Butterfly with Botanical Spheres

This week, I finally completed a color-test of my latest illustration for a new adult coloring book in the works and wanted to share my approach, tools and tips. I learned a few things about my process during this piece—things some of you more experienced colorists probably already know—but I thought they would be worth mentioning. The illustration took approximately 15 hours to draw, and probably about the same to color. It is 7×10 inches and the black and white line version is currently available on Etsy.

Butterfly with Botanical Spheres © 2018 by Susan Carlson

Butterfly with Botanical Spheres © 2018 by Susan Carlson

The butterfly is based on a pencil sketch I did a few years ago. I pulled it into Procreate and used layers to create a clean black and white line drawing, then added in the spheres, leaf vines, and two other butterflies. I drew one sphere and duplicated it three times, resizing and rotating each layer until I was happy with the composition.

When I save a digital file for future listing in my Etsy shop, I always create two images: one with pure black lines, and then another with lines that have reduced opacity to about 40-50%. I am starting to prefer coloring on the grey-line versions of my work because it allows me to focus more on hue and shape instead those black lines. I can then go back and darken or add lines where I would like to emphasize them.

I print my illustrations on card stock (in this case, it was Neenah Exact Index, 110 lb) with my Epson Stylus NX625 printer, and for the butterfly, I chose the grey-line version from the PDF.

My working space

My working space

I have a few hard artist boards I use to draw and color on because they provide a firm, smooth surface, and are easy to move around my desk (and off my desk if I need the space for something else). I also use an OTT Lite above my workspace as well as a small halogen desk lamp with a goose-neck. I also have another OTT light I can pull in if needed. Until I can get bionic eyes, I need to work fairly close to my illustrations. It’s frustrating sometimes, but being able to adjust the angle of my lighting helps.


My small desk area gets pretty messy while I am working.and I only clean up once a project is finished. I store all my pencils in BTSKY and Soucolor cases (which I found on Amazon) and organize them by color and brand and pull them out as needed. The reason I organize them by brand is because they behave a little differently on paper and I want to see my color options for a given need in one place. But more on that in a minute.

My working space - Ruby Charm Colors

Even though the pallet appears to be somewhat limited for this particular illustration, I used many different pencils—brands as well as colors. I wanted to work purples and greens into the spheres, and over time, the colors sort of started dictating themselves. I sometimes have a loose color plan going in, but I don’t always stick to it. I admire colorists who can stick to a specific pallet—especially if it is a limited pallet. I’ve yet to try.


I usually start with the Caran d’Ache Luminance, Pablo, Prismacolor and Polychromos pencils, They provide a nice, soft base of color to build upon. I wish I could say I have one method I always follow but I don’t when it comes to blending. Sometimes I work from darker colors to lighter, sometimes lighter to dark. And I sometimes start wth my mid-tones and work out from there. My favorite pencil for lightening areas and adding highlights is the Luminance white pencil. I’ve used a variety of brands, and this one has become my go-to. It effectively blends underlying colors, but lays down white pigment more effectively than my other white pencils.

With the purple triangular areas for my spheres, I put down a very light layer of Prismacolor Parma violet from the points to about 3/4 of the way down the triangle shape. Then I used Black Cherry from the base (with a heavier hand but decreasing pressure back up to the point. Bistre (#179), one of my favorite Polychromos pencils, was then used to blend the Black Cherry and Parma together from the point about halfway down. The brown really warmed up the violet hues. I blended a little more with those base colors, then used my black Irojiten pencil to deepen the shadows at the base of the triangles. And added a touch of Irojiten Crimson to the tips. Finally, I finished off the triangles with a mix of Irojiten Iris, Plum and Crocus to burnish and seal my colors.

I tend to work with a lot of layers – maybe too many – and I also feel the need to practically push my colors right into the paper. I don’t necessarily recommend this practice (I am not a colored pencil expert) – it’s simply the way I work to get the effects I want. And I experiment a lot and may change my ways over time. But for now, I like to burnish my colors with a final layer using the Irojiten pencils. Because they are harder than most pencils (especially the Prismacolors and Polychromos) they help “press” or “melt” the pigments into one another. Burnishing is typical done with a colorless blender (like the Caran d’Ache full blender) but I discovered I like using the Irojitens instead. The provide a touch of pigment in addition to burnished results and add a little more saturation and depth to my work. You have to choose your colors carefully, but it works for me. So with the purple triangles, using  the Plum Irojiten gives a little more reddish saturation to the violets, while the Iris plus in a little more blue. Since Crocus is rather light, it works well as an overall blender with this set of colors.

Another tip with the Irojiten pencils – using Eggshell (which has a very pale yellow tint) is wonderful for burnishing greens. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these lovely wax-based pencils if you own a set. It seems people either love them or hate them, but do give them a chance. Play with your colors on scrap pieces of paper while working to see how different tints will react to your base layers. I purchase my Irojiten pencils through Blick as they have both sets and open stock as well. Since I use black and eggshell the most, I can easily purchase individual pencils.

Another reason I love the Irojitens is that they help give a little sheen to my work and they get rid of any small white spots that may have been left behind from my pencils skipping over minute “pits” that may exist in the paper.

My final step after burnishing (and sometimes during) is using my Verithin pencils (which have a fine, hard point) to sharpen and enhance some of my lines and refine shapes. Sometimes I’ll use a Faber-Castell PITT pen to add darker lines and details as well, plus a few gel pens to add small dots and other embellishments. I prefer matte over metallic Sakura gel pens (because they don’t reflect as much when I scan or photograph my work for other uses) and have a set of Soufflé pens.


That’s about all for now! Feel free to bookmark or follow my blog as I plan to start adding videos as time allows.

Thanks, and happy coloring!