Is there a Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

Is there a Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

Colored pencils are unlike almost every other artistic medium out there. In a lot of ways, they turn the drawing process upside down. Is there a benefit to starting with the subject, instead of the background?

Here is today’s reader question:

Is there benefit to starting with the subject vs. the background?

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

In the past, there wasn’t much doubt about the answer. But new papers, new tools, and new products have given colored pencil artists brand new ways to use their colored pencils.

Is there Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

So let me answer this reader’s question in two parts.

The Old Way of Using Colored Pencils

I spent 40 years as an oil painter. The first 30 years were exclusively oil painting. It was the medium I learned first and remained my favorite medium all those years.

The advantage to oil painting and most other forms of wet media is that you can paint over the background. That makes it extremely easy to do the background first, and add details over it. I painted horses mostly, so had lots of manes and tails to paint over the background.

For this portrait, I painted the mane two or three times, each time after working on the background. The background was one of the first things I did. The mane was one of the last.

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

You can’t do that so much with colored pencils.

At least not the way I learned them.

Traditional colored pencils used on traditional types of drawing paper eventually make the paper surface slick. When the paper gets too slick, it’s difficult to add color.

If I haven’t yet drawn a windswept mane before my paper gets slick, I’ll have a hard time adding it.

So all those manes and tails I painted so easily over oil backgrounds now have to be worked around with colored pencils.

This colored pencil portrait is similar to the oil portrait above. But in this case, I had to do the horse first, then draw the background around the horse. Yes. Even all that lovely, gorgeous mane.

That’s the biggest benefit to starting with the subject. It’s easier to draw the subject first, and then work around the edges to add the background. Even with more complex subjects.

That’s one reason why I do so many animal drawings with no background!

The New Way of Using Colored Pencils

Thanks to years of research and trial-and-error by Alyona Nickelsen, there is a new way to do colored pencils. Alyona is the artist behind Brush & Pencil.

You’re still using the same pencils. That hasn’t changed.

Alyona developed a line of products she uses with sanded art papers to make colored pencils behave more like wet media. From Powder Blender to ACP Final Fixative, these produces allow artists to use more painterly methods with colored pencils.

Her method, which I’m now learning, allows me to do a background first (working around the subject.) When the background is finished, I seal it with ACP Textured Fixative, then do the subject.

The fixative not only seals the previous layers of color; I can draw over it. So when I draw a horse, I can work around the main edges of the horse with background, seal the background, then add the finer details over the sealed background.

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

This portrait is in-progress. I did the background first, but I didn’t have to work around all of the cat’s hair. Instead, I’ll be able to continue building color saturation and detail step by step by sealing each phase of work before moving on to the next.

The exciting thing is that what works on the edges between background and subject also works within the subject.

So now you have more options.

Is there Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

Starting with the subject still has benefits even when you use Alyona’s methods, but the benefits are not as great.

If nothing else, these new products give you more flexibility and a greater ability to move back and forth between the subject and background.

But if you still prefer traditional methods (and there’s nothing wrong with that,) then the benefits of starting with the subject first are tremendous.


  1. Rick Steffens

    Are these ACP Fixatives available at stores like Hobby Lobby or Blick’s? I’ve never tried this method & would like to sometime. I always do my subject first but maybe could try it the ‘new’ way. Thanks!

    1. Richard,

      The Brush & Products are available through Dick Blick, but not Hobby Lobby. At least not so far as I know.

      I purchase directly from Brush & Pencil so Alyona Nickelsen gets the maximum profit for her work. But if you check out her store page, you’ll see a list of other places where you can buy them.

  2. Gail Jones

    Hi Carrie, your horses are so gorgeous! Love the shine and the detailing. Thank you also for sharing a bit about how Alyona Nickelson’s method works. It looks very intriguing. I look forward to seeing your cat project progress. It looks wonderful.

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