Pencils and Process: Thoughts on Returning to Art, Portraits, and Colored Pencil Painting

Pencils and Process: Thoughts on Returning to Art, Portraits, and Colored Pencil Painting

by Jon Amdall


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Pencils and Process offers an easy-to-follow discussion about drawing and learning to use colored pencil from a beginner's perspective. It covers the use of graphite pencils, measuring grids for controlled proportions, starting with color, approaches to blending, sources of subject ideas, and thoughts about online art communities and copyright. For those who have returned to art recently, or are considering doing so, this book provides relatable experience and tips. For those already immersed in drawing, it shows another perspective and ideas from an unconventional viewpoint.

As the cover suggests, this is a book about art and process. More specifically, it's an exploration of re-learning how to draw after taking a 15-year break. Within these pages, you will follow lessons taken through a hobbyist's experience. The goal is to make the stories and descriptions accessible to help others on a similar journey. Basic techniques are covered such as measuring grids for proportion and colored pencil "painting" to achieve a smooth look using thickly blended layers.

The most important aspect of drawing sounds like a tired aphorism, but it's true – practice is the best path to improvement as an artist. Beyond practice though, the next best thing is to simply read about the experiences of other artists. Sharing these artistic experiences, even through the distance of a book, can spark inspiration and illicit new avenues of thought. Therein lies the central purpose of this book - to share a novice's journey in the hope that it might provide a small spark for others.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781733921008
Publisher: Jon Amdall
Publication date: 04/03/2019
Pages: 158
Product dimensions: 7.50(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.34(d)

About the Author

Jon Amdall is a pencil artist by hobby, data analyst by profession, and scientist by education. He graduated from the University of North Texas Health Science Center with an M.S. in Biomedical Science and the University of Texas at Dallas with a B.A. in Biology. Jon runs the Amdall Gallery blog at where he shares artwork, research projects, and tech-related interests.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from the 'Process Notes – Pencil Painting' Chapter:

As I became more comfortable working with colored pencils, I started experimenting with more aggressive blending. One of the selling points Prismacolor Premier sets was how smoothly they can blend, and my lighter almost hesitant coloring wasn't bringing that out. It seemed clear that my drawings looked incomplete and like the work of a novice, and I suspected more confident layering might help. I also continued researching how other artists use colored pencils, learning quite a bit from artist sites on WordPress and YouTube channels.

Eventually, this experimentation, practice, and studying trifecta led me to something we'll refer to in this book as "colored pencil painting." Before I go further in this description, I should caveat: As I've said already in this book, I am not an expert when it comes to art. I try my best to accurately describe techniques and aspects of drawing, but it's possible I may not use the best technical term at some point. Hopefully, that doesn't happen at all in this book...but it could. So, my apologies if my language is not as precise as a trained artist's would be.

Now, back to this colored pencil painting idea. I'm not talking about using paints with colored pencils or putting paint on a pencil, or anything like that. For my purposes, this refers to layering colored pencil very thickly until the tooth (surface texture) of the paper is gone. Another word I've heard used is for this type of layered blending is "burnishing." Burnishing until the paper's tooth is gone essentially means that in the final state, there is no surface left for additional color to grip onto the paper. The end result of this type of colored pencil painting is that the artwork looks very much like a painting, rather than the sketchy, brushed look pencil otherwise leaves.

In this chapter, I am going to take a detour from the progression-based discussion. I want to provide an outline of the overall process I use for colored pencil painting. Although I believe the quality of my artwork has improved between early 2018 and now, the basic process has actually remained fairly consistent.

First, let's talk supplies. I've tried a few different brands of pencils on the economical end of the scale, but my favorite right now Prismacolor Premier. I like the soft cores that allow for smoother blending than some others I've tried. It seems like the higher quality pencils achieve a better paint-like effect from burnishing and blend more effortlessly, but I don't have enough experience with top-end products to say that definitively. Prismacolor Premiers have the right combination of price and functionality for my use. A few artists have recommended trying Caran d'Ache Luminance, but unfortunately, they are out of my price range at this point. Anecdotally, it seems like artists I’ve come across who create extremely life-like skin textures from pencils often mention using Luminance.

For quite a while, I carried on drawing, coloring, and learning; my usual process was to work on a portrait, take photographs a few times to show how the work progressed, then share the experience on my website. I didn’t give much thought to discussing technical aspects like the type of pencil, exact color name/number, and so forth. Finally, in May 2018 I wrote about that flow after some comments from curious folks wanting to hear a bit more detail. I did a portrait specifically to show the materials I used as I went along.

I am a creature of habit, so while I’ve tweaked and adapted to some extent, I still use the same flow. I’m definitely not advocating this as any sort of “best practice” or anything; in fact, a professional artist would surely point out ways my routine is flawed I can’t even imagine. This is just my usual flow, for better or worse.

First, I sketch just the bare minimum lines without any shading or definition. This is a very rough and basic outline. I don’t worry if it’s not perfect (sometimes my outlines are pretty bad). The depth and realism will come together once the layers and burnishing getting rolling. This outline actually serves a similar function to what the measured grids once did; essentially to keep the art train on the tracks. I should probably lean on this crutch less actually because some outlined features don’t exist as clean lines in real life (shadows and form of the nose, lip transition, etc.)

The second step is an indicator of my amateur status and is probably where I start to significantly diverge from actual professionals. I think the most important decision in colored pencil painting is when to burnish; once you start the heavy layering and blending, you will soon lose the paper’s tooth. If there is no more paper material to grip the colored pencil wax, you are pretty much done adding new color. Most experts that I’ve read or watched online seem to burnish very late in the game. They lightly apply layers of various colors they need to blend, then the final move is to heavily blend

My usual method is sort of different than most experts I’ve seen. I tend to obliterate much of my available paper tooth right away, and then it's a game of how much fine-tuning can I squeeze in before the paper is spent. I don't consider it to be the burnishing stage yet because I'm not using white to pull things together, but it is quite heavily pressed. In this example, I used Light Peach (PC 927) as the first layer. I started by pushing down a thick coat of pencil for the base. Depending on the skin tone of the subject, I’ll swap out different shades to start with instead of Light Peach or mix multiple colors as needed.

It seems that there is a fairly clear trade-off between my current process and the expert's path. Applying multiple light layers, then burnishing at the very end can result in some of the most beautifully realistic portraits, but seems to be very time-consuming. I'm sure it varies, but I've heard some impressive pencil artists say, for example, just one eye and its surrounding area could take hours alone. On the other hand, utilizing heavy base layers early as I do seem to take less time; it's not uncommon for me to take a portrait from start to finish in one evening. Of course, my artwork doesn't have the level of nuance and depth of color some of the elite colored pencil artists out there achieve.

After the thick base layer(s), the next step is to start shading. The gray I use depends on the required contrast, but I often go with 30% Warm Gray (PC 1052) for this initial shading. I fill the shadows in pretty darkly because they lighten up significantly through blending in the next step. In this phase of the drawing, the subject usually starts to look like a zombie; if they look sort of ghoulish at this point, I feel like I'm on the right track. A fun distraction is to also fill in just the pupils, leaving the iris white, for some next level creepiness.

The fourth step is the big one - it's time to really start the burnishing phase. Blend everything together using White (PC 938). This step will pull all the colors together, and soften them a bit. The shadows become less harsh, and if you use multiple colors for the base skin tone layer, it will blend them together pretty smoothly. The subject will finally start to look a bit more like a normal human instead of the zombie from the previous step. At this point, the paper material is approaching critical mass in terms of how much more pencil wax it can accommodate. The hope in this phase is that I haven't overdone it, because it's definitely not complete.

It's important to point out here that the direction of your pencil strokes during burnishing is critical. Moving the White pencil in the opposite direction of your base layers will blend better than going in the same direction. Using circular motions probably achieves the most natural and realistic look for skin, but hair might look better burnished unidirectionally. In other words, the overall look and texture you achieve will be strongly influenced by burnishing directionality. Your signature style as an artist may even be influenced by your burnishing tendencies.

The next step is to add some definition using darker colors. Typically, I use 70% Warm Gray (PC 1056) and 90% Warm Gray (PC 1058) for highlights here. Now I’ll fill in the pupils, darker eye shading, nostrils, the underside of the nose, ears, and anything else that has deeper shadows. At this point, the drawing will probably start to come into focus and you can probably see a final product peeking back at you from around the corner.

This is almost just more of the previous step, but next, I start incorporating pink tones for the mouth and anywhere else needed. This always applies for lips, but most subjects also need more pinkish color in their cheeks and other areas of the face. In this example, I’I used Blush Pink (PC 928) and Peach (PC 939) on the lips, cheek, and side of the nose. If necessary, sometimes I also need to go back in with 50% Warm Gray (PC 1054) and more White blending to touch up.

Next, in this example, I started working on the hair. To achieve a muted brown, I usually go with French Gray. In this case, I’ve used 30% French Gray (PC 1070), 50% French Gray (PC 1072), and 90% French Gray (PC 1076) to bring out the right variants. Just as with the skin, I applied these colors very heavily. Although you could blend, layer, and achieve color variation through pressure, I typically use multiple variants of French Gray so I can heavily pencil in all hair colors. For areas not reflecting light, I blended with a Colorless (PC 962) pencil. For areas with light reflection, I used white.

The last step is sometimes not necessary. If anything needs a bit more definition, I'll return to the graphite pencil. For this example, there were some areas that didn't appear sharp enough, so I did some touch-up. I think this step might also be an "experts don't do this" example, because an argument can be made that defined lines make art look more cartoonish. But I feel like it sometimes helps if features turned out too soft.

That’s sort of a lot to unpack, so here’s a bulleted list for a summary:
• Expensive pencils blend more effortlessly and smoothly. You really do get what you pay for with colored pencils.
• Outline in graphite first. It doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, it’s probably the least important part of a colored pencil portrait.
• Burnishing (blending colors heavily) eliminates your paper’s tooth (surface).
• Burnishing could be boiled down to this: Slower and better, or quicker and worse (my usual path). To be quick like an amateur Amdall, apply base layers heavily right away and burnish early. To be more realistic, go with many light layers.
• Burnish with White (PC 938) or a Colorless Blender.
• Directionality is important – the most natural burnishing for skin is usually circular, against the direction of your layers. This can also impact your general artistic style.

Now that we've discussed the method itself, how does this colored pencil painting style impact artwork versus a lighter penciling technique? This seems like a perfect time to provide an example demonstrating how the two styles look side-by-side. As luck would have it, I happen to have a drawing I completely redrew about a year after the original.

The original artwork was done early in my learning experience with color when I still utilized a relatively soft coloring approach. Months later, I actually ruined that sketch trying to change it too much. I regretted that for quite a while until I attempted the complete redraw. This is another scene inspired by the Dark Tower series by Stephen King featuring two of the main characters from the first sketch I shared earlier in the book.

This time, I was much more satisfied with the detail achieved for Susannah and Jake, and I was even able to get a representation of Oy the Billybumbler I am happy with. Prior to the redraw, I knew I had improved a bit over time, but I hadn't considered how substantial the change might be in a redrawn piece. I was pleasantly surprised by the smaller touches, such as more natural looking facial features.

Leaving aside the incremental natural improvements, you can see that the stylistic differences are fairly significant. Despite using the same color palette, the heavy pencil painting in the newer artwork is much more vibrant and visually compelling. The older image contains identical greens and blues that seem washed out and grayed in comparison. These photos were taken in identical conditions separated only by time (at my desk, same camera phone, room lights on, night time), so the difference is not simply an anomaly of photography.

Table of Contents

Foreword 7

Old Art & Rediscovering the Hobby 11

  • Childhood Art 12
  • High School Art 14
  • Post High School/Pre-University 17
  • College and Graduate School Study Aids 18
  • My First Website 19
  • The Second Site 20

Phase 1 – Getting Back into Art 22

  • First Portrait 23
  • Measured Grids 25
  • Contest Drawing – Tiny Art Show 27
  • A Dark Tower Drawing 31

Phase 2 – Drawing Without a Grid 35

  • Family Sketch, No Planning 36
  • Dancing Dad – Drawing from a Video 38
  • Serious Baby Cracking a Smile 40
  • Tired Dad, Laughing Kid 42
  • Thanksgiving Scene 43
  • Group Generational Scene 45
  • Wedding Present 47

Phase 3 – Learning to Use Color 49

  • First Attempt At Art With Color 50
  • Round Two With Color 53
  • Snow Day in Louisiana 55
  • More Realism in Family Portraits 57
  • Hometown Series 61

Process Notes – Pencil Painting 68

Phase 4 – Practice & Blending Improvement 83

  • Kids In a Shopping Cart 84
  • Drawing Two Scenes at Once 86
  • Trying a Non-Human Subject 91

Process Notes – Sources of Inspiration 94

  • Stock Images 95
  • Video Games 100
  • Artwork Giveaways and Raffles 105
  • Memes and Uncertain Sources 108

Phase 5 – Refinement & Realism 110

  • Back to Basics 112
  • Gift Sketches 114
  • A Family Portrait from New Orleans 117
  • Big Kid and Her Apple 119
  • The Laundry Basket Girls 121
  • Self Portrait – Shadow and Contrast Struggles 123
  • Subject Counts and Wife Portraits 126
  • Art on a Shopping Cart 132
  • Long Term Goals and Sketch Impulsivity 137

Process Notes – Experiments & the Future 139

  • Lost Dinosaur Timeline 140
  • Digital Drawing 144
  • Where to From Here? 148

Additional Thoughts & Advice 149

  • Photographing Your Artwork 149
  • Engage with Others about Art 150
  • Ensure You’re on Firm Legal Ground 152
  • Leverage Technology 155
  • Step out of your Comfort Zone 156

Index 157

About the Author 159

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