Thursday, July 30, 2020

News Flash: Colored Pencils Are Not Paints

Not much new here for me -- except for one key insight
that blew my head open!

I’ve read plenty of books about color theory. Long before I began sketching, my work with fibers, beads and abstract collage depended on color as the primary element, so I spent a lot of time studying and experimenting with color. Most of these books had one thing in common: They were written for painters. The lessons – how to mix primaries to create secondaries, for example – involved pigments suspended in liquid binders or solvents, also known as paints.

One of those basic lessons was that mixing either three cool primaries or three warm primaries will result in vibrant, cohesive palettes. If you mix warm and cool primaries together, your result might be lovely subdued hues – but more likely mud. Since I was working mostly with media that didn’t involve mixing paints, I learned the mixing rules mostly as theory (though it was an important way to learn concepts such as color temperature and intensity, which apply to any medium).

Make your own color wheel.
Years later when I began sketching and dabbling in watercolors, I tried to use what I had remembered about color theory to mix paints, but I was having enough trouble learning the pigment/water balance and never really got around to mixing colors. Eventually I switched to colored pencils, which I found to be far more forgiving than watercolors.

Fast-forward to last winter when I became interested in studying primary triads with colored pencils (surely you remember all those apples I sketched?). I recalled what I had learned from those color theory books and even went back to a few to refresh my memory. For most of those experiments, I applied the basic principle of staying within warms or within cools to create harmonious triads. (Although sometimes I deliberately mixed warms and cools, just to see what would happen.) Yet somehow I stumbled on surprises – mixes that I had expected to be vibrant were more on the dull side. Or haphazard triads turned out beautifully. My results seemed hit or miss, despite what I thought I knew about color theory. Still, I enjoyed my studies immensely, even when I ended up with mud, because each triad taught me something about how colored pencil hues interact with each other.
Lots of exercises like this.

 Fast-forward again to a few weeks ago when I was scrolling through colored pencil technique books on Amazon and stumbled upon Colors – A Workbook: Matching, Mixing and Selection for Colored Pencils, by Amy Lindenberger. The description sounded like basic color theory, with one major exception – it was written for colored pencil artists, not painters. I rarely buy books anymore, especially hard copies (my book cases are bulging, and the library’s e-book selection grows by the day), but this one sounded interesting.

As I thumbed through the book, I saw that the bulk of it is about the color theory that I’d already learned. It also contains many pages of color blending and color-wheel-making exercises – the kinds of exercises I had my fill of when I took Suzanne Brooker’s colored pencil class several years ago. I thought the book was going to be a waste, until I started reading the introduction – and the proverbial light bulb suddenly switched on over my head:

According to Lindenberger, the traditional color wheel based on the three primaries – red, yellow, blue – relies on pigments that paints and other media are made of. But mixing those primaries using colored pencils gave her a lot of trouble. She got unexpected muddy results just like I did. Ultimately, after much trial and error, she found that the best colored pencil triad came from Process Red (994), Canary Yellow (916) and True Blue (903, all Prismacolor Premier numbers) – which are not the typical red, yellow and blue we think of when we make a color wheel. In fact, they are much closer to the magenta, yellow and cyan used by the color printing process, which sprays layers of ink, one over the other. “If you have a color printer,” she wrote, “you will notice that the magenta, yellow and cyan inks are almost a dead match for the Prismacolor Premier Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue pencil colors.”
Not your traditional primary triad: Prismacolor Process Red, Canary Yellow, True Blue 

Geek note: My triad is made of three generations of Prismacolors!

This made so much sense! Unlike paint pigments that are blended together with their liquid binders, colored pencil layers are optically mixed like transparent glazes – and like printing inks. Eureka! It felt like the author was explaining what I myself had observed during last winter’s triad experiments, except I didn’t understand enough about it to articulate or formulate what I was observing. The light bulb that snapped on was worth the price of the book!

I went back to my primary triadic sketches and picked out the ones I had favored (below). In each case, the “red” I had used was closer to magenta, carmine or pink rather than a true red – yet when mixed with a warm yellow, the result was a vibrant red. The blues I used varied more, and I didn’t try many close to cyan. But the luminous pear I had sketched on Dec. 23 (third sketch below) included Prismacolor watercolor pencil True Blue (2903, which is the watercolor version of 903) and Carmine (2920). The yellows used in my favored triads were close to canary. (It’s easier to see the triad hues used if you look at the mixing swatch rather than the sketch.)

1/6/20 Winsor Newton watercolor pencils
(Carmine, Sunflower, Midnight)

1/23/20 vintage General's Kimberly (705, 713, 703)

12/23/19 vintage Prismacolor watercolor (Carmine, Sunburst Yellow, True Blue)

Of course, I had to try sketching an apple using the Prismacolor triad that Lindenberger recommended. The vibrancy is especially apparent in the secondaries (orange, green, violet) that result from Process Red, Canary Yellow and True Blue in my mixing swatch.
7/23/20 vintage and contemporary Prismacolor (Process Red, Canary Yellow, True Blue)
It’s satisfying when a book explains something I was on the verge of understanding on my own – but I needed that additional insight to fully understand it. Maybe next winter I’ll make a new set of triadic apples – this time looking specifically for variations of the hues Lindenberger recommends.


  1. I love when you have that "lightbulb" moment, and you almost yell "YES!!" It seems you had it.


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