Thursday, April 13, 2017

Three Big Learnings (Plus Waterbrush Vindication)

4/13/17 water-soluble colored pencils, 140 lb. cold press paper
(photo reference)
As I mentioned the other day, although I’ve been using water-soluble colored pencils for years, everything I’ve done with them has been self-taught (or self-experimented), plus a little book learning – in other words, mainly messing around.

One thing that has been stuck in my head (possibly from something I read long ago) is that once you apply water to the watercolor pencil work, you can’t go back in with more pencil because the tooth of the paper has been covered by pigment activated by water. And indeed, the paper surface does feel different if you try to apply more pencil over it. So my typical method has been to apply the pencil color as heavily as I thought was needed, then activate it with a relatively heavy application of water, and whatever was the result was what I was stuck with. Needless to say, I was often unhappy with the hues (since many colors change after water is applied) or values I ended up with.

In last week’s class one of the first things we learned was that not only can you continue applying more pencil over previously water-activated areas; it’s actually a more effective way to build layers of color and value – just like working with traditional colored pencils is more effective with multiple light layers rather than one heavy layer. This was a major lightbulb moment for me! Even though the paper’s surface will feel different after some water has been used on the previous layer, it can still take much more pigment. The trick is to allow the water to dry completely before going in with more pencil.

Suzanne said that once activated with water and completely dry, the pigment is mostly permanent and won’t be moved by further applications of water. I’ve found this to be true only to a certain extent (or maybe it depends on the pencil brand) and have experienced previous layers moving a bit. If my work were highly detailed and required great precision, I might care more, but it’s usually not important to me if previous layers are slightly reactivated.

Just as is true with traditional colored pencils, at some point the paper’s tooth will be entirely covered, and the paper won’t be able to take more pigment. Another limiting factor is the paper’s weight – if it’s too thin or not sized for wet media, you won’t be able to apply many layers of water before the paper starts to break down. For last week’s assignment, I used 98-pound mixed media paper, and I thought it was a bit too light. For this week’s assignment, I used my favorite sketchbook paper, Canson XL 140-pound cold press watercolor paper, and it fared much better.

So that was my first big learning – and it really is a big one for me because it has several important implications:
1. I can control the building up of values slowly and gradually with multiple layers instead of trying to guess how light or dark the result will be after water is applied (and assuming that’s what I’m stuck with).
2. If an activated color isn’t quite right, I can just add one or more layers of different pencils to adjust the hue.
3.  I can also add or take away texture with either more water or more pencil or both, depending on what’s needed.

My second big learning was about water – and how much of it to use. During the critique of last week’s work (the trees), I complained to Suzanne that the result seemed overworked and lacking freshness because I became overly enthusiastic about my discovery (described above) and applied too many layers of pencil, water, pencil, water, pencil, water. She surmised that my issue wasn’t about excessive layers but about using too much water per application.

As I was working in class on Tuesday, she watched me as I was applying water and said, “Whoa – way too much water on your brush,” and instructed me to dab some off on a paper towel. I was applying a lot more water to the paper than necessary to activate the pencil work. Even though I rarely use it because I never take “real” brushes out in the field, in class I was using a small traditional watercolor brush. It’s not natural hair, but it’s a relatively high-quality synthetic brush. Suddenly another lightbulb snapped on: Good quality watercolor brushes are made to hold lots of water. I’m much more accustomed to using a crappy waterbrush, whose plastic bristles are not designed to hold water so much as dispense it.

When I started working on the assignment at home, I decided to switch to my familiar Kuretake waterbrush (my long-time favorite brand). I found it much easier to put a light application of water on the paper with it than with a “real” brush. While the Kuretake’s plastic bristles can’t hold as much water as a high-quality brush, it keeps flowing evenly for a while after giving it an initial squeeze – but that even flow is also relatively stingy. It’s apparently just enough to activate water-soluble pencils, because after I switched to the waterbrush I had a much easier time controlling the amount of water I applied.

Again, this was a huge learning for me, because whenever I’ve taken workshops or read books on watercolor painting, the waterbrush has been discouraged because you just can’t get the fine control with it as you can with a real brush, and you certainly can’t make big, juicy washes with it. So I’ve always believed that real brushes are superior to the waterbrush in every way (except convenience, of course), and no self-respecting watercolor painter would use one. Although it’s been the only brush I’ve used on location for most of the time I’ve been sketching, I’ve often felt I had to apologize for using such a second-class tool.

However, all of that was related to watercolor painting – not to water-soluble pencils, which require far less water. A-ha! The lowly waterbrush is vindicated at last!

Compared to the first two, my third learning is less of a lightbulb moment and more of a refined confirmation of something I’ve been thinking about since I started working last fall almost exclusively with colored pencils as my color medium. I’ve always felt that water-soluble colored pencils would be more conducive to location sketching than traditional colored pencils, which require building up many time-consuming layers. I now know that to use watercolor pencils effectively, they still require multiple layers of pencil work alternating with water, so that may not seem like much of a time-saver, especially when you consider that the water has to dry completely between layers. But last week’s and this week’s assignments took probably half the time compared to exercises from the previous class, even with all those layers plus drying time (which is relatively brief because so little water is used). Here’s why:

The real time-saver is that I can apply the pencil pigment very quickly and with far less care because most of the pencil strokes do not show in the final work. While the pencils’ primary job is to apply color, the brush is the tool that does more of the work in finessing texture and shape that show in the result.

Of course, the pencil and the brush do have to work together as partners. Suzanne instructs us to make both pencil strokes and paint strokes in the same direction so they don’t fight each other. For example, in the line of dark trees in the class exercise shown here, I made vertical pencil strokes in the direction of the trees and then went over that pencil work with vertical brush strokes. Even so, I put down those multiple layers of pencil mighty fast compared with traditional colored pencils because I knew the waterbrush would come afterwards to clean up (and often conceal) messy pencil work. (Suzanne might not approve of my speedy technique, but she can only critique the result she sees. I’ll let you know if she notices! 😉)

4/12/17 (in progress)
The image at the top of the page shows the finished piece. Shown at right is an earlier stage. (I meant to stop and make a scan before applying any water so that you could see how lightly I’d applied some of the pencil layers, but I forgot.) In the unfinished image, the sky and trees are mostly done, but the reflecting water has only some of the pencil layers activated. In the finished image, you can see that I added quite a bit more pencil to the reflections and selectively added water to some layers and some areas. The sky probably has four or five alternating layers of pencil and water, yet the paper shows no sign of degradation and could probably take several more.

The length of time it took to finish this piece (probably about three hours) is way longer than what I would or could do on location, so I’m still going to have to take shortcuts to make this work in the field, and I don’t know yet what those shortcuts will be. But I’m super-excited about what I’m learning and the implications for using watercolor pencils for urban sketching! (If nothing else, I’m persistent when I want something.)

Reference photo


  1. All very interesting. When I use a real brush with watercolor pencils, I use my rag to dab extra water off.

  2. Really beautiful! I am very interested in any shortcuts you discover because you got some wonderful results! What watercolor pencils are you using? Thanks!

    1. I'll share whatever I figure out! :-) For this piece, I used mostly Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle and a few Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer.

  3. Interesting information. I've never thought about using multiple layers of watercolor pencil. I'll have to give it a try. I like the results you got!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...