Saturday, June 12, 2021

Pampas Grass and Other Challenges

6/9/21 pampas grass, Maple Leaf neighborhood

A few days ago I showed a homework assignment for my Drawing Nature class this week. Here are the rest – more studies in capturing textures, patterns and all-important values with colored pencils. In her demos, Kathleen Moore made a variety of small studies – sea grass, moss, bark, distant trees – and encouraged us to try as many as we could from life.

The most challenging I tried was the pampas grass, above. The slender, blade-like leaves were bright yellow-green in the sunlight; the feathery plumes were nearly white. The base of the plant was dark under the leaves. I tried to get the base as dark as possible, but that muddied the bright green leaves, and it was difficult coloring in the narrow spaces between the leaves. To make the whitish plumes show, I used a dark-green background and almost lost their feathery texture. I hope I retained enough to evoke pampas.

6/7/21 moss on our rockery

The small lumps of moss (left) were challenging in a different way. First was finding the fascinatingly complex mix of hues I could see – I used nine pencils, none of which were “moss green”! It was relatively easy to capture the soft, fuzzy texture with colored pencils, but the actual hues were much richer and deeper. If I kept blending to make deeper colors, I was afraid I’d lose the texture. Most interesting from a natural perspective were the long, reddish threads above the moss that I had never noticed before.

For the Japanese maple study, I recited Kathleen’s mantra: “Analyze the simple, overall shapes and patterns – not details. If you can’t see it when you squint, don’t draw it!” Squinting wildly, I tried to evoke the patterns of light and dark as well as the pointy shapes of maple leaves while resisting the temptation to draw each leaf.

6/8/21 Japanese maple

The two single-leaf studies below were for the purpose of trying specific techniques she demo’d. In one demo, as an alternative to using mineral spirits, she painted a light wash of watercolor to give her sample an initial base of color before applying colored pencil. I used watercolor pencil, which I activated and then finished with dry pencil. I also practiced making pencil strokes to indicate shape. These techniques are part of my regular practice and were not new to me, but I did enjoy watching her demo using watercolor paint. (My assessment: Why get out paints when colored pencils are already in your hand?)

watercolor pencil activated with water; dry pencil applied over; pencil stroke direction indicating the leaf's curves

The second leaf study (I found a dead one in the wastebasket after Greg had cleaned up our bedroom plant) was an experiment with embossing. I didn’t have the embossing stylus that she had recommended for this purpose (a tool that Crystal Shin also uses), so I used a freshly sharpened white Verithin instead. It was a bit too sharp, and the point snapped off as soon as I began using it, but otherwise, it worked well for this purpose. After impressing white lines into the paper to emulate veins, color applied over the lines will skip over them, leaving them white. The white pencil gave me another idea – retaining the white of the paper for the highlights at the bottom of the leaf. The white waxy pigment acts as a resist for color (lightly) applied over it. It was effective as a resist, but I think saving out the white of the paper the hard way looks better.

embossing with a white Verithin and using white pencil as resist

Although I didn’t have time to make studies for the other techniques she demo’d, I made small swatches to sample them (below): erasing out highlights, using a Sakura Gelly Roll for white lines, and sgraffito using the dull side of an Exacto blade. The latter technique is fraught with peril: If done gently, scraping off a bit of color can be an effective way of recapturing small white lines or marks, but it’s easy to damage the paper’s surface. I’d do this only as a last resort.

samples of erasing, Gelly Roll, sgraffito

Using an eraser for highlights works beautifully with graphite, but it’s iffy with colored pencils. A good plastic, kneadable or electric eraser can take out light layers of colored pencil, but multiple layers (as in my swatch) will likely be permanent.

Finally, here’s the Prismacolor palette I used for all of these studies. As I’ve learned many times, despite how many green pencils I may have, I never seem to have enough of the right greens. Some are useful for recycle bins and Seattle street signs but are not even close to what I see in nature (at least Pacific Northwest nature).

Prismacolor palette used in these studies


  1. You did so well with all of these! I love the softness of the pampas and the variation of color in the leaves.


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