Monday, March 12, 2012

Colored Pencil Shading and More

Today's art lesson is on colored pencil shading, especially skin tones and cylindrical objects. What do a brick silo and someone's face have in common? Well, both of them need to look three dimensional in your drawings. You'd be surprised how dark the shadows are compared to the highlights.

Your box of colored pencils usually gives you a light peach color that may be labeled Flesh on the assumption that anyone whose skin is Burnt Sienna or Cinnamon or Raw Umber will just get the artist pigment. So you're drawing someone pale and you fill in the face with that color. Fine. If they're a cartoon with black lines, you're done. Fill with flat color. But even in a cartoon, a well defined tan shadow will give that flat face a three dimensional look.

When you're trying to draw realistically, it'll be frustrating to look at that outlined face and get the color right but somehow be left looking at a pink cartoon instead of a three dimensional person. It's one of the huge mental flips every artist goes through in learning to draw - shadows are darker than you think they are. Things are not the color they are. What the heck kind of color is Flesh anyway, it looks like a plastic band-aid compared to anyone's real skin even if they're pale!

"Flesh" or as it's sometimes labeled more accurately "light peach" or "orange tint" is a highlight color. It may sometimes be a midtone color for a very light complexion where you'll use Ivory for the highlights or best of all, go very lightly with it and then burnish over it with Ivory.

The key to shading with colored pencils is not to go heavy till the last layer after you establish your shadows and mix your colors. The first illustration at the top of this lesson is some mixtures I created with a 12 color set of Derwent Inktense. I can do a dark or pale skin tone with any colored pencils I have in hand. It's a matter of pressing lightly and going over the shadow areas more than once with different colors.

Try this at home. Get out your colored pencils. See the shading bars. Do those with every one of your pencils - start out with a heavy application on one end and then color in pressing a little lighter as you move across toward the right. Or do them in reverse - start by barely touching the paper with the point of your pencil and gradually apply a little more pressure.

Below the first shading bars are the ones with the refined technique of Little Circular Strokes. This technique you just don't ever press hard. You just go over it again and again till it gets dark. Best to start from the light end and then work over and over it till you get to the far end.

Look at how most of those examples have lots of little flecks of paper coming through. You probably hate that. I did when I started with colored pencils. I ground down hard to get rid of them. You will, later, with a colorless blender pencil or a white pencil. This is how your colored pencils shading should look right up till the last burnishing layers if you want to expand your color range by combining colors.

These are light tonal layers. The shading bars demonstrate the variety of tones you can get with that color. What a very light application of Baked Earth looks like is quite a bit like Flesh, isn't it? Close to that light peach that people with pale skin have? If your set has at least one reddish brown like Sanguine, Henna, Baked Earth, Burnt Sienna, Cinnamon... then you have an easy one-layer skin tone base much better than using the Light Peach highlight color as your mid-tone.

The simple easy way to do skin is to use a reddish brown to create a value drawing of the person as if it was a shaded graphite drawing. Then go over that with the Light Peach as a burnishing layer. It's plausible. Not very exciting and we can get much richer skin tones paying attention to reflected color and shadow colors and so on, matching the person's exact complexion, the color of the light and the color of anything reflecting into shadows in true colored pencils realism. But if you just want a nice drawing that reads as a pale skin tone - that will do it. Maybe with a touch of dark brown in the deepest darks.

Practice those shading bars to gain control of your hand pressure. They make a great doodle. Keep a few stubs of colored pencils in your pocket or purse when you're at work and put shading bars on sticky notes, on used envelopes, on any scrap paper laying around. Anytime you're on hold, play with the pencils and try to control exactly how dark you get by pressure alone. The control of being able to create any value you want with a colored pencil is what will let you layer Fuchsia and Leaf Green (muted dark green almost a gray green dark) and put orange over that and somehow get a rich natural skin tone instead of a murky mess. My test swatches above are simple combinations.

Light tonal layers are the basis of colored pencils realism.

You'll find this technique in every good colored pencils instruction book. Exactly what strokes the artist uses to get soft gradations and smooth flat tonal layers will vary. Several of the professionals prefer keeping the pencils very sharp and doing tiny circular strokes.

I personally developed a habit of wearing down the pencil to a blunt point and letting it glide lightly over the paper in random directions, larger strokes. I go over a flat tonal area more than once touching on any patch that looks lighter than the rest. The only advantage of my self-invented Blunt Pencil method is that it's faster than sharpening it to a fine point and very delicately touching that fine point to make a smooth gradient. It took a little more pressure control to keep it from being blotchy, but I don't have to stop and sharpen the pencil as often.

Use what works for you in terms of sharpness, what direction your strokes overlap, how you keep them from forming accidental patterns in the smooth areas. Try for shading bars and also for flat areas of color - color in doodles with smooth tonal layers. Try to create three different middle values with one dark pencil - light, medium and darker medium - not counting "press hard and fill in every speck" as one of them.

Coloring books are a good idea for colored pencils artist. No, I am not kidding. Get one with good drawings and a theme you enjoy - flowers, tropical fish, stained glass patterns, dinosaurs... whatever you think is cool and wouldn't get bored coloring in. This is not just a child's toy. It's a grown artist's practice in controlling color and pressure without bothering to go through sketching the outlines first or planning a painting. It's color study at its finest.

For additional benefits, find the Human Anatomy Coloring Book that is still used in medical schools. You'll come to understand the human body better from studying how the bones fit together and the muscles fit on the bones, where veins run closer to the skin, the shapes of eyeballs - there is a lot you can gain from an anatomy book on how to draw human beings even if most of the illustrations are cutaways.

Also it's fun to make up your own colors. You could shade each little bone in the human hand three dimensionally as if it's a different color of fluorescent plastic. Tip - shade with a dark version of the color and then burnish with a light fluorescent color. Or trace that one out on good paper after you've planned the colors, fill in the background with black and actually hang the Fluorescent Human Hand Bones on the wall as a fun poster. You can get creative with coloring books.

Or go completely against what the subject is. Take all your browns and accent with spectrum colors, turning a book of butterflies into human skin colored butterflies. Give your dinosaurs human complexions. Whatever you do with the coloring books, it's less boring than just doing little square swatches.

Except when you have a painting in progress.

That's where leaving several inches of margin on your good Stonehenge or watercolor paper will let you test color combinations for specific areas of the painting - the way the green shirt reflects up on the underside of someone's earlobe is a good example. Or exactly how the colors shift in a pearl earring and how much easier it is to get that with overlapping tonal layers than just reaching for the French Grays in your Prismacolor set. The pearl will be more iridescent if you use the grays to establish value and then overlay different pale colors with each other to create varying, subtle and spontaneous grays by mixing complements. Pink and a light mint green make a good gray!

Here in this illustration I rapidly sketched a girl with the darker brown, Bark. Here's those tonal layers in action. The first layer, use the darkest color to lay in just the areas where shadows are deepest. This layer establishes value. Using the darkest pencil very lightly helps unify the shadows too, it isn't that obvious once the colors are mixed but it keeps the drawing from looking monochrome.

Then I sketched a similar head with the same values in Bark and went over that with the Baked Earth warm reddish brown. Any russet or rust color will work for this. Just use less pressure if it's a darker rust color and more of the darker color under it if you want it deeper than the value of the pencil used full blast.

This is the simplest skin tone mix - dark brown and rusty color on paper, using the white paper for the highlight. I did this on a cream colored page in my Stillman & Birn Delta art journal, so it's got a natural highlight color. If I were working on bright white paper I might have extended the Baked Earth all the way into the highlight but barely touched the tip to the paper, fussed over getting exactly the very light value of "bright sun on skin."

But back up in the swatches I tried some other combinations. Dark Indigo or some other deep blue or violet in shadows can look natural too. The color of the sky reflects into shadows. Using cool deep colors like violet, blue or green in the shadows of faces can make the skin color richer and more natural.

The old Italians, both the ancient Romans and the Renaissance painters, used green for the shadows on skin and went over that with the pink highlight color. This produces a rich skin tone and takes advantage of the effect of complementary mixing. Complementary colors are what's opposite on a color wheel - complementary pairs are violet-yellow, red-green and orange-blue. Mix them in the right proportion and you get gray. Mix them unevenly and you get a muted cool color or a nice brown.

It's that nice brown that often works well in human skin tone shadows. It'll be cooler than the highlight color. One thing I always did in Prismacolor painting was to intensify the light with Cream (Ivory in some other brands) by using it as the burnishing color on all the sunlit areas of the subject. Then I'd use Deco Blue or Lavender as a burnishing color in all the shadows. Bang. You do that over the local colors and all of a sudden the sunlight or indoor light is warmer and more intense. It doesn't change the local color of the subject. It just makes the light a little more obvious and the painting a whole lot richer.

For practice getting the values in someone's face right, use any dark color you please or a graphite pencil. Draw a tonal drawing from a photo or do your own left hand from life. Don't outline anything. Look at the edges between light and dark that are sharp edges, like the edge of someone's cheek against dark hair. It helps to take your photo reference and put it in gray scale on the computer so you can see the values clearly. Or just use a black and white photo, vintage photos are great for this.

Draw monochrome people until you're used to doing them as masses of tone. Then do a tonal drawing in your base dark color - deep brown, deep green, deep violet or blue, whatever you like. Shade up with tonal layers of rusty reddish brown and other colors until you have the skin tone colors right.

One artist who did beautiful realist portraits used to underpaint her Prismacolor portraits with bright pumpkin orange. Yep. Screaming orange. The translucent pencils modifying it produced beautiful rich skin tones in the half dozen or more layers she used to build on that orange layer. The orange wasn't that visible - but white over the orange used heavily made a good highlight. Cool colors over it instantly turned brown. Try that on watercolor paper - you can combine this with practicing a specific feature like ears or noses to get still more practice with tonal colored pencil drawing and color mixing.

Onward to the bonus lesson!

A friend of mine had trouble with a farm scene that had a brick silo in it. The barn was in gorgeous perspective and looked three dimensional, the silo looked flat because it wasn't shaded. Also the lines of bricks going around it were drawn more or less straight across, like it was one side of a rectangular silo instead of a curved plane. Curved planes are tricky.

But if you want to draw people, curved planes are essential and silos are a good place to start because they're a cylindrical object like limbs are. Bricks and sunburned faces are about the same hue if not the same value, you use the same brick red, russet, rusty red for both. Since I had the pencils out I just sketched how the perspective works for bands going up and down a cylinder in perspective.

This matters a lot. Pay attention to it in still lifes too. Vases are cylinders. Glasses are cylinders. Cans are cylinders. There are some geometric ways to calculate the exact curve, but I'm lazy and I freehand things. I eyeball it. The trick to eyeballing it is to know what to look for.

Practice drawing cans from life. Peel the labels off or wrap printer paper around them so that you don't get distracted by the lettering - or turn them so that the lines of lettering form curved lines going around the three dimensional surface.

When you're above the can, the top is an ellipse and the bottom a quite deeper ellipse. Set the can on the floor or a low table and look down at it. Got that? Sketch it from life that way, trying to get the curves accurate for how deep the ellipse is on the top and the exact curve of the bottom of the can.

Don't feel bad if you don't get it on the first try. An amazing number of otherwise brilliant painters reverse those proportions and destroy three dimensional accuracy when they do. People who charge hundreds of dollars for their paintings cleverly put flowers or something in front of the bottom of the vase so they don't have to deal with the ellipse. Or it's off by a little but you're so distracted by how beautiful the flowers are that you don't care.

Now try putting the can above your eyes. Hold it up, or sit on the floor next to a glass table looking up at it. You get the same thing in reverse - a simple oval of the bottom, a much rounder section of an oval at the top. If you use a clear cylinder like a water glass you will see the whole shape of the oval at the top doing this. With an opaque can, you'll see a section of that top oval.

Now back to the silo. Because it's a big cylinder taller than the artist, your eye level may fall right in the middle. What this kind of perspective does is tell the viewer where your view point is! There is no exact right way to do it in all instances. There's choosing that eye level to create the way the silo looks if you sat on the ground or stood up or stood in a ditch looking up at it.

The curves go in opposite directions if eye level is in the middle of the cylinder. Get out a mailing tube and put that on a table if you want to see this in person. Look up at the top - the ellipse will curve away from you at the outside, highest in the middle. Look down at the bottom - in this example, hidden by some foliage. The middle is the lowest part.

In between, any bands like lines of bricks or the ridges around the middle of a clean empty soup can without its label will become less prominent as they approach eye level. The line that's exactly at eye level will go straight across and not curve at all, if it's there. It's a little more esthetic to arrange the ridges so they curve slightly up and down around a space rather than a straight line, but either will work. I did the straight line version on this example.

Try this at home. Bare soup cans are very good for the exercise. In the case of photos of buildings, the camera can sometimes add extra distortion, which is why it's important to know how it works. Get the perspective on cylindrical buildings right and your towers, silos, flag poles and other cylindrical objects will look three dimensional even before they're shaded.

Look carefully at the direction of light or decide it if you made up the subject from imagination. More shadow will show curving around the side away from the light than the side near the light. But a little shadow will usually show even on the light side as it curves away from you.

Practice drawing short pieces of plain white PVC pipe to get cylinder shapes. This is also good for realizing just how dark shadows get on a white object - they will surprise you, going all the way down to an exact middle value or even darker depending on how stark the lighting is. Don't be afraid to push the darks. This doesn't change the impression that it's a light colored object.

What it does is show the viewer that strong light is falling on that white thing and it will still seem white even if the only bare paper is a tiny highlight on the vase that makes it look glossy. But that's another article - shading white and light things is its own study. For now just practice cylinders and skin tones, have fun with it and be sure to have extras in that rusty color because the more you do people, the faster it gets used up!


  1. Robert you are a gem, you share so much, thanks for this...

  2. Thank you! Have fun with it and try it at home!

  3. Robert, This is so helpful, as with all your posts. Somehow I got taken off your subscribe list and didn't get this post. So glad I tracked it down. Hope things are going well for you. Diane

  4. Diane, thank you! I hope you can get email notifications set up again. I didn't take anyone off my subscriber list and don't quite understand how it works, but I think they changed something about it a while ago and now there's this button to choose email notifications. I found that on another blog that I follow.