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Using Watercolor Pencils in a Finished Piece
Value in Illustration
Using Watercolor Pencils in a Finished PieceBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
I don't usually use watercolor pencils for finished artwork. The color selection is a little limited, it can be time-consuming, and detail is not always easy (and, as they are very soft, keeping the pencils sharp can be a challenge!). They are a decent portable medium for sketching in the field, though, and so I keep them around for that reason. On the other hand, they are very cheap -- certainly cheaper than paint -- and so they are a viable alternative for artists that are on a budget.
Here is how I use watercolor pencils.
First, as always, you need a sketch to work from. With 'wind' as our theme, I decided to design something around a maple key.
Watercolor pencils are basically just watercolor pigment that's been formed into a lead for ease of application. You use them in several ways: you can use a wet brush to pick up paint directly off the lead (similar to picking up paint with a wet brush on a dry palette); you can draw onto damp paper and watch the color spread; or you can draw on dry paper, and wet it afterwards with a brush. This is the easiest of the three and the method we will be using today.
I am using a smooth Bristol paper. This will make it easier to apply smooth layers of pencil. The downside is that you can only wet the paper so many times before it starts to fall apart, so you must plan ahead.
First we need a base layer to provide some local color. I start filling in the dragon, using very light pressure and a sharp pencil. You do not want super-thick, completely opaque layers of pencil. It will become oversaturated when you wet it. I keep the pencil strokes going in a direction that helps illustrate the form of the body: the curve of the neck, the folds in the wings, etc.
Once the layer is complete, I get my brush out, get some water ready, and tape the paper down onto a piece of masonite to prevent warping. Now, for watercolor pencils, you really don't need to get the brush very wet at all. You definitely do not want puddles of water. Especially with bristol paper, which does not like water.
Wetting the pigment that is already on the paper has its own challenges. The brush will sometimes drag pigment into areas you'd rather it not be. The upside is that, if you are careful, the pigment will pretty much stay where you want it. It doesn't really spread like traditional watercolor will, and this means you can work pretty quickly.
You will notice that the water makes the color much brighter and more intense. As when you were using the pencil, keep the brushstrokes consistent with the form you are illustrating.
Here's a side-by-side where you can see just how bright the wet pencil is, even with such a light initial layer.
Now we just repeat the process until we're done! This layer focuses more on building shadows and contrast. Again, pay attention to the direction of the pencil strokes. Build color slowly. Always keep the pressure on the pencil very light, and the strokes very close together. I usually finish off darker, shadowy areas with a final, light layer of local color. For instance, I used dark blue, red, and green in some of the shadow areas. The final layer was an olive green, which keeps the color in the shadows from becoming overwhelming.
This is what the painting looks like after more pencil work.
Bring the brush back out and start painting. Gradients are one of the trickier techniques to accomplish with watercolor pencils. Be careful of where you are pulling your color from. Don't be afraid to leave some edges in places where it will help you show angles and shapes. Take a look at the jaw or neck of the dragon to get an idea of what I'm talking about here.
Here's another side-by-side. It's starting to look like a painting now!
Now that we've got the local color laid in, and a good variety of shadows, it's time to add detail and more texture. I want the upper portions of the dragon to resemble the texture of the maple key. I draw in wrinkles with a few different colors. I also darken the shadows in a few more areas (especially behind the arm). It's very hard to tell in this scan, but I also added some very light blue to the tail that is curling around in the left of the painting.
The difference after the pencil is wet in this step is subtle, except in the arms, wings, and ribcage. But the basic principles still apply: don't use a lot of water, be careful where you are pushing the pigment around, and work in layers.
And here's one last side-by-side for you.
The last image has some very minor tweaking done. I added some more color to the tail to bring it out a little more. I added some definition to the arms, and some more color to some of the wing.
And we're done! It doesn't look greatly different from a piece that I might have done in traditional watercolors, but it does have its own quirks. Watercolor pencil has a unique texture that can show up in passages, such as on the neck, ribs, and wings, and it can be quite charming. You certainly don't have to fret just because you only have watercolor pencils on hand!
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