As some of you already know, I work in both oils and colored pencils. My preferred method with oils is a personal adaptation of the Flemish technique, a seven-step process starting with a detailed drawing and going through color glazes and a detailed finishing layer.
It’s a classical method that is slow and careful, producing paintings with a rich, glowing color, life-like detail, and subtle gradations of both color and value. (If you’re interested, here’s a tutorial I wrote on painting with the Flemish technique.)
However, since I also love working with colored pencils, I’ve attempted to adapt those same seven steps to colored pencil. Here’s how the adaptation looks.
Step 1: Detailed drawing
This first step remains the same no matter what technique or medium I use, but I’ve found it’s more important to get the drawing right with colored pencil than it is with oils.
Why? Because with oils, I can adjust edges and correct errors throughout the process until the glazing phase. The opaque nature of oils, even transparent oils, allows for a certain amount of “cover up” work. It’s also possible to correct mistakes with oils simply by wiping the mistakes off the panel.
Not so with colored pencil. Color can be lifted and edges can be adjusted, but it’s a much more involved process and doesn’t always have the same degree of satisfactory results. So taking the extra time to work out this first step as completely as possible is definitely important.
Step 2: Inked drawing
The purpose of this stage in oil painting is to “fix” the drawing on the canvas so that the first wash of color (the imprimatura) does not remove the drawing, as seen here:
If you’re working with dry colored pencils, the drawing does not need to be fixed. With water soluble colored pencils, however, it’s a good idea to “fix the drawing” so it won’t run when you add water.
Prismacolor Verithin pencils (or pencils with a similarly hard, narrow lead) are ideal for this purpose. They produce a very fine line, leaving a minimal amount of wax on the paper, and are impervious to water.
Step 3: The imprimatura
In the Flemish method of painting, the canvas is “toned” after the initial drawing is fixed in place by adding a layer of the lightest, non-white value appearing in the composition.
With traditional dry colored pencils, a colored paper can serve as the “toning” instead. I’ve used off-white, eggshell, and ivory colored papers to achieve this effect. Even medium shades or darker papers can provide a “toned surface” with traditional colored pencil work.
When using water soluble colored pencils, a wash of tinted color is a good substitute. This method is particularly helpful with atmospheric compositions such as misty landscapes or with other compositions that feature a predominant color scheme.
A third option for “toning” white paper is to apply a thin layer of colored pencil with bath tissue or paper towel. Start by making your own color palette—just take a scrap piece of paper and put a heavy layer of color down in a small section. Then rub folded bath tissue or paper towel on that swatch of color, and rub it again on your drawing paper to transfer the color.
NOTE: If you decide to use this method, you may want to transfer the line drawing after toning the paper. This will keep your drawing from smudging.
Whether you use toned paper or a toning wash, it’s always a good idea to practice first on a piece of scrap paper to be aware of how the color will affect subsequent layers of colored pencil.
Step 4: The umber layer
The umber layer is where the painting really begins with oils. Using only one color and very little medium, the composition is painted. Detail is developed and values are established to create an underpainting upon which the rest of the painting is developed.
This step is easy to duplicate in colored pencil whether you use traditional or water soluble pencils. It’s still called an umber layer, and I describe how I use it to draw a landscape in this article.
The illustration below shows the finished umber layer from that article, done entirely in colored pencils:
Step 5: The dead layer
Next in the Flemish method, you take a neutral value color (usually gray) and repaint the composition with a higher level of detail. When finished, your composition should look as though it’s being viewed in the light of a full moon:
I confess that I have yet to find a satisfactory way to add a dead layer with colored pencil—trying to do so fully uses up the tooth of the paper, and makes it impossible to add color glazes afterward.
Instead, I usually develop as much detail and value as possible in the earlier underdrawing layer, using Dark Brown and Dark Umber.
Step 6: Color glazes
Adding color is pretty much the same in both mediums. In fact, the primary difference is that oil glazes must dry completely before the next one can be applied. That usually means days—if not weeks—of drying between layers.
With colored pencil, I can layer as many colors as I want one right after the other, with no drying time needed:
Step 7: Detailing
With an oil painting, this stage of the painting process can be almost as involved as the color glazes. The more complicated a subject, the more likely it is that the detailing phase will last up to a week.
I don’t do as much detailing with colored pencil as with oils, mostly because once a pencil drawing is at this stage, it’s difficult to add more detail without doing something to restore the tooth of the paper. Most of the time, my detailing layer simply amounts to burnishing highlights and accents, as seen here in my finished landscape drawing:
I hope you’ve enjoyed this walk-through of my “Flemish” colored pencil process—I encourage you to try it out for yourself the next time you’re working in colored pencils!
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