How to Draw Flame in Colored Pencil

How to Draw Flame in Colored Pencil

Today’s post represents something I haven’t done in a long time: a tutorial! The subject is how to draw flame in colored pencil.

A few readers have asked how to draw fire over the years, and I’ve never given what I considered a very satisfactory answer. So when I came across a series of campfire photographs I took a few years back, I decided to sketch it.

Since I’ve also been practicing at drawing illumination and patterning my studies after Thomas Kinkade’s work, I also decided to test Brush & Pencil products with this kind of light.

How to Draw Flame in Colored Pencil

This is my reference photo. My goal is not to draw this fire exactly. Instead, what I want to do is draw something that likes like fire.

But since we all know it’s easier to draw something you can see, I needed a reference photo, and chose this image from more than half a dozen.

I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils because they seem to work better with Powder Blender than Prismacolor.

One other note. I’m working on Clairefontaine Pastelmat because I’m using Brush & Pencil products. I’m also using the three-step drawing method I described last week, so I’m recording the drawing process in a series of “rounds” instead of steps.

Let’s get started.

How to draw flame in colored pencil

Round 1: The Block-In

Step 1

The first thing I did was apply Powder Blender to the paper with a sable round brush. It doesn’t take much Powder Blender, so use it sparingly.

Then I loosely outlined the fire with Cadmium Orange. I chose that color because it’s a good mid-value base color.

Next, I layered Dark Indigo over the background, followed by Black around the outside edges. Since orange and purple are complements, I next added Mauve over the background.

I did a couple of layers of each color, working through the order with each layer (Dark Indigo, Black, and Mauve.)

Then I blended the layers with a sable round brush.

Step 2

After blending, I layered Dark Indigo over all of the background. This time, I layered it with a more careful, precise stroke. I still didn’t stroke as carefully as I would when drawing on traditional paper, but I was more careful to shade all of the background.

I did a couple of layers of Dark Indigo, hatching the first layer and crosshatching the second.

Then I blended with the brush again.

How to draw flame in colored pencil

Next, I filled in the fire shape with Cadmium Orange and medium pressure. I filled all of the fire shape and overlapped the background just a bit to begin suggesting the glow that surrounds fire.

I did two or three layers of Cadmium Orange, then blended.

This time, I tried a small bristle brush. That worked better than the sable brush, but still didn’t give me the results I wanted. So I blended with my finger. Fingers aren’t recommended unless you wear a cot, because skin oils could damage the drawing.

A sponge applicator would also work better for this.

The block-in phase ended with three light applications of ACP Textured Fixative, with about fifteen minutes of drying time between each application. After the third application, I set the drawing up to dry overnight.

Round 2: Modeling

Step 1

As with the previous round, I again began with a layer of Dark Indigo over the background. I used medium-heavy pressure and strong, diagonal strokes to cover all of the background. Some of the background color overlapped the flame.

Then I layered Cadmium Orange into the darkest areas of the flame, Cadmium Yellow into the lighter areas, and Cream into the lightest areas. I used a bit of White in a few very bright areas.

I then darkened the darker values with applications of Caput Mortuum Violet applied with light pressure and smooth strokes.

Step 2

I layered Black over all of the background with heavy pressure, filling all the tooth of the paper as much as possible. I also began more clearly defining the shape of the fire and some of the hot gas wisps around the edges by cutting into the orange with Black.

During this phase, I added the log at the bottom with Caput Mortuum Violet, followed by Black.

In the flame, I refined the interior shapes with Caput Mortuum Violet, Cadmium Orange, Dark Cadmium Orange, and few touches of Cream.

How to draw flame in colored pencil

Step 3

After that, I blended with Powder Blender and a sponge applicator. Because the transitions in flame are so smooth, I started in the lightest colors and blended into the darker flame colors.

Then I blended the background, and softened the edges of the flame by pulling some of that color into the flames. I didn’t want to dirty the oranges, though, so I was very careful not to get too much Black into into the flames.

Then I sealed my work with three light coats of ACP Textured Fixative.

Round 3: Detailing

Step 1

The first step in detailing was adding White to the brightest parts of the flame, then building additional colors around that. I used medium-heavy to heavy pressure with each color. Unless I needed to draw a fine line or sharp edge, I also worked with dull or blunt pencils.

From lightest to darkest, I used White, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, and Dark Cadmium Orange. To get smooth transitions, I overlapped colors, then blended. I went over each area more than once to get smooth color.

Despite adding the two Cadmium Oranges to my palette, I wasn’t getting the amount of contrast I wanted, so after layering those colors a couple of times, I went over the background with Black. I used heavy pressure and cross-hatching strokes to make a solid black background.

When I finished this step, I sealed the drawing with three light applications of ACP Textured Fixative.

Step 2

The the fixative was dry, I mixed Brush & Pencil Touch-up Texture and Titanium White into a paint-able liquid and applied it to the brightest parts of the flame. I used a small round sable to stroke the mixture into the brightest highlights.

I also added a few details that I’ve seen on burning logs but that don’t appear in my reference photo. Those were the two “rings” of fire around the fire log.

Step 3

After the mixture dried, I layered Cadmium Yellow with medium-heavy to heavy pressure over most of the white and into the oranges. I worked around the areas I want to remain white.

Then I added Cadmium Orange around the yellow, overlapping some to create smooth transitions. I used medium-heavy to heavy pressure for this color, as well.

I continued working into the darker oranges with Dark Cadmium Orange, then added Terracotta in the darkest oranges.

Step 4

After that, finishing the campfire was a matter of alternating between the colors to make adjustments and create the “right look.” I wasn’t interested in duplicating the reference photo, but I did want my campfire to look as bright, hot, and lively as the fire in the reference photo.

I made quite a few adjustments to the colors, values, and shape of the fire, as well.

This is the finished drawing.

How to draw flame in colored pencil

That’s How I Drew Flame in Colored Pencil

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tutorial. I’m planning to publish an expanded version as a tutorial. Hopefully later this month. When I do, I’ll let you know when it’s available.

If you’d like to pre-order at a reduced price, click here and save $2.

A Three Step Drawing Method for Colored Pencils

A Three Step Drawing Method for Colored Pencils

As many of you know, I started my art career as an oil painter. I painted portraits in oils for over 40 years before switching to colored pencils. Today, I’d like to share a three step drawing method for colored pencils that I’ve learned from an oil painter.

Sometime ago, I wrote a blog post or two about adapting the Flemish method of oil painting to colored pencils. For those who don’t know, the Flemish Masters built their paintings one layer at a time through seven phases. That’s why their method is also known as the Seven Step Method.

Artists worked in translucent or semi-translucent layers until they glazed color. Then they glazed transparent color over the under painting to “color” it in. The result was rich, luminous color that glowed. That’s why I started learning this method a couple of years before giving oils up.

Colored pencils are perfect for this method because they’re translucent by nature. You don’t need glazing mediums to make them translucent.

But it’s difficult to get through all seven steps with sufficient paper tooth to make the glazes stick. The article I wrote described how I made changes to the classic seven-step method to make it work with colored pencils. Still, the results weren’t totally satisfactory, and I eventually moved on to try other methods.

A Three Step Drawing Method for Colored Pencils

The method I’m learning now involves three clear stages in “painting” with colored pencils. I use the term painting deliberately because what I’m doing now is more like a blend of painting with wet medium and drawing with dry. But I’m not using wet media nor am I blending with solvents. This is all just pencils and paper.

I do need to mention, however, that the paper is sanded art paper. This three-step process works best on sanded art papers because there’s enough tooth for all three phases.

Sanded art paper is also more forgiving. It allows me to layer dry color more like I used to layer oils. Yes, I do dark over light just like I always have, but I can also do light over dark if I need to.

I’m not sure how well this method works with traditional papers like Stonehenge or Bristol. I may have to give that a try at some point. But it works very well on sanded art papers.

So if you’re not interested in using sanded art papers and decide to read no further, I understand. That was my opinion for a long time, too!

A Three Step Drawing Method for Colored Pencils

For the rest of you, let’s talk about this three-step method.

Adapting The Three Step Oil Painting Method to Colored Pencils

Let’s begin with an important disclaimer. I didn’t think this up on my own. I learned it from Andrew Tischler. Andrew creates the most breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, portraits and still lifes with this basic process. His is an oil painter, but his methods can be adapted to colored pencils.

This painting process involves three steps. Blocking in, modeling, and detailing.

The Three Steps

Blocking in is just what it sounds like. You “block in” the composition in blocks of color and shape. Sort of like an abstract. You can add some detail if you like. I suggest shadows and other major details during blocking in.

For my small demo piece (4 x 6,) this is the block-in stage. It doesn’t look like much, does it? I confess that I was pretty discouraged with it at this point. I almost didn’t continue.

You may feel the same way, but don’t stop. The purpose of the blocking in stage is establishing the colors, values, and shapes. That’s all.

The modeling phase involves going back over the entire piece again and building on the blocking in phase. You develop the colors and values more, add more details, and start bringing your painting to life.

A painting can look finished at the end of the modeling phase. If you wanted to stop there, you could, I suppose. But your painting would lack a lot of punch if you did.

A Three Step Drawing Method for Colored Pencils

That punch is added during the detailing phase. In this phase, you go over the composition again and fine tune color, value, and details.

This is also the phase in which you add the “sparkle” to your artwork. For example, if you’re drawing water, you add those bright white highlights, now. You punch up the other highlights and deepen the shadows if necessary.

This phase could take the most or least amount of time, depending on the composition and how realistic you want your artwork to be.

Why Should You Try the Three Step Drawing Method?

I can think of several reasons, including learning something new, experimentation, and the fun of exploration.

Beyond that, this is a great way to create colored pencil works that allows you to work the entire piece step-by-step. Correcting problems as you go is easier when you begin with a basic block in.

This is Just an Introduction

Next week, I’ll walk you through the process with the piece I used for the illustrations in this post. I hope you’ll join me.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Today, I’d like to share a post on a topic we artists don’t talk about very much: Reworking old colored pencil art.

I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because we don’t think it’s really possible to do much with an old piece. Or maybe we don’t like admitting we have pieces we’d like to improve upon!

But I’m always urging readers and students to experiment.

“Don’t be afraid to try things, and don’t be afraid to make bad art,” I say.

Well, I recently decided to take my own advice. What’s more, I decided to share my experiment with you. Here’s what I did.

The Original Piece

A couple of years ago, I finished a landscape on Fisher 400 pastel. This is the finished piece, “East of Camp Creek.”

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art - The original artwork.
East of Camp Creek, Colored Pencil on Fisher 400 Pastel Paper, 2018

I thought I did a great job on the sky and distant hills, but I’ve never liked the rest of the composition. The closer to the foreground, the less I liked it. So I put it aside and moved on. I just didn’t know how to fix it or improve on it, and it seemed smarter to make new art.

After using Brush & Pencil products on a few other pieces, I decided to tinker with this one again. I didn’t think I could ruin it. I already didn’t like it!

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Step 1: Dry Blending

The first thing I did was use a sponge applicator on it, just to see if I could dry blend an old drawing. I could! I blended the tree line and managed to fill in quite a bit of paper holes.

Then I decided to see if I could remove the center trees by blending them out. Those trees were supposed to be the center of interest but never quite lived up to that billing. I couldn’t remove them entirely, but I was able to blur them.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

After that, I went sort of crazy and decided to blend all of the foreground. Tall grass and everything!

I concentrated on the darker values, since the foreground was mostly darker values. I pulled the sponge along the slope of each hill, starting at the bottom and pulling color up the slope.

The results weren’t perfect, but the overall affect was quite satisfactory. If nothing else, I learned that it is possible to continue dry blending colored pencil on sanded art papers for years, so long as you haven’t sprayed them with fixative of any kind.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Step 2: Removing Color

Next, I used mounting putty to remove color. That worked extremely well. The mounting putty removed all the color except the darkest values, which may have been applied with heavier pressure.

To my surprise (and delight!) I got all the way back to paper in most areas.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Step 3: Adding Color and Removing More Color

After that, I worked through a series of adding color and removing color to change the contours and create a more satisfactory pattern of light and dark values. Since I liked the distant background, I left that alone. But I reworked everything else from the belt of trees forward.

I simplified the hills and trees, but also brightened the middle ground. I wanted the focus to be on the middle ground, so I brightened that area while leaving the background gray and distant, and darkening the foreground.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Step 4: Changing the Landscape

From that point on, I layered and blended various shades of green with a light warm gray, cream, and a light yellow. I used the warm gray in the distant hills, cream in the middle hills, and the light yellow in the closest bright hill. Using each of those colors as blending colors helped separate the three tiers of hills and further emphasized the sense of space and distance.

I also reworked the trees on the left, moving them forward in the composition to set them apart from the rest of the trees in the middle ground.

After I had the hills the way I wanted them, I redrew the trees in the center middle ground. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep them there, but it was easier to add them now. If I decide later to remove them, I can use the mounting putty to “cut them down.”

After working over all the hills, I worked on the darker hill in the immediate foreground.

Then I decided it was time to take a long look at the piece. So I set it up across the room and glanced at it as I did computer work. I was very pleased to note that it already looked a lot better than the previous version. Using the three blending colors as I did gave the composition more depth.

Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

Adding warmer greens and yellows also “cheered” it up quite a bit. Those warmer colors in contrast with the cooler colors in the far distance really accented the space I wanted to convey when I first thought of this composition.

The Final Steps

I continued working on this piece for the next few days. If an idea came to mind, I tried it. Some of them worked. Some of them didn’t.

This slide show documents the remaining steps in the experiment.

The Conclusion of my Experiment Reworking Old Colored Pencil Art

You may think that the experiment failed. It didn’t. At least I don’t consider it a failure. I learned a lot from the days I spent tinkering with this piece. For example, I learned that it’s possible to mix any color of pencil pigment with Touch-Up Texture and paint it onto paper.

I also discovered how very easy it is to remove color almost to the paper when I draw on sanded art paper.

And I learned that it is possible to improve on old drawings, even if this attempt wasn’t successful.

So the experiment was successful, but the artwork didn’t survive. That’s okay with me because I didn’t like the original artwork anyway.

And I do still like the concept. I’m looking forward to applying everything I learned about drawing distance into a new work.

One that will turn out well!

How to Get Started Drawing

How to Get Started Drawing

Every artist begins somewhere. Not every artist started at the same time in life or with the same mediums, but the journey often starts the same way: With basic drawing.

I’ve answered a lot of art questions over the years on this blog and in other places. Rarely does anyone ask how to get started. I don’t know why that is. Perhaps most people assume they know how to begin. I know it was never a question for me, but I was drawing before I was old enough to ask why.

Or even how.

But any time you think about starting something new, it is important to have a least a basic idea of how to begin. That’s the purpose of this post.

The suggestions I’m about to make are very basic, but hopefully they will be helpful to those of you who are thinking about starting with colored pencils.

I’ll also provide a few links to other articles that are a bit more in-depth for those who want more specific information.

Of course, if you have questions, you’re welcome to ask them either in the comments below or more directly by sending me an email. I’m always happy to answer questions and chat by email.

How to Get Started Drawing

The first thing you need to get started drawing is the desire. Without the desire to draw, it doesn’t matter how good your tools are or how many you buy. You won’t get very far.

The truth is that drawing isn’t something you can pick up overnight. Yes, it is easier for some than others, but all of us have to practice to get good at drawing. Even once you become good at it, you have to draw to remain good.

All of that drawing requires a certain amount of desire.

But since you’re reading this post, I’m guessing you have the desire.

Choose Your Medium

Since this blog is all about colored pencils, you may think this question is a bit daft. After all, what else would you draw with but colored pencils?

I’ve drawn with graphite, charcoal, conte crayon, Crayola crayons, and even ball-point pens. Any of those mediums are suitable for creating fine art. What’s more, all of them are also perfect for new artists. Most of them are inexpensive, capable to creating value and drawing intricate detail.

So the first step is for you to decide what you want to start drawing with.

How to Get Started Drawing

If you’re like I was back when I first started, I didn’t want to mess around with graphite or anything else. I went straight for the colored pencils. That’s a perfectly natural decision if colored pencil drawing is what you want to learn.

But there’s also nothing wrong with deciding to begin with something less expensive and simpler.

A lot depends on where you are, how much you have to spend, and what’s available to you. I’ve heard of people who start drawing with a stick in the dirt. Why not? It’s not permanent, but you can learn to draw that way.

Remember, everything you learn about drawing accurately with graphite, charcoal, conte, pen, or any other tool transfers to drawing with colored pencils.

You can also always try other drawing mediums if your first choice doesn’t work out.

So don’t bypass this step because it doesn’t seem important.

Choose Your Tools

Once you’ve decided on the medium, it’s time to look at the tools that are available. As I mentioned above, you can start drawing with a stick and some dirt, but most of us want something a bit more permanent. And convenient!

All you really need, however, is paper and a drawing tool. Depending on the drawing tool, you may also need a sharpener, but those three things are enough to make a beginning.

Learn Everything You Can

If you’re just getting started drawing these days, you have a treasure trove of learning opportunities as close as your internet connection. Choose from free video tutorials on YouTube, paid videos through Patreon, Teachable, Craftsy, and a number of other options.

Many artists also produce and publish downloadable PDF and print tutorials. I have my own collection of tutorials for all levels at my store, Colored Pencil Tutorials. There are books, blogs, teaching websites, and online courses to suit every budget and style.

So how do you find the right teaching method and teacher for you? Look for an artist who does the kind of work you want to do in a style you like. It’s also helpful if they draw similar subjects to what you draw, but that’s not as important. All methods work for every subject for someone.

How to Get Started Drawing

Practice, Practice, Practice

Did I mention practice?

Nothing helps you learn a new skill faster than using it as you learn. Or rather, learning it by doing it. I remember learning how to use a computer the first time. It went much more smoothly when I was able to use a computer in my spare time.

Drawing is the same way. So watch those videos and do those tutorials, but also draw for yourself. Fun stuff. Difficult stuff. Whatever catches your attention.

That’s How I’d Get Started Drawing If I were Beginning Today

Do you remember I mentioned some links? Here they are.

On this blog, you can find a list of the best posts about getting started with colored pencil.

There is a nearly-free resource at Colored Pencil Tutorials that is a downloadable shopping list for you if you’re ready to buy colored pencils and accessories, but don’t know where to start.

The main thing is to start where you are. If all you can get is a number two lead pencil and typing paper, then do that. It’s far better to make that kind of start, than to wait until you have everything available and never start.

Nearly Top 35 Posts from This Blog

Nearly Top 35 Posts from This Blog

Today’s post is a list of the nearly top 35 posts for the past quarter on this blog.

I’m not a big fan of checking statistics every day. There are just too many other things to do and getting bogged down in statistical analysis is a lot like getting bogged down in details too soon. It slows everything down.

But I did take a peek at the statistics this week looking for a good topic to write about today. The idea that came to mind was to share a list of previous posts that have been well-read, but are still under 600 views for the past three months.

Why 35? I don’t know. It seemed like a good number and when is the last time you saw a list of 35 anything? Top ten or twenty, yes. But nearly top 35? Not so much.

So that’s the number I settled on, and I have to admit that the collection is impressive. There’s definitely something here for everyone.

Nearly Top 35 Posts from This Blog

A single list of 35 posts is a lot of posts to sort through. So I sorted them into categories. You can browse all the categories, or choose the categories that are of the most interest.

How to Posts

The Best Way to Transfer a Drawing to Black Paper

Drawing on Wood with Colored Pencils

Tips for Drawing on Black Paper

How to Make a Color Lighter

How to Draw a Night Sky

7 Ways to Draw Whiskers for Colored Pencil Artists

How to Draw the Blackest Black in Colored Pencils

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

How to Draw White Fur with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Crisp Edges with Colored Pencils

Realistic Landscape Greens with Colored Pencils

How to Make Drawings Look Less Flat

Draw Cat Eyes with Colored Pencil

How to Draw a Gray Sky with Colored Pencils

Drawing Vibrant Highlights with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Carpet with Colored Pencil

Supplies and Materials Posts

My Thoughts on Gel Pens and Acrylic Paint

The Difference Between Hot Press and Cold Press Papers

Reasons to Try Canvas with Colored Pencils

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Alternatives to Drawing Paper for Colored Pencil

The Best Black Paper for Colored Pencil Art

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils

Old Prismacolor Pencils vs New Prismacolor Pencils

Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

After the Artwork is Finished Posts

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

How I Store My Colored Pencils

Framing Colored Pencil Drawings: Must You Use Glass?


Brushing Techniques for Water Soluble Colored Pencil

5 Drawing Exercises with Curving Lines

Where to Begin a Colored Pencil Drawing

The Biggest Mistake I Made as a Beginning Artist

An Easy Way to Test Colored Pencil Lightfastness

And there you have it. The Nearly To 35 posts from this blog.

A well-rounded list of 35 of posts that lurk just under the top-rated posts for the past quarter. I hope you’ve found something helpful among these topics.

How I Finish Colored Pencil Drawings

How I Finish Colored Pencil Drawings

What do you use to finish your colored pencil artwork? Do you use something different if you use a different substrate?

When I first saw this question, I thought the reader wanted to know how I finish drawing colored pencil drawings.

Then I looked at the question again and realized that might not be what the reader wanted to know. Maybe they really wanted to know if I use a final fixative to “finish” a drawing.

After all, the reader mentioned different substrates and that makes more sense if we’re talking about final fixatives. The way I finish drawing a drawing is the same no matter what kind of paper I draw on.

But whether or not I use a final fixative does matter depending on the paper.

So I went back and rethought my answer.

How I Finish Colored Pencil Drawings

Most of the time, I finish drawing colored pencil drawings by making final adjustments. I make a few notes on the back (title, date of completion, type of paper, pencils, and other comments.) Then I slip the drawing into a protective, archival clear plastic envelope and either ship it or store it.

That’s because most of my work was on traditional drawing papers. For years, that’s all I used.

I rarely use final fixatives on artwork created on traditional paper. About the only time I do is when I need to control wax bloom. I see no need to use final fixatives on most other artwork.

However, the type of paper does make a difference and there are some papers that require final fixative.

The Paper Does Matter

When I work on sanded art papers, I use a light coat of final fixative on the finished drawing. That’s because drawing on sanded art papers creates pigment dust. If I don’t use a fixative on work like that, the dust may fall off the drawing.

Many artists remove the dust by blowing the dust off. They might also hold the drawing a bit past vertical and lightly tap it on a hard surface. The dust falls off without damaging the artwork, and can be disposed of. Pastel artists use the same methods because pastels also produce dust. A lot of it.

I prefer dry blending to push the dust down into the grit of the paper during the drawing process.

To keep pigment dust from falling off after the piece is finished, I apply two or three light coats of fixative after the drawing is finished.

The Process Also Matters

I also use a final fixative to finish colored pencil drawings when I use Brush & Pencil’s Powder Blender.

Powder Blender helps you blend colored pencil by acting as a dry lubricant. Apply a little Powder Blender before you start drawing and you’ll be able to blend colors effortlessly. You can add color, blend, add more color, and blend some more.

In fact, you’ll be able to continue blending for an unlimited amount of layers.

You can also lift color too. It’s better than erasing and you can remove color all the way to the paper if you want to. Brush & Pencil designed Textured Fixative to make those layers of color and Powder Blender permanent. It also adds texture to the surface of the paper, allowing you to continue adding color.

It’s important when using these products to use the Final Fixative when you finish a piece. The Final Fixative makes the entire drawing permanent.

It also seals the drawing. That’s important if you want to varnish a finished piece. The varnish can later be removed and replaced without damaging the drawing underneath. Oil painters often use a similar process to protect their paintings and make it possible to clean them later.

That’s How I Finish Colored Pencil Drawings

I don’t always finish colored pencil drawings with final fixative, and I rarely varnish them. My drawing methods simply do not require a final fixative unless I’m working on sanded art paper.

And I prefer not to varnish artwork, but I rarely did that with oil paintings either.

Whether or not you use a final fixative, a varnish, or nothing at all is mostly a personal decision. But I hope describing what I do (and why) helps you decide.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Last week’s featured newsletter article was called Planning for a Successful Drawing. One of the tips I shared was starting with great reference photos. A reader responded by asking how to improve reference photos that are less than ideal.

That’s a legitimate question. Many clients who want pet portraits are asking for posthumous portraits. In those cases, the reference photos are usually less than ideal for any of several reasons. Poor lighting, awkward perspective, and photos taken inside are just a few.

I’ve created portraits from less than ideal reference photos, and while it can be done, it is usually more difficult. I also often find the resulting portraits less satisfying to me as the artist.

But there are times when the only choice is between refusing the commission or working with what the client provides. Sometimes refusing a commission really is the best decision, but I’ve always had difficulty doing that.

So I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to improve reference photos using a photo editor, and I’d like to share those tricks with you today.

How to Improve Reference Photos

The reader who wrote to me provided a couple of photos and granted me permission to use them. So I’ll do what I can to improve each of the photos and tell you what I did with each one.

One quick note before I begin: Any good photo editor such as PhotoShop or GIMP can do basic adjustments. I think a lot of phone apps are also good for making basic adjustments to brightness, contrast, and other similar basic manipulations.

I used GIMP before I started publishing CP Magic! and tutorials. Afterward, I purchased publishing software called Affinity. Serif makes Affinity Publisher, Affinity Photo, and Affinity Designer. They all work together and you can move a file from one software to the next without closing and re-opening it. As you might expect, the range of photo adjustments is much broader. The Affinity apps are inexpensive ($50 per app and you can purchase only the ones you need,) so if you do a lot of photo work, Affinity Photo is well worth the purchase price.

But the adjustments I’m about to describe are more basic and you can do them on most basic photo editors.

Now on to the sample photos.

Improving Photo #1

Here’s the reader’s first photo.

Lightening Dark Photos

Poorly lighted photos are one of the most common types of reference photos clients provide. Poor lighting has several causes but the worst is interior photos because you often also have to deal with flash lighting.

Because of this, the first thing I always try is making the photo brighter. In most photo editors, look for a setting called Brightness & Contrast. Where you’ll find that setting varies from editor to editor. Sometimes it’s under a menu labeled “Images,” sometimes under “Adjustments” or in some other menu or option. No matter where it is in your photo editor, it’s a good place to start when adjusting most photos.

For this photo, I brightened it about 50%.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Improving Contrast

The next adjustment I usually do is adjusting the contrast. If a photo is too light, you can increase the contrast to bring out the details in washed out values. If it’s too dark, you can decrease the contrast to reveal details in areas that are too dark.

Since this photo was too dark, I decreased the contrast. You can see in this side-by-side that the details in the black parts of the black-and-white cat are much clearer in the adjusted photo than in the original photo.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

In the first two steps, I did just the brightness (first side-by-side) then just the contrast (second side-by-side.) Sometimes you need to do both, but don’t start by doing both. If one of these adjustments works, great. That’s all you need!

But sometimes it’s helpful to adjust both the brightness and the contrast. In that case, start with the adjustment that’s the most obvious. For this photo, that was adjusting the brightness. Whichever you decide to adjust first, get the photo to look the best you can with the first adjustment.

Then make the second adjustment.

That’s what I did here, and this is the result from adjusting the brightness first, then adjusting the contrast.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Making these adjustments is easy.

Finding the right balance is more difficult and is based on your preferences about how a photo should look. If you know the subject, then you’re better equipped to get the most accurate adjustments possible. If you’re working with a client photo, then you’ll have to do the best you can.

There will be situations in which you need to work from two versions of the reference photo: One adjusted for brightness and one adjusted for contrast. I’ve done this in the past and it works quite well.

If I were working from this photo, I’d use the third photo, but I’d also keep a copy of the original so I could make other adjustments as needed to see details.

Improving Photo #2

Here’s the second photo. This one was taken outside and is back-lit with strong light, so it presents some unique challenges.

Adjust the Brightness First

I once again began by adjusting the brightness first. I started out by increasing the brightness by 50%, but that didn’t bring out the details in the black areas as much as I liked. So I increased the adjustment to 100%.

There are more visible details in the black fur, but look at that white fur! It’s nothing but blazing white!

How to Improve Reference Photos

Adjust the Contrast

So I canceled the brightness adjustment and adjusted the contrast. Because the contrast is already so strong in this photo, I decided to decrease it.

Decreasing the contrast by 50% didn’t do much for the photo, so I pushed it all the way to 100%. That turned out much better than I expected. Other than the brightest white highlights still being blown out (over-exposed,) there is plenty of detail visible in the white fur and a good amount in the black fur. You could do a portrait based on this adjusted photo and have it turn out fairly well.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

The last thing I tried was adjusting brightness and contrast together. As you can see below, this produced the best results. Brightness is increased by 56% and contrast is decreased by 100%.

The colors are a bit washy, but you can see plenty of details in both the black and the white fur. Color is much easier to correct as you draw, so this is the photo I’d work from.

However, as with the first photo, I would keep a copy of the original photo for comparison.

How to Improve Reference Photos

There Are More Ways to Improve Reference Photos

These are just the three steps I take with most reference photos. Additional adjustments include things like color balance, white balance, color temperature corrections, clarity and so on. Some of them are quite complex and involved.

But for most artists, getting the brightness and contrast correct is all that’s necessary. The good news is that most photo apps, even the ones in your phone, are capable of these adjustments.

Blending Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Blending Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Some topics never grow old. Either they’re so expansive, there’s always something to write, or there are always new readers who haven’t read previous posts. Blending smooth color with colored pencils is one of those topics.

I have written posts on blending smooth color in the past. How to Blend Smooth Color and My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Methods are just two of those posts. Even if you have read them before, they’re well worth reviewing again.

Today, I’d like to share some additional tips for blending smooth color.

Tips for Blending Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Some of these tips are common sense (to me anyway,) and some might be a bit “radical.” But I have used all of them at least once or twice, and they have been helpful.

Go Slow & Draw Carefully

Okay, so this is neither new nor radical, but I mention it first because I have so much trouble with it myself.

The key to blending smooth color is drawing smooth color.

The key to drawing smooth color is to go slow and draw carefully. It’s very difficult to blend smooth color from color that’s been scribbled onto the paper. Trust me; I’ve tried it. It just does not work.

Here’s a sample of “scribbled” color. In the background, I got tired and started scribbling color. It’s very light color to start with and may be difficult to see here (in the circle,) but it sure showed up as I was working on the drawing. I was thoroughly disappointed with myself and had a difficult time smoothing out those scribbles. It took several layers to smooth the color enough to create the look of grass.

Blending Smooth Color with Colored Pencils 1

It’s always better to take your time drawing smooth color. If you find yourself getting careless in applying color, take a break.

Read Drawing Smooth Color With Colored Pencils on the Colored Pencil Tutorials blog.

Now for some newer ideas.

Experiment on Scrap Paper

The absolute best way to learn a new tool or technique is by drawing. You can learn on “real art,” art that you want to finish, but I’ve found that method to be frustrating and sometimes discouraging.

Instead, save scrap pieces of your favorite drawing papers and use them to test new tools and techniques. They don’t have to be large pieces. Four inches by six inches is large enough.

If you like the results, then you can try it on a drawing. If you don’t like the results, at least you haven’t ruined a drawing.

Use the same type of drawing paper you’re using for the drawing for the best results.

Put Enough Pigment on the Paper

When you blend with solvent, you need enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to work.

If you layer with medium pressure or lighter, put down two or three layers, blend, then add a couple more layers, and blend again. You may have to do that a couple of time to get smooth color, so you might want to try it on a test sample first. Just layer color on a paper, blend it, then add more color and blend again. See what happens.

If you draw with a naturally heavy hand, you may be able to blend smooth color after only one or two layers of color. I have a naturally light hand, so usually have four or five layers before I do solvent blending of any kind. But each layer is quite thin.

Blend with Paper

Sometimes the best way to blend smooth color is by trying different blending tools. I like bath tissue and paper towel to blend because they give a different look than colorless blenders or solvents.

But did you know you can also blend colored pencil by using small pieces of the paper you’re drawing on? It’s nowhere near as effective as using solvents, but if you want to “gently smooth” color, take a small piece of drawing paper and rub it on your drawing. You can use light pressure for light blending or use heavier pressure.

Blending Smooth Color with Colored Pencils Doesn’t Have to be Difficult.

Or complicated.

But it does take patience, and a willingness to try different and unusual methods.

Keep in mind that not every method works for every artist or on every drawing. You may need to do some experimenting on your own to get those special results that make artwork sing.

Just remember to practice and experiment on scrap paper; not on your artwork!

My Favorite Watercolor Papers

My Favorite Watercolor Papers

Time to talk about the art supplies I find the most useful for the type of work I do. Today’s topic is paper; specifically, my favorite watercolor papers.

Here’s the reader question.

Hi Carrie.

I have read a few of your articles on eliminating paper holes showing through colored pencil, but I would like to know which paper you recommend using to apply the water color or Inktense under painting before applying colored pencil. Multi-media, hot or cold pressed watercolor paper, or something else. Some watercolor papers have so much texture they are no fun to use for colored pencil drawings. Thank you.

The Different Types of Watercolor Paper

The reader mentioned the surface texture of some watercolor papers. That is probably the most important thing to consider when choosing watercolor paper for colored pencils.

There are two types of watercolor paper. Hot press and cold press. The type you choose makes a huge difference in how your art looks.

Cold press paper has more texture. The amount of texture differs, but it’s always a bit rougher than hot press watercolor paper and most traditional papers. The texture isn’t gritty; it’s more pebbly, and in my opinion, it’s unsuited to dry colored pencil work.

Hot press paper is smoother, but it’s not as smooth as Bristol. It also has a different feel. Rather than being slick feeling, like Bristol, it’s a bit softer. Almost velvety, sometimes.

So when it comes to choosing the right watercolor paper for your colored pencil work, make sure to look at the differences between cold press and hot press.

For more detailed information, you might want to read The Difference Between Hot Press and Cold Press Watercolor Papers.

Now, to my favorite watercolor papers.

My Favorite Watercolor Papers

I prefer 140lb because it’s very tough and thick enough to stand up to many layers of color and some abuse. It needs to be taped to a rigid drawing board of some kind for larger piece, or it will buckle if you get it really wet. But it’s ideal for smaller pieces or for pieces on which I use moderate amounts to moisture.

For a really heavy paper, you could try 300 lb hot press watercolor paper. 300 lb paper is quite thick and stands up very well under lots of water and layering. I used Strathmore 300 lb. watercolor paper for this piece several years ago and it was quite sturdy.

I did not note whether or not the paper was hot press, but in looking at the texture shown in the high resolution image, I think it was probably cold press. So you can do great work on cold press, but it does take more work.

The Brands I Like Most

The watercolor paper I use most is Canson L’Aquarelle 140lb hot press. It has a nice, velvety surface that works as well for completely dry colored pencil, as it does for watercolor and colored pencil mixed.

I’ve used it for larger works (8×10 usually) and for small studies of 6×9 or smaller. It’s very satisfactory for every technique I’ve tried; even some very experimental techniques.

The reason I prefer this paper is that it’s usually available at outlets such as Hobby Lobby, so if I need a pad quickly, and I stop by the store and pick one up. I prefer 9×12 inch pads, but it comes in other sizes, as well.

If you shop online, you can also find it in full sheets.

I’ve also used Stonehenge Aqua 140lb hot press and it feels almost like regular Stonehenge. It stands up to water extremely well, and you can use regular pencils on it just like on regular Stonehenge.

I got samples of this paper from the Legion company and wrote a review on my experiences here.

The two papers are pretty similar in every way but cost. Stonehenge is a bit more expensive than Canson L’Aquarelle, but I’ve been very happy with both.

Those are My Two Favorite Watercolor Papers

The truth is that almost any watercolor should work, and you can try almost any brand. When you buy paper, keep in mind how you want your finished artwork to look, and choose the paper accordingly.

Also knowing how you plan to use wet and dry media is important. The example I showed above involved a lot of watercolor work. I used colored pencils for glazing and details, so the additional texture was helpful.

If you don’t plan to use wet media for more than tinting the paper, then you may want to consider a hot press paper.

And don’t be afraid to try heavier papers. Sometimes that additional substance in the paper is just what you need; especially for larger works.

The Things Artists Tell Themselves

The Things Artists Tell Themselves

Today, I want to talk about the things artists tell themselves. Those preconceived notions that hold us back.

Self-imposed limitations.

Let me explain by using myself as an example.

The Things Artists Tell Themselves

I spent over forty years drawing and painting portraits of horses. I was confident doing head studies, full body portraits, and action scenes. There wasn’t a horse I didn’t feel capable of drawing.

But put a rider in the saddle or add a buggy or carriage, and I was a bundle of insecurity!

In reality, I should have been able to draw the person or equipment with the same confidence with which I drew the horse. I had the skill to draw horses, so there was no reason I couldn’t also draw people or equipment.

The same methods work for drawing people that work for drawing horses. There was no reason I couldn’t draw people.


I told myself I couldn’t do it.

So I avoided drawing people or equipment whenever possible. When I had to include a person or a buggy or whatever, I struggled.

The Big Lie

In novel writing, one of the things the novelist must decide is what lie each character believes. Often referred to as The Big Lie, this belief keeps the character from achieving a goal.

The Big Lie might be something the person heard as a child. It may be the result of a failure or misunderstanding. The character may realize it’s a lie, but more often, it’s subconscious.

Artists are the same way. Actually every person is that way. There is something I believe about myself that’s not true, and there’s something you believe about yourself that’s not true.

As I get older, I can more clearly see my Big Lie was that I couldn’t draw people or technical things. I’ve done both, now. I know I can draw people, and I can draw technical subjects.

They are more difficult because I’m not familiar with them, but when I apply the same skills that help me draw horses to these other subjects, I can draw them.

Big lies apply to what we think we can draw and what we think we can’t draw.

They apply to what we think we can and cannot accomplish with our art. They also apply to turning hobbies into businesses, or any other worthwhile endeavor.

What’s the Solution?

My husband has cited Henry Ford to me often enough that I sometimes hate the quote I used below. But it is true. That’s another thing I’m learning as I get older (and hopefully wiser.)

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
― Henry Ford

Whether I think or can, or think I can’t, I’m right.

And so are you.

The solution is two-fold and both parts can be difficult. Very difficult.

The first step is to be totally honest with yourself and identify the Big Lie you believe about yourself or about your ability. Get past the things that are skills you have yet to acquire.

For example, if you believe you can’t shade smooth color, that’s a skill you can acquire with time and practice.

But if you believe you can’t learn to shade smooth color, that’s a lie you’re telling yourself.

Do you see the difference?

Back to my example, I believed I couldn’t draw people or equipment and that was a lie. I proved it was a lie by drawing people and equipment.

The truth was I didn’t have the skill or determination to draw those things. Another truth was that I didn’t want to try drawing them because they were hard.

So ask yourself the following questions and fill in the blanks as they fit you.

I believe I can’t draw ___________________.

I believe I can’t draw ___________________, but I can learn how.

The first is the lie. The second is the truth and a plan of action.

If you don’t think you believe any Big Lies, then you’re either miles ahead of the rest of us or….

…maybe that’s the Big Lie you believe about yourself.

Think about it.

The Things Artists Tell Themselves

I decided to publish this post today because I’ve learned over years of blogging that if I struggle with something, some of my readers also struggle with it.

Self imposed obstacles and the things artists tell themselves (that aren’t true,) are some of the biggest hurdles we have to get over if we really want to succeed.

And I hope you do want to succeed.