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January 16, 2020

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Getting Real with colored pencils

December 18, 2019

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Did you know that it is possible to create photo realistic images with colored pencils? I’ve only been aware of this for about 4 years. I discovered it by viewing the winners of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo student art contest which my school participates in and my students had entered. I had my students do several 2 week projects and pick the best one to enter. I though we had done pretty well. Keep in mind that I went to a very good art school (Ringling College of Art and Design). But what I saw in the Hayloft Gallery at NRG center blew my mind. The winners of the district shows were represented which were good. Then came the Auction pieces which were even better and finally I came down to the category winners and overall show winners which were unbelievably good.

This is a contest for only student work, elementary, junior high and high school. No college, no adult divisions. It hit me as I took in all the winners that if I had been able to enter one of my own pieces that I may have been able to win at a local round but my piece wouldn’t have advanced to the action level or category winners. That freaked me out a little. If I, a art school graduate couldn’t win at this thing then how could one of my high school students hope to do well in this contest? The bar seemed impossibly high. So over the last three years I’ve been trying to find ways to close that gap. One thing that really caught my eye looking at the winners in the Hayloft gallery was the pieces that looked like photos. Now I knew that it was an art contest but from a foot away some of the entries looked like i was staring at a photograph. On the label beneath it read ‘colored drawing’. I had a little experience with colored pencils from school but nothing that prepared me for that. From my experience colored pencil drawings were ‘sketchy’, ‘scratchy’ with that pencil texture you would expect from pencils. After 3 years of experimenting I think I’ve figured out how to create a colored pencil drawing that could do well at the contest.

 

The youth goat roper is my test piece from this year’s Houston rodeo student art contest. This year I had both Art 2 classes create colored pencil drawings for the contest. So here’s what I’ve figured out thus far and I hope to keep getting better at this because it’s pretty fun. The first thing is Blending. So let’s look at my sample colored pencil piece from that first year before I went an saw all the winners. This was a simple still life using pink paper and two colored pencils.

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I used Prismacolor polychromes. We had these sets of 48 colors when I started teaching here. I thought this was a decent little drawing… before I went to see the results. I did have one student that year who created an image with smoother blends but I didn’t understand why his looked like that. It was a small piece and I hadn’t watched him do it. I was starting to get the feeling that I was missing something. After I got back I started researching ‘how to blend colored pencils’. Thank you internet. I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert at it and so far I’ve only used two of the techniques. I’ll let you search that up for more details. What I can tell you is a little about those two blending techniques that I have tried. These are ‘dry techniques’ I haven’t tried using solvents or ‘wet techniques’ to blend yet. What I have tried is blending with a colorless blender and blending color on color.

prisma-blender-1The first thing I did was take my still life and try to get smoother blends on it. I had never seen or heard of a colorless blender. They don’t come with the set of pencils. So I pretty much felt like an idiot. If you use colored pencils you should at least have one of these around to play with. They are super cheap and worth trying. So I ordered one up online and went back over the boot still life. By this time the flowers were long gone and I didn’t have a picture to work from. I wasn’t worried about trying to make the drawing more realistic, just smoother fades.

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Here you can see the difference that just using the colorless blender makes. You can burn through one of those blender pencils pretty quick if you use it on everything like this. But I’d never used one before and was itching to figure it out.Image-1The other thing that I was after was sharper details. When everything is corse and grainy it’s hard to capture small details. as the blending gets smoother you can call out small details. So after I blended away with my little blender pencil and i was able to go back and add details. I think I was still just using the two colors at this point. A dark blue and a white, plus the colorless blender. I do hate that I lost most of the paper color in my blending fury. but at least I was able to get more detail and smoother blends in. As I’ve progressed with blending, I find myself doing more of the ‘color on color’ blending and less of the blender pencil. I do still like to have one handy though.

The next major advancement that I tried is using a full set of pencils. Since I was most familiar with Prismacolor brand, I started there. The full set boasts 150 colors which is just over 3 times as many. Does this make a difference? YES! at least it does for me. As a student I had been put off buying the full set because of sticker shock. In the art supply stores it was over $300 but you can get it online now for under $100.

s-l300download (2)It’s hard to explain the emotions of going from two trays of pencils to 6 trays. It’s like Christmas morning or opening birthday presents. I heard angels singing. A heavenly light shone from the trays. Ahhhh. So one thing that really helps this other technique, the ‘color on color’ is having more colors. Armed with a whopping one hundred and two more colors than before I set out to do some fancy blending. My second year entering the contest I focused on acrylic painting so it was a year before I tried again to see how to do photo realistic colored pencils. I did order a full set of pencils so that I’d be ready to try. So last year one of my goals was to create a photo real colored pencil drawing. I did a piece for my sister of her and my mother on a cruise at the beach. I can’t find any pictures of it, I guess because it was like a secret surprise gift. Too bad. It turned out pretty good and I learned a lot over the course of that project. One main thing that I learned is that using the colorless blender can leave a slightly rough texture. If I really want to get smooth creamy fades then i burnish the color down with pressure and blend from one color to another. If you don’t wan the color to get darker as you blend, you can use a lighter color to blend over the top. With a little pressure and a few different colors and shades you can start to build super smooth blends. I still like to keep the colorless blender handy though. I might want to use it if I want an area to have a more grainy look. If it’s an area of sand or dirt, which I had a lot of in the roper scene, it works great. It’s also a great shortcut if you have an area that is close to done but you notice that there are some pin holes where you can still see the paper coming through. Instead of having to go figure out the right colors to touch it up with you can just sharpen the blender pencil and rub around that area. Boom, done. If you are doing touch ups in different color areas though you may need to wipe off the blender so it doesn’t transfer color to unwanted areas. Say if you were touching up the blue sky, then tried to blend an area on a face.

The biggest frustrations on that beach pic was that the Prisma colors were hard to keep sharp and they tended to crush and leave bits of colored debris that would land in other areas and stain. So this year on my demo I tried a different brand.

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It solved one problem but made another. I tried Faber Castel pencils this year. This type of pencils are called Polychromes. Fancy right? I did the piece on brown paper. I guess I thought the toned paper would unify the color or something. I think I’ll just try white paper next time, a good white paper. So here’s the skinny on this years. These pencils were great. You can sharpen them super pointy and they hold the point which was one thing I didn’t like about the prismacolor ones. There is a plus side and a minus side to this though. This means that I can go in and put great levels of detail in, but you don’t get the rich creamy color that you do with prismacolor. For me, this was a fair trade off. Since i was on colored paper, I felt that I was fighting to get my colors opaque. The brown showed through more than I would like, but for the details I got out of it, i think it was worth it.

I made a mistake at the end that I’m most upset about. I was happy with the drawing. The paper was a little wavy which is to be expected in the humid environment in the Houston area. I mounted the paper onto a mat board so that I could frame it without worrying about my paper sagging. All was going well. One little thing bugged me. The sheen in some areas where I had burnished the pencils versus other areas that didn’t have much pigment. Now polychromos don’t smudge so i don’t see a reason why you’d need to use a finishing spray to protect them, but I thought if I used some satin finish aerosol fixative it might make the finish more even across the piece. Sigh. Sounded reasonable.  I took the piece and gave it a good spray of fixative and my heart still sinks because although he effect is subtle the spray did make the colored pencil blend into the paper a bit. So now the whole thing has just a bit more sepia tone. Now it’s just more brown than I’d like and there is no undo button on real life. Ah well. To add insult to injuty it didn’t seem to change the problem that I tried to use it for. I’m sure if I put enough coats of spray fix i could get the finish more even across the piece but how much more brown would it be at that point? It really wasn’t even a problem, but as you can probably tell, I’m having a hard time getting over it. On the plus side if i do anything with the file digitally it should be easy enough to correct. (The picture at the beginning is before I sprayed it. I don’t have the heart to take another pic to show the difference. It’s slight but noticeable)

In the future I could see myself using a combination of the Faber Castelles for details and the Prisma colors for areas of bright color. There are so many other brands to try as well. I’ll try to pick up a full set of a different brand each year.

Back to exclusive on Envato. 

January 13, 2018

Well, two years ago I decided to stop being an excucive Author on Graphic River and try selling on other markets. I didn’t crack into the one I really wanted to sell on: Creative Market. I did open stores on Etsy, Fotolia (now adobe stock) and sellfy. Then I really left things alone for a long time. I’ve been busy with a job change and freelance work. 

Here’s how the results shook out. 

Graphic River. I sacrificed about half my profits on Graphic River during this time since I was non exclusive. But during the two years I did nothing with the site but they monthly deposit my profits into Paypal, from which I can check out with PayPal online at many stores or I can use my linked Paypal debit card. Super easy. Super clean. True residual income. The profits vary in the low hundreds month to month. 
Foltoloa. After two years I still hadn’t earned enough credits on fotolia to cash out a payment! And what is a credit worth anyway. Everything was a pain. I kept getting notification that files had sold here and there but I hadn’t filled out my tax I’d and submitted the identification card till a few days ago. I was so mad that after two years I was just below the 50 credit minimum for a payout. I still don’t even know how much actual money that would equate to. $50? 

Sellfy. The Sellfy store never sold anything that I remember. Total waiste if time. 

Etsy. This one had potential. I started seeing sales right away and things seemed to be doing well at first. But since my files are digital not physical I had to stay on top of listing the items. There were some limited auto renew options and you have to pay to list. I didn’t have to do that anywhere else. When I went on to working on other things my Etsy store gradually ran out of auto renews and shut itself down. Not the little perpetual money machine that I want. Too hard to administer. 

Creative market. This is the one that got away. I have a friend who says he does very well on this site. I guess I was too cocky after my long success selling on Graphic River. I thought CM would be happy to have ne aboard. That wasn’t the case. Maybe one day when I have free time again I’ll try harder to get approved to sell there. From my experience it is the hardest to get approved to sell on. I guess that’s good once you are in since there would be very high quality items without distracting low quality items. I don’t think item quality was my issue. My products are very nice and very well rated. I think my problem was packaging. There is a very different design esthetic to the way CM authors display yheir good versus GR authors. I tried to repurpose my GR packaging rather than going ground up trying to fit in on CM. I was just so sure they would be happy to have me in their market. A little more humility Steven! For now this market remains in the theoretical. I hear it’s nice so I’d say it’s worth applying to. 

Back to GR. So with little time to focus on my side business selling brushes and styled for AI and PS, I figured I better just shut down my other stores and go back to being an exclusive author on Graphic River. I’m actually surprised how well my sales have remained while I was ignoring it. I didn’t have huge sales when I was active but I expected sales to taper off and dye after a year or so as my items get buried deeper and deeper with new items. Instead I think they’ve stayed pretty steady. My commissions did drop in half, but that was due to my commission rate dropping in half when I changed to non exclusive. 

I lost quite a bit of money but learned three markets that I don’t want to sell on. My theory at the time was get less on the one market but overall make more money since I’d be spread out in multiple markets. Instead it seemed to just be more than I could manage for less profits. 

I maxed out around 85 items. My other goal before diversifying was to just keep adding items. I’m a little sad that I never hit 100 items. I thought about 100 items as a wall. If I built enough walls that would make a house that I could live in. In other words I hoped that it would replace my dayjob for income or get close enough that I could quit and go full time. 40% of my income was the goal. I put so many late night building items, packaging them, testing them. I’m not sure if I’ve made back enough just to cove my hours yet. I think last count I’ve made around 13,000 on Graphic River but that’s over like 6 or 7 years. On my best month I made over $300. Many of my items are Christmas related so I get a good spike around then. With more of that hypothetical free time I might start back up making items at some point too. I’d at least like to make the old goal of 100 items. 

In my new job I take lots of picture for reference for my art students. Maybe I should try selling some of those some time too. I’m making all kinds of art these days. In my teaching job I create Drawings, paintings, ceramics as demonstrations. hopefully I can continue to sell some of those as well. I’m particularly interested in residual income streams. Make it once sell it over and over. So that is a whole other side. Sell images as stock, try to make and sell prints, license products for posters or puzzles or something. 

For now I’m making money four ways. Teaching, freelancing, Graphic River residual and selling prices of art. I just wish the sum total of these efforts was more lucrative. Guess I just have to keep creating and keep hustling. At least I’m having more fun now. I’m no longer trying so desperately to escape the day job. Teaching for the last two years has been the best job ever. No more mindless drone work or creative ownership of everything I do by my employer. Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how it’s going from time to time. 

Drawing from plasters

January 11, 2018

I’ve been looking forward to this from last year and it’s just as fun as I’d hoped!i started buying a set of plasters last school year and ordered a few more and swing arm lamps this year. The result is a transformed art room into a more studio environment. Now each table can have a still life and set their own lighting. I’m using this as a unit on learning how to shade. The benefits of the plasters are that the color doesn’t get in the way of seeing the shading, they hold Stiller than a live model and they don’t go bad like flowers. 

Shading is much easier to see on the white plaster. I have the students start with a line drawing. Lines represent where value changes. So next you start adding in the correct gray scale values. Some of them end up being light where you would expect it to be dark or dark where you would expect it to be light. You just have to carefully observe and record. Light often changes around edges picking up reflected light. All the lights and plasters are from dickblick.com. I love that store. Terrible name though. 
Here’s a couple of drawings from today that show what we are shooting for. The tools are also important. We have a range of pencils from 2H to 6B. We have cotton swab blenders, rolled paper blenders, kneaded rubber erasers and pencil erasers (the kind you can sharpen like a pencil). By alternating between these tools you can get smooth dynamic pencil rendering. 

If you are ready to take your shading to the next level you might want to give this a try! 

Charcoal drawing of comedian Jeff Allen

May 22, 2017

Funny guy and fun to draw. I used vine charcoal on heavy gray paper and finished up with pastel pencils and blending stumps. 

Vine charcoal

October 19, 2016

I feel a little silly that I had no idea what vine charcoal was until today. The pieces I had showed buds so it was more obvious that it was actually a smoked grape vine. Yes I googled it. I’m not sure if the one I had used before were grape vine or willow branch. I don’t remember seeing buds before. 
I also learned why vin charcoal is so great for doing toned paper renderings like these. Because they are smoked sticks or vines, they don’t have any binders added like you would get in a compressed charcoal or charcoal pencil. That makes for easy erasing and smooth blending. 

These were started by rubbing the side of the stick on the paper and rubbing it in with a paper towel until medium value and smooth texture. Small circular motions are the trick. Then the fun part. I like to start with the highlights, pulling them out with a block eraser. I used the white kind. A needed dresser is helpful though I didn’t use one today. Sooo fun! I did one in each art class as a demo since many kids were out for PSAT testing today. So I worked on each about 45 minutes. 

Grotesques!

October 11, 2016

After Da Vinci’s notebook grotesques. The one on the right is based off me. Looking good Steven!