Friday, February 7, 2020

Botanicals in Color

Exercises to practice making feather-light pencil strokes

When I first registered for the botanical drawing class I’m taking at Gage, almost everything about it appealed to me – except that our only medium would be graphite. As much as I love using graphite (and I really do), the thought of 10 winter weeks of nothing but shades of gray gave me a frowny face. Amazingly, during the first session, I discovered another opportunity to learn botanical drawing – but with colored pencils! When I saw examples of the workshop instructor’s vibrant, luminous works of full-color flowers, butterflies and birds, I could not sign up fast enough!

The weekend workshop was with artist and certified natural science illustrator Crystal Shin, who has been a long-time student of Kathleen McKeehen, my current Gage instructor. The focus of Shin’s workshop was specifically in her techniques of colored pencil application that enable her to achieve the brilliant hues and luminosity that her work is known for.

My instructor's ogle-worthy pencils. Her favorite brand is Faber-Castell
Albrecht Durer, which she applies dry and does not activate with water.
Unlike the colored pencil classes I had taken previously, which emphasized using a relatively limited palette of earthy hues on our landscape subjects, Shin’s supply list encouraged students to bring as many colors as possible. Grabbing all 120 pencils in my Faber-Castell Polychromos set, I gleefully exclaimed, “Color – bring it!”

The hallmark of Shin’s technique is to use many pencils to “paint” what most of us might see as a single hue. On day 1, we focused on drawing a single holly berry. During a demo, we saw her apply as many as a dozen hues of yellow, pink, orange, red, violet and blue to achieve the berry’s redness. She takes full advantage of the blending qualities of the colored pencil medium to develop complex, life-like hues. Each application was so light that we had to squint to see her feathery pencil strokes. Indeed, she often used a magnifier to see her own work more closely. To maintain her extremely fine strokes, she keeps her pencils needle-sharp.

2/1/20 Result of day 1's work: a single holly berry
Emulating her technique, I stared at a single berry to try to identify all the hues visible, then picked out more than a dozen pencil colors that I thought I could see. The extremely time-consuming method resulted in the drawing shown here (it’s larger than life size – about 1-inch diameter).

On day 2 we were assigned to draw one (or more, if we were ambitious) holly leaf. Again, after watching her demo, I tried to select the full range of greens, yellows, blues and browns I saw. She also showed us how to incise lines for the leaf veins (my leaf drawing is life size).

2/2/20 Result of day 2's work: a single holly leaf
We were all a bit blurry-eyed and stiff-necked when we left the workshop (held at Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island), but I thoroughly enjoyed learning Shin’s techniques. I especially valued learning how to blend many, many pencil hues to develop rich, complex, natural colors. Practicing this color method will surely help make winter less gray!

Shin using a magnifier to see her work closely.

These are all the pencil colors I used for these two tiny drawings. I kept 'em sharp!


  1. The opportunities you have available to you are amazing, Tina. I'm sure that B&W workshop has served you well in the color workshop. Your drawings are wonderful.

    I was surprised to hear that your instructor preferred using watercolor pencils without water over something like Polychromos. During my forays into color pencils I preferred my watercolor pencils over my Polychromos for drawing. The only problem I had was that for drawing I wanted them pointy but for watercolor I wanted them dull :-)

    1. Thank you, Larry -- I'm enjoying drawing the micro-world of plants, at least during the dismal winter months! I was really surprised that she prefers to use Albrecht Durer even though she isn't activating with water. I guess it's whatever you get used to.

  2. These drawings are wonderful! I love the luminosity and the depth of color you were able to achieve!

    1. Thanks, Cathy! I'm not sure I have it in me to continue working this hard, but I'm happy and grateful that I had the opportunity to learn the techniques!


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