Monday, June 8, 2009

Secrets of Watercolor Pencil

I have to admit I'm sometimes embarrassed to post some of my work in watercolor pencils and waterbrush. The results are far below my abilities. On Saturday I posted one of a 'Betty Corning' clematis and the results have been bothering me ever since. Why am I so unhappy with this medium? Especially since I liked it when I first started using it to do quick sketches of yard birds this winter.

Looking at the 'Betty Corning' it hit me. I like nuance in color. I like to modify the artwork until I get it right, either right as in 'accurate', or right as in the colors all work well to create a pleasing painting. When I try to do that with watercolor pencils and waterbrushes I ended up with an overworked disaster.

There are a number of reasons for this: 1) since these are just quick sketches I use very cheap recycled paper; but it just doesn't do well with water and soon buckles; 2)once I go over the watercolor pencil with the waterbrush it presents a different type of surface which no longer accepts the watercolor pencils well; it leads toward darkness and opacity, both detrimental to most watercolors; 3) I still try to get the colors right by color blending and continue with new, more vigorous, darker pencil marks and watercolor washes. I end up with a dark mess, or maybe sometimes a dark, but half-successful watercolor.

So today I decided to do a test. I only had 15 minutes or so. I would work from a recent photo(I ended up choosing Black-bellied Plovers from Heislerville WMA), but I would not try to mix colors, except on the first pencil rendering. I would slap my own hand if it tried to go back in and add more pencil markings once I touched the waterbrush to the paper.

I think the results prove my point. This is much more successful. It's still a quick sketch, not a finished watercolor. But it looks much fresher. The blue water would me much improved by using better, white rather than tan, paper. But that's easily fixed in future sketches. The most important lesson learned is that all color mixing must be done with the pencils on the first go, before touching waterbrush to paper and turning the pencil drawing into a watercolor sketch.

Of course one test doesn't really prove anything. But I'm confident that future tests will show the same results. Blend your colors with the pencils. DO NOT try to do so with a brush or pencils after you've touched the waterbrush to the paper. It just doesn't work!


Pam Johnson Brickell said...

Hi Ken,
Yes, paper choice can make a big difference. I love the Aquabee Super Deluxe sketchbooks. The wc pencil doesn't sink into the paper but rather floats on top, making the colors easier to manipulate. I will often layer my colors though. But, the paper must be dry.

I find working on hot press and cold press papers totally different than the sketchbook and it takes some getting used to.

Glad to see you're still giving them a go :)

Ken Januski said...

Hi Pam,

I'm surprised I never thought about the quality of the paper before. Finally this weekend I just got so angry at my results I decided to investigate it more.

I think for me the main thing is that I come from an oil/acrylic painting background. So if you don't like the colors and values you have you just either paint over or remove paint and paint over. Watercolor makes that hard and watercolor pencils make it even harder.

But today I finally felt like I had a bit of understanding about how they should be used. Sort of like realizing that your chain saw is useful but not for digging weeds! I just need to be more deliberate in using them and realize that most of the work needs to be done before using the brush. I think that, and better paper will help a lot. Ironically I'm going to have to hold off on your Aquabee suggestion because I just ordered some Moleskin watercolor books based on Debby Kaspari's suggestion.

I think part of my problem too is that I'm limited by the color of the color pencils I have, even though I think I have a 64 color set. I thought I'd make up for that by blending with the brush and additional layers of pencil and brush. I've been horribly unsuccessful with that. Maybe I also need more patience and should wait until the paper is dry. Thanks for that suggestion.

I really did think I'd like these and so I've been surprised not to like them. But like anything you first need how to use them. That SLOWLY is dawning on me. I hope to have some good things to say about them soon!!

Pam Johnson Brickell said...

Debby has me wanting to order a moleskin sketch book too :) I'm happy she thinks the regular sketch paper holds up to light washes. Better on the wallet for sure :)