I have always been envious of oil painters. The amount of realistic detail that a talented oil painter can achieve allows them to produce truly remarkable pieces. They can bring paint to life. I dabbled with oil paint a few times growing up but never could get the hang of it, yet the technique still intrigued me. Discouraged by my failed attempts at becoming a painter, I turned to colored pencil for the majority of my art projects in middle school, high school, and college. Looking to imitate the style of my oil painting friends, I developed a technique that allows me to create painting-like drawings with colored pencils.
Grids Aren’t Cheating
Humans err; therefore we need grids. As someone who is interested in hyperrealism, I am a big advocate of using grids in order to be precise. When trying to replicate a photo, you want to be exact. To be exact, you must be in proportion. To be in proportion, you must use a grid system. The type of drawings I do call for a great amount of accuracy, otherwise my work won’t be impressive or interesting. By calculating a grid system to use between your photo and the paper you will be drawing on, you can sketch out a proportionate skeleton of what your drawing will look like before getting started, guaranteeing an accurate depiction of your subject. Grids aren’t cheating; they simply serve as a tool to increase accuracy.
All Squares Are Created Equal
Once you have drawn out your grid and sketched a foundation of your drawing, it’s time to alter your perception of what you’re about to draw. Rather than drawing one large picture, you are now drawing a bunch of tiny pictures. I’ve learned that in order to reach the realistic level of detail that I strive to attain, I have to treat each square of my grid as its own miniature drawing. This way, I won’t skim over important details that might not seem important when taking in the big picture. The more observant and meticulous you allow your eyes to be, the more lifelike your drawing will turn out. So, a grid serves not only as a tool for accurate proportions but additionally an instrument for dividing up your picture into smaller pieces that are easy to digest.
Focusing on smaller sections of the image will also prevent your brain from tricking your eyes. Sometimes isolating a feature in a photo, like an eye of a portrait, can make the feature look odd. This makes us want to change how the eye looks in our drawing to match what we think the eye should look like. When drawing familiar subjects, like portraits of friends, it’s easy to ignore what we’re actually seeing and turn to our knowledge of what a face looks like. Making your subject’s eyes look more like what you know his eyes look like than what you’re seeing in the picture will result in incongruity between the subject’s appearance and your drawing. Focusing on the squares of the grid as individual drawings rather than focusing on the individual features will allow you to concentrate on the true shapes that make up the big picture and relieve the cognitive dissonance that occurs when a feature seems odd on its own. The key is to trust your eyes, not your logic.
Think Paint, Not Pencil
Like in painting, blending is key. When using wax-based pencils, like Prismacolor, it is possible to blend colors to create smooth transitions between hues or even create new hues. Blending colors eliminates flatness that can drain the life from a drawing. Applying more pressure when blending will create richer, more vibrant colors and will allow your drawing to look more lifelike.
Black is the Enemy
I was assigned my first colored pencil assignment in middle school. The picture I was drawing from was a photo of a still life comprised of peppers on a purple cloth that I had taken for the occasion. The one rule I was given for my pepper drawing was not to use the color black. This seemed tricky because of the high contrast and dark shadows in the photo, but I found ways to create dark values without my black pencil by blending other dark colors together. As my drawing developed, I realized that the use of color to substitute black in its absence gave the drawing much more life, adding depth and making it richer. As my teacher was trying to show me, black has a way of flattening out a drawing and pure black is not a color our eyes perceive naturally on a regular basis. As Ian Storm Taylor mentions in one of his essays, even black objects are not truly seen as pure black due to light reflecting off of their surfaces. Using a blend of colors to create dark areas not only avoids the flatness of black, but it adds an additional vibrance to the drawing and creates a more accurate image of what the eye would see naturally. It’s a win/win. In moderation, used only for the smallest and darkest shadows, black is sometimes necessary. However, to make sure black won’t drain life from my drawing, I always blend in a hint of color and avoid shading large areas with black.
In addition to zooming in on each individual square of the grid, it is equally important to zoom in on colors as well. What do I mean by this? Take the sky for example. We know the sky is blue; there is even a colored pencil named “sky blue.” When drawing the sky, our instinct is to reach for that sky blue pencil and shade in the entire thing without much thought, but this would result in a flat, unrealistic sky with far too brilliant of a hue. The truth is, most pictures of the sky have hints of grey or green or even yellow, red or brown and have a base color much paler than the sky blue pencil. When we slip into autopilot while drawing, we fail to notice undertones that could make our drawing magnificent and instead wind up with a sky the color of a highly saturated Twitter bird. So to avoid this, we must “zoom in” on color, ignoring the big picture and focusing on smaller portions of color. By going square by square, we are less likely to be influenced by what color we know our subject is in reality and can then rely more on what colors we are actually seeing in the photo. This technique requires a great amount of visual honesty with yourself about the colors you are seeing; don’t let previous knowledge of the color of your subject trick your eyes. For each shape you see in every square, run through the primary and secondary colors as well as grey, pink, chartreuse, and peach, asking yourself if any of these tones are even faintly present in that particular area. This will seem like a tedious routine at first, but in time you can train your eyes to dissect color and the process will become almost automatic. Blending hints of these undertones into base colors will make a dramatic difference in the quality of your work.
In hindsight this is fairly intuitive, but in the past couple of years I’ve concluded that in order to make a drawing visually appealing, you must work from a visually appealing photo. I’ve found that the best way to increase a picture’s aesthetic appeal in preparation for a drawing is to boost the saturation. By doing this, I was able to detect those minor undertones that make the colors of a drawing pop. For example, in one of my self-portraits, I began all flesh-toned squares of my grid by lightly shading in turquoise, pink, and yellow before going back over the area with neutral colors and greater pressure to blend it all together. Even for hair colors, like in Drinkin’ Outta Cups, I use blues and reds to make duller colors more vibrant.
What I’ve Learned, In a Nutshell
- Be observant – it is crucial to notice details and examine exact shapes made by negative and positive space, highlights and shadows
- Be a conscious artist; don’t turn on autopilot
- Be meticulous; it will be evident in the level of detail of your work
- Trust your eyes, not your brain, when determining color
- Work square to square, not feature to feature