Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Urban Persimmon Sketching

11/27/18 Sketched with the "urban sketching" method (20 minutes)
One of my biggest motivations – and, ultimately, my biggest disappointment – in deciding to formally study colored pencil and watercolor pencil last year was that I had hoped I would learn how to use both types of pencils for sketching on location. During those two quarters, I learned so much about value, form, light, nature as subject matter and effective techniques for using colored pencils that it’s hard for me to even say I was disappointed, but the fact is, I didn’t learn anything in terms of urban sketching.
11/29/18 Sketched traditionally (55 minutes)
The necessarily time-consuming, methodical nature of colored pencil doesn’t lend itself well to working outdoors where the light and other conditions are constantly changing. Working from photos in a studio is the ideal way to use colored pencils effectively, and learning in that controlled environment taught me more about how to draw than anything I’ve ever done.

To use colored pencils in the field, however, is something I’ve had to teach myself (and continue to teach myself every day). And one reason I spend so much time in winter practicing simple still lives is that it’s good exercise for when I can sketch on location. Before our last persimmon got eaten, I thought it still had more to teach me about colored pencils.

A major difference between how I use watercolor pencils on location and in the studio is that I lay on a heavy application of pigment all at once for the former because I intend to do only one activation with water; I need to apply as much color as possible. It’s the only way I know of to work quickly and still get reasonably intense color. This is not the recommended method of using any kind of colored pencil, whether traditional or water-soluble. Traditionally, both types require applying multiple layers of pigment a little at a time to effectively build value and color gradually.

Using my daily-carry Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, first I approached the persimmon as if I were sketching it from a sidewalk. After making a quick, rough drawing, I colored it heavily with a mix of yellow, orange and a little red. (One big reason why Museum Aquarelles have become my favorite for urban sketching is that they are the softest watercolor pencils I’ve tried, which makes it easy to apply lots of pigment quickly without flattening the paper’s tooth.) Then I activated that with water. While that was drying, I decided that I would color the leaves without using water because I like the texture of the paper showing through. With that decision made, I went ahead and put in a few details and shadows on the leaves. (Because they are so soft, Museum Aquarelles do not hold a point at all, and tiny details are difficult to render. At home, I have harder pencils that would do the job better, but I don’t carry them with me, so I stayed with the Museum Aquarelles as I would on location.)

After the orange part was completely dry, I added some dark blue on the persimmon’s dark side. The cast shadow was a mix of the same dark blue, orange, red and the green I had used on the leaves. I forgot to pay attention, so I’m not certain, but I think I applied blue and orange first, activated that mix, let it dry, then applied the other colors without activating. I was done in 20 minutes.

A couple of days later, I approached the same persimmon, this time in a traditional, leisurely manner. I went through three cycles of dry-wet applications on the fruit, but I treated the leaves the same as I did in the first sketch. I finished with some dark blue and left that unactivated. I used all the same colors for the cast shadow as I did before, but because I activated more often, each color application became more intense than in the first sketch. Although I like the depth of color, I think the hue got a little muddy; the activated orange was much yellower than I expected, so I had to tone it down with more blue. This one took 55 minutes – almost three times longer than the first one.

If I hadn’t explained the difference in technique, you might say the two sketches look about the same (and you might say that anyway, even if I hadn’t explained). From my perspective, the first one looks a bit fresher because I didn’t have time to fuss with it as I did with the second one. But the more similar they look, the more satisfied I am that my self-studied approach can be used successfully on location. It’s what I’ve been trying to do the past couple of years when I can, but there’s always room for improvement.

As we all know, urban sketching is never as easy as sketching this small persimmon in the comfort of my home. But when given the choice, I will always choose something on location to a still life, and I will always choose either one over drawing from a photo.


  1. I am amazed that you can do a pencil sketch so quickly on location and have it look SO GOOD!!! I like the "location" one a bit better. It seems to have just a bit more light to it.

    1. Aww, thank you, Joan! If that persimmon had really been out on a street, it might not look quite as good. ;-) I like that one better, too.


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