On this blog I have mostly focused on my experiences with watercolour, which is my primary medium, but I also do some of my work (about 15-20% of my illustrations) using coloured pencils or combining both.
As with watercolours, I am not strictly brand loyal, however, coloured pencil does lend itself a bit better to keeping full sets from a brand. Although coloured pencils are mixable, they are easier to work with with less mixing and a larger colour selection than watercolours.There are also fewer brands of artist-quality coloured pencils, and each brand has a very unique and different formulation to their lead.
The pencils I use the most are Polychromos, which have a smooth yet relatively hard, oil-based formula, ideal for drawing details and layering without a waxy buildup. Continue reading →
I’ve recently started making a very conscious effort to restrict my colour palette (in individual pieces and sketch kits, my overall watercolour studio palette is still a 50+ pigment smorgasbord, my coloured pencil collection is even larger, and I love it).
The goal is both to practice more conscious colour mixing, and to train myself to make more deliberate and informed choices about colour and light interaction. These are more broadly described with the term colour harmony and cohesion, but like many abstract concepts in art, have a strong scientific basis.
Colour harmony is one of these “fuzzy” subjective topics in art that I really didn’t “get” for a long time. Many artists extole the virtues of a limited palette for creating a “cohesive” look within their paintings, but each artist had different and conflicting suggestions for essential pigments. In addition, doesn’t the real world contain all of the visible colours? In a world with all the colours, what is a “cohesive” look anyway? Wouldn’t it be better to have every colour at your disposal?
Reality is quite a bit more complex. The colours we actually see are affected by the colour of light, as well as reflected colour from surrounding objects.
Our eyes play tricks on us – for instance, we know a ripe banana is a bright, middle yellow, but in a dark room, in a fruit bowl surrounded by dark red fruit, the “correct” colour to paint a ripe banana for realism might be a neutralised orange, such as an ochre or Quinacridone Burnt Orange. It took me a while to understand is that in this case, it wouldn’t just be “cohesion” or “harmony” that would be disrupted by painting a bright yellow banana, it would actually not be a realistic depiction of the banana.
Our eyes are actually even tricksier than this – humans actually only have “good” colour accuity in a very narrow cone. We do have a fair bit of peripheral vision outside this cone. Our brain fills in the edges of our vision with colours to match what we see in front of us, then edits our memories to correct any inconsistencies as we look around. Part of the reason a painting with a very bright pop of colour all the way to one side, which doesn’t appear elsewhere, is considered a “bad” or “uncohesive” composition is because this is not how we actually ever see the world.
In a way, choosing a very constrained colour palette is an effective way to mimic real lighting/environmental conditions as we might see them. Take, for example, the limited colour palette above, where I chose a magenta (PR122) and two greens – a cool almost-turquoise PG7 (Winsor Green BS) and a warmer PY129 (Azo Green, or Green Gold). This palette produces a surprising gamut of slightly neutralized warm colours from reds to rusty oranges and plums, as well as some eye-poppingly bright greens. It might be a great colour palette for rendering berries or tomatoes shades by sunlit leaves – in fact, I am planning to paint these very pieces using primarily these colours.
And then, of course, there is the matter of using colour selection to draw attention to a specific element within a composition, or to evoke a mood within a collection or body of work. I’ve recently started taking online courses with the School of Visual Storytelling (SVSLearn), and was struck by the strong focus on manipulating colour and light to help with storytelling.
An illustrator who I think has a really stellar grasp of limited palettes for communicating mood and lighting is Ira Sluyterman van Langerweyde (Iraville). Her studio palette rivals or exceeds mine, but she regularly uses a very limited, and fairly consistent subset to create a cohesive, whimsical, warm and natural-looking collection of playful illustrations.
In the field of botanical and scientific illustration, we are somewhat shielded from all of these concerns. Botanical illustrators draw close-up, isolated subjects under bright, white light, specifically in order to communicate details of the individual subject without influence and distraction from surrounding scenery. We don’t have to worry about the colour of ambient light, because we choose white light. We don’t have to worry as much about competing colours with limited subjects, and can manipulate our composition without worrying about impacts on surrounding elements. We use neutral backgrounds and are specifically discouraged from using cast shadows.
Nonetheless, I have found that the most successful scientific and botanical artists and illustrators, and the ones I admire the most make both deliberate and subconscious choices about lighting, colour, and subject selection which are very helpful in creating eyecatching, striking compositions.
This can play out within individual pieces, where artists choose to highlight the unique characteristics of their subject – in my lichen on elm bark image in my header image, I really loved the stark, graphic white look of the cup fungi, and chose my colour balance in a way that would highlight that graphic, almost comic look, choosing to neutralize most of the greenish-gray crustose lichen and tree bark, but pump up the colour in the pops of green, rust and ochre.
On a broader scale, even realist artists develop a colour “brand” or “colour signature” across their body of work. As an example, Anna Mason’s brightly lit, vibrant fruits and florals have a very different look from Jess Shepherd’s dramatic and earthy leaves and vegetables, although they both make large-scale, realistic botanical paintings.
Inspired by Iraville and other illustrators I admire who I have noticed use similar colour palettes, I thought it would be fun to create an earthy, natural triad to try sketching with or using as a base for some earthier subjects (obviously, this will never be an appropriate palette for very bright citrus or purple flowers I used my new paints from Pruche along with Mayan Blue from Rublev, which is bluer than it appears in this image but still very dark and muted. I generally prefer much brighter, clearer colours, especially greens, but I think this is an interesting jumping off point, in particular urban sketching and simple studies.
I’ve been spending a lot of time poring over James Gurney’s book Color and Light, which is fantastically detailed with loads of visual examples about different lighting situation, how they affect colours within a painting, and how they can be used to communicate mood and focus within a painting. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on gamut mapping. In future posts, I’ll be exploring pieces created with a limited palette, and sharing the gamut mapping for each of them.
Over the past couple years I have primarily been focusing on watercolour as a medium, and building up my collection of watercolours one tube at a time. I’ve been focusing on single-pigment colours, especially those rated “very lightfast” by independent testers. I now have quite a large selection of different colours, fairly well distributed around the colour wheel, yet I still felt like something was missing.
A couple of months ago, I was swatching out dot sheets by Schmincke. I got to the colour “May Green” and squealed out loud. It is such a lovely, happy green! Of course, it was also a mixed pigment (PG151 and PG7) so I debated whether I should get it, since I could just mix it myself.
Around the same time, the single pigment Py117 Greenish Yellow by Holbein had caught my eye. Although I love the colour, I was put off by Handprint’s review, which showed less-than-perfect lightfastness (Holbein ranks the lightfastness as “excellent”)
I debated whether to buy these paints for a while. I really, really wanted them, but my dogmatic side prevented me from pulling the trigger, until one day, while working on a coloured pencil piece, I noticed which pencils were worn down to stubs in each of my sets. Without fail, it was all my yellowish greens in the light olive to bright spring green family.
This should not come as a surprise. A fun fact that few people know about me is that I have synaesthesia. In fact, I only found out a few years ago that I have it.
Synaesthesia is a quirk in brain wiring that affects something like 3% of the population – causing different senses or concepts to be associated/linked in unusual ways. When I first read about synaesthesia, the article used some examples that seemed really foreign and crazy to me, such as one person who has shape-smell synaesthesia (ie- cubes smell like carrots, etc), and another who uses her number-depth synaesthesia as a way to perform complex arithmetic really quickly by “balancing” distances. I was kind of jealous that other people had these crazy, weird superpowers when my brain was just normal (or so I thought).
The second time I read about synaesthesia was in a much more in-depth article that gave examples of more common types of synaesthesia. This time I was very confused, because several of the examples given were things that I do experience. For example, as I am writing this in my cold basement, my fingers feel a very nearly white, icy blue, whereas my arms and hands are more of a teal. I have temperature-colour synaesthesia. Since I’ve experienced temperatures as colours as long as I can remember, I have trouble imagining the concept of a warm day that is NOT orange-yellow, or of cold fingers that are not icy blue. I thought, since people often discuss the concept of warm vs. cool colours, and that water taps are labelled with blue/red, that this was the universal experience of temperature (although I always did find it odd that the cold tap is labelled with ultramarine, which is most definitely not the “cold” blue).
In fact, I have many types of experience/colour synaesthesia. Among other things, I experience emotions as colours, some kinds of sounds have colour associations, people have colour associations.
Notably, my colour association for the emotion “Joy” is a bright, spring green, nearly a perfect match for Schmincke’s May Green watercolour. You can see similar examples in the top row of the swatches of my most used/favourite colours in other media below. No surprise then, that my reaction to painting it out was so giddy. (Again, ignore Prismacolor’s neon green. It is neon green, not teal)
On the second row of swatches are some more olive yellow-greens. These are all near matches for the colour I associate with myself. The truest match for “Lee Green” is between Faber Castell Polychromos May Green, and Lyra Polycolor Apple Green. Holbein’s Greenish Yellow is among the closest single pigment watercolours, although a little too muted and yellow. Daniel Smith’s Serpentine Genuine (from the Primatek line) is also fairly close, but a little too cool, and not as transparent as I often want.
So, needless to say I bought both of the watercolour paints. I will conduct independant lightfastness tests for the Holbein paint, but even if I am not satisfied it will have a place in my travel/sketch palette. May Green may be a mixed pigment, but Joy should always be available in my palette.
I hope you will all join me in hoping for more single pigment greens to be discovered and developed for watercolour!
Mark your calendars! I’m thrilled to announce my first solo art exhibit. Boathouse Botanicals will be a selection of my botanical art work, which I will be displaying at The Boathouse in Kitchener’s Victoria Park. The collection will include existing as well as never before seen work.
The Boathouse Botanicals exhibit opens on June 8th, coinciding perfectly with the beginning of patio season. Drop into the Boathouse, browse some vibrant botanical art, and enjoy a cold beer or cider on the Boathouse patio overlooking the pond in Victoria Park.
Better yet, join me at the Boathouse Botanicals opening reception on June 8th for a first crack at purchasing one of the new pieces on display. I will be available to discuss my process and answer any questions you may have about my pieces and their subjects.
Art is strange. Sometimes, drawing feels like an endless struggle. Other times, I sit down with a cup of tea, and in what feels like a blink (but is actually several hours) I have a complete drawing in front of me. Luckily for me, these pears fell into the latter category.
Based on feedback from previous assignments, I tried to focus on lighting, and creating a very 3-dimensional shape for each of my 3 pears. I chose a simple composition to give myself time to focus on lighting and colour.
The skin textures seem a bit off, and I am still a little too heavy handed/impatient with my pencils, but overall I am pleased with how this piece turned out.
Assignment 5 for the SBA’s Distance Learning Diploma Course was a composition study of a single variety of flower, with leaves.
Recognizing that I have used extremely amateur compositions in much of my past work (single thing being illustrated in one blob in the middle of the painting), and eager to be working in coloured pencil again, I decided to really push out of my comfort zone in this piece, choosing a subject with lots of dimension and depth creating potential for negative space.
While walking along the Spur Line trail that runs behind the KW Artist’s Co-op in late august, I was struck by a thick mass of small, brilliant pink flowers. Research revealed them to be himalayan balsam, an invasive garden-escapee originally marketed as an easy-maintenance, low-budget floral.
I quickly returned with garden shears – the exuberant dangly pink flowers hanging from thick woody stalks with barbed textured leaves, heavy exploding seed pods and deep fuschia buds would provide a very complex and interesting composition indeed. I wanted to show the plant in all it’s messy, woody glory.
I must have been suffering from a cold when I started this illustration, because it wasn’t until the third day of drawing that I started noticing the overwhelming, pungent, sickly sweet mildewy scent of himalayan balsam, which would become my constant companion for the next several weeks.
As frequently happens, I gradually started to hate both my illustration and my subject. The once thrillingly unique little flowers became twisted and vulgar. The exploding seedpods became a constant annoyance as I spent days and weeks carefully positioning stalks and leaves to be both scientifically accurate but still aesthetically pleasing and easy to understand. As the short Canadian summer drew to an end and I had to depend on sketches and photos to complete my work, I second-guessed my colour balance and shadows
I still can’t look at this drawing objectively. I think that I was successful from a negative space/composition side, but it might have come out too cluttered despite my best efforts. I was torn between overusing cast shadows (a big no-no in traditional botanical art) or rendering unnatural looking textural detail, and I can’t discern how well I walked that line.