Colored Pencil Demo: Red Pepper—Part 1

March 5, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk on colored pencils to the University of Minnesota Women’s Club. The women were very welcoming, very attentive, and someone in their membership makes ridiculously delicious brownies. (Thankfully they pushed two of them on me!)

One of the samples I took to show them was a drawing of a red bell pepper on Museum Grade Wallis Paper. (Wallis Paper is a wonderful pastel paper that is coated with an acrylic primer which contains grit. This creates a great surface for grabbing pastel pigment and holding it. But it is also a fun paper to use for colored pencil if you don’t mind the voracious quality of the paper as it eats your pencils and if you pay attention to a couple other foibles.) We ran out of time at the meeting (they would ask questions and I would digress!) and so I thought it would be fun to post the process here.

The following images show the steps in building a colored pencil sketch on Wallis Paper. This drawing was done as a class demo in one of my advanced colored pencil classes (where I deal with working on oddball types of surfaces). The demo was completed in under an hour, with breaks for questions, paint drying time, digressions. The finished artwork is approximately 7 x 5 inches.

Initial Sketch

Left: I began the class demo by placing my red pepper on the table, setting up an Ott light to cast some shadows and sketching a contour drawing of the pepper using a Golden Rod (yellow/orange) pencil. The drawing is sketched very lightly, just dark enough so you can see to work. The image has been darkened slightly so the drawing outlines are more visible on the computer.

All pencils used in this demonstration were Prismacolor brand.

I use a number of different brands (beginning with Derwents as a child in Australia), and there is a long history as to why. I teach with Prismacolors because they have many excellent qualities and are readily available in the U.S., often for great discounts (which really does matter to students trying out a new medium). Prismacolors also are adaptable to the whole variety of techniques I like to demonstrate. They yield excellent results for the students, regardless of skill level. During the course I expose the students to other brands so that they can compare differences and choose a brand which works in a way suitable to their emerging styles. I want my students to understand what I do so they can go where they want to go artistically.

I sketch with very sharp pencils on Wallis paper because the paper eats the pencil so quickly, and because I want only a light guide line, easier to manage with a sharp pencil.

I selected Golden Rod for my sketch because I wanted a color that I could cover easily with the other warm colors I was going to place on top of it. I am not concerned, when making this sketch, with details. I want to know shapes, areas, places where values will change. I draw directly on Wallis Paper with the Golden Rod pencil and no pre-sketching (I don’t like to mix graphite and colored pencil). I prefer to draw from life with the object in front of me and that's what I did for this demo.

I don’t worry about erasing, as it really isn’t possible on this paper (you’ll just gum up the surface and perhaps leave a residue that will repel the paint in the next step). If colored pencil pigment is deposited within the image area it will easily be buried by future layers of pencil work. If stray pigment is outside the image area, e.g., stray lines that would just be left “hanging,” you can leave them and enjoy them as the marks you made to find your way; you can alter your drawing to enclose them (after all you’re going to eat the pepper when you finish your drawing so who’s to say it wasn’t bulging like that?); or you can gently lift the pigment by pouncing the area (lightly pressing it) with a CLEAN kneadable eraser or a bit of low tack masking tape.

As you draw, take care not to get pigment drifting across your surface. Remove it immediately from any area you want to stay untouched, by using a clean kneadable eraser or low tack masking tape. Don't swipe at it with your hand as you might push down and cause it to streak across the paper leaving a blemish that is hard to remove.

Keep a clean sheet of bond paper or other scrap paper between your hand and the paper surface (checking when you move the sheet that you aren’t dragging pigment around) or use an acrylic bridge to work from, thus suspending your hand over the paper’s surface. (Oil from you hand will change the working properties of your paper’s surface.) I will often wear a light cotton glove (fingertips cut off) of the type photographers use to handle photos.

Laying in the Underpainting

Left: I created an underpainting for my drawing using gouache (
Schmincke Horadam and M. Graham brands), loosely following the Golden Rod outlines. Click on the image to see and enlargement.

Because time is money, and because with Wallis Paper and colored pencils you don’t have the layering range that you do with some regular art papers, it’s important to build a good foundation for your drawing right away. I use Schmincke Horadam Gouache and M. Graham Gouache (labeled M below) to paint a quick base layer and save time.

In this drawing I used Pyrrol Red (M), Cadmium Orange, Sap Green (M), Aso Yellow (M), Purple Magenta, Dark Indigo (my favorite PB60), and English Red (on the stem).

Don’t worry about painting a detailed underpainting; don’t worry about your washes overlapping or blending. As you work on paintings like this you’ll have a feel for how much you want to let things blend, and where you want them to blend. With that in mind, as you start to paint, work on isolated areas that you want to dry,  move to another isolated area, etc.. Don’t return to painted areas until the paint on the paper is of the dryness you need for no or some blending. Experience will help you judge this.

I recommend that you work with a liquid wash that is not watery in color, just very fluid pigment. Let the wash puddle about your piece; push it around more than brush it on. You might try using clear water to pre-wet an area and then charge that wet surface with pigment from the tip of your brush. Play with it.

In the above image of the underpainting you'll see that I added magenta in at the butt end of the pepper while the red paint was still wet. The magenta under the stem, defining the crease was added as that red paint had started to dry so there would be more definition and less blending. The red areas were allowed to dry near the stem before the stem underpainting was painted.

Left: As you can see in a detail of the underpainting, some washes overlap creating hard edges, see near the base of the stem where the stem meets the red of the pepper. Don’t worry about these harsh edges as your pencil work will cover them. Don’t worry if some of your original sketch is “hanging outside” of the paint as you see on the stem tip. DO make an effort to differentiate areas of color shift that will make your life easier later such as the color changes on the stem.

I tend to count on no more than three layers of pencil when I work on a drawing on Wallis. Do I want to build up a brown stem area on a green underpainting or on a red earth one? Which will be easiest? Which will accomplish the color blending and juxtapositions that will fool the eye into thinking this is a dimensional piece of fruit? All of these are decisions you need to make before you put any paint on the Wallis Paper.

Note that you can use acrylic paints or inks on the Wallis Paper as well. I recommend fluid acrylics if you do this so you don’t clog the tooth, of the gritty primer that is the beauty of the Wallis Paper surface, with heavy bodied paint which isn’t going to like colored pencil.

I prefer to use watercolors or gouache. I don’t need the paint to be waterproof because my colored pencil layer isn’t going involve liquid in the application. I like Schmincke and M. Graham Gouaches because they are richly pigmented with no opacifiers which dull the paint. I can get beautiful rich washes with these paints.  Also they don’t clog the texture of the paper. And most important, colored pencil loves to work over the surface of gouache!

Painting tip: Just be aware when painting on this surface that your brush may get caught on the grit and you might fling a bit of paint across your surface. I'm talking about something very subtle here, a sort of skipping and spluttering. Just be aware of it, as paint splats, even small ones, are a pain to clean up in unpainted areas. Practice making some strokes and flowing the paint from brush to paper on a sample sheet of Wallis before you you work on your actual piece. Different brushes will respond differently to the paper's gritty surface. Also note that the surface tension of your wash might get "caught" on the pigment and when it "bursts" you might be left with small white speckles where the color didn't reach. You'll get a feel for addressing this issue the more you use the paper.

With watercolor or gouache you can also LIFT OUT highlights if you happen to paint over them. This is another virtue of Wallis Paper. The acrylic based primer used on this paper is really tough and loves to be attacked by any technique you want to throw at it. Scrubbing away a little bit of watersoluble paint is almost child’s play (except of course when it is a staining pigment in the middle of a white passage!).

Simply wet the area you want to bring back to the white of the paper and dab with a strong (I like Bounty) paper towel. (You have to use a strong paper towel here folks or you’ll end up with dissolved paper towel fibers all over your drawing. Sometimes there are reasons to be brand loyal!)

If all the color doesn’t come off in one go you can repeat the process. If you used a staining watercolor or gouache you can resort to a damp bristle brush like a Creative Mark “Scrubber” brush, available in various sizes. A damp brush for this purpose is a brush that is wet, squeezed out on your towel, and no longer moist and running with water, but simply damp, i.e. really squeezed out so that it almost seems dry but you know it's damp because it is cool to the touch.

Speaking of brushes: Don’t use your good sable or even your good synthetic brushes when painting underpaintings on Wallis Paper. The grit on the surface wears down the fibers and hairs of the brush and they will have a shorter life. Use less expensive brushes for this task.

The hardest task, once you have completed the underpainting, is waiting for it to dry completely. You don’t want to work into the underpainting when it is wet, it’s fruitless. It won’t hurt the Wallis Paper in the way similar actions would destroy “regular,” unprimed papers, but it’s just not going to take the pigment from the colored pencils.

If you can’t wait, or are doing a demonstration as I was, you can zap the underpainting with a hair dryer. (If you use a heat gun be careful. I worry about what might happen to the acrylic primer with the high heat, so keep moving the heat gun!) Don’t worry that the hair dryer is going to give you a different look than the one you’ll get if the paint dries naturally. Sure there are times this might matter, but in most instances you’re going to be covering the paint so well no one will know. You’ll get a feel for when you can’t use a dryer over time, or when you see your paint start to blend in such a cool way that you know you are not going to cover that area with pencil!

Time to Take a Break
Since this is turning into a lengthy post I’m going to stop here, at the drying paint stage. Come back tomorrow and see what happens. Better yet, go get some Wallis Paper (in the Twin Cities Wet Paint carries it in single sheets and pads) and sketch and paint up to this point. Pick a subject that you can have around for a couple days (or refridgerate). Or if you don’t want to work on Wallis Paper take out a sheet of hot press watercolor paper (Fabriano Artistico, TH Saunders Waterford, even Lana Aquarelle, but not Arches as the intense sizing is something you don't need your first time out and can learn to deal with later) and work to this point.

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