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Why Underpaint ?

Dry Point Pencil ( that is to say wax or oil based pencil used without any solvent ) builds up layers of transparent and semi transparent colour on your paper.  It depends on the tooth of the paper to take off pigment from the point.  

The TOOTH  is the grain of the paper, the roughness of it.

The tooth is critical to the number of layers you will achieve - and the eventual density of colour you reach.  

If the paper is smooth and has too fine a tooth, you will have limited layers and limited colour depth.  

Less smooth paper with greater tooth will achieve better depth of colour through more layers but you will find it difficult to get fine detail.

The prime problem is the little flecks of white coming through from the valleys in the paper tooth. The pencil point skims over the paper surface laying down colour, but misses out on the little valleys in the paper grain.  We can burnish the colour by pressing firmly down with further layers to press the colour into the grain, but this kills the tooth altogether for further layers.    

UNDERPAINTING is the solution to the problem and is the method used by very many of our top Coloured Pencil artists.

If you are working to strict CP Society rules for exhibition standards, you will probably not be able to use dissolved watercolour pencils unless you enter your picture in the Mixed Media classes.  ‘Coloured Pencil’ in many CP Society exhibitions means only wax type - non soluble - pencils are permitted.

This means that Watercolour pencils, Neocolor crayons, and Cretacolor woodless pencils are only avaliable as a source of colour if they are used ‘DRY’

If you are working for your own amusement or for sale of images commercially or where Exhibition standards do not come into it, you can use whatever pencil media you like and also use media such as traditional watercolour, fixed pastel or inks for enhancing the colour depth and filling the grain of the paper with colour first.

Either way, with a layer of colour bonded to the whole of the paper surface, you are now able to work your layers of dry colour on to a pre-coloured surface that is as good in taking up colour as the original white paper was.

This ensures that you are able to start work with your dry point colour, with an element of tinting and shading already down on the paper, but all the benefits of the original paper surface grain still available to you.

Where you are using a heavily sized watercolour paper like Arches paper, which has quite a polished surface as sold,  the working of a wet process first washes off some of the size from the surface and lifts the grain of the paper slightly, which benefits the later addition of dry point colour.

I suggest that before using any watercolour pencil pigment to make a background wash, you check the way the pigment dissolves at greater dilutions. A weak mixture will show up if the pigment is a finely ground material which totally dissolves, or whether it is a more opaque material which will lie on the paper in a less even way.

Because the paper will react to the addition of water, you will need to understand the way paper expands and contracts, and it will be an advantage for you to read the topic on stretching paper.

You may not need to stretch your paper if you are only damping the paper surface, but that section explains the way to avoid your paper buckling if you are only applying water to areas within the picture.

In practice, I have found that some brands of aquarelle pencils such as  Faber Castell : Albrecht Durer,  and Derwent Watercolour Pencils, do have some more ‘traditional’ natural watercolour pigments included which are fine when used on the paper as a dry colour and then wet with a brush, but some of these colours do not produce good thin washes.  This is why I tend to use the Steadtler Karat Aquarelle pencils for thin washes, as the colours totally dissolve out to liquid. This is probably because the pigments used are generally organic colour substitutes. They will stain the paper ( so they will be difficult to lift if you put them in the wrong place ), but you do get good even washes to provide a good colour base

There are two images below of a country lane picture.  The first is the underpainting The second is the finished picture

Staedtler Karat was used for the washes of background colour

The original underpainting (below) was positioned on the paper with plenty of room round it.

As a result it was possible to add some more to the scene on the left hand side as the picture developed.

I think this improved the overall composition.

You will also see that I removed some of the  underpainted tree foliage to the immediate right of the copper beech tree on the right hand side to open out the sky over the field.  Putting a cloud in was not entirely successful, but it hardly shows in the original completed picture.  

The scene does not exist and is entirely constructed.

You will see (below) that the cottage down the lane has had very little additional work done to it.

It sits right in the background as a result

Bear in mind only a small amount of dry colour is required in the dish

Some colours are much stronger than others so you do need to test the options first.  See the results on the paper sample below the dish

Here you can see Powder Blue on the left is much weaker in pigment than the basic Blue on the right.

Sky blue in the middle contains a lot of white and hardly makes any impact at all. The basic blue on the right is a very strong colour and needs care.  The original amount of dry colour was about the same in the dish

If you are painting with a wider range of colours, use a large white plate and select a suitable range of colours for your subject , these can be mixed in situ, or can be picked off the plate and mixed with more water elsewhere.

An under painting needs only THIN layers of colour.  It is better to have and control two thin layers of colour than one thicker one

First layers of colour wash on the paper.  KEEP IT LIGHT

Second layers of wash on the paper, Concentrate on where the greater depth of colour will be needed

Now you can start to add the dry point

The Pencil needs a long sharp point to be able to remove powdered pigment from the tip with a craft knife

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Latest revision January 2015

We can adopt the traditional ‘Line and wash approach’ of laying down a line or shading of dry colour on the paper direct from the pencils ( using a limited range of colours - see below ), keeping our shading very light so that we have control over the eventual depth/density of colour.  After washing in the first layer we can then continue with dry pencil work on top.

An example of this approach is shown in a detailed step by step titled ‘Coventry Canal’ which you can find in a later topic in this section.

The most controlled way of laying down your first colour to the paper is using pigment in watercolour form from the pencil .  

It is best not to wet the point itself as the water will soften and damage the structure of the pencil core.....  You CAN do so if you wish, of course, and many text books describe the method.  The next time you need to use the pencil in it’s dry state, you will need to sharpen away the softened area - a waste of valuable pigment.  Good for pencil manufacturers, bad for your pocket.

The method I advocate is to use a small china or plastic palette ( detailed first, below ) or to use a piece of strong watercolour paper or grit pastel paper as a source of dry colour and lift the pigment with the brush from there  

( see the previous topic ‘ Ways of using Aquarelles No 10 )

There is a more detailed step by step illustration of the  use of a wash to build a picture foundation ( Scottish Hillside - in the next topic ), but there are some techniques which it may help to cover in detail first.

The technique depends on taking fine shavings of pigment from the long Aquarelle pencil tip and holding them in a dish


Finished picture with strong colour in record time