Iris in Colored Pencil

Layering and blending colored pencils builds rich colors and values. Combine this with embossing and outlining the drawing with a hard Verathin pencil to precisely control detail. Outlining the drawing at the start helps to contain the subsequent pencil strokes, making it easier to make a crisp and clean drawing. Detail is the last step. Had it been applied early in the process, it would have been smudged by the Odorless Mineral Spirits and lost beneath layers of deepening color. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step slideshow.

How to get started with Nature Journaling

The trick is to dive in but that is not as easy as it sounds. Here are a few thoughts to help you get started and keep at it.

Moving the goal post

Do not focus on trying to make pretty pictures. That just leads to journal block. Open your journal with the intention of discovering something new. Use the process to help you slow down and look more carefully. If you notice something that you otherwise would not have seen, remember it more vividly, or start asking yourself more interesting questions about what you observe than the journaling is a success. Embrace this idea and go. This gives you permission to make lots of pictures. If you make lots of pictures you get better. Art is a side effect of the process of journaling.

The first page of a new sketchbook

A brand new sketchbook is a beautiful thing. It if full of possibilities and potential energy. It can also be intimidating. All those perfectly white pages, how can you make a mark in that? Many people also feel pressure to make something pretty on page one. If you have trouble cracking in a new book, try this. Get a pen and write your name and contact number on the inside cover in case you loose the book. This also helps break it in and make it yours. Then start on page two and go from there. At some point you will feel inspired to fill in that first page but untill then you have a lot of journaling to do.

The first page of the day

I know a lot of folks (including myself) who have brought their sketchbook with them on a hike with all good intentions but spend the whole day without getting it out. It is just dead weight in the backpack. At a certain point you feel  “oh I should have been journaling and now I have missed so much good stuff that I might as well forget it for today.” The book stays in the backpack. We are creatures of habit- even in a single day. Once you get your book out and start to explore, you will do it again and again and go home with pages full of discoveries. It is the first entry on the first page that starts the cascade. To break in the first page, open your journal at the trailhead and write the location, date and weather. Just this is often enough to get more material to follow. I will often make a warm up sketch or two right there as well (see Sacrificial Pancakes below). Start playing with your journal early and you will sketch all day.

Sacrificial Pancakes

When you start to make a batch of pancakes, the first one off the griddle invariably are a mess.  Perhaps the pan is not the right temperature our has uneven heat. If you stopped then and said “I can’t do this, making pancakes is too hard” you would never have a satisfactory breakfast. Cooks know that the first ones are the sacrificial pancakes but that they make the way for the perfect pancake. So too with drawing. Every day when you start to draw you need to warm up. Do not expect the first sketch to come out the way you expect. You need time to reconnect your eye, brain, and hand. So plunge in, knowing that you need to create a few drawings just as a warm up exercise and do not expect them to be a work of art. Choose something interesting and explore it as a diagram, adding written notes, side views, and enlargements. Focus on seeing something new, not making a pretty drawing but get yourself drawing none the less. By the time you are done, you are warmed up and ready for a day of sketching.

 Journaling with friends and family

Nature Journal Club outing & Elkhorn Slough - Moss Landing, CA,What if everyone on your family had a journaling kit and you made sketching and exploring in nature a part of the way your family connects with the world? We are social creatures and love to do things together. Just as you are more likely to keep to a diet or exercise program if you do it with a partner, having a journaling support group keeps you going. When you are feeling a little off, you only need to look to your peers to get respired. When you are on your journaling game, you inspire them. Together you keep the habit going and progress much more quickly. Make his a part of your families’ practice or home-schooling curriculum.

Forming a nature journal club

Another way to get going and keep your momentum is to join (or start) a nature journal club. These groups meet throughout the country and if there isn’t one nearby, you can start your own. Having a regular schedule will allow members to put the events on their calendar in advance. Change the locations or topics every month to keep thing varied and interesting. Social media platforms such as Meetup or Facebook are good ways to connect with journal club members. You can also hang notices in local art supply stores, nature centers, or museums. Provide some social time on the events to help people get to know each other. A portable potluck lunch is a great way to bring people together. Towards the middle and the end of each outing, encourage people to open their journals together on a table. Look at the ways that other people are document, and describing the same place. Instead of just appreciating pretty pictures (an unproductive way to stimulate your inner critic) use the opportunity to actively steal ideas about what to observe and how to record it. Copying ideas or the style of another person does not make you less creative, on the contrary, it helps you see through new eyes and expands your repertoire of what it means to journal.

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

There are two colored pencil technique secrets to building up layers of colors. The first is to maintain the texture of the paper. Choose a paper sith some tooth or fine texture for pencil drawings. The tooth of the paper catches and holds the pencil. As long as this tooth exists, you can add layer after layer of color. Use a light or medium touch when applying color.  If you press hard, you will burnish the paper smooth creating a platform of pencil wax. Subsequent strokes will either skip across this surface without leaving color or will deposit irregular blobs of pencil wax and pigment.

The second secret to succesful layering is to use complementary colors in your shadows instead of reaching for the black pencil. Complementary colors sit on opposite sides of the color wheel: magenta and green, cyan and orange-red, yellow and violet-blue. These colors will combine with the principal color of the object to make a low chroma brown or gray shadow. The black pencil shadow is often too jarring and does not feel like a part of the shaded object.

Click on the first image to start a step-by-step sideshow.


Spider anatomy for artists

Fall is here and it is time to draw spiders. In this season female spiders have reached their full size and are ready to mate. Their webs are easily seen in the morning dew. Understanding how the body is put together will help you draw what you see with greater ease.

spider body parts

cephalothoraxAs in insects, the body is divided into segments. The head and the thorax (where the legs attach) are fused into one pear shaped segment, the cephalothorax. The eyes are set in the front of the cephalothorax. The eyes are often in groups and make distinct patterns on different kinds of spiders.The chelicerae are stout appendages below the eyes that support the fangs. The large abdomen has most of the organs and the spinnerets that make silk for the web.

Think of the legs as having three big segments. The Femur is the first big segment. It is thick and muscular. The patella and tibia are effectively one segment although there is a little side-to-side movement at the joint between them. They are usually aligned. Similarly, the metatarsus and tarsus are usually aligned. Unless you have powerful magnification, you probably will not see the patella-tibia and metatarsus-tarsus joints. You can effectively ignore the coxa and trochanter as they are small segments close to the cephalothorax and do not make prominent angles on the legs. 

spider legs

Side view and top view of a spider’s leg showing range of movement.

Field study of a spider. Notice that I observe the spider and the web. Then zoom out to take in a larger context of where I found the web. Notes and questions about insects caught in the web while I observed are in the top right corner.

Click to enlarge: Field study of a spider. Notice that I observe the spider and the web. Then zoom out to take in a larger context of where I found the web. Notes and questions about insects caught in the web while I observed are in the top right corner.

Choosing and Organizing Colored Pencils

More is not better. You will not be happiest with the big 150 pencil set. With this many pencils, you spend most of your time searching for the right green out of twenty, or trying to put it back in the right place. research on choice also shows that you are also less satisfied with your choice, wondering if you picked the right one (Greifeneder et al 2009). If you have about 24 pencils, you grab what works and start drawing. You can mix the colors you need by combining pencils with soft strokes.

Picking Pencils

A good pencil buying strategy is to get a box of about 24 colors. I like Prismacolor Premier (soft pencils, rich color, but they get dull fast) or Verathin (harder pencils, not as intense color, but they hold a sharp point). Supplement this basic set with Process Red (the real primary magenta), Black Grape, Grayed Lavender, and a dull tan, light gray, and a dull olive-green pencil.

Prismacolor Black Grape and Grayed Lavender are the base of my shadows. When I begin to fill out a drawing, I start with the shadows using Black Grape for most colored areas and Grayed Lavender for the yellow area that will be in shadow. I can enrich these shadows with complementary colors before adding the local color.

blk grp gry lvdr pencils


Throw away the box. Bundle your cool colors, warm colors, browns and neutrals, and greens separately with elastic bands to make it easier to grab the color you want. This is a lot easier than putting increasingly short pencils back into their original box.

Important extras

blended purple 2Colorless blender This pencil has wax but no pigment. Use it to burnish the surface of the paper, filling in all the little white flecks from divots in the paper. This creates a smooth look. Once the paper is burnished, it will be difficult to add layers from other pencils. If you choose to blend with this tool, it should be the last step in your drawing.

clr pencil drawing tools


 Embossing tool This is a metal stylus with rounded points, one large and one small. It is used to create grooves in the paper that are too deep to be marked by colored pencils, and for making thin pale lines against a dark background. If you want the lines to be colored, first add the line color, then emboss, then add darker colors over the embossed lines. My favorite embossing tool is the Kemper Double Ball Stylus-Small (DBSS) but you can also make your own tool from a fine tiped ball point pen that has run compleatly dry.

embossed lines

Odorless Mineral Spirits Another way to fill these holes, blend pencil strokes, and brighten colors is to dissolve your pencil with odorless mineral spirits (OMS). This is an petrolium based thinner from which the harmful volatile compounds have been removed. Apply OMS over closely spaced and even pencil. It will not merge widely spaced lines. OMS may make unexpected and hard to remove blotches if applied heavily. For convenient use in the field, fill a waterbursh with OMS and use a cotton swab, paper stomp or cotton ball to help spread the thinner and color. Once the paper is thoroughly dry, you can add more pencil on top of the blended area as the paper still retains its texture. OMS can be used in combination with a colorless blender.

Colored Pencil Technique (video)

This video is part of a workshop on drawing with colored pencils. The video begins ten minutes into the program. What you have missed is a demonstration of how to layer colors with gentle pencil pressure and a discussion of pencil types and how to organize your colors for field sketching. Thank you to Ashok Khosla for filming the workshop. The color is a little off on the screen but we do our best. I hope this is helpful.

Fundamental Drawing Techniques (video workshop)

Artists train themselves to see shapes, angles, lines, and planes in ways that help them to get the picture on the paper. These are useful as individual excercises but more importantly, they can be integrated into the way you draw.

Note: scroll to the bottom to see a full video of this workshop.

Drawing is a skill that you can learn. The most important thing is to start drawing and sketching on a regular basis. This will form the neural pathways you need to connect your eye, brain, and hand. Artists use a bag of tricks to help them transfer what they see to the page. You can learn these techniques and  drawing will come much more easily. Even if you are already an artist, notice if you are taking full advantage of these different ways of processing your drawing. If there is something new, experiment with it and see if you can incorporate it into your approach to drawing.

We will explore five approaches that you can integrate into your drawing. The first is contour drawing which helps you to look more carefully at the angles and curves of your subject. Gesture drawing is a loose and fast method for getting the big picture in a minimum of strokes. observing negative space helps you to flip back and forth between shapes and the spaces between shapes. Both are important for creating an accurate drawing. measuring your drawing and checking proportions helps you capture subtle mistakes early in a sketch that could result in big problems down the line. Finally, making a constructed drawing helps you to visualize your subject in three dimensions and align parts of your subject even if they are hidden from view.

Contour Drawing

The most important part of drawing an object accurately is to look carefully at that object. This seems too obvious to mention but all too often we rely on our mental image, what we think it should look like, instead of observation. Contour drawing is the most powerful way to train yourself to look carefully.

blind contourIn a blind contour drawing the point is not to draw but to see. It is a fun exercise that will train the connection between your eye and your pencil. Sit at a table with an interesting object in front of you. Stare at the object and slowly begin to draw its shape. Let your eye crawl slowly along the contour of the object. As you do so, your pencil creeps along your paper moving up or down following the curves and angles that you see. With every change in angle, your pencil responds with its own direction change. Do not lift your pencil or look down to see where you are. Take your time.

When you are done, take a look. The results are comical and fascinating. Look for places where your line has revealed subtle changes or aspects of the real object. Now do twenty of these drawings with different objects. As you do, you will train your eye to see and your hand to respond.

modified contourA modified contour drawing leverages the intensity of observation you develop in the blind contour exercise but results in a drawing that looks much more like the object. The process is the same only this time you get to peek. Every now and then, glance down at your paper to allow yourself to relate the spacing and size of the lines to each other. You can also pick up your pencil and move it to another spot. To keep the energy of the contour drawing, keep your eye on the object as you draw your lines.

Gesture Drawing

gesture 2Would you like to draw a perfect circle? Grab a piece of paper and draw one with one clean line right now. Notice where it is lopsided or uneven. Drawing a circle like this is hard. I can not do it. Let’s try an easier way. Lightly and loosely draw a circle. It is OK if it is a little lopsided. Now, without erasing, draw over it correcting some of the imperfections with continued light lines. Overlap five or ten circles, slowly correcting the roundness. Your brain will gravitate toward the right lines. As it does, press a little harder, reinforcing them. Watch a perfect circle emerge from the page.

The key is to begin lightly, make lots of lines, and reinforce those that emerge as being right. By keeping it light, you let your brain sort between several possibilities as you carve into or add to your original shape. If you start with bold, hard lines, you will feel committed to those lines even if they are wrong. Use this approach when starting any subject.

Negative Space

negative spaceNegative spaces are the shapes that are formed between the objects we are drawing. We tend to focus on the shape of the upper jaw and the lower jaw. The negative space is the shape of the air between the upper and lower jaw. Just as the jaw has height, width, and angles, so too does the negative space. By drawing the negative space as an actual shape, you may discover that you drew the jaws too close together or too far apart. If your negative space does not fit, do not just ignore it and move on, this is a valuable indication that something is off with your proportions. Find out what is wrong and fix it before continuing to draw. Using negative space is paradoxical one of the most powerful and most underused tricks in the artist mind. If you use it regular, you will dramatically improve your work.

Measured Drawing

measuredIt is easy to distort the proportions of what you draw. Try measuring your subject early in your drawing process. Rather than using a ruler and measuring standard units, use a prominent feature of the object itself as the unit of measurement. In the skull at the left, my unit of measurement was the distance from the teeth to the start of the nose. This porcupine skull was three “nose-tooth” units long and two tall. Close one eye and hold your pencil up to your subject to help you see straight lines and angles.

You can also project lines from one prominent feature to another and note what elements they intersect. A vertical line from the front of the nose intersects the start of the molar teeth below. A diagonal line from the back of the lower jaw past the tip of the cheekbone projects out just above where the teeth start. This is a great way to check your overall proportions.

Run these tests before adding any detail or refining the lines in your drawing. If you discover a proportion problem late in your drawing, it is too late to do anything about it without a lot of eraseing. If things do not line up, stop and fix them before moving on.

Constructed Drawing

constructed 2constructed elements 2Visualize your subject as simple interlocking, three-dimensional, geometric shapes. See into and through the object. I often imagine the subject made of glass or ice. As I construct and align the geometric shapes I can see through to the other side of the drawing. These shapes will also help you see and understand the way that shadows fall across your subject. The edges of these planes will also be the edges of areas of shadow or light. Some parts of a subject may lend themselves more easily to this approach (here the blocky nose). Where on your drawing does this approach bear the most fruit?

Why I love the non-photo blue pencil

Non Photo Blue Pencil

I use an erasable non-photo blue pencil to lay in the basic shapes and capture the posture, proportions, and angles in most of my drawings. I then go over these lines with graphite and sometimes watercolor. Even though the pencil is erasable, I generally do not erase the lines. This pencil is so light and non distracting that it almost seems to magically disappear when you cover it with graphite. You could just draw lightly with graphite pencil for your starter lines but these lines end up showing much more than the non-photo blue guidelines.

While non-photo blue pencil strokes are easily seen on your paper (before you lay down the graphite), the marks are too light to be scanned and do not show up in my step-by-step tutorials. I usually approximate the effect of the pencils in Photoshop to create the instructional drawings you see on this blog or books. This is why the marks start off bold in the tutorials and then fade by the end of the drawing. On your real drawing, you will no longer notice the non-photo blue pencil lines once you put down your graphite over it (unless you reallllly look). I think this has something to do with the way our brains focus on contrast. Any neurobiologists out there please leave a comment if you know why.

Not all non-photo blue pencils are created equally. I use the Prismacolor Copy-Not Col-Erase non-photo blue pencil #20028. This makes the light ghost lines I need. If you use a regular Prismacolor non-photo blue pencil, it makes a bold blue line. I have also found that other brands of non-photo blue pencils make darker marks as well and I avoid them.

Be careful though, if you press too hard and are doing a graphite pencil drawing with lots of blended subtle shading, the non photo blue lines will prevent some of the graphite from adhering to the paper, leaving light lines against the shading. Also on some types of watercolor paper, the non-photo blue pencil seems to act as a resist, preventing some of the paint from sticking in the same way. Slick paper may not have enough tooth for the non-photo blue pencil to catch and leave a mark. If you have these problems, you many want to go back to the light graphite pencil drawing to lay in your initial shape.

Showing planes with line angle

If your pencil strokes show through on your final drawing, they can help suggest the surface planes of your subject, adding depth and dimension. Energetic and loose pencil strokes are dynamic and interesting. I like to see an element of the hand of the artist in the final drawing. Experiment with bold linework but do not use it as a coverup for inaccurate observation. Pencil Technique.027-001One way of using line direction to show the orientation of the planes of your subject is to make your shading lines in the same direction that water would flow if it were on the surface of the object. The direction of these lines change when you come to a new plane, except in the case of vertical planes (all vertical planes have vertical lines as in the cube). A change in plane also means a change in value (dark to light). The more abrupt the change in value, the sharper the edge between two planes. For more on this, see How to Draw Rocks. Pencil Technique.075-001You can also use linework to suggest a sphere. Use latitude or longitude lines to suggest a spherical shape. Study the way the ends of these lines tuck around the back side of the sphere. Pencil Technique.031-001On this mountain lion skull, notice how the direction of the linework and changes in shading value suggest changes in the planes of the skull. Click on the image to enlarge. Notice how I use these lines on the lower jaw and the zygomatic arch (cheek bone). Click on the first image below to start a step-by-step slideshow of my process drawing a weathered bobcat skull. Notice how bold linework adds interest and suggests the planes of the skull.

Exploring values with graphite pencil: Great Horned Owl Skull

Learn to draw with a full range of values in this step-by-step tutorial with graphite pencil.

A full range of values from rich black to bright white adds impact and interest to a drawing. To help you establish this range in your drawing, block out the shape of the white highlight area and push the darks early to establish a dark “anchor” to which you will relate all the rest of the values. This forces you to incorporate the full value scale. The last step should be to add your details. If you put the detail in too early, you will only smudge it with subsequent blending or erasing. Click on the first image to start a step-by-step side-show.