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!



Drawing foreshortened insects: Seven-spotted Ladybug

Learn how to draw a foreshortened ladybug in a step-by-step demonstration.

Drawing insects from the top view is useful for identification but may lack dynamic interest. Three quarter views of insects show the height and form in ways you can not show from above. Visualizing the way that straight lines wrap around rounded forms is very helpful in drawing these angles. See the previous post for more details on this technique.

Click on the first image to begin a step-by-step sideshow of how to draw a foreshortened ladybug.


How do straight lines curve on a rounded surface?

Straight lines appear to curve on a rounded surface. Practice seeing and drawing these lines will greatly improve your ability to draw what you see.

Latitude and longitude lines on tilted ovals

Print out the latitude and longitude lines in the figure at the right. Trace over these lines about ten times then draw them free hand. As you trace, do not just make the line, but visualize the shape as a three-dimensional form. This process will kinesthetically add these curves to your drawing repertoire. You are training your internal pattern recognition system to see these curves . Use these lines to block in the patterns and shapes you observe and to help you in drawing curved lines you see in nature.

How to Draw Insects: Video Workshop

Insects are a delight to study and observe. Learn the basics of insect illustration in this video workshop.

This workshop introduces you to the basics of how to draw insects including anatomy, the most common mistakes made by artists drawing insects, the eight most common orders of insects, and details to watch for as you draw them. Discover how to make insect look dull, shiny, or iridescent.