Ruby Charm is a character from a children’s book I started writing and illustrating years ago. I have yet to finish the book, but different versions of Ruby are taped to my wall (and sometimes fall out of folders) in my office/studio.
Ruby was inspired by an eerily beautiful, old Javanese Wayang Golek rod puppet that my husband gave me for Christmas back in 2000. We found her in an antique store in the Eastern Market in Detroit, but I could not afford to spend what little money I had at the time on a puppet. Months later, when we got up Christmas morning, she was propped up under our Christmas tree. I am still touched by my husband’s thoughtfulness.
The puppet has been perched high on a shelf overlooking my room ever since. She is quite old. Her clothing is fragile and faded and the paint on her face is chipped, but I think she is stunning. Almost magical. So it seems fitting for Ruby Charm to be my mascot–a pseudonym for creative projects moving forward.
The original Wayang Golek puppet that inspired Ruby Charm and a recent rendition of her.
Once I have an illustration completed, I print out a few copies including one on card stock so that I can test out its “colorability” and have a little fun. I try to image people with different skill levels and how they may (or may not) struggle with some of the tiny spaces, the daunting larger spaces, and whether or not the lines are too think or thin. I also want to see how the illustration will look once it is colored.
I found that I really enjoy working with watercolor pencils. My daughter has a gorgeous set of Copic markers, and though I am temped to use them, I always grab my watercolor pencils. My favorites are those made by Caran D’Ache (the Museum Aquarelle series), Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Durer pencils, Prismacolor, Derwent (including the Inktense line), and last but certainly not least, what’s left of the old set of Staedtler Aquarelle watercolor pencils I picked up in South Africa back in the 80s. The Staedtler’s chronicled my time in the Kalahari (but that’s a story for another time).
Insect illustration with watercolor pencils, swatches, and a water brush
What I like about watercolor pencils is their versatility and ability to blend and layer color. I recently started using Pentel Aquash and Kurtake water brushes and plan to order a few others (including the new Derwent water brushes) to see which work best for me. It seems that many brands (like Jim Holtz, Mudder, Ohuhu, etc.) seem to be made by the same manufacturer (then branded out from there) but I am not sure.
At any rate, the water brushes work well for me and there is a high level of control when using water to blend colors. The paper I print my illustrations on (currently Georgia-Pacific Image Plus premium 110 lb card stock) does not become too saturated, and I can work in some pretty tight spaces. Blending larger spaces is a little more challenging, but if I saturate my brush with a little pigment and use that to blend what I’ve already colored, I can achieve decent coverage over larger areas.
I also find that going over areas I have used watercolor pigments with colored pencils helps me add more depth and more refined detail. I use a variety of brands when it comes to colored pencils. Prismacolor Premiers are a solid go-to, and I really love Faber-Castell’s Polychromos pencils. Bruynseel pencils lay down a nice rich coat of colors as do the Caran d’Ache Pablo and Luminance pencils. They are divine! For final layers (and sharper detail work) I rely on the Tombow Irojiten, Prismacolor Verithin, and Derwent Studio colored pencils. They are a little harder but help set my final layers. I do not own full sets of any of these pencils but instead, pick them up in stores when a certain color catches my eye, or I order them through Blick as needed.
Is anyone else in love with the Caran d’Ache white Luminance pencil? I don’t think I could live without it when it comes to highlights. Does anyone have a white pencil that works better? I’d love to know, and am always interested in trying new brands.
A few other favorite tools? I can’t be without my set of Isograph technical pens and pencils, and my small ring binder jammed full of color swatches in various groupings. I keep adding to the swatch mayhem. Vellum and Bristol paper, watercolor paper, Faber-Castell PITT pens and Sakura Micron pens (they seem to be all over the house), tape (any and all kinds–and that goes for erasures, too) and a few Ott-Lite lamps. And I have become attached to the pencil case I ordered to replace all the tin boxes my pencils originally came in. Love the tin boxes, but I’m more organized now and there is less clanging around and spillage. If you have kids, pets, and are prone to clumsiness, you know what I am talking about.
When I started illustrating again, I sketched out my ideas in pencil–usually on vellum–then transferred them onto heavier paper (Strathmore’s 300 Series Bristol). I used a Huion light board to ink my designs with Rotring Isograph and Sakura micron pens and hoped for no shaky hands, big mistakes or ink malfunctions. My goal was to keep my lines crisp and fluid.
Iterations of a horse: pencil sketch on vellum, India ink illustration, then watercolor pencil
Once I completed an illustration with black ink, I would scan it into my Mac with an Epson Stylus NX625. I spent a lot of time reading articles about how to get the cleanest scan possible and a lot of time fiddling with my scanner settings. Sometimes I got lucky. But more often than not, I had to pull an illustration into Photoshop to further clean it up. In addition to futzing with brightness and contrast adjustments, it also meant using my old Wacom Bamboo tablet and stylus to edit out mysterious shadows and the lines that were botched or strayed off course.
When I bought the Bamboo (a damn long time ago) it was pretty cool. A huge leap from zooming in and cleaning up individual pixels via incessantly clicking my mouse to being able to hold a pen and “draw” on the screen. But it was still awkward and I felt really detached–like I wasn’t really drawing. I could never seem to find a comfortable position for my hand, the pen, the orientation of the tablet to my screen . . . and there was all this space between me and the monitor. And a cord that always seemed to be in the way. It did not feel natural. At all.
Knowing full well I could ever afford one, I researched my dream tablet: the Wacom Cintiq line of “creative pen displays.” These tablets looked amazing and I loved everything they had to offer–except the price. And then someone told me about the iPad Pro and its capabilities with the Apple Pencil. I was skeptical, but it was a far less expensive option than the Cintiq. I eventually had a chance to play around with an iPad Pro at a store, and an hour later I caved and bought the big one. When I got home, I downloaded the Procreate app and charged up my newfangled pencil.
It took very little time to switch from using Photoshop on my Mac (which I have used for over fifteen years) to Procreate, and within a few days, I was flying.
Drawing on the glass screen with the Apple pencil is direct, immediate–so fluid and forgiving. And so much fun! I can use as many layers as I need to sketch out my ideas, resize and move individual pieces around, and use a top layer to complete my final black line illustrations. It is super easy to export illustrations to the cloud so I can pick them up on my Mac in Photoshop, Illustrator or Fireworks for final sizing, printing, creating digital pieces for social media, and backup storage.
My work process has become so much more organized and streamlined, and I can carry my digital sketchbook wherever I go. Moving to the iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil has truly been a game-changer, and now I can spend more time focusing on my designs and less time coaxing antiquated technology to do what I need it to do.
Sometimes, art takes precedence. Or maybe it should more often.
And if it is not art, then maybe it is cooking, playing an instrument, carpentry, gardening, photography, or some other creative endeavor. Something tactile, something you have a passion for. Something you actively create.
I grew up with family who nurtured my creativity–making sure I had plenty of sketchbooks, pencils, brushes and paint. Nothing fancy or expensive, but they always had encouraging words when I showed them my newest work. I studied illustration and graphic design in college, but later switched to English as my major and went on for my Master’s in English.
I recently picked up my pencils and started drawing again–pulling from the smaller pieces I have done here and there and incorporating some of them with new designs. Most of these older pieces were incomplete due to being pulled away to take care of a marriage and a son, a daughter and various career choices. No regrets, but a new promise to myself to focus on a series of drawings for a simple coloring book. It’s been on the proverbial back-burner for too long. We’ll see where it goes from here.