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Break Out the Colored Pencils
Break Out the Colored PencilsWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So lately, I've been mucking about with colored pencils.
I generally use colored pencils rather sparingly -- my usual method of art is to do a sketch, lay down color on it using acrylic ink washes or liquid acrylic paint thinned with water, then work in the details using acrylic ink pens (Faber-Castell PITT markers, particularly, which are the most light-fast of the lot -- most markers aren't anything like archival and will fade out badly in a fairly short time, and so I avoid them, despite the range of pretty colors they come in. PITTs, though, are awesome, particularly the big fat ones for doing scribbly stuff). Sometimes I'll then use some colored pencil on top, then a little white acrylic or white acrylic ink, and call it good.
Most of us probably started using colored pencils early on, as one of our first forays into color without making the leap to paint. After that, though, a lot of us turn to other media and get into paints almost exclusively and the colored pencils fall by the wayside. Certainly that's what happened to me, and I didn't come back until I settled into my usual mixed-media method described above. Even then, I don't use them that much.
Lately, though, I've been digging them out more. Partly it's this insane textural binge I've been on -- trying to get One Particular Look, which I can't quite nail down, but which I might be able to do with colored pencil. Maybe. At least, that's the current state of experimentation...
It was fooling around with these -- and having to go to the art supply store and buy a couple more, because I couldn't find the right shade of pale blue for what I wanted to do -- that made me think maybe it was worth talking about colored pencils, and a few of the tricks I've picked up, which might be of use to somebody else, somewhere, sometime -- and if you don't use colored pencils or haven't pulled the box out for years, it might be worth revisiting. (Any of these you could probably pick up from a good book on the subject, but hey! I'm cheaper! And shorter!)
The first thing I'll say is that you probably don't need as many colors as you think you do.
I know people who rhapsodize about their vast array of Prismacolors, and they are more than welcome to do so. I quite admire a rack of colored pencils, myself, there's something about all those thin sticks of brilliant color that pleases me enormously, it's a lovely look, the intensity of pigment is just so... delightful.
That said, nine-tenths of what I do with colored pencils, I do with the same handful of colors. Tuscan Red, Indigo Blue, Henna, Sepia, Yellow Ochre, Burnt Ochre, Cream, White, Periwinkle, Cloud Blue, Slate Grey and Mineral Orange are the majority of my palette. I'll mix in some various shades of gray for certain pieces, but generally, those are the ones I use for most of my pieces, most of the time.
I am not saying you should feel bad about owning every color of the rainbow -- far from it! Nor that you shouldn't get the right color for the right job -- my latest piece required Mediterranean Blue and Caribbean Sea and Powder Blue and Celadon. But they were all atop some related solid colors, which was essential. Too many different shades can make a piece disjointed and busy if you don't have something to unify them. If you're uncertain, use a limited palette at first -- and above all, don't feel that if you can't afford a huge smorgasbord of hues, you can't work with colored pencils and shouldn't bother. You can get started with colored pencils quite effective for under $15, and add to it over time.
In terms of what brand to buy, though, don't go cheap. The packs of "student-grade" colored pencils are rarely worth it, compared to the lush, rich textures you get out of a Prismacolor. (There are other decent high-end brands, but Prismas are the industry standard, and also the most readily available.) You'll do a lot better getting a handful of the most useful colors in Prismacolor than in laying out for a 140 pack of crappy pencils that make a weak, brittle, waxy line that turns you off to colored pencils completely.
A few tricks I like -- if you've layered color until the surface is waxy and won't take any more color, laying a thin layer of acrylic matte medium or clear gesso over it can restore the working surface. (Clear gesso is a much heftier, almost gritty texture than the matte medium.)
Another fun trick with matte medium is to use it over watercolor pencils. I generally avoided watercolor pencils for years -- they struck me as a bit gimmicky, and the pigments were rarely as good as real watercolor. Again, that was probably because I was using the cheap crap. Neocolor Crayon D'Arche are quite good, and I've lately fallen in love with Derwent's "Inktense" brand of watercolor pencils, which are seriously intensely colored. You can get some neat effects by drawing with the watercolor pencil, particularly laying down a scribbly or hatched texture, and then layering the matte medium over it. This is just wet enough to activate the color and soften the lines, but doesn't wash them away, and leaves a nicely sealed layer afterwards.
(I learned that one from my mother, who also argues that Tuscan Red and Indigo Blue layered together are a far richer and more useful shadow than trying to darken something with plain ol' black. She is entirely correct -- give it a try; it's a lovely, complicated color.)
Both regular and watercolor colored pencils work great on most of the media I use -- clayboard and gesso board will take both, although you'll find that gesso board's tooth chews through the colored pencils at higher speed than other surfaces. (Actually, that happens if you use clear gesso as a layer, too.) And of course it works fine on paper and illo board and all the usual suspects, so hey -- if you haven't dragged the colored pencils out in awhile, it might be worth trying them on whatever surface you're working on these days.
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