Taking the first steps in color drawing

The Colored Pencil Course

Ebook On Drawing Pencil Portraits

Get Instant Access

Before you begin, please read all of the instructions.

I will use the Degas drawing on pink paper (Figure 11-6) as the basis for instructions, but please choose any subject that appeals to you: a group of objects for a still-life drawing, a person who will pose for a figure drawing or a portrait, another reproduction of a master drawing, a photograph that appeals to you, or a self-portrait (the artist always has one available model!).

1. Choose a sheet of colored paper, not necessarily pink.

2. The original Degas drawing measures 161/8 "x 11 1/4". Measure and lightly draw with pencil a format of that size.

3. Choose two colored pencils, one dark and one light, in colors you feel harmonize with the color of your paper.

Some suggestions on this point: If your paper is soft blue, for example, choose pencils of the opposite (that is, the complementary) hue — in this case, orange. Your choice, then, could be flesh (pale orange) and dark brown (which is actually a dark orange). If your paper is soft violet, your choices could be cream (pale yellow) and dark purple (or burnt umber, which has a slightly violet cast). Degas used "soft black graphite" (which has a slightly greenish cast) for his dark tones, which he accented with black crayon, and a cool white to complement his (warm) pink paper.

An aside

An important point: have confidence in your color choices! Guided by some basic L-mode knowledge of the structure of color (for example, the use of complements), your R-mode will know when color is right. Within the guidelines, follow your intuition. Try out the hues on the back of the paper. Then say to yourself, "Does that feel right?" and listen to what you feel. Don't argue with yourself—I should say, with your L-mode. We have limited your choices to three: the paper and two pencils. Given

The brain's "need" for the complement is most clearly demonstrated by the phenomenon called "afterimage," which is still not entirely understood.

To cause an after-image, color a circle of intense red about an inch or so in diameter. Make a tiny black dot in the center of the red. Make a similar dot in the center of a second, blank sheet of paper.

Holding the two sheets side-by-side, gaze at the red-hued circle for about a minute. Then quickly shift your gaze to the dot on the second, blank sheet. You will "see" the complement to red (green) emerge on the blank paper the same shape, the same size as the original red circle.

You can experiment with any hue, and your mind/brain/visual system will produce the exact complement of any hue. This is termed the negative after-image. Ifyou experiment with two hues, both complements will appear. In some instances, the original hue (called a positive after-image) will appear as an after-image, but in the negative spaces of the original shapes, which appear empty of color.

"Color can overwhelm_One must understand that when it comes to color less is often more— a lesson taught us by the masters but ignored by many artists."

How to Paint in Pastels, 1976

In his 1926 work, the color theorist Albert Munsell stressed the concept of balance to create color harmonies and established a numerical code which is still the most widely used system for identifying color.

Munsell recommended balancing hues with their complements, values with their opposite values, intensities with opposite intensities, areas of strong color balanced by weak (low-intensity) color, large areas balanced by small, warm colors balanced by cool colors.

— Albert Munsell

A Color Notation these limits, you are sure to produce harmonious color.

Bear in mind that color most often "goes wrong" when students without knowledge of color use too many hues. They often throw together a variety of hues, chosen at random from the color wheel. Such combinations are difficult—often impossible—to balance and unify, and even beginning students sense that something isn't working. This is the reason for limiting the palette in these first exercises to a few hues and their related lights and darks. And I encourage you to continue to limit your palette until you have wider experience with color.

Having said that, I will reverse the thought and suggest that at some point, you may want to go wild with color, throwing everything together to see what happens. Buy a sheet of brightly colored paper and use every color you have on it. Create discordant color. Then try to pull it together, perhaps with dark or dull colors. You may be able to make it work—or you may like it in its discordant state! Much of contemporary art uses discordant color in very inventive ways. Let me emphasize, however, that you should attempt discordant color by design and not by mistake. Your R-mode will always perceive the difference, perhaps not immediately, but over a period of time. Ugly color is not the same as discordant color. Discordant color is not the same as harmonious color. For these first exercises, we shall concentrate on creating harmonious color, because it more readily provides basic knowledge about color. Now, to continue:

4. Notice that Degas gridded his drawing with evenly spaced horizontal and vertical guide lines, just as he gridded his dancer without color on page 157. A grid with squares about 2 1/2" will be about right for the size of your format.

Try to follow Degas's thinking in his use of the grid: What points was he looking for? Note the obvious points of crossed grid lines at the elbow and at the dancer's right toe.

Start with the grid, using your dark-colored pencil to lightly draw the lines. Call up your new skills of drawing: edges, spaces, relationships of angles and proportions, and light logic. Use the grid as a boundary for the negative spaces around the head, arms, hands, and feet. Use negative space to draw the ballet shoes. Carefully work out the proportions of the head: Check the eye level and the central axis. Notice what a small proportion of the whole head is occupied by the features; do not enlarge these features! Check the position of the ear (review proportions in Chapter Eight, if necessary). Complete the "dark" drawing before starting on the "light."

5. Now, for the fun part—the heightening of the drawing. Heightening is the technical term that refers to the technique of using pale-colored chalk or pencil to depict light falling on a subject.

First, determine the logic of the light falling on the dancer. Where is the source of the light? As you can see, this light source is located just above the dancer and slightly off to her left. Light falls on her forehead and right cheek. Her head throws a shadow on her right shoulder, and the light streams across her left shoulder and falls on her chest and left breast. Bits of light fall on her left toe and right heel as well.

Now use your light-colored pencil to heighten the drawing. You may need to alternately use your dark pencil to deepen the shadow-shapes. Grasp with your mind that the middle tones are supplied by the value of the colored paper. Try to see the color of the paper as value. This is difficult. Imagine for a moment that the world has turned to shades of gray, as though twilight has fallen, draining color from your paper but leaving the value in the form of a gray. Where on a value scale would that gray be, relative to white and black? Then, relative to that value, where is the darkest dark in Degas's drawing? Where is the lightest light? Your task is to match these values in your drawing.

When you have finished: Pin your drawing to a wall, stand back, and enjoy your first small step into color. Some student drawings using colored pencil are shown in the color section. As you see, very few colors were used in each of the drawings. Student Thu Ha Huyung used the largest number of colors (four plus black and white) in her Girl in a Flowered Hat (Figure 11-22).

"To me, painting—all painting— is not so much the intelligent use of color as the intelligent use of value. If the values are right the color cannot help but be right."

How to Paint in Pastels, 1976

Based on his teaching at Yale University, the great colorist Josef Albers wrote that there are no rules of color harmony, only rules of relationships of quantity of colors:

"Independent of harmony rules, any color 'goes' or 'works' with any other color, presupposing that their quantities are appropriate."

—Josef Albers

The Interaction of Color, 1962

Another view on harmony in color:

"After learning to see color as value, the next step is learning to see color as color."

— Professor Don Dame California State University, Long Beach

A Heightened Self-Portrait

A wonderful example for this exercise is found in Figure 11-7, the self-portrait by the German artist Kathe Kollwitz.


1. Set up lights and a mirror. Arrange your drawing materials so that you can both draw and observe yourself.

2. Take the pose and spend a few moments studying the logic of the lights and shadows created by your lighting setup. Where is the lightest light? The darkest dark? Where are the cast shadows and the crest shadows? Where are the highlights and the reflected lights?

3. Lightly sketch your self-portrait on colored paper, checking the proportions carefully.

4. Quickly paint in the negative space, using black ink thinned slightly with water and a fairly large brush (a one-inch-wide housepainter's brush will do, with ink poured in a small bowl).

5. Use a dark colored pencil to define features and shadows.

6. Use a white or cream pencil to heighten the drawing, using hatches that follow the curves of your face and features.

The colors she used were canary yellow and ultramarine blue (near complements), magenta and dark green (near complements), and black and white (opposites).

Thu Ha's color is harmonious because it is balanced and colors are repeated from area to area. (See Josef Albers's statement in the margin of page 239.) The pale magenta of the lips is repeated in the pink flower. The green of the leaves reappears in the hair. The blue of the blouse reappears in the eyes and hat. The black is used for the shadow-shapes, and the white heightens the lights. And, finally, the yellow of the hair is a lighter value of the ochre paper that forms the ground and middle value.

If you haven't yet tried a colored-pencil portrait on a colored ground, I urge you to find a model or to draw a self-portrait, following the suggestions in the margin. Because the colored ground so beautifully supplies the middle-value tones, you are sure to enjoy this project. With the middle-value ground in place, it almost seems that the drawing is half-complete before you start. Recall that in Chapter Ten your rubbed-graphite ground supplied the middle-value tones, the eraser provided the lights, and the darkest dark of your pencil supplied the dark shadows. The transition from that drawing to drawing in color on a colored ground is a very short step.

Another project: An ugly corner as city scape

You might also enjoy trying a cityscape similar to the student drawing The Arrow Hotel in Figure 11-24. This drawing was the result of an assignment to my students to "Go out and find a truly ugly corner." (Regrettably, ugly corners are all too easy to find in most of our cities.) Using the perceptual skills of seeing edges, spaces, and relationships of angles and proportions, students were directed to draw exactly what they saw—including signs, lettering, everything — placing great emphasis on negative space. The project was completed by following the directions for the cityscape provided below.

I believe you'll agree that ugliness was transformed into something approaching beauty in the student's drawing. This is another instance of the transformative power of the artist's way of seeing. One of the great paradoxes of art is that subject matter is not of prime importance in creating beauty. Directions for the cityscape:

1. Find your corner, the uglier the better.

2. Sit in your car to do the drawing, or use a folding stool to sit on the sidewalk.

3. You will need an 18" x 24" board to draw on, and an 18" x 24" piece of ordinary white paper. Draw a format edge about an inch in from the edges of the paper. Use a pencil to draw the cityscape. A viewfinder and a transparent grid will help in sighting angles and proportions.

4. Use negative space almost exclusively to construct the drawing. All details, such as telephone lines, lettering, street signs, and girders, are to be drawn in negative space. This is the key to success in this drawing. (But that is true for almost every bit of drawing that you do!) Remember that negative space, clearly observed and drawn, reminds the viewer of that for which we all long—unity, the most basic requirement of a work of art.

5. When you have finished the drawing, return home and choose a piece of 18" x 24" colored paper or colored cardboard. Transfer your on-site drawing to the colored paper, using carbon paper or graphite transfer paper, available in art supply stores. Be sure to transfer your format edge to the colored ground.

6. If you want to try a simple complementary arrangement as used in The Arrow Hotel, choose two colored pencils that harmonize with your paper, one dark and one light. The Arrow Hotel provides a satisfying color scheme because the color is balanced: the yellow-green of the paper is balanced by the dark, dull red-violet pencil, and the light tones are supplied by the cream-colored pencil, which relates to the yellow-green ground and acts as a near-complement to the red-violet.

About cityscapes, American abstract artist Stuart Davis said:

"I am an American, born in Philadelphia of American stock. I paint what I see in America.

"Some things that have made me want to paint... skyscraper architecture, the brilliant color of gasoline stations; chain store fronts and taxi-cabs; electric signs ... Earl Hines' hot piano and jazz music in general."

A half-serious caution: If you draw in a public place, you will soon be besieged by spectators wondering what in the world you are draw-ing—and why. I can't help you with this problem.

One thing is certain: A lonely person need only to start drawing in public places to be lonely no more.

Because most people believe they prefer bright colors, the following is a difficult concept to grasp:

Just as negative spaces are equally important as objects, dull colors (low-intensity colors) are equally important as bright (high-intensity) colors.

The simplest way to reduce the intensity of a given hue is to add a neutral gray or black. This method, however, often seems to drain color from a hue in the same way that twilight dims and weakens colors.

A second way is to mix a color with some of its complementary hue. This method seems to leave the color unabated, and richly, strongly dull—not weakly dull. Low-intensity hues mixed this way greatly assist in harmonizing color schemes.

Believing that the second way is preferable, my friend and colleague Professor Don Dame, an expert colorist, frequently refuses to allow his students to even buy black.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
The Power Of The Present Moment

The Power Of The Present Moment

It's important to learn about awakening out of the egoic brain and living in the here and now. This book is intended to assist you do just that. The chapters are reminders that may be read in any order. We all need reminders to be more present in our lives to our true experience and brush aside what is damaging and takes away from real happiness, which is the chattering of the egoic mind.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment