Monday, August 12, 2019

Lessons Learned: Weaning Myself from the Marker Grisaille

8/5/19 Maple Leaf neighborhood (I finally ditched the marker grisaille)

For more than a year now, I’ve been using various gray markers and brush pens as a grisaille for my watercolor pencil sketches done on location. (See my tutorial on this method.) When I’m trying to be fast and efficient, markers are a handy shortcut to getting the darkest value to be as dark as I want it to be. But I’ve never been a fan of the streaky “marker-y” look, even when I tried to smudge the wet ink (ala Don Colley; my thumb is just not as quick as his apparently is). The blunt, flat edges of the marker lines don’t integrate well with the softer, blended marks I love so much about colored pencils.

(Most recently, the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen with gray ink has been my tool of choice for the grisaille. A brush pen leaves fewer streaky marks than a marker.)

All along, I’ve been experimenting with ways to achieve sufficient value contrasts with watercolor pencils without relying on markers and still being relatively fast on location. This will seem like a no-brainer, but all it took was applying more pigment. Ha – what a revelation! As with watercolor back when I used it, achieving rich, strong hues is never as easy as it seems (and achieving wimpy, washed-out watercolors is the easiest thing in the world). I was just starting to get into it shortly before I left for Holland. Maybe sketching all those towers I adored in the Netherlands gave me enough practice that I finally have the confidence to ditch the marker as a grisaille altogether. I think ditching the marker has also made me look more closely at the actual hue of a shadow instead of assuming a generic gray.

Lots of practice in Holland

This sketch, made in May, still relies on a marker as a grisaille. 

To be fast, I have to apply a lot of pigment at once (instead of layering slowly) and grind it into the paper – a method not recommended by most colored pencil artists. And I can use this method easily only with Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles, which are the softest, most highly pigmented water-soluble colored pencils I’ve used. I treat them more like crayons than pencils. Whatever works, right?

I used the shorty on the left all the way down to
a stub, thanks to the Derwent extender.
I go through a lot of my two favorite gray pencils – warm (808) and cool (508). Thankfully, now that I’ve finally found an extender that fits Museum Aquarelles, I can use them all the way down to a stub.


  1. Great that you have an extender for those stubs!!! Glad you found a way to achieve the contrasts you were looking for.

  2. Does the same principle apply as with paint, to blend in the opposing color (from color wheel) to make a shadow? E.g. a yellow object's shadow side is done with yellow that has a dash of purple mixed in?

    1. Yes, it does, and I have done that occasionally. But as with paint, it requires strong familiarity with one's hues to avoid achieving mud. ;-) I'm going to continue experimenting and would like my use of water-soluble colored pencils to be more painterly eventually in the way that you describe.


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