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Painting with pencils: The Color Pencil Start-up Guide

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by Gretchen Parker

I am new to Senior Artist. Let me tell you a bit about who I am and how I started in colored pencil (CP). 

A child of the 1950s, my parents thought I needed a REAL career (in their minds, art was not), so I earned a degree from Western Michigan in occupational therapy with a focus on disabled children. Life ensued, but when my own children headed off to college, I finally found time to hone my art skills. My goal was to not be embarrassed to show my work. 

I had been drawing with graphite all of my life, and I found that working with it was a great way to study values. Spending so much time working in shades of gray and black helped me learn the importance of light versus dark. Someone once told me that color is not the most important part of any art. You can use about any color as long as the value is right. That made it easier to make the leap to color.

As a self-taught artist, most of what I know about CP comes from reading books and articles on the Internet, along with trial and error. However, there came a point when I became frustrated with my skill level, so I took a few workshops with Kristi Kutch as well as Ann Kullberg, who has become a good friend and mentor. Doing a lot of reading before taking a workshop gave me enough experience to relate the information the instructors were teaching. I have been working in CP now for 13 years.

AN INTRODUCTION TO COLORED PENCILS

Colored pencils come in many forms and grades. It is important to use professional-grade pencils. Individual pencils can be purchased. They are also available in sets as small as 24 or up to a full line of more than 140 colors. Local stores usually carry sets. If they do carry individual pencils, they generally don’t carry all of the colors. Online purchasing of individual pencil colors is best when one wants a specific color. Most pencils are encased in wood; some are sticks or bars of color without wood casings. Depending on the binder that holds the pigment together, the leads can be hard or soft.

Each type has different ways of blending. Often the best way to blend colors is with a colorless blender or a colored pencil of a lighter hue. Watercolor pencils are blended with water, and softer wax-base leads can be blended with heat or solvents like mineral spirits or even Goo Gone®. Each type has its merits and drawbacks. All brands and types can be mixed and used together or just on their own. The different characteristics make the possibilities limitless and exciting.

Two of the best features of CP  are portability and cleanliness. I can sit in my lounge chair in front of the TV in the evening with my husband and work. Or, I can grab my sketchbook and pencils and head out the back door. However, the very best characteristic of CP has to be ease of use. You can easily leave your work with no clean up and come back to it with no prep time.

To get rich colors with CP, you blend colors directly on the support, i.e., canvas. My favorite brand of CP is Prismacolor®. The pencils are wax-based and blend beautifully with colorless blenders, stiff brushes, solvents, and even heat.

SUPPORTS

Many different supports work with CP. Rising Stonehenge paper is my favorite, because it is almost indestructible and has great tooth (texture). You can layer a lot of CP on it before the tooth gets filled up. When paper tooth fills up, it will not take more color. I also work on wood, Ampersand Pastelboard, Art Spectrum Colourfix™ paper, and Fredrix® Watercolor Canvas. Really just about anything that will hold CP pigment on the surface works. I have one student who works on gourds.

BRUSHING

A very important tool is a drafter’s brush. Brushing your paper frequently keeps the wax and eraser crumbs off your paper and keeps it clean. A Swiffer® duster is a good alternative for a brush. Some of my students use clean cosmetic brushes.

ERASING

You will often hear that you can’t correct or erase CP. It’s true that CP is a bit harder to correct, but it is doable with the right tools. White vinyl erasers—both electric and the clickable pencils—will lift light layers of color. Electric erasers tend to do a better job; however, even these will tend to smear it and/or ruin your paper. Usually you don’t erase CP; you lift it off the paper.

Scotch® tape can also be used to lift color. Lay it over an area to be corrected, and scribble on the tape to lift the unwanted color. Poster putty, the stuff used to hold posters on walls, is invaluable for lifting color and softening edges. For the record, a kneaded eraser will not work with most CP. I don’t use one.

SHARPENING YOUR COLORED PENCILS

A good electric pencil sharpener is a must. The sharpener’s instructions may say not to use it for CP, but it will work fine. If your tips start breaking, just sharpen a graphite pencil to lubricate the sharpener's blades. My current favorite sharpener is a Foray®. It works with AA batteries for on-the-go work but comes with an AC jack as well for studio use. This sharpener has helical blades, like our old elementary school wall sharpeners. I got mine at Office Depot®, but Amazon.com carries them too. 

Do NOT get a sharpener with straight blades! Both the electric and handheld ones break leads. This is true of the straight-blade sharpeners that come with pencil sets or straight-blade sharpeners ostensibly made for a specific pencil brand.

Another reason to love Prismacolor® pencils is that the ends are flat. You can use super glue to attach the stub of an old pencil to a new one of the same color. Pencils are expensive; I want to use the entire pigment! Loctite® super glue gel is the strongest I have found.

GETTING STARTED

I start a piece with a very light graphite drawing. Then I take a roll of poster putty and roll over the graphite to get rid of pencil crumbs and to lighten the graphite. If you drag the tip of your pencil into dark graphite lines, you will pull graphite with it and ruin your color layer. 

The tip of the pencil is very important, especially on a fine-tooth paper like Stonehenge. You need a very sharp point to get the pencil tip down into the tooth of the paper. For this reason, you will be doing a lot of pencil sharpening and could benefit from an electric sharpener. 

I work in color washes or layers, much like working in watercolor. CP washes are quite transparent. To do a lovely, smooth wash, hold your pencil like you would for handwriting. You want the very sharp tip to get into the paper tooth. Turning the pencil frequently to a sharp edge and using your sharpener frequently are very important in creating a smooth wash. Of course, there are times you can use a duller point or even the side of your pencil, depending on the texture you want to create in your work. 

Generally, I use a vertical line stroke. It is just vertical lines very close together to create a wash of color. Sometimes I use a scumbling stroke, which is tiny circles very close together to create a wash. A contour line stroke is a lot like vertical line, but the line follows the contour of the object you are rendering. It all depends on the effect you want to achieve. 

Usually, I work from light to dark because lighter pencil hues do not show on darker ones. The exception to this is when working on sanded surfaces; the rough surface will take light over dark. To build values, CP hues are mixed based on their value to create shadows and contours.

The pressure on the tip of the pencil controls the intensity of the color laid down. A very light pressure lessens the intensity, and a heavy one increases it. It’s critically important that you keep your pencil point sharp. I tend to work in very light pressure washes so that if I need to lift any areas (i.e., I’ve made a mistake), I can easily do it. The heavier the layering, the harder it is to lift CP.

I have merely introduced this wonderfully versatile medium. There is so much to learn! Colored pencil has been gaining in popularity in recent years. Because the work is done in layers, colored pencil work is called painting. Pieces done in CP are appearing more frequently in shows and competitions. The Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA.org) helps artists get their work before the public with their two annual juried shows. Judges are beginning to recognize the worth of art done in CP. Often pieces can look a lot like oil or even watercolor when done on the right support. One of my favorite comments from a viewer of my work is:  “I can’t believe that’s pencil!”

Gretchen Evans Parker is a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America (CPSA). You can see more of her work at her website, or check out her Facebook page or blog.

Photo courtesy of MDrx

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