Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Watercolor Pencils with Grisaille, Part 1

The Hollender grisaille experiment
The use of the grisaille painting technique is familiar to me in two ways. My introduction to the concept was in Steve Reddy’s still life workshop years ago. He taught us how to use varying dilutions of India ink to tone a drawing first, then add watercolor over this grisaille. Since the tones of ink had already done the work of establishing the values, applying color afterwards was a no-brainer.

I never got into using his technique, mainly because using India ink on location was too fraught with peril. I kept the concept in mind, however. A few years later, I adapted it by using a range of gray Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens for the grisaille, then applying watercolor pencil over these tones. Eventually I decided I didn’t like the way the grisaille dulled the hues (in fact, that’s one reason I didn’t like using India ink dilutions with watercolor, either) and weaned myself off them. I also didn’t care for the marker-y look. I wanted to learn to develop values using the hues themselves. It’s a more challenging way to use color, and one that I still struggle with, but I prefer the clarity of hues and sparkle that show through without the grisaille.

So that’s my limited experience with the use of grisaille. Fast-forward to a couple of months ago when a blog reader recommended the book The Joy of Botanical Drawing, by Wendy Hollender. Using only watercolor pencils and traditional colored pencils, Hollender uses a grisaille method to make botanical illustrations. I’m always interested in learning new watercolor pencil techniques, so I picked up the book at my library.

Although many botanical illustrators use colored pencils, fewer seem to use watercolor pencils. Among the ones I know of, I think Hollender’s technique is unique. In a nutshell, and showing images from my first attempt, I’ll describe Hollender’s method. (Note: Although my process below may look like a “how-to,” it is really a “trying-to”! I am still stumbling along, so if you are interested in learning her technique, please read her book, as following what I do would be the blind leading the blind.)

First, apply dry watercolor pencil to a non-absorbent palette. One option she suggested was Yupo synthetic paper, and I happened to have a piece of Yupo Heavy from the sample pack of Legion Stonehenge papers that I reviewed for the Well-Appointed Desk. The heavier weight is ideal for this purpose. Hollender uses Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer watercolor pencils, so I did, too. The pigment barely adheres to the plasticky, frictionless Yupo surface, so it’s difficult to build up a heavy swatch. She recommended a range of colors, but the basic concept is to use at least one neutral dark hue as the grisaille, plus the predominant local color of the subject.

Dry watercolor pencil applied to Yupo palette.

Using a small brush (I used my usual waterbrush), activate the pigment on the Yupo palette, making small puddles of watercolor.

Activate the pigment.

Apply the grisaille color (in my case, purple) to the drawing to establish the values. Allow that to dry completely, then apply more layers as needed, allowing each to dry before adding the next. As a final layer, apply the predominant local color (avoiding the highlight). This method is similar to the traditional watercolor glazing technique of applying multiple transparent layers of paint. (This was the hardest step for me – all that waiting for each layer to dry! How tedious! As a result, my tomato’s grisaille was way too wimpy; I was too impatient to follow up with a few more layers.)

Grisaille and main local color applied from the palette.

Finally, Hollender’s method is to use only dry colored pencils over the grisaille to finish the drawing. She prefers Faber-Castell Polychromos for this part, so that’s what I used, too. (Incidentally, Hollender uses a restricted palette of only a couple dozen pencil colors. She uses only Durer and Polychromos together, pairing each watercolor pencil with its corresponding match in the Polychromos palette. It’s an interesting way to work and far more practical than the huge colored pencil palettes some botanical artists favor.)

4/9/21 F-C Albrecht Durer and Polychromos pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook 
(before burnishing)

As a final step, burnish the drawing with a white or cream-colored pencil. The purpose of burnishing is to blend the colors further and flatten the paper’s tooth so that more pigment can be applied. I have not had much experience with burnishing, so I decided to give it a try on the tomato. Below is the final result after burnishing. Frankly, I don’t see enough difference to make it worth the effort, which took quite a bit of time.

Finished drawing after burnishing.

Overall, my wimpy grisaille didn’t help me much, and in fact, my sloppy application of the wet color hindered my application of dry layers afterwards. The sloppiness remained fully visible beneath the transparent colored pencil, so I spent additional time “fixing” spots I wasn’t happy with. To do this well, I need to work on my wet watercolor application technique and probably use a better brush.

The next day I decided to try the Hollender method again to sketch my green mug, this time using Caran d’Ache Museum Aquarelles for the grisaille and Prismacolors for the dry application. Once again, my grisaille wasn’t strong enough, so the heavy lifting was done by the dry colored pencils. I also regretted the choice of my Stillman & Birn Beta book. With hard Polychromos pencils on the tomato, Beta’s tooth was not a problem. With soft Prismacolors, however, I knew I would have to work much longer to cover the paper’s texture to the same degree. Annoyed, I stopped earlier than I would consider finished; I was unhappy with the grisaille anyway.

Grisaille layer 1 (Museum Aquarelle)

Grisaille layer 2

4/10/21 Museum Aquarelle, Prismacolor pencils in S&B Beta sketchbook

Neither of these sketches thrilled me in either process or result, but they got me thinking. Why make the grisaille application process more challenging for myself by using a traditional watercolor method that I haven’t practiced much? And yet the grisaille concept is worth pursuing. Stay tuned for Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. I first saw your apple and thought it was lovely. A second glimpse of it and I HAD to discover the steps you took! It Jumped off the surface! It is so good to observe the process of grisaille!


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