Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Wet-on-Dry with Watercolor Pencils

Wet pencil tip applied to dry paper

While reading Quick & Clever Watercolor Pencils, I noticed how often Evans dabs pigment from his pencil tips with a wet brush and then uses those same pencils in a conventional manner to draw with immediately afterwards while still wet. When I’m sketching on location, I’ve done this only occasionally, but wet Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencil tips become so soft and intense that I have to take care to be gentle with the points and also go easy on how much I apply or the hue could get too intense (as happened on one of the dry-on-wet apples shown yesterday).

Thinking about all of that made me wonder . . . since saturating the pencil tips both softens them and makes them apply more intense color, what if I did that with harder pencils, even if I haven’t “licked” the pigment off with a brush first? In other words, what if I wet the points before use as a deliberate drawing technique?

First I tested several harder watercolor pencils to see how they would feel when used wet. In the scribble tests below, the first line was drawn dry. Then I dipped the pencil point into a cup of water (trying not to submerge past the edge of the wood), waited a few seconds for the water to be absorbed a bit, and then scribbled the second line. The last test was of a Cd’A Museum Aquarelle, which is already so soft that it doesn’t need to be softened this way, but I wanted to see the change in the line quality.
Tests made in Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook

In each case, the pencil point softened significantly, but I was disappointed that the line quality did not change dramatically. Still, I like the slightly fuzzier line quality that the soft pencils produce for times when I want that effect. As expected, the more pigment the pencil contains, the softer the point becomes when saturated, and the more intense the hue.

1/1/20 Caran d'Ache Bicolors and Uni Pin brush pen
 in Field Notes Signature notebook
Next I tried this technique in the field. In field tests, I wet the points with a waterbrush instead of dipping them, since I don’t carry a water container. The first trial sketch was a brick house in my neighborhood (left). After making the rough drawing with dry Caran d’Ache Bicolor pencils in my minimal kit, I wet the brick-reddish pencil point liberally and used it to color the front of the house. Color application was very uneven as the pencil tip became drier and drier. It’s not an effective technique if I want an even application of color on a flat surface like this house front, and it’s much easier to simply apply dry pencil in a conventional manner and activate with water afterwards.

I knew the wet-on-dry application would be more effective with organic subject matter, so the next time I went on a walk/sketch walk, I chose one of several palm trees near Green Lake. (Local trivia: These palm trees are at the intersection of East Green Lake Drive North, West Green Lake Drive North, and Green Lake Drive North! Glad I don’t live there . . . imagine the address confusion!) I sketched most of the palm with dry pencils as usual. To shade the right side of the trunk and give it texture, I then wet the tip of the brown pencil. I like this application a lot; the wet pencil makes nice rough, irregular marks that are just right for a palm trunk. I’m happy that the Evans book reminded me of this technique, which I plan to use more often.
1/3/20 Cd'A Bicolor and ArtGraf pencils in Field Notes Signature
If you try this technique, please be aware that routinely saturating the woodcasing around the pencil core may damage the wood. Avoid wetting the wood as much as possible. I treat wet pencils like wet brushes and allow them to dry lying on a flat surface so moisture will not wick further into the wood (similarly, brushes can be damaged if water routinely wicks into the ferrule). Also, never try to sharpen a wet pencil – the softened lead is certain to crumble inside your sharpener. Evans recommends knife-sharpening all colored pencils.

One more thing to think about and plan with this technique is any detailed drawing you may want to do with a particular color. Whatever sharp, firm point you may have had on the pencil will be unusable once it gets wet, so use the point as needed while it’s dry.

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