“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.
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.
I’ve had a number of people ask about my coloring process, and now that my RubyCharmColors Etsy shop is up and running, I have a little time to devote to a new post.
I basically follow a two-step process. First I use watercolor pencils (and blending with a water brush)–and then step two–light layers of regular colored pencils on top of the watercolors. It is a technique that works well for me though I am still experimenting and playing around with it. Not everyone will want to devote a substantial chunk of time to a coloring page, and not everyone will like the same technique I use, but in the spirit of turning adult coloring pages into an art form, here’s how I do it …
Some of my favorite tools I keep handy when coloring
Before we jump into process, I thought it might be useful to talk about a few of the tools I rely on. First, I like to work on a decent illustration board. I have two (one large, one small) from my art school days and am glad I never got rid of them. The surface of a good illustration board is very hard, smooth and shouldn’t scratch. Coloring on a surface that is scratched or dented can make your pencils skip and it’s hard to get a nice even layer of color.
Another thing I appreciate about a good illustration board is that I can write notes on it with a pencil (if I need to remember which colors I am using) and I can test color combos on it, too. The board can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth and a little soap between projects. Sometimes I tape my work to the board, but since I like to move my paper around to work on different areas, I only tape it if I want to set it aside for another time. My smaller board (pictured above) has a few eye screws on one side so I can hang it up and out of the way when I’m not working on it.
I also can’t live without my pencil books. I have 4 of them (two for watercolor pencils and two for regular colored pencils) so I don’t have to use the tin and cardboard boxes some of my pencils came in. Aside from keeping everything organized, they don’t clang around and there’s less of chance I’ll knock the boxes off my desk and risk cracking the leads inside the pencils. The tin boxes are attractive, but they make a horrendous clatter when they hit the wood floor. There are a few nice cases out there, but I settled on the zip-up “books” made by BTSKY and Soucolor (and ordered them through Amazon). No issues yet, and I use them a lot. Grey for my watercolor pencils and black for my regular colored pencils.
A good pencil sharpener is a must. I have an electric X-ACTO (great for new un-sharpened pencils) and a small brass sharpener. I’ve had it forever and have no idea where it came from. I use the brass sharpener the most because it gives me a fine point without chewing up too much of the pencil.
I also keep a small brush handy for keeping my page free from little chunks of junk that accumulate while I work. I don’t like to brush the paper off with my hands because oil and sweat can make the paper less receptive to the pencils. I also use (at least when the weather is bloody hot) one of those funny-looking artist gloves so the side of my hand doesn’t stick to the paper and smudge things up. I originally got one for working on the glass surface of my iPad. Cooler months aren’t bad, but when it’s hot, I can’t drag my hand across any drawing surface without it sticking. No fun. And not good for smooth lines.
Because I use watercolor pencils for the first layer of color on my drawings, I also use a few different water brushes. They have a reservoir that holds water and slowly releases it as needed. If too much comes out, use a tissue to mop up the excess–and if not enough comes out, give the reservoir a little squeeze. These brushes allow me to control how much water I use, and since the bristles are fairly stiff, they work really well for blending the watercolor pencils in a very controlled manner. I have two Pentel Aquash water-brushes and a few from Derwent and Kuretake. I honestly don’t have a favorite brand at this point but choose based on tip size in relation to the area I am working on. Okay, well maybe the Kuretake has the best fine point for really tight areas.
STEP ONE: WATERCOLOR PENCILS
Below is a close up of the coyote I’ve been working on recently (a grey-line version of my Coyote and Fox illustration) printed on grey card stock) with the first rough layer of watercolor pencil. It looks a little sloppy, but that’s okay. It will all come together.
I used French Grey (my go-to color for nearly all of my work) and Night by Caran d’Ache (Museum Aquarell‘s which are dreamy to work with); Faber-Castell’s Albrecht Dürer watercolor pencils (Warm Grey, Nougat and Bistre); and Blue Grey 68 by Derwent. As mentioned, I don’t have full sets of any of these pencils. Instead, I order individual pencils as needed through Blick or pick them up in stores. Blick usually has decent prices and it is a reliable company, and buying specific pencils instead of full sets helps me avoid collecting colors I may never use.
Once I have filled in areas with the dry watercolor pencils, I use a water-brush to blend my first layer. The wet brown stripe in the middle of the photo above was worked with a fine point Pentel Aquash water-brush. Instead of “painting,” I think of it as gently “scrubbing” the color around … but not so hard the paper loses it’s integrity and falls apart. There’s nothing worse than creating a big ugly hole in the paper–especially if you have a good portion of a piece completed. I’ve done it enough to learn my lesson. Be gentle with purpose.
If you want to try this technique, practice a few times on scrap paper so you get a feel for your brand of watercolor pencils, your brush, and how they all behave (or misbehave) on the paper you will be using for your final piece.
I work in fairly small, controlled areas. Above, you can see where I started blending the brown swirl shapes. Working on small areas at a time allows the water to dry faster and keeps colors I don’t want blended together separated. As one area dries, I tackle a new one until I have finished with the watercolors.
Below, you can see where I’ve moved into the blues and added some Derwent Inktense Sea Blue and Deep Indigo. Watercolor pencils play nicely with one another, so if after blending an area you want more color, just sketch a little more on top and get it wet again. I prefer to add layers after the paper is dry, but a watercolor pencil on wet paper can produce lovely effects, too.
Things still looks a little sloppy at this point, and that’s fine. Before I started using colored pencils over watercolor, I was a lot more precise applying the color before blending with water. On their own, watercolor pencils produce a beautiful look. But since I will be adding a few layers of colored pencil over the top, I think of this as a simple under-body or base layer of color to build upon.
Why go through the trouble of laying down this watercolor base layer?
I have found that it gives the paper a really nice, faintly “gritty” texture or “tooth” that my colored pencils really seem to love–especially on smoother types of paper and card stock. The key is to make sure the paper has dried before grabbing your colored pencils.
Small, self-contained areas are pretty easy to work on because they have a definitive start and end point (such as the brown lines on the coyote’s rear and neck). Where it gets tricky is where there are larger areas that move from one color to another (behind the ears all the way to the back, tail, and part of the legs). I’ve had to learn to work fast. I typically “scrub” quickly in small circles, but sometimes I pull the brush along the edge of a border to get a larger area damp. Then my circular strokes are used to scrub those colors around and blend them together. If some of the areas look a little splotchy, don’t worry. The colors usually even out as they dry, and if they don’t, the colored pencil layer will eventually blend it all together.
My best advice? Play. Experiment! One of the great things about having digital copies of an illustration is that you can print out a few on different types of paper and play around with techniques and different color pallets before committing to a final piece. And … if you royally screw something up (I’ve done it plenty) you can print and try, try again.
While all of the areas I have water-colored are drying (it should not take long at all), I put my watercolor pencils away and pull out my regular colored pencils. I try not to mix them up because it really stinks when you color a whole area and hit it with water only to realize you hadn’t used a watercolor pencil. And watercolor pencils don’t work very well over regular colored pencils because of the waxes and oils in the colored pencil leads. They can, if thick enough, repel water. So I try to keep my pencils types separate.
The pic above shows the coyote with all the watercolors blended and a start (on the belly) with regular colored pencil layers. Adding light layers can give your work a lot more depth, vibrancy and definition.
I like to use the softer colored pencils (Prismacolor, Faber-Castell, Caran d’Ache Luminance and Pablo, and Bruynzeel) for the larger areas and I work with a light touch and try to avoid coloring in the same direction. Light circles or tight cross-hatching works well. Sometimes the layers can get a little too thick and an annoying “chunky” build-up can occur. It happened with some of the sepia (see pic below) I was using to the left of the big white star. Too much build-up from being a little heavy-handed in that area, whoops.
Some of the sheen in my photos are a reflection of the wax in the pencil leads and appears when you apply a lot of pressure, or go over the same area quickly back and forth. Burnishing, as it is often called, can be a great way to deepen colors and set them, but you can overdo it so be careful. Once I have my softer layers of pencil down, I then use my harder pencils (like Tombow’s Irojiten pencils, the Verithins by Prismacolor, and Derwent’s Studio pencils) to carefully carve in sharper details. I used black, Tuscan red and indigo Verithins to define parts of the coloring below.
I also like to use the Caran d’Ache white Luminance pencil for all of my brighter highlights. It seems to give me the best coverage of all the white pencils I have. A little pricey compared to other brands, but for a responsive, reliable white pencil, I think it’s worth the price. Most of my white pencils barely show up when applied over other colors.
One tip about whites … if you want a bright white to appear over another color, always color that area with your white pencil first. Next, work your other colors around it and right up to the white. And then, hit the white area with your white pencil again being conscious of pushing from the white center toward the other color(s). If you pull from the other color(s) into the white, you’ll get more blending (and not a brighter white).
I find that I can blend and burnish colors together pretty well with the Derwent and Irojiten pencils as a final top layer. I usually use a shade or few lighter than the color I am working over. For instance, on the brown and taupe colored areas of the coyote, I used Irojiten’s Pigeon Grey, Chesnut and Eggshell to “set” the final layer over the Prismacolor and Polychromos French Grey and Bistre. I’ll do the same with the blues. Irojiten Indigo over Polychromos and Prismacolor Indigo for the darker areas, and maybe Irojiten Midnight Blue or Kingfisher for the medium blues.
As a side note, I have found that the Irojiten Eggshell pencil has become a favorite go-to for blending many different colors–it’s light enough to pick up the color of the layer underneath without muddying things up and it’s hard enough to push the colors together.
And there is a push and pull when it comes to working with colored pencils …
Below: slowly working more colors. I think I had about 2 or 3 hours into the coyote at this point. I realize not everyone wants to spend this much time on a coloring project, but I really enjoy the process. While I love to see the final product, it’s the act of choosing the colors, working the water and the pencils, and having time to focus on something tangible and tactile. An escape from all the screens virtual everythings.
The bottom photo shows the final layers of colored pencils, plus a few details that make the image pop. I like using the Sakura Pen-Touch paint pens to add small dots (be careful you don’t smudge if you try this – paint pens take a little time to dry). I also go in with a black waterproof Faber-Castell PITT pen to add dots and lines, or sometimes just to darken areas that got a little covered by pencil marks (like the coyote’s eye). Gel, metallic and glitter pens are fun, but I don’t use them much anymore because they don’t photograph or scan well.
I also try not to feel restricted when it comes to following the original design of any page (including my own illustrations for coloring) and often add in new details like the oblong white and grey shapes on the tail.
Here is the same coyote I tested out with color after my original black line drawing was complete and converted into a vector for printing. It was printed on white card stock (instead of the grey-scale lines on grey card stock for my current coyote). Not sure which one I like best, but they were both enjoyable to work on.
I hope some of the information about my process and techniques can be useful to you. Again, my approach isn’t for everyone, but hopefully it inspires you to try something new. Don’t be afraid to take your time and push your creativity to the next level. I am always trying to learn–always thinking about ways to improve. And while my own relationship to art (and now coloring) certainly provides relief from stress, art is also my passion (and can surely cause stress at times).
Isn’t that the Yinyang of life? 😉
I’d love to hear from you if you have questions, comments, or techniques you would like to share!
UPDATE: I now have six pencils cases – seems my pencil collection has grown a little. I am sure some of you can relate to this! 😉