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.

How to draw with a pencil (video)

Learn how to draw with a pencil and master basic techniques with graphite, blending tools, and an eraser.

You can load your journal kit with expensive and fancy tools but few are as universal, versatile, handy and reliable as a graphite pencil. Learn how to get the most mileage out of your pencils and practice fundamental drawing skills. This workshop will establish a platform for work with any subject. We will investigate pencil techniques with line, value, shading, drawing with a tortillion, and creatively using an eraser. Special thanks to Ashok Khosla for filming and uploading this video.

Here are a few key points that are explained in the video.

    • Explore and extend your value range.
    • Choose 3 or 4 value steps. Keep it simple.
    • The highlight and core shadow are shapes.
    • You can draw with your eraser and smudger.
    • Shading angle can suggest planes.
    • A change in plane means a change in value.
    • Restrained detail goes in last, on close surfaces.
    • Texture the twilight edge.
    • Quit before you are done.

Drawing Light and Shadow

Understanding how light and shadow play across an object will help you describe its form or even make up shadows when you need them. Click on the first image to start a step by step slideshow.

The Inner Critic

Do you have a voice inside your head that tears down your work and tells you again and again that it is not good enough and why do you keep this up? Sometimes when we compare our work to that of others who have been drawing longer than we have it seems hopeless. “How could I ever make something that good?” When this voice grows, it can silence our work, make us put down the brush, and quit doing what we aspire to do.

There is a place for self-regulation and the voice of the critic but most often it just stands in the way of letting us draw and paint freely. Oddly it is by making lots of pictures that results in making beautiful ones. The only way to get there is to paint the next one, and then the next (see previous post Quantity, not quality).

Be gentle with yourself. Do not beat yourself up either because a drawing does not look good, or because you are having an inner critic moment. The act of creativity and making art are good in themselves. It takes courage to put brush or pencil to paper. By making yourself vulnerable like this, you make yourself a better person and make the world a more beautiful place. I draw to help me observe that which I would otherwise miss, to help me remember beauty that I would otherwise forget, and to help me wonder things that I would otherwise take for granted. This is the root of why I make art. Each drawing is not an end in itself but a stepping stone on a journey deeper into this beautiful world.

Here is a process you might try when you feel that voice inside saying that you are not good enough, to help you return to your work in peace.

  1.  Drop your shoulders, unclench your jaw, relax your hands, close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breath. Follow your breath with a relaxed smile on your lips for four or five cycles. When you feel ready, open your eyes.
  2. Remind yourself that each drawing is practice for the next. Find the best part of your drawing? What can you learn from it? How will you take that into the next drawing? Find the part of the drawing that was the most fun to do. Why?
  3. Notice what did not work on this drawing. Be as specific as possible. Don’t say, “this part looks terrible”, rather, “the shape of the eye gave me difficulty and I ended up overworking it so now it is really dark and still does not feel right”.
  4. You now have a specific lesson that you can work on. “I need to look at eyes more carefully and perhaps study the way others have handled this problem.” You have turned a general feeling of angst into a project.
  5. Remind yourself of the roots of why you draw. Stand up and stretch, make a cup of tea or fill the bird bath, and return to the practice when you feel ready.

Every failure can be reinvented as a lesson if we are willing to sit with it and listen. You are not alone in any of this. Everyone faces these feeling on a regular basis. Keep going. More important than any product or drawing we make is this process of creativity, observation, appreciation, and wonder.

How to Paint a Donkey
By Naomi Shihab Nye

She said the head was too large,
the hooves too small.

I could clean my paintbrush
but I couldn’t get rid of that voice.

While they watched,
I crumpled him,

let his blue body
stain my hand.

I cried when he hit the can.
She smiled. I could try again.

Maybe this is what I unfold in the dark,
deciding, for the rest of my life,

that donkey was just the right size.

How to draw a dragonfly: Flame Skimmer

Learn how to draw the transparent wings of a dragonfly in this step-by-step demonstration.

Drawing glossy transparent wings is challenging. By using this bag of tricks you will be able to suggest transparency in your drawings. Here are points to consider.

  1. Which of these two diagrams does the best job of suggesting transparency? Why?

    Which of these two diagrams does the best job of suggesting transparency? Why?

    Lines should be lighter when seen through the transparent membrane.

  2. Use less detail on parts seen through the membrane.
  3. Colors behind the membrane will be less vivid and values will be lighter.
  4. Reflections on the surface of the wing should cross over features that are seen below so that it is clear that the reflections are on the membrane, not the surface below.
  5. Consider a little highlight along the edge of the membrane surface.
  6. A membrane may block or partially block reflections from the surface below

Click on the first image below to start a step-by-step slide show. Let’s draw a dragonfly!