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Coloured pencil Techniques with Alyona Nickelsen

Posted on Tue 08 Jan 2019

As a painter at heart and a natural control freak I want to enjoy the spontaneity, fast application and the ability to develop values from dark to light and vice versa that is offered by paints. At the same time, I do not want to give up the precision, control and absence of extended drying times that are the hallmarks of coloured pencil.

Coloured pencil artists accept the medium is slow and tedious, they preserve the white of the paper for the brightest highlights; they gradually darken values to develop shape; and are aware that the number of layers is limited by the properties of the working surface, etc – none of which suited me well, so I began looking outside the box to remedy the situation.

Fast background rendering

First, I changed my support from a traditional cotton-based paper to a sanded paper because it can withstand many rounds of layering, blending and erasing. This sped up the coloured pencil application process and encouraged me to move my work to a larger scale, which is a goal of many coloured pencil artists. Also, contrary to the general belief that sandpaper ‘eats’ your pencils, this approach turned out to be very economical. Sunset Roses (below) is the largest piece I have created in the shortest period and with almost no waste of coloured pencil.



After transferring the outline onto sanded paper and protecting the foreground with masking film, I quickly covered the entire background with Faber-Castell Polychromos light ochre. I applied it with a very light pressure shaving off pigmented particles from the pencil core against the surface grit and allowing them to fill the crevasses of the surface. I used only three quarters of a single pencil to cover this large area.

Since Polychromos pencils are less waxy, they blend easily with Powder Blender using a large rounded sponge. In just a few minutes this generated very even and seamless coverage of the huge background. After I was happy with this layer, I secured it with a couple of coats of ACP Textured Fixative allowing each one to dry completely


I followed that with a layer of Faber-Castell Polychromos burnt umber applied in the same manner. This time, I only used about a half of a single pencil, which would be unheard of for such a large background working on a traditional cotton-based paper and constantly sharpening the pencil point. I also blended this layer with Powder Blender quickly and effectively securing it at the end with a few coats of ACP Textured Fixative.


Sunset Roses, coloured pencil, (681⁄2x781⁄2cm).

I then darkened the values of the background with Faber-Castell Polychromos dark indigo, burnt umber and Caran d’Ache Pablo black, worked from the farthest areas of the background toward the viewer and developed the main subject of the composition

Quick and easy highlights

The next task was to create the brightest values, such as highlights, at the end of the rendering, rather than being forced to preserve the white of the paper at the beginning. Titanium white was my answer to this challenge. It contains the most opaque white pigment available, one that is used in every manufactured white coloured pencil core. When applied in its dry form, it can be blended, corrected or erased to generate very soft edges. When mixed with Coloured Pencil Touch-Up Texture, it creates an opaque mixture that hardens when dried and allows you to colour over it with additional layers of pencil if needed. In Exercise in Red (below), you can see how I generated the brightest values at the end of the rendering. Note the simplicity of this process, which is quite cumbersome otherwise.



I created the underpainting of the background with Faber- Castell Polychromos burnt umber and then blended it with Powder Blender to create smooth coverage. I darkened the values with Faber-Castell Polychromos black and secured the entire surface with ACP Textured Fixative.


Here I roughly indicated the overall shape of the glass using Faber-Castell Polychromos burnt umber and black to create the impression that the glass is located closer to the viewer and on top of the fabric folds. I applied Prismacolor white coloured pencil to the elevations of the folds in the lit areas. Then, the entire surface is sprayed again with ACP Textured Fixative to both isolate underpainting layers and to regain the partially filled surface tooth.


I covered the folds with Caran d’Ache vermilion and blended it with Powder Blender. Additionally, I worked with Prismacolor Premier crimson lake and pomegranate in the shadows and permanent red in the mid tones and in the lit areas. I kept the application as transparent as possible in the shadows and worked more opaquely in the lit areas. The entire surface was then secured with ACP Textured Fixative.


Exercise in Red, coloured pencil, (28x218cm).

I continued the modelling of the fabric by darkening the shadows and ‘pushing’ them back with Prismacolor Premier indigo blue. I glazed over mid-values with Caran d’Ache purplish red to create some colour and temperature variations. I reinforced colours of the lit areas with more Prismacolor permanent red and crimson lake in the mid-values.

I worked on the local colour of the glass, wine, and the reflections with previously used reds as well as Prismacolor Premier dioxazine purple hue and indigo blue for the darkest areas. For maximum contrast on the dark range of values I added touches of Faber-Castell black. I brightened the reflections with Prismacolor premier white, more transparently in the shadowed areas and more opaquely in the lit areas. The brightest highlights were created with a mixture of Touch-Up Texture and Coloured Pencil Titanium White.

As you can see, with the right approach, you can adopt the methods and techniques for paints for the coloured pencil medium and continue to offer the amazing benefits of being a dry medium. You can read all about this approach in detail in my book, Colored Pencil Painting Portraits: Master a Revolutionary Method for Rendering Depth and Imitating Life.

Dark-to-light versus light-to-dark

Traditionally, coloured pencil artists develop values by gradually darkening them, ie working from light-to-dark. The reason for this approach is due to the natural ability of coloured pencil to fill the crevices of the working surface with wax more and more with every new layer. Therefore, at the very end, when the brightest values are needed the most, there is no exposed tooth of the paper left and coloured pencil simply slicks off the smooth surface without leaving any significant marks. Therefore, coloured pencil artists are left with only one half of the tools that are available for painters who can as easily work from dark to light and vice versa.

I always thought that modelling a form only by gradually darkening values was an unnecessary hardship imposed on us coloured pencil artists. For example, when creating a shape that has details on its surface, all their values must be kept in mind and maintained correctly from the beginning while still developing the overall shape itself. This often causes mistakes and results in flat or misshapen objects. Rendering depth in a composition is a tremendous task on its own, but it becomes even more challenging when artists are restricted in the methods that are readily available in other media.

I wanted to eliminate this problem and to liberate coloured pencil artists from these traditional constraints. In my work I overcome the natural reduction of friction during the layering (lost paper tooth) with the use of ACP Textured Fixative. It hardens when dry and restores the surface due to its textural element allowing me to work from dark to light with virtually no limit on the number of layers.


In this piece I adapted the traditional approach of oil painters to work on the darkest shadows first and then proceeded to the lit areas and details.


I transferred the outline onto a sanded paper. To create the background, I used a light-to-dark approach of developing values. First, I lightly applied Faber-Castell Polychromos magenta with a dull point to the entire background and blended it with a large rounded sponge dipped in Powder Blender. I allowed the original brightness of paper to shine through the translucent coloured pencil layer to indicate the farthest plane in the composition. I secured this layer with ACP Textured Fixative letting it completely dry and harden. When fixative hardens, it provides grit to the surface that can be covered with additional coloured pencil layers.


I followed with a light application of Faber-Castell Polychromos burnt umber and blended it with Powder Blender in the same manner. I did not cover the entire background, just the areas that needed to be darkened. This method also allowed me to merge both layers seamlessly and to slightly tone down the intensity of the previous layer without completely obstructing it. Again, the background was secured with ACP Textured Fixative.


I used Faber-Castell Polychromos dark indigo and black in the darkest areas of the background to increase the contrast of the entire image. This generated a dark background with a subtle hint of colour in the most lit areas of the furthest plane of the composition. In other words, the Faber-Castell Polychromos magenta is shining through the layers of colour rather than sitting on top of them, which is a hallmark look of developing values from light to dark.


To create the impression that the main subject is closer to the viewer and emerges from the distant background, I began value development from the farthest shadowed areas toward the lit areas using Faber-Castell Polychromos burnt umber, dark indigo and black. To model shapes I blended applied pencil working from the darkest parts to the lightest and using the wipe-off technique – this involves lightening the value by lifting already applied pencil with various sponges, short bristle scrubbing brushes, kneaded eraser and scotch tape. After the overall modelling was completed, I secured it with ACP Textured Fixative in a few light layers letting them dry completely before continuing.


Here I worked on the veiling (or dead layer) with Faber-Castell Polychromos white in the mid-values and with the addition of Coloured Pencil Titanium White to the lightest values. This allowed me to indicate the lit areas and to elevate the protruding elements of the face, hand, shoulders and the hair curls. This stage will also help to make the colours applied over white underpainting look brighter and more intense. The rest of the subject’s underpainting will make the subsequent coloured pencil layers look darker and duller, visually pushing them back into the depth of the background. I secured this application with ACP Textured Fixative as well and let it dry completely before proceeding further.


I warmed up the shadows with Caran d’Ache Pablo vermilion, working very lightly and spreading it thinly with Powder Blender using various sponges.


The Thinker, coloured pencils, (51x40.5cm)

I developed the face using the following pencils: Faber-Castell Polychromos white, cadmium yellow, raw umber, fuchsia, rose carmine, magenta, caput mortuum violet, cobalt turquoise, dark indigo, burnt umber, black. Caran d’Ache Pablo fast orange, salmon pink, granite rose, vermilion, flame red, purplish red. Caran d’Ache Luminance burnt ochre 50 per cent, burnt sienna, raw sienna, crimson alizarin, light cobalt blue, turquoise blue, white, black.

I completed work on this project with the mixture of Touch-Up Texture and Titanium White in the brightest highlights and then secured the entire rendering with a few layers of ACP Final fixative.

Alyona Nickelsen is a contributing writer for Colored Pencil Magazine and the author of Colored Pencil Painting Bible and Colored Pencil Painting Portraits: Master a Revolutionary Method for Rendering Depth and Imitating Life. She has exhibited widely and won many awards.

This feature is taken from the January 2019 issue of The Artist

Click here to purchase your copy

Coloured pencil Techniques with Alyona Nickelsen


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  • Every detail and every colour are magnificent a truly perfect picture. I have been waiting for the hair to move or the blink of an eye, it makes photos look like second-rate sketches.
    If I had three wishes I would only need one – the skill to create a picture like this.
    Ray Kemp.

    Posted by RAY KEMP on Sun 03 Feb 09:59:39