Colouring in with Nanna (or 10 Colour Pencil Tips)

Last weekend I did my first art class in years; a two-day colour pencil botanical illustration workshop. Why botanics?  Well botanical illustration is not really my thing.  I love nature and I love creating fine details in my artwork but, to be honest, I am just not that in to drawing flowers.

BUT I love to add colour to my graphite illustrations and I have battled with gouache, watercolour, ink, digital colouring and colour pencil.  Of all these mediums colour pencil seems to make the most sense to me and feel fairly instinctive to use.  However, I have discovered, it’s not that simple.  Colour pencils are quite different to graphite and have their own idiosyncracies.  What I really wanted out of this workshop was some colour pencil know how.

I have previously done a couple of colour pencil drawings and in the process come up with a few problems or questions;

  • How much colour or how many layers do I add / when have I laid down enough colour?
  • Is it “acceptable” to leave white paper showing?
  • What is burnishing?
  • What is blending?
  • Aren’t they the same thing?
  • What’s the deal with using solvents?  Are they necessary?

With these questions at the forefront of my mind I entered my first coloured pencil / botanical class ever.  The first thing I noticed was that I seemed to be a good twenty years  younger than my class mates.  Botanicals are popular with the Nannas it would seem!  Despite my desk mates penchant for dad jokes (or nan jokes) and clipping their nails during class (I kid you not!) they were a delightful bunch of incredibly skilled women.

Equally as impressive as their drawing and academic skills was ….the amount of tea they could drink in a day.  Nah…  actually the array of shit they had amassed in their crafting careers.  We had enough pencils, paper, erasers, magnifying glasses, sharpeners, paints, brushes to set up our own black market art supply business.  There was even a light box produced at one point!  My husband needs to meet these ladies. My stash is NOTHING compared to these magpies…. R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

natures art lab collage

Let’s cut to the chase.  What did I learn.

  1. A. a sharp pencil is an absolute must and you can use sandpaper to maintain a point (this is, however, a skill in itself and one that I did not manage to master. Alas all my pencils are now about an inch long from constant sharpening).  Without a sharp point you can not get in to all the little undulations the tooth of the paper creates.  On that same note we were encouraged to use an upright pencil (i.e. as perpendicular to the paper as possible) and gently lay down colour using small circular strokes.  Again this is the best method to get colour in to all the nooks and crannies of the paper’s surface.  A circular motion also helps avoid any obvious overlapping of pencil strokes.
    1. B. I hate the sound of electric pencil sharpeners about as much as someone publicly clipping their nails and if I hear it one more time I will not hesitate to ram it up the behind of the offending Nanna.
  2. Smooth paper is also must, pretty much for the same reason as above. Less tooth = smoother finished product.  At this particular workshop I was using Winsor and Newton Smooth Surface Cartridge Pad but I will go back to Arches Watercolour Smooth paper as I think it has a smoother finish.
  3. Blending – this is what it’s all about!  We discussed three methods of blending.  One being simply using pencils and layering them blending one colour in to another.  The trick is to work light to dark with a sharp point and the lightest of light pressure.  At this point I was able to answer my question about white paper showing through and it’s not wrong.  If it suits the look of the project/ subject matter then it’s okay.  We also used a colourless pencil blender with a medium pressure and a solvent (turpentine) to blend colours.  Solvents work basically to break down or melt the binders in wax and oil based pencils thus reducing the look of pencil strokes and smoothing the surface.
  4. Burnishing – Why would you? Burnishing (i.e. blending to a shiny almost reflective surface using a burnishing pencil) was pretty quickly dismissed as a technique for botanics but I can see some applications in other areas.  It might be a good tool to create a pair of shiny leather shoes perhaps?
  5. She who has the most and/or the most expensive coloured pencils does not necessarily win.  If you lack the skills a $5 pencil is going to look shit regardless.  Skills first – expensive tools later (I can’t believe I just said that! – this is coming from the queen of when-it’s-not-working-buy-more-stuff and, who the day before the class, spent $$$ buying half a dozen Faber-Castell Polychromos colour pencils so that I would have THE BEST pencils for my class.  I discover the next day my teacher had all kinds of random pencils.  I suspect she even had some “student grade” (horror of horrors) amongst her stash.)
  6. The best way to colour match is to hold the tip of the pencil against the object you are drawing / colour you are hoping to achieve.  This is clearly a no brainer but it had never occurred to me.  I spend ages making little square test patches of colour and then forgetting which combination of colours in which order I had just used.  You’re all probably reading this going ‘duh’ how did she not know to do that.
  7. Create shadows using a complementary colour.  I’ve been doing this for a while anyway so not really a revelation. The idea being that a complementary colour makes a more effective  and aesthetically pleasing shadow than just using black.  It was also suggested to use a deep analogue colour to create an effective tonal change  from the highlight to the shadow colour.  (Analogue colours being colours next to each other on the colour wheel for the uninitiated – I had to look it up too)
  8. Keep your kneadable eraser wrapped in the plastic wrap it comes in only exposing a little bit at a time as you knead need it.  Another REVELATION for me.  This stops you easer turning in to a dirty-doggy-human-hair infested glob.
  9. Get your shit organised!  Put the pencils you are not using at this current point in time out-of-the-way or you’re going to get all muddle up between what’s in and what’s not.
  10. Blog posts should have 10 tips… um be nice to old people and drawing plants is kinda boring.

When I got home I was dead keen to put my new found colour pencil skills in to action on something non-plant based.

Hallelujah …what could be more unnatural than…  New York F-A-S-H-I-O-N – W-E-E-K

To be honest I was a little underwhelmed by New York this time round.  So here are a few of my best bits (and how adorable is that chicky in the middle. I have no idea who she is but she has the most engaging smile!)).New York fashion week collage.jpg

I am going to do a really bad blog thing now.  I am not much of a blog planner and have no content prepared beyond today but I reckon I can string this blog post out over two weeks!

All the work in progress and final images will appear next week.  But I don’t want to leave you hanging so here is a sneak peek of my colour pencil New York fashion week illustration.

work in progresswork in progress 9

And an extra bonus!  I know that ever since you read that bit about Dad jokes you’ve all been DIEING to hear one, so I thought I share one of the weekend’s best.

Nanna 1 “Oh rats” (aka oh shit, balls, crap, I have fucked something up – well that’s what I would have said)

Nanna 2 (Funny Nanna) “You’re in the wrong class”

Nanna 1 “What?”

Nanna 2 “We’re drawing flora not fauna!” (followed by a long and somewhat unnecessary explanation of how we were participating in a botanical illustration class therefore rats and their ilk had no place in our class and perhaps Nanna 1 should be looking for a fauna illustration class for her rats.

Please feel free to use that joke


Photo Credit: (clockwise from top left): 1.Tom Ford, 2. Jeremy Scott, 3. Bottega Veneta, 4. Victoria Beckham, 5. Mansur Gavrila, 6. Sies Marjan, 7. Prabal Gurung, 8. Tibi, 9.Collina Strada

4 thoughts on “Colouring in with Nanna (or 10 Colour Pencil Tips)

  1. Love this post, great one and I shall be using that joke at every conceivable opportunity – it’s a cracker.

    Now, I’ve been scouring your website for something I thought I’d read here but can’t find it now.

    Was it you who said that watercolour paintings go through various stages of “shitness” ?


  2. Pingback: New York fashion Week; colour pencil illustration

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