Friday, September 1, 2017

Soft and Hard

9/1/17 Green Lake Park (water-soluble colored pencils; 6" x 9", about 45 minutes)

My recent review of Derwent Procolour pencils got me thinking more about the relative softness of colored pencils and how my preferences have changed over time. Years ago when I first started exploring colored pencils with abstract works, my goal was to lay down small patches of solid color (no gradations or blending) as quickly as possible, so I got the best results from very soft cores. When I bore down hard on those soft pencils (think crayon), I could lay down a lot of pigment fast. That method worked for what I was doing at the time, but it’s generally not a recommended colored pencil technique because it immediately flattens the paper’s tooth, and then it can’t support any additional layers.

8/27/17 Mitsubishi Uni colored pencils (which are relatively hard;
3" x 4", about 30 minutes)
When I moved on to still lives, eventually my technique improved as I started to realize I had to lighten my touch and make multiple layers if I wanted to blend and build rich hues. But it was taking the class last winter that really changed how I applied colored pencil to paper. 

My instructor Suzanne’s colored pencil brand of choice, Lyra Rembrandt, at first struck me as being much harder than I preferred, but after working with them (and other relatively hard pencils) for a while, I started to understand why she likes them. With a harder pencil core, it’s much easier to initially get into the valleys in a toothy paper to cover more of the surface. Her recommended technique is to apply multiple layers using a very light touch so that the tooth isn’t smashed down, and a harder core is better for this type of layering. In addition, a hard core is necessary for small details and lines.

Ultimately, I still thought Lyra Rembrandt was too hard for my taste, but I started looking through my (admittedly vast) colored pencil collection to find the degree of hardness that worked best for me. In my colored pencil review series a few months ago, I concluded that I couldn’t pick just one – I need both a somewhat soft (but not super-soft) pencil as well as a somewhat hard (but not super-hard) pencil for different purposes. My favorite combo is Caran d’Ache Pablo for the softer end and Faber-Castell Polychromos for the harder end. And that’s where I stand today, as far as traditional colored pencils go.

But what about water-soluble colored pencils? It turns out that those are a whole ‘nother ball of wax – and the main reason is that I tend to use them on location, which has very different demands compared to a still life done at my desk.

Normally I don’t think much about my technique or the choices I make while I’m urban sketching. As I started out making this sketch (top) at Green Lake this morning, however, I decided to take a conscious look at how I was using my pencils. In the field where I don’t want to (and probably can’t) spend several hours gradually building up delicate layers of color as I might at my desk, I’m mostly using the method I started with when I was doing abstracts: I prefer using a very soft pencil to lay down as much pigment as possible, as quickly as possible. That’s why Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles became my favorite very quickly when I first used them – they are by far the softest water-soluble pencils I have ever used. Even though other brands (such as Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and Caran d’Ache Supracolor) have a wider color selection and perform just as well when activated with water, they just aren’t as soft. Sometimes I replace some Museum pencils in my bag with Albrecht Durers or Supracolors because I like the colors better, but eventually I end up changing them out for Museums again.
9/1/17 Cretacolor Karmina colored pencils (another relatively hard pencil;
3" x 5", about 45 minutes)
The Museum pencils are so soft, in fact, that they do not hold a point well, and I’m sometimes frustrated by that when I’m trying to put in details. But getting futzy with details is generally not a good thing for me to do anyway, so it’s just as well. When I get tired of sharpening, I stop futzing, and that’s usually to the benefit of the sketch.

(Comments on recent blog posts have led me to believe that at least some of my readers enjoy these analytical process posts I write. . . I hope that’s true! I write them mainly for my own benefit so I can document and study my own thinking, which I often can’t do until I write about it. But if someone else can benefit from it, that’s all the better.)


  1. HI Tina. I do read your blog and often wish I could sit and have a conversation (one Symposium one day. I am not going to Porto next year) , and instead don't write anything at all.
    I can only comment on watercolour pencils as I don't use coloured pencils. I started using Derwent when I was given a gift box and then introduced to Faber Castell when I did a course (it may have been with Cathy JOhnson). Over the years I have moved entirely to FC. I enjoy the hardness and the detail that I can get on the page when doing detailed drawing. Derwents frustrate me with their softness. Isn;t that funny !I have not tried Caran Dache or any others - I wonder what I would think of them? I am so familiar with my FC that I dont want to look further. I am enjoying your blog posts.

    1. So good to hear from you, Alissa -- my colored pencil guru! ;-) The hardness of F-C is definitely a benefit for detailing -- I love how it retains a point so well. And I can see how that quality would be great for you because your sketches are full of beautiful, fine details!

  2. Tina, I have really learned a lot from your technical posts. I hope you keep them up! I live in an area that has a dearth of classes, and your posts have been very helpful. The pine tree in the top sketch is beautiful, and your ability to get the roundness of the tomato & peach would be great to see in any cookbook!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Cathy -- I'm glad you find my posts useful!

  3. I learned a lot from this post, Tina. Thanks!


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