaced with new layers of pencil. In some cases, there is no way around having to start over completely. Some errant marks simply cannot be covered.

This can definitely be a little frustrating, especially if you’re new to colored pencils. It requires a bit more planning ahead in your initial sketches. I’ve gotten used to the limitations of erasing mistakes and instead rely more on my battery operated eraser as a drawing tool. While the pencils add material and create values, the eraser removes material and creates highlights. This is an invaluable technique for making a bounce of light. Once the darker values are in place, you can erase and then fill in with a white or a light colored pencil to create a dramatic highlight.

Battery operated erasers come with removable eraser heads that are easily replaced when they wear down. A useful trick I’ve discovered is that I can shape the tip of the eraser by holding it at an angle and buzzing it against a piece of artist’s sandpaper. This creates a finer eraser point for creating tiny highlights, such as a bounce of light on an eye.

Once you accept and overcome the limitations of erasing soft core colored pencils, your battery operated eraser will become your best friend. It’s a super drawing tool, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to use!