Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wet or Dry: The Water-Soluble Dilemma

12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle in
Stillman & Birn Nova (10 min. pose)
12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Supracolor in Nova sketchbook
(10 min. pose)

While I love pencils for many reasons, the quality I appreciate most about both graphite and colored pencils is the lovely, subtle tonal gradation that is possible with them. I know it’s possible with any medium in the right hands, but I’ve never been able to achieve it with anything wet like an ink wash, markers or watercolor. With dry media, it’s just easier to keep applying more tone, a little at a time, until I get the value I want. And I love being able to modulate those values over a curved surface relatively easily compared to using a wet medium.

This attribute I love so much about dry pencil creates a dilemma with water-soluble pencil: Activating the pigment or graphite with water will intensify the hue and usually darken the tone significantly and immediately, which makes it handy when you want to get the job done quickly (which is often my goal when sketching on location). But the big risk is that activating with water often destroys any subtle gradations I might have intended.

12/1/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle
Here are some recent examples. At the top of the page are two more sketches from last Saturday’s Drawing Jam – each sketch made from a 10-minute pose with water-soluble colored pencils. Although the poses were short (and I was so hasty that Dee, the poor model on the left, apparently lost her second leg!), I wanted to capture the shadows and light on their form. Keeping the pencil work dry, I was even able to retain some of the mid-tones. Toward the end of the poses, I was tempted to put some water on the darkest shadows because I knew that would punch them up, but I thought I would lose whatever gradation I had achieved. (Fortunately, I resisted.)

In the case of the small portrait at right, I had only five minutes, so I went ahead with the waterbrush to deepen the shadows quickly. The harsh smear under the chin is not the look I was going for, but it’s hard to be subtle once the pigment is activated. (If I’d thought of it at the time, I would have tried swiping off the excess with a tissue. That works sometimes.)

12/3/18 Caran d'Ache Museum Aquarelle on 140 lb. paper

At left is an example from Zoka Coffee on Monday. Applying the sides of the cores of a few Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils, I used these soft pencils almost like pastels (but without the dusty mess, of course). It’s a relatively efficient way to apply them. In this case, I knew I had to leave the pigment dry or I would definitely lose all the work I’d put into the form of the balding guy’s head and neck. I don’t know how to convey those subtle curving surfaces with anything but dry pencil.

By the way, this method of applying colored pencil by the side of the core is not recommended by traditional colored pencil artists. It could be that it’s difficult to achieve a consistent tone with this method, and it’s hard to cover the surface evenly (you can see the paper’s texture showing through, but in this case, I don’t mind). With some other pencils I’ve tried, the coverage is much more uneven. But one significant reason why I love Museum Aquarelles is that something about their consistency makes it easy to apply in this (albeit discouraged) manner.

Even if I struggle with the dilemma of applying water or not, a big benefit of all water-soluble pencils is that they can be used either wet or dry. I like having that choice in one versatile medium.


  1. I think you are getting better and better with the dry pencil stroke for sure! The bald man's head is great.

    1. Thank you, Ching! I'm really enjoying exploring colored pencils, wet or dry.


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