Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Teaching Drawing and Painting One Student at a Time

The Tools of the Colored Pencil Artist on EmptyEasel

It may seem unnecessary to write an entire article about the tools of the colored pencil artist. I mean, they’re so basic. Pencils, paper, sharpener, eraser. What else do you need?

The plain and simple truth is that you really don’t need anything else. That’s what makes colored pencils so appealing to a non-artist who wants to try his or her hand at making art. It’s relatively easy—and inexpensive—to get started. Any colored pencil, any sharpener, and any kind of paper will suffice. You can find those almost anywhere.

But what if you’re serious about learning colored pencils? What do you need to buy? And what do you need to know?

Let’s tackle this matter in an orderly, two-part fashion. First, a quick primer on pencils and paper, followed by a look at some of the more unusual tools a serious beginner might want to consider (and might already have around the house.) Read the full article.

How to Draw the Focal Point in Your Next Drawing

Focal Point—The part of a visual composition that attracts the viewer’s eye most quickly and holds it longest.

One of the things I like about graphite drawing is the range of values possible, especially with some of the softer leads.

One of the things I like about the plein air drawing did in September and October is the range of subjects. Yes, I gravitate most to organic things. Trees. Grass. Leaves. But there have been times when the door handle of a classic car or a crack in the sidewalk has sparked creativity. It’s a lot more fun than the serious painting that is my day job.

But it’s more than just a fun drawing exercise. Life drawing—even if it isn’t plein air drawing—is a good way to hone the skills necessary for more serious drawing or painting. Consider composition and ways to make the focal point stand out.

how-to-draw-the-focal-point-in-your-next-drawing-3

Let’s look at this drawing of a Poinsettia, drawn in graphite some time ago.

How to Draw the Focal Point - The Original Drawing

The only tool I used was my trusty 6B pencil and a finger tip or two. Nothing special and nothing fancy.

I began by sketching the leaves. I didn’t intend to make a detailed drawing, I just wanted to get in a sketch before the day got away from me.

The shapes and layering of the leaves quickly drew me in, however, and after I’d sketched the major leaves, I began developing a composition around the lightest leaves… the colored leaves that form the flower.

Tips for Creating a Strong Focal Point

There are a few things you can do with every drawing to emphasize the focal point. The techniques I used for this simple drawing can be used with any drawing of any subject and in most media and methods. What are they?

Line Quality

Since the flower was quite light and my paper was white, the first thing I did was outline the leaves. The “flower leaves” are outlined with a heavier, firmer line than the leaves immediately beneath them. The leaves below those leaves are outlined with an even lighter line and some of the smallest, least significant leaves are barely outlined or not outlined at all. Why? Because the heavier and darker a line, the more it draws attention. Since the focal point is the flower, that’s where I put the darkest lines.

Contrast

Next, I began shading, adding darker value to the green leaves and adding shadows where leaves overlapped. The darkest shadows are near the focal point; around the white leaves and in between them. As shadows move away from the focal point, I made them lighter even though they were all the same general value on the plant I was drawing.

In the areas immediately adjacent to the flower, I used heavy pressure, multiple layers, and blending to get the blackest black a 6B is capable of. In other areas, I reduced the pressure or the number of layers (sometimes both). I blended less frequently or blended with just one or two layers of graphite to make softer, lighter shadows. The reason behind this part of the process is simple. The strongest contrast—the lightest values and the darkest values—should occur at or around the focal point so they draw the eye.

Detail

The focal point of any drawing should contain the most details and those details should be rendered more clearly and sharply than the details in any other part of the drawing. That means using line quality and contrast, but also minimizing or eliminating altogether details in other parts of the drawing. Why? Because detail naturally draws the viewer’s eye and holds it.

The small shapes at the center of this flower appear only in the center, so it was a simple matter to eliminate detail elsewhere. As already mentioned, I used lighter values and lines as I moved away from the focal point.

Edges

To make the flower even more dramatic, I shaded the negative space around the flower in the upper right corner. I didn’t want to make that too dark; I just wanted to emphasize the light value, so I did a couple of layers then blended with my finger, pulling graphite into the surrounding areas to keep the edges soft. The exception? The edges of the flower. They were kept as sharp and crisp as possible because sharp edges also draw the eye and put emphasis on the edge.

Finally, I rubbed in all of the negative space around the bottom of the drawing, including the lower leaves. I smudged the paper to darken it slightly by pulling graphite out of the leaves and into the background with my finger. Again, I kept the edges of the flower leaves as clean as possible, but even in this case, lightly shading the tips of them kept them from pulling the eye out of composition.

Conclusion

The methods I used to compose this simple drawing are vital in composing any work of art. Using value, line, and edges to keep the focus on your center of interest is important, whether you’re oils, pastels, colored pencil or graphite.

2016 Year End Reader Survey Launch

It hardly seems possible, but it’s December first; time for another year end reader survey. Dare I ask where the time went?

It’s been a great year. This blog experienced phenomenal growth in readership and subscribers. I can only thank you for participating.

2016 is nearly over, but that doesn’t mean an end. Quite the contrary. I’m already looking forward to 2017, as I hope you are.

Part of the process is evaluating how well I’ve done in meeting your expectations for information on colored pencil drawing. Where have I fallen short, and what might be done to improve in the coming year?

2016 Year End Reader Survey

I’ll be honest. I have a pretty good idea what worked and what didn’t. All I have to do is look at the stats to know which posts soared and which ones crashed.

What I’d really like to know is what you think. What ideas do you have for making this blog better, more informative and helpful? More enjoyable. It is, after all, more for you than for me.

To make it easy for you to give me a piece of your mind, I’ve put together a survey. It’s pretty short and sweet—only nine questions.

It’s also anonymous. I won’t know who said what unless you tell me. But I will appreciate each and every one of you who takes five to ten minutes to share your thoughts.

Take the survey now

Thank you!

On EmptyEasel: Adapting the Flemish Method for Colored Pencils

As some of you already know, I work in both oils and colored pencils. My preferred method with oils is a personal adaptation of the Flemish technique, a seven-step process starting with a detailed drawing and going through color glazes and a detailed finishing layer.

How to Adapt the Flemish Method for Colored Pencils - An Oil Painting at the Umber PhaseIt’s a classical method that is slow and careful, producing paintings with a rich, glowing color, life-like detail, and subtle gradations of both color and value. (If you’re interested, here’s a tutorial I wrote on painting with the Flemish technique.)

How to Adapt the Flemish Method for Colored Pencils - A Colored Pencil Drawing at the Umber Phase

However, since I also love working with colored pencils, I’ve attempted to adapt those same seven steps to colored pencil. Here’s how the adaptation looks.

Read How to Adapt the Flemish Method for Colored Pencils.

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What Do You Want to Know About Colored Pencils?

What do you want to know about colored pencils?

If you could ask one question about colored pencils and know you would get an answer, what would you ask?

What Do You Want to Know About Colored Pencils?

I’m planning content for next year, so I’m looking for topics that will be of interest to you and will also be helpful. Rather than come up with topics on my own and hope they’re of interest to you, I thought I’d ask you.

What do You Most Want to Know About Colored Pencils?

So what do you want to know?

Is there a particular colored pencil method you’ve always wanted to learn more about or is there some part of your current method that you’d like help with?

What problem confronts you most?

What cool tool would you like to learn more about before you spend hard-earned money?

Maybe mixed media with colored pencil is of interest right now, but you don’t know what mediums work well with colored pencil.

This is your chance to ask.

Whatever question is topmost in your mind, this is your opportunity to ask. Questions can be about pencils, papers, methods of drawing, framing, or even shipping and selling. Whatever’s on your mind. Don’t think your question is stupid or that the answer should be obvious. I’ve been doing colored pencils long enough to know that most answers are not obvious and that the only stupid question is the one I didn’t ask.

So step right up! Don’t be shy! If you have a question, the chances are very good that you’re not the only one who wants to know.

Leave a comment below, use the contact box at the end of this post or send me an email. I can guarantee you will get an answer.

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencil Papers

When students begin a new class or start new lessons, one of the questions they usually ask is about colored pencil papers. Which brands are best? What are the differences? Which papers do I use most often?

Some of those questions have been answered elsewhere on this blog. For example, if you’re interested in knowing a few paper basics, check out Drawing Paper Basics: Surface Texture. I’ll link to other paper articles at the end of this article.

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencil Papers

The purpose of this post is to answer four questions that are more specific in nature. If you have a question that is unanswered here, I invite you to ask it. Chances are good that you’re not the only one with the same question.

Frequently Asked Questions about Colored Pencil Papers

1. Are there any specific brands of paper that work well with colored pencils?

Papers are even more numerous than pencils!

Look for artist quality, archival papers. These are papers that are manufactured to be as permanent as possible.

Beyond that, there are different types of surfaces from very rough (sanded pastel paper) to very smooth (hot pressed papers and boards).

The smoother the paper, the easier it is to draw a lot of detail. However, you usually can’t put a lot of layers onto the paper.

The rougher the paper, the more layers of color you can add, but it can be very difficult to draw detail.

My preferred papers are Stonehenge, Bristol (vellum surface), Strathmore ArtAgain paper, and archival mat board. I’ve also drawn on sanded pastel paper and wood.

2. Do You Ever Use Colored or Toned Papers?

Yes, I do, but not as often as I used to.

Drawing on colored papers is a great way to reduce drawing time. It’s especially helpful if you need to finish something quickly.

But drawing on colored paper requires some adjustment in method, especially if you’re drawing on darker papers. Colors tend to “fade” into darker paper and the darker the paper, the more difficult it is to get bright, vibrant color.

However, you can get lovely, subtle values by working on darker paper, as you can see in this drawing.

Drawing on Dark Colored Pencil Papers

3. What Papers Do You Use?

My two favorite papers are Stonehenge and Strathmore Artagain.

With Stonehenge, I usually use white. It does come in light colors (tan, light blue, etc.) and I do sometimes use those for special projects. I’ve also occasionally used black. See it at Dick Blick.

Artagain papers do not come in white, but I still use the lightest colors available. Flannel White (which is the lightest color, but not true white) and Beachsand Ivory. It is available in more colors than Stonehenge, so if I’m looking for something Stonehenge doesn’t offer, my preference is Artagain. It’s also more widely available than Stonehenge. See it at Dick Blick.

On My Wish List

I’m going to be trying Canson Mi Tientes. That’s a paper made for pastel use so the front of it is quite rough, but the back is smooth and is reported to be very good for colored pencil. There’s a wider range of colors with this paper, including quite a few light colors. You can see Canson Mi Tientes at Dick Blick here.

All three types of paper are available in flat sheets and in pads. If you’re thinking about trying any of them (or any other paper, for that matter), I recommend buying drawing pads first. You can usually get pads of assorted colors, so you get a variety of colors at a good value.

4. Do You Ever Draw On Anything Except Colored Pencil Paper?

Some of my favorite drawing surfaces are not paper, strictly speaking. Mat board, for example. I use archival quality mat board frequently, though not as often as I used to.

Sanded pastel papers are also good for colored pencil drawing, though they tend to gobble up pencil.

I’ve even drawn on wood a time or two and found it an excellent support.

Colored Pencil Papers - Wood as an Alternative

If you’re interesting in drawing on something other than paper, give it a try. You just won’t know whether it’s suitable for colored pencil—or your drawing style—until you do. Start small and play with color. See what happens. Let us know how it turns out!

Additional Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about drawing papers, check out these articles.

Drawing Paper Basics: Surface Texture

Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils?

5 Differences Between Sanded Art Paper and Traditional Drawing Paper

On EmptyEasel: My Favorite Transparent Earth Tones in Oils

Earth tones are some of my favorite colors. (Yeah. I know—with all the bright, beautiful colors available in so many mediums, why would browns be my favorite?)

But earth tones are a staple on my palette because they factor so heavily in my favorite subject: horses. Honestly, earth tones are the foundation for most of the things I paint. The only thing I can think of that doesn’t usually include an earth tone of some type is the sky. Especially clear, blue skies.

The most obvious place I use earth tones is in the final stages of a horse portrait, when I’m glazing color over the painting. Colors like Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, and Yellow Ochre are all important for the realistic depiction of everything from cremellos to blacks.

But I also use an earth tone for underpainting work when I use the Flemish method.

For under paintings, I almost always use Raw Umber because it’s opaque, non-fading, and has a blue cast that’s perfect for under painting most of the subjects I paint. Read the full article.

2 Ways to Use Bath Tissue with Colored Pencil

Draw with bath tissue and colored pencils? Are you crazy?

Maybe. Maybe not.

When most people think of art supplies, they naturally think of things like paper, pencils, erasers, easels, brushes, paints, and the like.

They don’t think of everyday, around-the-house things that make perfectly good art tools.

Some time ago, I wrote an article on six ways to turn old clothes into art tools for EmptyEasel.com. That article was geared toward oil painters, but some of the tips apply to colored pencil artists, too.

It’s almost ridiculously easy to convert castoff and everyday items into oil painting tools. If nothing else, most fabrics can be turned into painting rags.

But we’re not talking about oil painting here. We’re talking about colored pencils. Are there everyday items that can be used with colored pencils?

You bet there are!

Cotton balls and swabs, paper towel, and pieces of cloth, just to name a few.
Today, I want to share a few ways I use one of the least likely items to improve my colored pencil work: bath tissue.

Drawing with Bath Tissue with Colored Pencil

Draw with Bath Tissue

Yes. That’s right. You can draw with bath tissue. Not on bath tissue, with bath tissue.

I recently wrote a post demonstrating step-by-step how to draw with bath tissue. If you’re interested in learning more, read How to Draw with Bath Tissue.

The beauty of drawing with bath tissue is that you can lay down soft tints and you can cover larger areas quickly and without pencil strokes. You also don’t need to blend color because it blends naturally.

In the following illustration, for example, I glazed the pink color onto fresh paper then glazed blue. In the middle, I overlapped the two colors to create a third color.

Glazes Applied Using Bath Tissue with Colored Pencil

Imagine drawing a morning or evening sky with such subtle gradations in color. It is possible with bath tissue!

TIP: Adding color with tissue paper works best if you do it first, even before making or transferring a line drawing. You can add color with tissue later, but it will blend with whatever is already on the paper unless you seal the previous colors.

Blending with Bath Tissue

I’ve used bath tissue to create soft blends for many years. I don’t remember how I came to use it for that purpose, but I’m glad I stumbled upon it.

When you blend with tissue paper, you’re using what’s known as mechanical blending. That is, you’re physically “grinding” the pigment into the paper. If you’re blending more than one color, you’re also grinding the colors together. They don’t actually combine, but the particles of pigment get mixed together in a way that’s either impossible or very difficult using a pencil in the traditional way—that is, drawing with it, and then blending the color with heavier pressure or with a colorless blender or solvent.

But the effects are soft. I refer to blending with bath tissue as a “gentle blend” and I use it most often when I need to create soft gradations with the color already on the paper.

TIP: Don’t be afraid to use heavy pressure when blending with bath tissue. Fold the tissue into a small square so you have something to hold easily and you don’t have to worry about putting your fingers through it or tearing your paper while you blend. Fold the bath tissue around your finger (as shown below) to blend a small area.

So if you’re looking for a way to draw very soft color or very light values, give bath tissue a try. Or facial tissue (without lotion or other additives!).

Just beware, it is a slow process!

Slow but well worth the effort!

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Week 10 Report

The Autumn Plein Air Drawing with Colored Pencil Challenge is now over. I set out to draw ten plein air sketches between September 1 and October 31. Did I succeed?

Yes! I ended up with 14 drawings. Topics and techniques varied, but I met my goal.

I began and ended with a tree drawing. Nature turned out to be the most frequently visited subject. No surprise there, I suppose, given my inclination to draw landscapes and horses.

The most unusual thing I drew during the challenge was my subject for week 6.

The most fun thing to draw was the portion of rotted board I drew in the fourth week.

Here is the complete collection of plein air drawings. Click on the “week headings” to read more about each one.

Colored Pencil Plein Drawing Collection

Week 1

Getting started on anything is almost always the most difficult part of the project. Yes, I love to start new things, but sometimes it’s a big step.

And very challenging!

So I started with something familiar. A tree.

2016-09-02 Plein Air Drawing 1

Week 2

The sky, and particularly clouds, have long fascinated me. I love weather. Like many others, severe storm warnings send me outside to watch and take pictures. Things have to get pretty bad before I head for the storm shelter. A characteristic that goes way back to childhood.

I drew two versions of the sky for the second week.

Autumn Plein Air Drawing Challenge, Drawing 2

2016-09-12 Plein Air Drawing Week 3

Week 3

Another drawing of the sky for week 3. This time, I used water soluble colored pencils, just to see how they performed.

This is also the only plein air drawing for which I did a little studio work afterward.

2016-09-12 Plein Air Drawing Week 3, Drawing 2

Week 4

Another favorite subject for the fourth week. Wood. This time a decaying plank from the back porch.

If I remember correctly, these same planks were the subject for an article on drawing realistic wood grain that I wrote for EmptyEasel some time ago.

2016-plein-air-drawing-week-4

Week 5

Back to trees and traditional colored pencils this week. But I used only three colors—a cool dark and a warm light for the tree and a touch of green around it—and a method that involved using nothing but line quality. An interesting experiment and pleasing results.

2016-09-29-Plein-Air-Drawing-5a.jpg

Week 6

A subject of a different nature for week six. This is the only man-made item I drew. Do you know what it is? Although I prefer drawing nature, I did want to stretch my drawing skills a little, so chose this coil of extension cord. Not a bad effort, if I say so myself.

plein-air-drawing-week-6

Week 7

More wood, this time the top of a fence post. I used water soluble pencils for this, but used them in a traditional manner. The drawing began with a green under drawing over which I developed value and detail. I liked working with the water soluble pencils, but getting truly dark values was much more difficult because the pencils were so dry and hard. If I remember correctly, this is also the only subject that I revisited. I worked on it two days.

2016-10-14 Plein Air Drawing Week 7, Step 2

Week 8

Water media! The top drawing is watercolor. I intended to draw a wash of watercolor for colored pencil, but it was a cool evening and by the time the watercolor dried, the light was gone.

2016-10-19 Plein Air Drawing 1 Week 8

This drawing is water soluble pencil and another view of another evening. Alas! It didn’t turn out either, but at least it had colored pencil work in it.

2016-10-21 Plein Air Drawing 8 2

Week 9

Somehow, it seems appropriate to save the best for last. I had just enough time while waiting for someone to draw this sprig of leaves. Of all the drawings I drew for this challenge, this one is my favorite. What do you think? It’s amazing what you can do with one pencil, one piece of paper, and a few minutes, isn’t it?

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Week 9 Report - Sketch of Leaves in Blue Colored Pencil

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Week 10 Wrap-up

Did everything turn out the way I hoped it would? No, but then it rarely ever does. I always expect every drawing to be perfect and to be a masterpiece. As pleasing as some of these drawings are, none of them are perfect and I don’t think there’s a masterpiece among them.

But I did have fun and I did learn a few things during the challenge. First that it’s easier to draw from life than I anticipated. All I had to do was find my subject and identify the major details.

Is plein air drawing going to become part of my weekly routine? Probably not, but only because it’s so difficult to get outside some weeks.

I may instead incorporate life drawing into my routine more often. There were a few weeks when weather, health or circumstance made it a challenge to get outside to draw, but when I could have drawn something inside without difficulty.

Did you take the Autumn Plein Air Drawing challenge? If you did, how did you do?

How Race Horses and Artists Are Alike

If you have any interest at all in horses or sports, you know that one of horse racing’s premier events began yesterday and concludes today—the Breeder’s Cup series.

In recognition of that event, I’m reaching back into my archives and republishing a post that first appeared on my writing blog a couple of years ago. It’s been around the track several times since then and has been mentioned in other places, as well. Although there are a lot of things I can compare myself to as an artist, showing you how I am like a race horse is my favorite.

Race Horses and Artists

So what do race horses and artist really have in common?

Let’s take a look.

Race Horses and Artists - How They're Alike

The Race horse….

A race horse spends its early days alone with its mother. All of the basic lessons are learned in this one-on-one relationship. Standing. Walking. Running.

Race Horses and Artists - The Baby Race Horse Alone with its Mother

After a time, the little race horse and its mother join other mothers and babies. The youngster learns to play with others in its natural environment. It learns to do what it does best; run fast.

After a few months, the baby race horse is separated from its mother and learns how to be a grown up race horse. It still runs and plays and grows and matures, but it’s still mostly untutored, learning with its band of buddies.

Finally, it enters training. It learns about bridles and bits and saddles. It learns to carry a rider. Life seems pretty regimented and it doesn’t do much running.

When the young race horse has learned all these things and is reasonably good at them, then it goes to the track. The first time it sees a track, it doesn’t know what the track is for, but let the rider give the horse a little rein and tell it to go and the race horse knows what to do. Run! Oh boy!

But there are rules to learn. Rules about running with other horses in close quarters. Rules about not running all out all the time. Rules about listening to the rider and about the starting gate. Rules about standing quietly before the running begins.

It can take a good trainer with a good student up to two years to get the race horse ready for its first race. A lot of time spent learning things that seem counterproductive to the purpose the race horse was born with…running fast.

Race Horses and Artists - Horses in a Race

But a good, solid race horse that’s well trained steps onto the track for the first time with natural ability AND a knowledge of the rules basic enough to get the job done.

If the race horse is good enough, it can get the job done faster than any other horse in the race.

Eventually, it might even find itself in the winner’s circle with a blanket of roses over its shoulders on Kentucky Derby day.

The Artist…

When I started drawing, I drew to please myself. I did what came naturally and I did it over and over and over. I learned about colors and how to use them. How to put lines together to create shapes, then how to shade those shapes to create form and so on.

Race Horses and Artists - Colored Pencil

I finished a lot of drawings before I started painting, learning something new about art and myself as an artist with each one. Then I graduated to painting and repeated the process.

Then I started taking art classes in school.

Then I found art magazines and subscribed to them.

And I started learning rules. Things like fat over lean, aerial perspective, color temperature, and the color wheel and value scale.

I even signed up for a popular correspondence art school. I wasn’t very creative at that point, but everything I learned contributed to becoming an artist.

So What’s the Point?

Human beings are the only part of God’s creation that aren’t able to care for themselves within a short time of birth. That race horse I mentioned earlier can stand and walk within minutes of being born. It can run within hours. We humans, on the other hand, need years of care and instruction before we can do the most basic things for ourselves.

So it’s only natural that when we decide to make art, the first thing we do is seek out the help of others.

But if we haven’t taken time to play with our talents, we’re a blank slate. Everything we hear influences our art and the way we see ourselves as artists. We try to make everything work, even when one piece of advice directly contradicts another. That way leads to no personal style and no distinguishing characteristics.

We sound like no one because we sound like everyone. Consequently, our art looks like no one special because it looks like everyone.

Artists (and most creative people) need the same kind of time to play with their talents, to explore, learn, and grow that the baby race horse needs. In my opinion, artists should already have a solid knowledge of their artistic style and what they can do BEFORE attempting to learn the rules.

This is, however, only my opinion; based on personal experience. Each person is different. But don’t be so eager to jump into training that you forget playing. Whether you learn by playing first, then seek training, do both at once, or something else, make sure you take time to learn about yourself as an artist.

And wherever you are in your artistic journey, don’t forget to play!

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