Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Watercolor Pencil Demo: Urban Sketching

A sourwood tree near Green Lake
was the subject of this demo sketch.
How different is using water-soluble colored pencils on location compared to making a still life at my desk? The process of writing yesterday’s still life demo reinforced that urban sketching is entirely different. For my own benefit in documenting my processes (as well for any readers who might be interested), on the same day that I sketched the maple leaf, I went out to sketch a tree near Green Lake (you saw this sourwood tree a few days ago) and took a photo at every step. I shot these photos with my phone, so the images aren’t as clear as yesterday’s scanned images, but I hope they get the job done of showing what I did.

Step 1: The colors I used are as follows:

Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles in light olive (245), yellow ochre (034), Cornelian (850), scarlet (070), crimson aubergine (599), sepia 50% (906), Payne’s gray (508), Prussian blue (159). Not shown: middle cobalt blue (660).
Step 1: Select colors

Step 2: I measured out the composition I wanted to fit on the page with small marks. I didn’t draw a contour line; I simply used crimson aubergine (foliage) and sepia (trunk) to begin scribbling the rough shape of the tree.

Step 2: General tree shape is roughly scribbled.

Step 3: Using mostly crimson aubergine, yellow ochre, Cornelian and scarlet plus a touch of Prussian blue, I laid on a heavy application of pencil pigment. More than drawing, this was like scribbling with crayons, fast and furious, to get as much pigment down as quickly as I could. This is the step that differs the most from my still life approach: I intend to do only one main application of pigment and one activation with water, so I need to put on as much color as possible all at once.

Step 3: Pigment is applied heavily to foliage.

Step 4: This is the most fun step! I laid the sketch on the ground and, with my hand about a foot and a half from the paper, I spritzed the foliage area with water (read more about this technique in the post I wrote last year when I first discovered it). I’m currently using a hand sanitizer spray bottle that puts out a fine mist. The tricky part about this step is knowing when to stop spraying. I sometimes overspray and have to use a tissue to dab the excess water that starts to pool around the drawn area, and then the pigment starts wicking toward the pools. You also must be careful if there’s a wind, which may direct the spray onto your pants or onto parts of the page that you want to keep dry.

Step 4: Water is spritzed onto foliage.

Step 5: While the paper was still wet, I used all the same pencils to deepen the foliage colors in some areas, especially the shaded area on the right side of the tree. Again, this was basically dabbing and scribbling, but more gently, since the paper was wet.

Step 5: Dry pencils applied to still-wet foliage.

Step 6: To paint the sky, I revised an old trick I discovered way back when I was using a lot of fountain pen inks in waterbrushes as “cheater” watercolors. First, I applied a swatch of middle cobalt blue to a scrap piece of heavy watercolor paper that I carry for this purpose. I sprayed that lightly with water. Then I spritzed the sketchbook page where the sky would be, and used a clean brush to spread the water more evenly on the paper.

Step 6: Prepare pigment on scrap paper; spray sky area with water.

Step 7: Using a waterbrush, I dabbed generously into the swatch of middle cobalt blue and applied the pigment quickly to the wet paper. Steps 6 and 7 are the most similar to using traditional watercolors wet-in-wet. It’s a somewhat cumbersome process (compared to all the other steps) that’s easier to do if I can lay the sketchbook down flat (though I often do it in my hands while standing). I’m still looking for an easier way to get the same effect for the sky. What I don’t like is applying dry pencil to dry paper and trying to activate that with a waterbrush. Streaks are difficult to avoid, or the sky takes on an overworked appearance that I don’t care for.

Edited 6/6/18: Here’s an update on how I do the sky.

Step 7: Apply sky pigment wet-in-wet.

Step 8: Using sepia, Payne’s gray and light olive, I drew the cars and ground foliage. I used Prussian blue for the ground shadows.

Step 8: Draw cars and ground shadows.

Step 9: Using sepia and Payne’s gray, I drew the utility pole and pedestrian and scribbled in the background elements. First making sure the tree foliage was completely dry, I used my Franklin-Christoph fude fountain pen and Platinum Carbon Black ink to draw the power lines. Then I was thrilled to notice that the power lines were casting shadows on the foliage, so I put those in (I’m easily thrilled!).

Step 9: Draw power lines and other details.

Step 10: I activated the ground shadows. I used a waterbrush to “lick” a bit of pigment from the scarlet pencil and dabbed it lightly on the ground for the fallen leaves. Start to finish, this sketch took about 60 minutes (more typically, a sketch this size would take about 45 minutes, but stopping to photograph added more time).

Step 10: Ground shadows activated; final details added. "Trophy shot" photographed!

How does today’s demo differ from yesterday’s? While sketching the maple leaf was more like drawing – starting with a contour line and then coloring – sketching this tree required more of a painterly approach. For example, I think of Steps 2 and 3 as being the pencil equivalent of painting large shapes with a large brush and loose, wet watercolors. (Granted, this tree was an organic subject that demanded a loose approach. If the subject had been a building, I might have approached it differently. Hmmm, that might be another demo someday.) The sky was literally a wet-in-wet painting approach.

The completed sketch (scanned).
Another difference is that I didn’t want to wait for the foliage area to dry and reapply more pencil, so I had to apply a heavy dose of pigment all at once if I wanted rich colors. Water-soluble colored pencils make it easy to keep applying more pigment to get the intensity I want. After struggling for years with watercolors that never come out as intense as I want them to be, pencils have liberated me in that way.

The biggest difference, of course, from my perspective, is that I remained standing for the entire sketch (well, squatting occasionally to spritz the page on the sidewalk), so I worked much more quickly and loosely than I would if I were seated at my comfy desk. Although it wasn’t always easy to work while standing, it was still much easier to use colored pencils compared to using paints while standing. Colored pencils have given me freedom in that way, too.


  1. It was fun to see this as a series of steps. I like your misting idea and how you got the color for the sky. I agree that pencils usually don't work well for big areas like the sky. They always result in streaks. Your way worked really well. I've tried taking photos for demos a few times, but it is hard to keep stopping...and remembering to take a photo of each step. I'm good at leaving out something crucial. lol Good job!

    1. Thanks, Joan! It was easier to do than I expected, and interesting to think about my process so that I could write about it.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to post and photograph your process. You are right, watercolor pencils really give the color more pop! You certainly did justice to the beautiful fall foliage.

  3. What is your estimate of the time for the actual drawing, start to finish?

    I do love your blog although I'm not usually a pencil user.

    1. This sketch took about an hour because I had to stop and take photos, but a sketch of this size typically takes me about 45 minutes. Almost all of my on-location sketches take between 30-45 minutes.

  4. Out of curiosity, what sketchbook/notebook did you use for this demo?

    1. This is my DIY sketchbook made of Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper. I fold and stitch together 4 sheets of 9x12 paper. It makes a very thin yet stiff signature. When I fill 6 signatures, I stitch them together using Coptic stitch. If you click the label "book binding" from the list of labels in the right margin above, you'll see examples of all my bound sketchbooks that I've made the past 4 years.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...