Monday, November 6, 2017

Watercolor Pencil Demo: Still Life

A blog reader asked about the colored pencil palette I’ve been using to sketch maple trees recently and suggested a demo with a leaf. Until she made that request, it had never occurred to me to do a step-by-step blog demo, but as soon as she did, I thought, Why not? All it takes is remembering to snap a photo at every step.

As it turns out, remembering to do that is harder than it seems; sketching is so often an auto-pilot, intuitive process for me. But I did manage to catch myself in time for most of these steps. In fact, I appreciated pausing to capture these steps because that forced me to think about what I was doing long enough to document it and, now, to articulate it.

Step 1: The colors I chose for this maple leaf are as follows:

Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles in light olive (245), orange (030), vermillion (060); Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer in Delft blue (141); Faber-Castell Polychromos in dark red (225). All pencils are water-soluble except Polychromos.

Step 1: Select colors

Step 2: I used vermillion to draw the leaf’s contour in a Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook. Note the rather prominent misdrawn line at lower left! (I guess my focus wandered off for a moment.) I did not erase, however. Erasing almost never removes all the color, and it also damages the paper’s surface, which affects later applications of pencil and especially water.
Step 2: Contour drawing

Step 3: I applied the first layer of light olive, orange and vermillion. This layer was rather sloppily and quickly applied just to get the entire image covered with pigment.

Step 3: Begin to apply first layer of pigment.

Step 4: Using a Kuretake waterbrush, I activated the pigment of the first pencil application with water. Again, I worked relatively quickly with short brush strokes and without much care (except near the contour line, where I was a bit more careful). I waited for the paper to dry completely. (As all watercolor painters know, this is the most annoying step. I actually left the room and made some tea; otherwise, I would have been tempted to touch it before it was completely dry.) Note: The prominent misdrawn line I pointed out in Step 2 has already disappeared. When I know a line will be colored over, erasing is not necessary at all.
Step 4: Activate first layer of pigment with water.

Step 5: A second layer of the same pencils was applied, taking a bit more time to blend the various pigments. You might be asking why I didn’t apply the colors in a single, more intense application during Step 3 and activate them once. A year ago, that’s the way I would have done it, because I didn’t know there was any other way. But last spring in my colored pencil class, I learned that it’s not only possible to apply water-soluble pencils in multiple layers; it’s actually preferable when you are trying to build richer, more complex hues. It also makes it easier to adjust values.

I meant to take a photo when I finished applying pencil, but I forgot, so I started applying water on the bottom half of the leaf. Then I remembered, so I stopped and allowed the wet part to dry so that I could put the sketch on the scanner. The top half of the leaf is still unactivated. In retrospect, I’m happy that I scanned it at this stage, because it’s interesting to compare the dry and activated parts of the drawing and see how much more intense the colors become after water is applied. (Fortunately, unlike watercolor paint, colored pencils are more forgiving, so I can stop halfway and then continue without ruining the drawing.)

After I scanned it, I continued activating the rest of the leaf. At this stage, I was a little more careful to apply water, but not much, because the leaf has a matte, mottled, textured surface. (A smooth, polished surface, such as the shiny skin of an apple, would be difficult to render with water-soluble pencils, so I probably would have used traditional colored pencils, which are easier to control when I want that type of appearance.)

I again allowed the paper to dry completely. Note: It’s important to use a high-quality watercolor paper when applying multiple layers of pencil repeatedly reactivated with water. I’ve had the best results with S&B Beta, which is 180-pound paper. I’ve also had reliable results with the Canson XL 140-pound paper I use in my handbound sketchbooks. Anything lighter, though, might result in degradation of the surface.

Step 5: Apply second layer of pigment; apply water to the bottom half.

Step 6: I used more of the same Caran d’Ache pencils to add texture by lightly rubbing the side of the cores over the drawing. I knew I didn’t want to water-activate the details, so I chose Polychromos, which is a harder traditional pencil that sharpens to a strong point. Using a freshly sharpened dark red, I drew in the leaf’s veins and crisped up the leaf’s points.
Step 6: Add details.

Step 7: At this point, I thought I would finish with a shadow, so I chose a Delft blue Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer water-soluble pencil. I chose a Durer rather than Caran d’Ache Museum because the Durers are a bit harder, and I wanted to be able to retain a relatively sharp point for that narrow shape. After drawing the shadow, it occurred to me that if I applied water, I would probably lose the shadow’s crisp edge, so I decided to leave the pencil dry. In retrospect, if I’d made this realization earlier, I would have chosen another Polychromos, which is much harder than the Durer, making it easier to draw and color in a slim area.
Step 7: Draw shadow. Sketch completed.

The freshly fallen leaf I used as my model was relatively flat, but it still had a bit of a curl to it, and I regret that I didn’t capture the very subtle highlight on the high points to make it look more dimensional. But for this demo and responding to my reader’s request, I like the way I captured the colors.

Start to finish, this sketch took a couple of hours, though much of that was waiting time.

Developing this demo made me more aware that my process for sketching a maple leaf (or any still life) at my desk is very different from my process for sketching on location. I thought it would be interesting to do a demo of urban sketching too, so stay tuned for that tomorrow. 

Was this interesting and helpful? Any requests for future demos?


  1. Thanks for your demo! Very interesting to see the progression. I’m looking forward to seeing tomorrows demo.

  2. This was really interesting and helpful. Thanks for sharing your process!

  3. Thanks for your feedback, Cathy and John! I hope you enjoy tomorrow's demo, too.

  4. Very useful and I look forward to the Urban Sketching demo as well. Many thanks for taking the time.

  5. You did a good job of showing your process! Nicely done.

  6. Thanks Tina. This is beautiful and the colours are so intense. - I am interested in comparing techniques. I do so much the same, but there is so much room in art for individual technique , that no two drawing will never be the same. I find that so exciting! (I always forget to take photos along the way)

    1. I'd love to see a demo of your process and techniques sometime, Alissa! It is hard to remember to take step photos, though! ;-)


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