Sunday, May 28, 2017

Italy, Part 6: My Colored Pencil Breakthrough

5/12/17 water-soluble colored pencils, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook (left side of panorama)

Right side of panorama

When I was taking the colored pencil class at Gage (and the subsequent watercolor pencil class) from Suzanne Brooker, I learned many basic and intermediate drawing skills as well as techniques specific to colored pencil. While I hoped I was using improved drawing skills day to day, I was disappointed because I didn’t think I would be able to apply those colored pencil techniques to urban sketching. When you have many hours (and I mean many – like 8 to 10 per drawing) to work leisurely from a photo in the comfort of one’s studio, the results are bound to be more painterly and polished than working from life under constantly changing light and weather conditions and any number of other outdoor challenges. But those results are also bound to be less fresh (as I always felt about my photo-reference homework assignments).

You already saw this panorama in my post about Varenna and Lake Como, but I’m showing it again here (this time scanned so you can see more details). This sketch, made from the terrace of our hotel room, was a breakthrough for me because it was the first time I applied the colored pencil techniques I learned to an on-location sketch.

My secondary triad palette, from left: Caran d'Ache Supracolor - Russet (065),
Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer - Terracotta (186), Caran d'Ache Museum (245),
Albrecht Durer - Deep Cobalt Green (158), Supracolor - Purple Violet (100),
Albrecht Durer - Delft Blue (141)

I already mentioned in that previous post that the Lake Como landscape was just begging for the secondary triad palette I was recently introduced to. Inspired by those colors, I contoured the mountains, used multiple layers of water-soluble pencils (dry/wet/dry/wet) to increase intensity and widen the value range, varied the degree of detail and texture to imply depth, used changes in hue for atmospheric perspective – all things I learned in class – and threw in my own wet-in-wet cloud tricks (using pencils only, not ink-filled waterbrushes). I am very happy with the way the sketch came out.

The 5½-by-17-inch spread in my Stillman & Birn Beta softcover sketchbook took just about an hour. That’s still longer than I would typically spend on a location sketch, especially while traveling, but it’s certainly not an unreasonable length of time to spend. I’m thrilled knowing that, when I choose to, I can apply all of those photo-reference techniques to drawing from life – which is, of course, the only kind of sketching that really makes me happy. Since finding a way to use colored pencil techniques on location has been my goal all along, this sketch feels like a personal triumph.

I was hoping to list “how to” points here (as a reminder to myself as well as for readers who might want to try it themselves), but I’m not sure I can distill the method into bullet points. I think it’s just that all the hours and hours I put into those photo-based homework assignments taught me to observe the landscape in ways I had never done before, and that close observation made it possible to convey depth and contours more effectively.

Why was I able to do this sketch in an hour when the homework assignments (most of which were smaller in size than this spread) took so much longer? I think that can be attributed not to anything I learned in class but to my experience as an urban sketcher. For the homework assignments, we generally reproduced whatever was in the reference photo (though we sometimes improved the composition if needed), trying to learn from whatever happened to be in the photo. (Believe me, I wouldn’t have chosen to draw entire meadows of grass or every wave in a water scene if they hadn’t been part of the assignment!) On location, however, I’m accustomed to editing out whatever doesn’t interest me or isn’t essential to telling the “story” of my sketch (the part I am interested in). There was a lot more in the scene at Lake Como that I could have put in, and if I had used a photo of the landscape to draw from, I might have been tempted to put “everything” in (though that’s hardly possible, even with hours of work). But being on location, I put in only what I really wanted to show, just as I always do.

Most of the time I still make urban sketches in my usual “coloring book” fashion – line drawings with spot color – because for me, it’s still the most expeditious way to capture a scene. But once in a while when I’m moved by a scene to spend the time on a more painterly approach, I know I can do it now with colored pencils. Even though I quietly whined that we only worked from photos, winter quarter at Gage and all those hours of homework was time well spent.


  1. I went back to re-read your wet-in-wet cloud trick. That is a useful trick. Looks like your lessons paid off big time to get these effects. Way to go, Tina!

    1. Thanks, Joan! I'm really excited thinking about how I might apply these techniques to urban sketching more often!


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