Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Questions to Ponder While Sharpening Colored Pencils

6/19/19 Wedgwood neighborhood

It pains me to say this: As much as I thrive on color – seeing it, using it, collecting it – I have come to realize that when I limit my palette to one or two hues, I tend to make better drawings. I started to feel an inkling of this last year when I began sketching with graphite more. And during the past couple of months when I’ve used only two colors, I’ve noticed the same thing.

When I’m not preoccupied with which hues to use and whether they match or adequately express reality, I observe tone and values more closely – and the sketch ends up looking better. Maybe “better” isn’t the right term. In most cases, I prefer the full-color sketches I make because they more fully capture the moment as I saw it – the brick red building, the yellow excavator, the lime green bike. But when I limit my colors to one or two, I find that the results are often better rendered drawings.

In classical art training centuries ago, masters required their students to make monochrome studies for years before they ever began to consider color. Even in contemporary ateliers, students work with charcoal, graphite and other monochrome media for a long time before they touch paint. (I once heard Gage Academy atelier instructor Juliette Aristides say that during her own classical training, she worked with graphite for seven years before moving on to other media.)

6/17/19 Convention Center
Shortly after I began sketching, I read a book in which the author advised beginning sketchers to stick with pencil for a while and work on basics like composition, proportions, tone and value before introducing the complications of color. “No color? HA! Forget it,” I said to myself, slamming that book shut and pulling out my watercolors. Over the years, I continued to hear that same general advice occasionally from other authors and instructors – advice that I immediately dismissed.

Sometimes I wonder where my work would be now if I had heeded that advice. What if I had sketched with nothing but graphite for seven years and only just now, in my eighth year, started using color? Would I be ahead of my own game in terms of rendering accurately? If I’d done my homework in monochrome for all those years first, would it be easy now to simply add color, since all the basics would have been covered?

I suppose there’s little benefit in pondering questions asked in hindsight, but sometimes I do – while sharpening my many colored pencils.


  1. I certainly have been loving the value work showing on your 2 color sketches recently, and have been inspired to pick up the pencil crayons again. Values are something I might be ready to concentrate on, and you may just have convinced me with this post to try the two color method. I hate graphite because of the smudging. Thanks!

    1. I'm happy to hear that you're inspired to give the bicolor values a try! I love using graphite (though smudging is an issue), but it takes quite a bit longer to express a wide enough range of values with it. for me, using two colors somehow works as a shortcut.

  2. Nice values in these. I can't imagine working for any length of time without using color!

  3. It all comes down to values, doesn't it? If they form the basis for your drawing, the drawing will be better than when we just start matching local color with our medium. I suffer this later approach more often than not. I think all the classical approaches you've outlined are simply a way to get students to learn to start with value and only then add other aspects like color. We have met the enemy and they are us :-)

    1. Bwaa-haaa-haa!! You're so right, Larry... if we could only get away from ourselves! ;-)


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