Drawing with Black and Gray Colored Pencils

Drawing with Black and Gray Colored Pencils

In today’s tutorial, I’ll show you my first drawing of the year. The topic isn’t the drawing itself, but how to do a complete drawing with black and gray colored pencils.

Since I made a few mistakes with this drawing, I’ll also show you how to avoid or fix those mistakes.

Let’s get started.

The 2018 Weekly Drawing Challenge

I was so busy with special projects in 2017 that I got out of the habit of drawing on a regular basis. Only seven drawings completed and two of those were for special projects. That’s not very encouraging.

So one of my December activities was finding a way to get back into the habit of drawing on a regular basis. Two personal art challenges emerged.

The first challenge is to finish one drawing 4×6 or smaller every week. That challenge directly affects this—and future—posts.

I really hoped to have 52 new, gallery-quality drawings by the end of the year, but I didn’t have to do very many to realize that probably wouldn’t be possible. One, in fact, was all it took.

The first week’s drawing went very fast and turned out well, as you can see below. But it’s not what I consider gallery quality. I did some things I shouldn’t have done, and although I like the results, the drawing is more suited to teaching than exhibiting.

So rather than plan an exhibit, I started planning a series of posts. I don’t know if I’ll cover every weekly drawing—some of them might actually turn out well—but whenever I can explain a mistake and show you how to avoid it or fix it, that’s what I’ll do.

Beginning with the first drawing of the challenge.

Drawing with Black and Gray Colored Pencils

The first drawing for the weekly challenge is a 6×9 on watercolor paper. I began with the idea of using one water-soluble pencil (black) and my cool gray Prismacolor Soft Core pencils to create a landscape from imagination.

I did use an old painting as a pattern, but that’s all.

Weekly Drawing Week 1 - Gray Scale Landscape WS
My Purpose

Lets get this started right by describing the reason I decided to do a drawing with black and gray colored pencils.

I also decided to start the drawing with water-soluble colored pencils because I didn’t get started until Wednesday and water-soluble colored pencils are faster.

So the goal was to see how realistic a landscape I could do with a water-soluble under drawing in half tones, and an over drawing of wax-based Prismacolor cool grays.

The drawing is poorly composed.
The Problem

The first problem is the basic composition. That’s not surprising, since I did no planning before hand. I just started painting.

While I consider myself an intuitive painter, meaning I compose by instinct, that doesn’t always work. In this case, I put the tree on the right too far to the right and too close to the bottom. I didn’t need to divide the composition into thirds to know that, but here’s how it looks.

Drawing with Black and Gray Colored Pencils - Bad Composition

The foreground tree, which is the center of interest, should fall on or near one of the four places where vertical and horizontal lines cross. Instead, it’s nearly entirely to the right of the vertical line on the right.

What’s worse, the towering, white cloud is also too far to the right, so the overall drawing was overbalanced to the right.

The Solution

To correct the composition, I added the smaller trees in the left background and the tall grass in the left foreground. The wind is blowing toward the tree, so the direction of the grass leads the eye to the tree. A suitable correction, but is it the best option?

I could also have turned the main tree into a group of trees expanding to the left.

A more drastic option is to crop the image so the center of interest is closer to the right spot. Below is a digital crop and it is a more balanced composition.

Drawing with Black and Gray Colored Pencils - New Composition
Visual Temperature Differences
The Problem

Faber-Castell  Art Grip Aquarelle Black is a warm black. It looked great on the paper, and dried to a very nice shade of gray. But I didn’t realize it was a warm black until I began layering cool grays over the sky.

The difference wasn’t drastic, but it was noticeable enough to prompt me to look for solutions.

The Solution

The easiest solution would have been to go over the sky with warm grays and finish the drawing with warm grays instead of cool.

Instead, I choose to add the Faber-Castell Aquarelle gray to my palette and do more work with that instead of dry pencils. I chose that option because it was faster and I needed to have the drawing finished that day.

Streaky Clouds
The Problem

The first color I put on the paper for the clouds on the right came out streaky and I was unable to cover it completely, even with dry pencils. Unlike watercolor, these pencils do not completely re-activate when you put water on them. Once a mark or edge is dry, it’s difficult to cover.

The Solution

The solution is to either wet the paper first and stroke color wet-into-wet so it flows together, or to use a bigger brush. One large enough so that a single stroke covers the area. Neither solution is likely to fix this drawing, even if I did want to continue working with it.

But they are good options to remember the next time I try a water-soluble under drawing.

No Reference Photo
The Problem

I almost always draw with my subject in front of me, either something from life or in a good reference photo.

This drawing was drawn from an old painting, which was also painted from my memory and imagination.

It looks detailed, but it could be much more detailed had I used a reference photo.

The Solution

Don’t be afraid to refer to photos when drawing. You can neither see nor remember every detail in whatever you’re drawing, even with simple subjects. Your drawings will either lack detail or become generic in detail, as happened with this drawing.

Dry Over Wet

The Problem

I tried adding water-soluble color after laying down dry color. The new color beaded up or ran off. Water just doesn’t stick to either wax or oil, even in colored pencils.

The Solution

When mixing water-soluble and traditional colored pencils, always begin with water-soluble pencils.

For that reason, it’s best to work through the entire drawing with water-soluble colored pencils and do as much of the work as you want to do before layering traditional colored pencils over the drawing.

Getting Dark Values
The Problem

Water-soluble colored pencils lighten as they dry. Even Black. What looked very dark when it was wet, dried quite a bit lighter.

The Solution

Keeping layering. Let the paper dry completely between layers, and continue adding more layers until you get the value you want. For dark blacks, do several layers, letting the color dry completely between layers. I did four or five layers on the darkest parts of the main tree.

Also use less water. The more water you add to water-soluble color, the thinner (and lighter) the color gets.

Adding Details
The Problem

I found it difficult to draw the kind of detail I wanted. Part of the problem was the paper I was using. It was a cold-pressed paper with a lot of tooth. Actual watercolor paper, I suspect. It was a scrap, so I don’t know for sure.

The Solution

Use smoother paper. Hot pressed watercolor paper is just as sturdy as cold-pressed and is much better for colored pencil uses.

Use a small brush and short or stippling strokes to add fine detail. I used a small sable round to “dot” in the leaves on the right side of the tree, especially around the edges.

I drew the shadows on the trunks and branches with a traditional colored pencil after I’d finished with water-soluble pencils.

The Bottom Line

So that’s my first weekly drawing. Will I do another drawing with black and gray colored pencils? Yes. Will I use both water-soluble and traditional pencils? Absolutely. Despite the problems with this drawing, enough went right to convince me it’s a combination worth exploring further.

And learning new methods is as good as getting a gallery-quality piece of art. Better, actually!

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  1. Tim Grant

    Who was it who said, “There are no mistakes in Art, only happy accidents.”? If so, I am one awesome artist. Just kidding, this lesson is especially useful to impatient artists like myself, who want to get the image down quickly and move on.

  2. Patti Dowden

    I really can’t tell you how valuable these articles are to my art experience. I always learn so much. It’s nice to read the details of your mistakes and how you would or how you actually fix them. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom so that I can better understand how to create a better work of art.

  3. Dana Ashmore

    I love this post! I love the idea of working in grayscale and have been thinking about a project like this for months. So many winter scenes are actually shades of gray with just occasional tints and pops of color. The same with night scenes, where the dark robs the colors except where lamplight touches it. I can see where mixing warm and cool grays with maybe some green and blue grays could work. Or keep it all in cool grays for a pure value study.

    Thanks for your insights and inspiration!

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