Monday, September 18, 2017

Hold the Water

9/18/17 Wedgwood neighborhood

Today’s sketch was an experiment (well, I guess they all are, but this one was more consciously experimental than usual):

For most sketches done on location, I’ve habitually used water-soluble colored pencils (mostly my favorite Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles plus a few others). I don’t even carry traditional colored pencils with me. Compared to using dry colored pencils, it’s so much faster and easier to intensify colors simply by adding water, so it’s only natural that I’d favor watercolor pencils in the field. But the mess I made yesterday when I squirted water on my sketch – I was aiming for the colored pencils, but I forgot that the marker I’d used underneath was water-soluble, too – made me wonder if I rely too much on water to intensify pigments. Under the same time and condition constraints, would traditional colored pencils be that much more difficult or time-consuming to use? I put them to the test.

I could have used my usual set of water-soluble pencils and simply left them dry, but to be honest, I didn’t trust myself to stay away from the water – it’s such an automatic habit now! So I brought along a half-dozen Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils in fall foliage hues, and I went out hunting for color. I chose Luminance specifically because they are among the softest pencils I own, and I knew I could build rich color with them very quickly.

Indeed, this sketch took no longer than any of comparable size and subject that I’ve done with water-soluble colored pencils plus water. (In fact, it may have taken less time because I didn’t have to wait for water to dry before putting in details.) When I use traditional colored pencils at my desk, I build up many layers slowly and gradually, using a light touch and the pencil point held at a 45-degree angle to the paper, as I was taught. But out on the street, I went against everything I’ve learned in class and bore down hard on the broad side of the core to apply as much pigment as quickly as possible. The pigments look just as intense without water, don’t they? What I lacked in finesse I made up for in speed and efficiency. 

This experiment bodes well in another way: Today’s sketch was done on the last page in my current signature of my usual Canson XL 140-pound paper. It’s my favorite when using water-soluble pencils because it holds up well to heavy washes and sprayed water. At least for a while, I’m going to give a serious try to my new Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook with toned paper. Nova paper is the same weight as S&B’s Alpha paper, which is about 100 pounds and a bit too light for spraying with water. While I’m using a Nova book, I’ll resist water (except in small, controlled doses applied with a waterbrush) and see how I do. Bonus challenge: It takes even more intense color to show up well against a gray or tan background. Am I (and dry colored pencils) up to the challenge? Stay tuned.


  1. Beautiful trees! Vibrant color and beautiful lines.

    1. Thanks, Cathy! You'll be seeing more dry colored pencils in my sketches soon!

  2. I think you got the vibrancy of the colors without the water. I'm curious to see how they work out in the S&B Nova series. I'm sure it will be quite a while before I find the new sketchbooks here. It took me forever to find a place that even carried the softcover sketchbooks.

    1. If you get tired of waiting, the new Nova books are available online at as well as Amazon.


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