black paper + black ink = color pop

Little Bird Illustration by Ruby Charm Colors ((c) by Susan Carlson, 2017)

“How did you get those colors to pop like that?” Ive been asked that question countless times, and I can say in all honesty that it’s not so much my skills as an artist, but my willingness to experiment with different colors and pencil brands.

While putting my first coloring book together this past July, I purchased a few packages of tinted card stock from Michaels (the “Recollections” brand) so I could include a few of my illustrations on pale blue and brown paper. It was an experiment inspired by an drawing I did of a Lion Fish since, yep, the ocean is blue. Some of the packages I bought included sheets of darker charcoal and black card stock. When I had a little time to color, I printed my Little Bird design on charcoal just to see how it would look. And wow was it fun to color!

I posted my work in progress on Instagram and my followers seemed to love it, too. They inspired me to keep going, and I eventually created a Black Magic coloring book. I knew I would not sell a lot of copies (especially early on), but I wanted to make it available to those brave enough to try–and there are some courageous souls out there from the US and Canada to Germany, France and Malaysia. (And it’s pretty cool to know my illustrations are being colored around the world.)

It took a little experimenting, but I found that certain pencil brands and colors worked better on darker papers than others. For Little Bird, for example, I used mostly Prismacolor and Faber-Castell Polychromos. A light layer of Prismacolor Light Aqua allowed me to build up a few darker shades on the body and wings, like Prismacolor Aquamarine, Electric Blue, Peacock Blue and Indigo mixed with Polychromos Prussian Blue, and Cobalt Turquoise. I also mixed in several green, French grey and brown hues.

The white pencil from the Caran d’Ache Luminance series (and no, I can’t afford the entire set, sadly) is one of my favorite, most used pencils. As with most of my pencils, I order them from Blick individually as needed and usually keep a few sharpened and easy to grab on my desk. They work very well to “pull up” or lighten areas I want highlighted, and they also work well to blend colors (but with a whitish cast).

If I don’t want a whitish or chalky cast when I blend larger areas, I’ve found that my Irojiten pencils (which are fairly hard) work very well–especially if the color I choose is slightly darker (or lighter) than the colors I am trying to blend. Using similar shades can really saturate or intensify the colors, and if I color with a lot of pressure (but not enough to snap a pencil tip) the Irojitens work great as burnishers. And I adore the smoothness of the black Irojiten pencil (which I order individually through Blick) for working in shadowed areas.

The big take-away here is to experiment. And don’t be afraid to screw something up! It’s going to happen now and then, so just embrace your mistakes as opportunities to learn something new about the tools you are using and what it is you want out of your coloring.

I don’t typically plan out all the colors I want to use in a given piece, but I do have a “feel” for what I am going for overall. And I very rarely end up there because the colors sometimes make the choices for me as I work. But that’s okay! When I am using dark paper, I try the colors I want to use on a duplicate print out of my illustration on the same dark paper. If one brand of the color I want does not lay down enough color, or just doesn’t show up as well as I’d like it to, or looks crappy next to another hue, I try another brand or another shade. I don’t have as many colored pencils as many of my fans do, but I do experiment. A lot. My desk is littered with scraps of paper with little scribbles of color on them.

Another key to working with black ink on black (or dark) paper is to have really good lighting. I have a small OTT light and an older halogen light I keep on my desk. Both have bendable necks that I can twist to just the right angle to see my lines. The lines on the Little Bird illustration weren’t too hard to see, but on black paper (like the card stock I used for my Black Magic coloring book) the lines can be very challenging to see–especially for some of my more highly detailed designs. The coloring I started of Ruby Charm herself (below) was done on the same card stock I used in Black Magic and, as you can see, is quite dark. Using a white Verithin pencil to lightly trace over detailed lines that are difficult to see can help quite a bit. As you color, those white lines will be absorbed, so don’t worry.

Below Ruby Charm is a sea lion I colored on charcoal tinted card stock.

Ruby Charm (c) 2017 Susan Carlson, RubyCharmColors  Sea Lion Ruby Charm Colors (c) 2017 Susan Carlson

Finally, I add a lot of my smallest details with a fine-tipped black Faber-Castell PITT pen (to carefully emphasize some lines and dark areas, and a small collection of Sakura Soufflé gel pens for dots. I like the Soufflé pens because they are matte and photograph and scan better than metallics or glitter pens do. The beauty of purchasing, downloading and printing any artist’s coloring pages (I am a big fan of Etsy for this!) is that you have control over not only the paper quality (which is a huge issue for many colorists) but also the color or tint of the paper itself. And if you purchase pages through Etsy, you are directly supporting an artist!

If you have a computer and printer, all you need is a free version of Adobe Reader to download and print your files. Check your local craft and office supply stores to see what they carry in regard to card stock, and don’t be afraid to play around!

Coloring on darker papers can be very challenging, sometimes frustrating and time-consuming, but it can also be unusually rewarding.