Thursday, March 16, 2017

Sunrise at Bryce Canyon (Plus Splender and Paper Experiments)

3/16/17 colored pencil, Strathmore Bristol vellum paper (photo reference)
When we visited Bryce Canyon several years ago, the highlight of our stay was seeing the sun come up behind all those strange hoodoos, which cast amazing, rapidly changing shadows. We woke at 4 a.m., drove to the park, jockeyed for space in the best viewing area (several busloads of tourists were there, as well as dozens of photographers with their cameras on tripods all pointing in the same direction) and waited for the sun, shivering in the sub-freezing temperatures.

For this week’s colored pencil class assignment on sunset or sunrise skies, Suzanne said we could bring our own reference photo, so I chose one (bottom of page) from the many Greg took at Bryce that morning. I recomposed the view a bit liberally; since the lesson was sky colors, I didn’t want to get distracted by silhouettes of too many trees.

Unlike a couple of weeks ago when I kept procrastinating in getting started on the homework, this time I jumped right in and finished it in two sessions (about four hours total for this 6-by-7 inch piece). I felt a bit more inspired and motivated because the photo image was meaningful to me. And of course the color junkie in me was excited to use all those oranges and lavenders that I rarely get to use as an urban sketcher. It took me quite a while to choose a cohesive palette that was bright but not garish.

I’m happy with my pencil choices but not with the paper I used. For the previous class exercises I had been using Canson Bristol smooth paper, which is like hot press watercolor paper or Stillman & Birn’s Zeta series in texture. Although I like the smooth finish that can result, I’ve also been frustrated by how difficult it is to get a really dark value on it. After multiple layers of colored pencil pigment, the Bristol smooth paper’s fine tooth seems to flatten, and it’s almost impossible to apply more pigment.

When I make small still lifes at home, I’ve been happy with Stillman & Birn’s Alpha paper, which has a surface similar to cold press watercolor. I happened to have a pad of Strathmore Bristol vellum, which has a similar tooth, so I thought I’d give it a try. I don’t mind the texture that appears on the sky, which makes the work look a bit like pastel. But it was hell trying to get the dark blue ground to be a solid flat hue. I must have put on something like 10 layers, and I can still see the white specks of the tooth. It reminds me of the crayon drawings I used to do in elementary school! 😕

One new thing I tried for this assignment is a Lyra Splender, a colorless blending stick that Suzanne recommended. On my own, I’ve tried a Caran d’Ache Full Blender Bright, which is a hard plastic tool that intensifies colored pencil when it’s used after all the pigment has been applied. I think the result is that it flattens the remaining paper tooth, because after using it, it’s almost impossible to apply more pigment. So you can’t use it until you are certain you don’t want to apply more.

Bryce Canyon, sunrise, Sept. 2012
The Splender stick, however, looks like it is made of wax or some other binder material similar to what colored pencil cores are made of (but without the pigment). After applying several layers of colored pencil, Suzanne suggested applying the Splender stick with a fair amount of pressure. Counterintuitively, the application of wax (or whatever it is) primes the existing pigment layers so that they can take even more pigment. I ended up going through several cycles of pigment/pigment/pigment/Splender to try to get that ground as dark and flat as possible, but I still wasn’t completely successful.

As with watercolor or any medium that is applied to a paper support, the choice of paper is just as important as the medium, and the relationship between the paper and the pigment makes a huge difference in the result.

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