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Wax-based Colored Pencils

Working bigger, bolder, faster with Wax-based Colored Pencils - A Demonstration by Vera Curnow

completed art

Control is the operative word for colored pencils. Clean, cheap, and portable, there are no surprises. Marks are left exactly where you put them, in the colors you have chosen, and with as much attention as your love for drawing requires. With little fuss, they are the perfect traveling medium - no water, drying time, or clean up. Just add a pencil sharpener, and you are ready to begin in the studio or in the field. It starts with the simplest form of artistic expression: "the line." But don't be deceived by this seemingly effortless application. When it comes to producing powerful and varied results, wax-based colored pencils are not one-dimensional tools. They have the capacity to look like pastels or watercolors‹ paintings or drawings‹and can capture the languid movement of pond water or the velocity of a hurricane. The "best" surface for applying colored pencil depends on the techniques you use and the results you want‹ from coarse textured or plate-finished papers to raw wood, Claybord™, Mylar, or canvas. Some of the more common brand surfaces are Rising Museum board, Stonehenge paper, Canson Mi-Teintes in a myriad of colors, Strathmore 400 Series, Crescent hot- or cold-pressed illustration boards, and‹well, you get the idea; anything that shows a mark is fair game for this medium.

Unlike brush painters who work with a palette, colored pencil artists mix and blend colors directly on the paper's surface. The various hues are created by lightly applying many layers of these translucent pigments. To build rich colors you must begin with a soft touch. Once you have established a good base of layers, you can begin to work with a firmer hand. Heavy pressure in the early stages builds a waxy surface that will resist further applications. Since layering is a simple matter of lightly applying one stroke after another, it entails some investment in time. One way to speed up the process and create dramatic results is to work on colored paper or board. By choosing a surface that is the same hue as the dominant color of your subject, you not only establish an underlying unity in your work; but you can save time by creating optical illusions. This forces the viewer to see what is not there.

The painting, "Toucan Charley," done on black Letramax illustration board, is a good example of how you can imply features without laboring over minute details. My favorite method of working bigger, bolder, faster with colored pencil is to use odorless mineral spirits (OMS.) By dissolving the wax-based pigments on my drawing surface, I'm able to "move" the medium in a painterly fashion using materials as common as tissues, blending stump, stiff brush, cotton pads and swabs or soft fabric. I can replace the stark glare of a large white ground with total color saturation in just minutes. While this saves an incredible amount of time, time is not my motivating factor. This "fluid" technique defies the usual control and precision associated with colored pencils. The unpredictable nature of this method allows me to combine technical skills with creative spontaneity. It's refreshing to haphazardly apply color in large sweeps knowing that not every stroke has to be relevant. Then there's the matter of application. I'm a pretty lousy painter, but I sure can smudge a picture to life. From portraits and landscapes to animals and abstracts, this method of working allows me to be as ambiguous or as exacting as I want. "...waxed-based pencils are not one-dimensional tools."

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Step 1:
I work from background to foreground, so I brushed liquid frisket to mask off the inside edges of the ladies and the balloons. I can therefore work more quickly without regard to getting pigment where I don?t want it. I then applied colored pencils to the back wall using heavy pressure. Now I impress lines with a stylus to the ends of the hair.

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Step 2:
After dissolving, spreading and blending colors into the background I remove the liquid frisket with a cotton pad dipped in odorless mineral spirits (OMS). With colored pencils and art sticks, separate colors are applied to each coat.

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Step 3:
Dry layers are carefully blended with OMS taking care not to push outside the edges [Step 3]. Each coat is shaded with light layers of dry black pencil to allow the underlying colors to show through and blend. Don't saturate your applicator with OMS too much will dissipate and lift the pigment off the paper.

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Step 4:
I completed the faces with dry layering techniques that allow the texture of the surface to show through which creates a contrast with the smooth clothing. An electric eraser or dry tissue will pick up pigments and lightened the density of the highlight areas.

About the Author
Founder of the Colored Pencil Society of America, Verna Curnow is a national-award winning artist and author whose works have been published in international books and magazines. She conducts workshops nationwide and frequently serves as judge for juried art competitions.

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