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Good Rockin' Tonight - Creating Colour - Part 1

Though I do try to share step-by-step naratives on Instagram, I thought, for a change, it might be fun to break the process down even further and share the finer details with you all. So here is my first offering! If they're of interest, let me know and I'll try and plan a few more.

I'm going to start by answering a question I get asked most frequently - yes, I do use reference photos. I am by no means a good enough artist to draw the human figure straight onto the page without the aid of a photo, especially the human figure in motion. I am in awe of people who can do this. It is a phenomenal skill. Since I don't possess this skill, I cheat, as do many other artists. In fact as did countless streams of Old Master painters throughout the centuries (though of course they didn't have photographs, but real life models and in several cases they used a nifty gadget called a camera obscura with which to project the tableau before them onto the canvas itself which they could then draw around, speed things up a bit). But I digress. (Perhaps I'll focus on the camera obscura in a later blog post...)

So yes, back to cheating. I lightly trace the outline of the figures from my chosen reference photo in a H pencil so that I have the framework on which to hang my shading, cross-hatching and new clothing designs. I don't always know exactly what the couple will look like until I start drawing. For example, hairstyles can go through several incarnations before I settle on one or decide that actually I'd prefer to cover up a troublesome hairdo with a hat or headscarf. Likewise, the figures often change their outfits more than once.

I always start by drawing the skin and hair. There is no real reason for this, only it makes sense to me to get down on paper who the figures are before dressing them. For me, it helps ground the drawing and I can then start to see where I want to take it.

I always use a H pencil (Faber-Castell) first to map out the contours and shading, and as I'm right-handed I will work from left to right across the page. When I've finished that first layer of pencil, I'll work back into those areas in a B pencil (mechanical - Pentel) to build up the contrasts.

Once I'm happy with the graphite pencil it's time for the colouring to begin. However - and this may, coupled with my earlier confessions of 'making it up as I go', make you question my credability somewhat - I am not the world's best colour planner. It's shocking really.

Honestly, so much of my artwork is created by stepping out blindly with my pencils and seeing where they take me. At times it's frustrating and stressful and it doesn't always lead to successful finished illustrations, but on the whole it seems to work. And it does mean that I often end up in a completely new and exciting place with the drawing to where I thought I'd end up. I usually do the most minimal amount of colour planning - do I want a warm colour here or a cool colour? Here are all my reds, which one do I want to use today? All very scientific. (Speaking of science and colour, there's a fantastic podcast episode about colour theory from the It's Nice That team - definitely worth a listen!)

In the case of this drawing, I knew I wanted a nice warm red that leant slightly more on the orange side of the spectrum and one that made me think of summery strawberries and cream. The way I build up colour is perhaps not the way others do, but as with most things in art, it doesn't matter. So long as the technique works for you the creator, forget worrying about right and wrong ways of doing things. This is not school and there is no final exam.

My preferred technique is to start with a mid-tone and map out the areas of shadow. This not only helps me see the garment as a more 3-dimensional object, but also sets the base tone for it. It's a little bit like painting in that you gradually build the colour up, but unlike oil paints (in particular), there are only so many layers of coloured pencil you can throw at a piece of paper before it starts to crack under the pressure. So I always begin lightly, gently blending in each new colour.

After the initial mid-tone mapping, I'll move onto the darker tones to emphasise the shadows even more and heighten the contrast. Then it's a case of zigzagging backwards and forwards between the midtone(s) and the dark tone(s) until the desired colour is produced. I usually create the highlights from either white or ivory or, if I'm after something more subtle, a much lighter version of the midtone.

Even whilst I was halfway through drawing this skirt, I didn't really have any idea of how I wanted the top to look. However, I've got into the habit of sticking works in progress with a little washi tape on the wall next to my desk so that I can glance over at them and muse even when I'm working on something else.

I decided to keep to the red side of the colour wheel, but chose the darker tones of the skirt as my starting point, and decided that a pattern of some kind was needed to contrast with the plainness of the red. However, I already knew at this point that I wanted to give her a fancy cool headscarf so I didn't want a pattern that would overwhelm the figure or unbalance the overall composition. The answer was stripes in Caput Mortuum and a fairly muted secondary colour, in this case Warm Grey II mixed with Ivory. And I created the shadows by combining these two colours with a little Caput Mortuum to ensure visual harmony and because shadows are always influenced by the colours around them.

The belt and shoes may look black, but I promise you no black coloured pencil came anywhere near this drawing. I always remember my art teacher at school telling us quite earnestly to stay away from pure black. It is hard and cold and sucks the light and colour out of everything around it.

And it's true. It creates a major distraction for the eye and has a flattening effect. Which is why I tend not to use it. Instead I build up a black-like colour from Dark Sepia and Payne's Grey, with a little White or Ivory for the highlights.

Now, with the headscarf/turban, I went full Van Gogh. Cheery sunflowers and Ultramarine skies. I never used to be a big fan of the Dutchman, but then I visited the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam one year and watched that amazing, hand-painted animated film called 'Loving Vincent' and started to see him and his work in a whole new light. And I know I mentioned earlier about using headscarves as a way to cover up hairstyles gone wrong, but I also think I draw a lot of headscarves because I can't quite seem to pull them off myself and feel that I can live this fashion fantasy through my illustrations.

Hands up who would like to learn the secrets to the centuries old mystery of how to make gold? You and me both. Alas all I can share with you is my own personal technique for creating it on the page. There are gel pens that speak of shiny gold and silver success, and I do sometimes use these too, but on the whole I create the illusion of metal with colouring pencils.

I have been trying out different colour combinations for quite a while now and this is the mix I find works best - all of which are Faber Castell unless otherwise stated:

Warm Grey II

Raw Umber

Burnt Ochre

Dark Sepia


Caran d'Ache Prismalo 999 035

Of course the amounts of each colour can vary from piece to piece because, and yes you've guessed it, it really is just a case of making it up as you go.

If you've made it this far, many thanks for your time! I hope you found this little step-by-step interesting. I will be following this post up soon with another detailing the man's outfit, so watch this space! :)

And if you'd like to be one of the first to own a print of the finished design, please follow this link!


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