Sketching with Colored Pencils: Why Blue?

September 8, 2009


Above: Pig sketch from my second trip to the 2009 Minnesota State fair. (Yes there is a faint outline of his shadow on the wall. I didn't know if I would have time to paint in the background or not; but this shadow isn't to be confused with the restated tail—it had to be moved up higher on the butt to give roundness to the ham.) Faber-Castell
Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils used dry on a 9 x 7 inch card of
Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. HP Watercolor paper. Notes written with a
Staedtler Pigment Liner 0.3.

After warming up on with some gesture sketches of pigs (see yesterday's post) I had a very pleasant talk with the owner of this pig. We talked about her husband's love of pig breeding and showing. She laughed saying, "There are worse things—race cars, dangerous things…I only wish my husband had a laundry at the farm so he wouldn't bring those clothes home."  (From that we can assume that they have a hobby farm.)

But I digress, blue pencils, why am I sketching with a blue pencil? Well I don't like to use black colored pencils at all (either wax or watersoluble). And I love Indanthrene Blue (which is the color of the pencil used above—remember PB60?) It seems a natural choice for me. When working with wax based pencils I can use it to create a grisaille; when working with watersoluble colored pencils I can use it to quickly blend shadow areas depending on the color choice I layer with it. Bottom line I just like the way it looks on the paper. I prefer it to a warm or cool gray. If I add other colors on top of it I get blending possibilities the grays don't offer me.

In addition, when I am doing quick sketches like the ones I did at this year's State Fair, I typically don't work with naturalistic colors. I prefer to work with several analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel) and perhaps one pencil that is a complementary color to other of the others.

One of my favorite selections to use is indanthrene blue, cobalt blue, and blue violet. If I need something really dark I can go in with a bit of dark indigo. Another approach I like is indanthrene blue, blue violet, and magenta. 

If I want to go the complementary color route I'll use dark cadmium orange or burnt sienna with the blues. Sometimes I'll use a near complement—there are several earthtone reds that make dark, neutralized purples when mixed with the blues.

Note: all the color names used in this post refer to Faber-Castell Albrecht Dürer Watercolor Pencils.

For me the point in sketching like this is to observe the details that interest me and look at light and shadow, without looking at local color. Of if I do look at it, as in the case of some of my chicken sketches, it's because red on a chicken, is a crucial color. I do feel compelled most times to add it in. If I sketched only with my red pencils I wouldn't get dark values I want.

Working with the indanthrene blue pencil like this also allows me to work up a pencil drawing to a more finished state, if I choose to do that. I don't have to worry about the presence of the blue pencil because I can make it work with what will be added later. (In the State Fair Sketches there is no "later.")

All artists have an affinity with certain pigments. Look at an artist's work over time and you'll see him returning to the same complementary pair, the same triad. Later in his career you might see an artist drastically change, or just make gradual shifts. But there are always favorites, standbys, those colors that work for him, which he uses.

If you don't know which colors are your workhorses, go on a sketching expedition to find them. Sketch the same item monochromatically several times, each time using a different color. Maybe you have a red pencil that will do the trick for you. Maybe you will find that a cool gray captures the look you want. Next, pick your favorite monochromatic sketch and using the same base pencil, select two analogous colors to use when you sketch the item again. Does it still work for you?

You'll never find these things out unless you put your pencils to paper. Happy expedition of discovery.

  1. Reply

    Your drawings are truly amazing!

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