Monday, April 29, 2019

Book Review: Shari Blaukopf’s Working with Color

The latest in the Urban Sketching Handbook series

When I first heard that Montreal painter and urban sketcher extraordinaire Shari Blaukopf was authoring Working with Color, I wondered if there would be much in it for me. Blaukopf is well-known for her vibrant, luminous cityscapes in watercolor; it would be expected that her book, the latest in the Urban Sketching Handbook series, would focus on watercolor painting. It’s been several years since I stopped carrying watercolors in my sketch kit, and I’ve been loving using colored pencils ever since. Would it be worth reading? I hesitated for all of five seconds.

Spoiler alert: It’s worth reading. Blaukopf is a master of color, period. Whatever your chosen medium, her color principles and practices will apply. You don’t need a degree in color theory to understand these principles – you just need Blaukopf to explain them simply and succinctly (with a heavy dose of excellent sketch examples so that you can see what you are reading). As with the other books in the Handbook series, the emphasis is on using portable materials in the field. (The book’s subheading is Techniques for Using Watercolor and Color Media on the Go.)

The first three sections cover the basics of materials (including watercolors as well as other media), pigments, color mixing, and values. Watercolor sketchers will probably especially appreciate seeing her specific palette choices and recipes for mixing neutrals, darks and a beautiful range of greens. But even as she reveals her favorites, she encourages sketchers to experiment and get to know their own palettes well. Thoroughly understanding how one’s chosen pigments behave and interact is the key to successful color use.

Recipes for mixing greens

Exciting dark mixes
Working with gray scales to learn values

Even though I’m not using paints, I am still learning from the color logic behind her choices. For example, I often use Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelle pencils in Payne’s gray or Prussian blue for deep shadows because they seem the safest choices. But seeing her examples of permanent Alizarin crimson mixed with indigo for a vibrant dark made me think about putting my Prussian blue together with Alizarin crimson from the Supracolor line for a more interesting shadow mix. I got several other ideas from those chapters that I will be experimenting with soon.

The sections I am getting the most value from are the ones on limited color palettes (something I think about often) and color relationships (especially warm/cool and complements). I’d like to get out of the lazy habit of using grays for shadows, and these chapters got my wheels spinning on using complements more often for that job. Just the other day when I was sketching red tulips in a neighborhood traffic circle, I was about to reach for gray to darken the ones in shadow. But I had just read the chapter on using complements, so I instead used the same dark green that I had used on foliage elsewhere in the sketch. Voilà! The flower shadows were both more cohesive and more vibrant.
Example of complementary hues by Mike Kowalski

I was also inspired and intrigued by examples of sketches done in a single ink color and the use of spot color with black or gray – exciting ideas that I am already experimenting with.

Example of using a single ink color by Brian Gnyp

Example of spot color by Nina Johansson

A final technical chapter on mixing neutrals – something that Blaukopf does without resulting in mud, which is startling, since that’s what most of the rest of us are getting! – would be a delight to painters.

How to mix grays without getting mud!

 The four Galleries at the end of the book are pure eye candy: Examples from urban sketchers worldwide show how they put those color principles to work. The use of color as expression – What! The sky can be pink or orange?! – is especially eye-opening to a literal sketcher like me.
Expressive color by Gerard Darris

Vibrant hues in pastels by William Cordero Hidalgo

Like other editions in the Urban Sketching Handbook series, Working with Color isn’t intended to be a comprehensive technical guide (about either color or watercolor). It’s meant to be a succinct, easy-to-grasp digest of tips that will get you excited about using color (if you haven’t dabbled in it much yet) or shake you loose from your lazy color habits (which was my hope for myself in reading the book). It’s worth a read and a re-read!

(Other books I’ve reviewed in the Urban Sketching Handbook series are Architecture & Cityscapes and People & Motion by Gabi Campanario, Understanding Perspective by Stephanie Bower, and Sketch Now, Think Later by Mike Daikubara.)


  1. Thanks, Tina. Deffo on my list to buy.

  2. A fabulous review Tina. I am so appreciative that you took the time to really read and understand it.
    With gratitude,

    1. You're so welcome, Shari! Congrats on a wonderful book!

  3. Great review of Shari's book. I didn't buy it yet, but I am planning on it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...