When I begin, with my mind I see a masterpiece, but with my heart I see a dose of fear. No matter how many pieces of art I create, when it comes right down to it, I’m afraid this time I’ll fail. There have been small pockets of time when I’ve had art in galleries or perhaps in a competition. For the most part, however, I’ve been a quiet artist; keeping it to myself. Art is a language that I’m still learning to speak. I believe in my art and never feel I’ve learned all there is to know about it. Perhaps the reason I haven’t mastered it is because I keep interrupting myself, getting off track, or giving up because its too hard. I want it badly so I can never turn away from it for very long.
Because I never create two identical pieces of art, each one is ground breaking. Each one is yet another learning experience. If my reason for creating it isn’t firmly set, I’ll never complete the piece. I won’t have the discipline to set out on the journey of creating something out of nothing, of sticking with it even when I doubt myself or the message I’m trying to express.
I sit down, take up my tools and begin to sketch something out. A portrait needs to resemble the subject and capture their essence; their character. The sketch itself needs to lay down the bones of the project. Filling them in won’t lead to a very good likeness if those lines weren’t laid down just so in the first place. Each and every project I do is a very first time to do that particular project. I can’t look up how I did it last time. There is no last time. Maybe this, I tell myself, will be the one I don’t get right. Maybe it will be the one that makes me give up.
I’m currently reading a book called Bird By Bird – Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. She says pretty much the same thing about writing. In a writing project, we bring with us high expectations and aspirations. We give up when we see its going to be harder or take more time than we ever dreamed. Her book, so far, is about how to keep going…and why.
Colored Pencil – who would have guessed it could tell the story so well?
I’ve done a few colored pencil pieces over the years, but each one stretches my ability. The first few were for a children’s book, but the author lost interest, so the book was put aside. I did those first pieces on a paper called “mi tiente’s”, made by Canson. Working on black paper means a whole new way of working with colored pencil.
To get fine detail, you have to keep your pencil as sharp as it can possibly be. The tip needs to get down into those pits of the paper. Paper might look smooth, but it has tiny pockets that are just big enough for a very sharp pencil point. A microscopic view of anything at all reveals miniscule pockets and textures on pretty much everything in the world. Even marble under a microscope has craters in it’s surface.
Small light-pressured circles
I work in very small circles with my pencil, keeping the pressure as light as I can. My dad taught me to do that when I was a child. If you use back and forth lines the overlap of the pencil will show.
The square on the left was done with quick strokes, though with consistent pressure. You can see where each section overlaps the previous one. You can see where the colored pencil didn’t go with quick side to side strokes with a light touch.
The middle square was done with more pressure, a frequently sharpened pencil, but still back and forth strokes. The overlaps are still visible, but perhaps not as much. The holes of texture are there, but the increased pressure of the pencil filled some of them in. You applied so much pressure that it will be more difficult to add more layers, such as a different color. These pencils are wax based. The more layers you apply, the harder you press, the shinier the surface and then future layers will just not stick. Your pencil will slide across this shiny surface like a skater on ice.
The third example on the paper is a small circle. I wanted to move on, so only did enough to make my point. I sharpened the pencil to a needle sharp point. I held the pencil as upright as I could so the point would go into the pits in the paper. I then made very tiny circles with a light and even pressure. It filled more of the pits, is consistent looking, and there are no overlapping lines. I am in complete control. The added benefit is that its so light that I can add several more layers before reaching a stopping point. Don’t lose heart. There are ways to get around not being able to add more pigment.
Sketch the piece and then begin adding a base layer
For this project I started with an overall light layering of color. Next I’ll begin to work in other color areas, smoothing them together. In the piece above, I started with an almost white pencil, which was the lightest color in her face. I got impatient and began adding warm colors where they were needed. It didn’t ruin the piece, but I realized the lightest color was too light, making her look ghost-like.
If you look very closely at a colored pencil drawing, you can see the little pockets. The black line down the right side is the edge of another piece of black paper. It protects the project from the oils that are naturally in my skin. I can rest my hand on the extra piece of paper..
The lumpy spots you see in the image are tiny bits of the waxy material the pencil is made of. When you step away from the image, it appears all is well and its lovely. Shining a bright light on the work emphasizes the shininess and it will appear like a whole different work.
Fixatives, Knives, Erasers, and Pencil Sharpeners to Keep the Project Moving
You can spray a workable fixative that allows you to add more layers to the project.
Following the directions on the can, I was able to continue working on the Blue Crab.
I’ve learned to use the very tip of the blade to gently scrape at tiny sections. It removes the waxy buildup of the pencil. You must only do this in small areas. If you’re not careful, you can ruin the paper AND the project.
Another thing I do from is to use a small eraser pencil to remove a small area of pigment. After that I can usually rework that area to my liking. I use the eraser on the right for larger areas.
Oh no! Am I losing control of the project?
As I work, adding colors and getting my values correct, I take chances. A choice might look horrible, even gruesome. Sometimes I erase the risky color. However, I find that if I step away from the piece, I may feel differently about it later on. I might take a nap (I love naps!), a break to run an errand or do something entirely different. When I return, I see it with fresh eyes. There may be obvious things to correct, but some things I hadn’t liked earlier, I now like.
Yet another option is to keep going. Perhaps its the color or one eye could be shaped wrong or too large. Maybe it’s in the wrong place or slanted incorrectly. Maybe the lips are all wrong in the way I rendered them.
Art is about using your eyes to really see the thing you’re trying to work from. If you’re working on the eye and it just doesn’t seem right, you may be doing something I call “prejudice”. You look at the subject and say to yourself, “Oh, I know how to draw an eye, because all eyes alike (not so, but you’re brain is trying to mess with you, get you off the hook). You immediately begin drawing without really looking at the subject. Every eye IS different and the left eye might be slightly different than the right eye. You can’t assume they all look the same. Look. Really look. Look at the slant of the lid, the shadows and highlights, etc. Make the eye THAT person’s eye and not some generic eye. also remember that faces are not usually symmetrical. One ear may be lower than the other or an eye lower or less open. Again, look at the subject. Observe. Learn to really “see”.
Its time to begin trusting
I do spot checks on the dimensions and sizes. Everything seems drawn correctly. I just keep going. I’ve learned that this is where I have to trust…to have faith in the project and in my skills.
This piece is far from over. I wish I could sit and work on it far longer. I grow tired when I work with colored pencil. It takes a lot of concentration. I’m making tiny circles with such light pressure I’m not always sure my pencil is even touching the paper. Covering a small area with that first coat can take several hours. You might begin to wonder why you took on this project. Don’t give up. Projects done using colored pencil will be around for a very long time. Maybe for centuries. They may likely outlast the most famous oil paintings. The surface of a painting will eventually dry as it ages and tiny cracks will appear. Surfaces done in colored pencil do not dry out and crack..
Taking risks and trying what seem like an unlikely color combinations can drain my energy a bit as well. Its as if I’m holding my breath when I experiment with colors. Yet color can add so much life to the subject. I have a large selection of colored pencils are various “flesh” colors. Yet, the shadows in a face or a hand aren’t only those flesh colors. The shadow side of a face can have a bit of violet or blue in it. Colored pencils don’t come in an infinite number of colors. With watercolor, I can simply combine colors to make exactly what I want. Colored pencil doesn’t work that way.
Yet look at all the colors I used in the shadows of this painting. I feel it brings life to the work; to those shadows, to the subject.
Why am I using wax-based colored pencils here?
Before choosing what medium to use for these projects, I tested wax based pencils, oil based pencils, and pastel pencils. I thought the oil based pencils would be my choice. They have a softer look and, by dipping the tip into mineral spirits you can blend the pigments. I thought pastel pencils might be good for applying color to large areas. Some of my choices are based on the surface I’m using. If I were using white paper, I could have laid down a layer of watercolor to get my base coat. I’m using a Canson Black Art Board and watercolor as the first layer didn’t seem practical against the black surface.
I admit that I went into this project thinking it would be small and completed quickly. I envisioned it taking eight hours or less to complete. The one project below took eight hours of work. However, that piece ended up being maybe only three inches high and two inches wide. The piece above is 8 x 10.5 inches. Capturing the likeness of two people is different from capturing the likeness of a pet.
Maybe it was just the pressure of meeting my client’s expectations. When they send me a photo to work from, its usually a photo that was taken a while ago. When they see the finished art, they’re thinking of what the person is like right now. The dog below looked basically the same at one year as he did at ten years.
Final stages and different lighting conditions for the photographs
When I took the photographs below, the lighting varied, changing the look of the art noticeably. I’m happy to say that the in-life version far exceeded my expectations. I was proud to sign my name and put it in the mail to my client. I learned a lot from this project and future projects will now include a bit less doubt on my part.
The trust comes in where I try a color (perhaps a shadow) or leave out the background. I think its looking like a disaster; that I need to throw it out and start all over again. If I just keep going, taking breaks from it, not giving up, I suddenly find that I’ve crossed a threshold. I’ve gotten to the other side of “NO! This isn’t working!” to “Hey! Its looking really good!” Don’t give up. The beginning is always the hard part. You’re not into the project yet. Keep going. You’ll find yourself owning it and looking forward to continuing. You’ll look forward to more projects using the same techniques you just developed. So please…don’t give up!