12 Tips for Fun and Freedom with Watercolor Abstraction

Surface, Dominance, Power and Freedom

Everything about watercolor that I love involves fun and freedom. It is such a pleasure to feel paint slide across my paper surface.

I love how bossy the medium gets. It reminds me of myself! With watercolor, abstraction becomes the language that defines beauty, power and chaos.

I’m definitely not alone. I’ve brought together three artists into watercolor abstraction who also know how to hone fun and freedom for their own ends. Here are a few tips from them so that you can get into the same groove. Enjoy!

Painting in Full Bloom with Jane Jones

Watercolor abstraction: Full Bloom by Jane Jones, watercolor painting

Full Bloom by Jane Jones, watercolor painting

Combine the real and the abstract

I drew poppies with an extra-fine Sharpie pen then added the abstract image on top with a 2B pencil. Next, I wet both sides of the paper with a natural sponge and laid it on a smooth Formica board (also called tile board), flattening out any bubbles in the surface.

I left the paper untouched until the shine was off, then I used a tissue to absorb the water from the edges so I don’t get bleed-backs.

Start Loose

Using a 2-inch natural-hair flat, I applied the paint loosely using analogous colors of yellow-orange, orange, red-orange, red and red-violet, as well as the complement of the middle color, which is blue-green.

I also used a discord on either side of the complement, skipping blue and green and using yellow-green and blue-violet. For the underpainting, I made sure not to go over a No. 3 value.

Lost and Found

While the paper was still wet, I found the abstract shapes by painting around the forms that were losing their edges. Using the dominant red-orange color, I painted areas of the main flower, but completely covered the buds and middle-ground flower to bring the large flower forward. I pushed the background back by graying it with blue-green.

Creating Dominance

I began integrating the background colors into the flowers, careful to leave lights in the main flower and keep the center of interest very dark against the lights. I separated each shape, abstract vs. real, with gradations of value and color.

Using only pure hues, I worked wet-into-wet, layering each color; I never mixed colors on my palette. In the end, I wanted the realistic image to be dominant, and the abstract subordinate.

Floating Images Over Reality with Carole Kauber

Watercolor abstraction: Emerge I by Carole Kauber, mixed media

Emerge I by Carole Kauber, mixed media

Sights and Sounds

This painting is based on the sights and sounds of Morocco. I based the imagery on some of the photographs I took while vacationing as well as sounds I heard there.

When working abstractly, it is key to take inspiration from all your senses and push them into your painting. Sounds have a look and feel, even a specific color–use that!

Geometry to Abstract

To start I floated watercolors over a thin layer of water that defined specific geometric shapes. I then placed a geometric piece of wax paper over that colorful wet shape. The wax paper, if kept smooth, helps to define a geometric shape while adding hints of textural effects.

Once that area was dry, I added new shapes and colors. Other applications of color were allowed to merge with existing shapes and forms.

Out of Control

Spattering paint to several areas created an earthy textural effect. What emerged were unexpected colors and forms. It’s great to let this piece of chaos into your work.

Unknown Ways

The exciting aspect of painting is the experimentation. It leads us into the unknown and forces me into new territories. Once forms have been sufficiently resolved and the desired landscape images take shape, I refer back to the photograph to add details that add to the overall image.

Marie Renfro

Acrylic and collage lead to abstract art

My Blue Haven by Marie Renfro, acrylic and collage

Big Brush

For abstract work, more impact comes with larger marks and overall look and feel as opposed to lots of detail. To begin this painting, I generously wet the paper with a large brush, Robert Simmons Big Daddy, and then began to apply color starting at the top right corner of the paper.

Lots of Color

The most fluent way an abstract painting can speak to a viewer is through color. I did washes of pale yellow using Golden fluid acrylics Hansa Yellow Light, and decided on a cool color scheme, so I introduced some pale Ultramarine Blue and some pale washes of Phthalo Turquoise.

I also laid in some small areas of Raw Sienna and Naphthol Red, as well as Alizarin Crimson. That’s a lot of color, but it works.

Add Texture

After the colors were dry, I get started with layering, gluing on some collage paper that I colored with acrylic colors in the same color family as the underpainting.

I used a Japanese fiber paper called sekishu, which I purchase in white and then color with leftover paint in my palette. I also glued on some textured rice papers, as well as a few strips of marbleized bookmaking paper.

Purpose with Pattern

My composition was to be a shapes-within-shapes format, a framed-in rectangle with dark edges around the outside and the center of focus in the lower left, leading to a secondary point in the top right.

I always try to design a pattern with my light values as well as my dark values that will carry the viewer’s eye into and around the painting.

Possibilities of Abstraction

Color, contrast, line, pattern and more! These are the possibilities of abstraction–and that is just for starters. Discover all the creative possibilities of painting abstract art with Abstract Painting on YUPO®. As learning artists, we can have fun with our painting while learning the techniques that will make our artistry grow in leaps and bounds. Enjoy!

A version of this story first appeared in Watercolor Artist magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The post 12 Tips for Fun and Freedom with Watercolor Abstraction appeared first on Artist's Network.


Paint Along 40: Enhance Your Paintings with Texture | LIVE with Johannes Vloothuis

WEB SEMINAR: Enhance Your Paintings with Texture!

TIME: 1:00 to 5:00 PM ET
DATES: 3 Saturdays: November 4, November 11, and November 18, 2017
The class may extend more than 4 hours
WHERE: From the comfort of your home
You do not have to attend the sessions live. Everything gets recorded and can be downloaded at no extra cost.

Registration for Paint Along 40: Enhance Your Paintings with Texture LIVE online workshop coming soon! 

Painting Lessons to Enhance Your Landscapes with Texture!

One challenge all visual artists face is how to convey a three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional surface. How can we make things seem closer by applying professional textural secrets and not solely rely on detail, size, or perspective? Texture is an additional ingredient that can add one more level to your artwork, and professional landscape artist Johannes Vloothuis will reveal how to do this along with many other professional tips in this live landscape painting online workshop.

Sample demo painting for Paint Along 40, Enhance Your Paintings with Texture, by Johannes Vloothuis

Sample demo for Paint Along 40, Enhance Your Paintings with Texture, by Johannes Vloothuis

What Is Included in this Online Painting Workshop?

In addition to photo references, you will receive drawing templates before each class, which you can trace onto your painting surface. And, during each session, you will receive verbal techniques, color combinations, professional secrets, and painting instructions to guide you along the way. One painting demo will be in oils, another in watercolor, and another in pastels. Register now to create beautiful landscape paintings with texture.

Painting demonstrations will include the following landscape subjects:

  • Natural Bridge arch at Bryce National Park
  • A beautiful scene of frosted trees with the background bathed in sunlight
  • A covered bridge located in New Hampshire in an autumn setting

You do not have to attend the live courses. Everything gets recorded and can be downloaded at no extra cost.

Registration for Paint Along 40: Enhance Your Paintings with Texture LIVE online workshop coming soon!

Some Reviews from others courses from Johannes Vloothuis:

  • “I’m new to the online class process and was interested in whether or not any instructor would be able to give personal assistance. Wow! I was happily surprised to find that not only did I get a great class that was loaded with info, but also I asked questions and received answers directed to me. I love these classes. Review by Mary
  • “Excellent class for the Landscape artist.” Review by Mike
  • “There is always something new to learn.” Review by Darlene
  • “I see my work improving.” Review by Mary
  • “Excellent. Jo always manages to come up with new information for us.” Review by Frances

About Johannes Vloothuis:
Johannes Vloothuis has exhibited his work all over the world including Saint Petersburg, Sao Paolo and The National Watercolor Museum in Mexico City. He has won several awards such as the top award in the country of Mexico for watercolor and teaches oils, watercolor and pastel. Johannes has taught over 17,000 artists of all skill levels, including professionals via his online courses. The prestigious, Pastel Society of America listed him under, “Master Artists.”

Missed the previous online seminars? Click here to purchase the WetCanvas Live! recordings from NorthLightShop.com


What Can I Expect? Johannes gives you a sneak peek into what it’s like to take part in a live online art workshop…

What is an online seminar?

    • It is a live, online class that you view on your computer at a specific day and time. Think of it as a workshop right in your living room.
    • Our events are scheduled on Eastern Standard Time (EST), so if you are in a different time zone, you will need to take scheduling into account — for example 1 PM EST = 12 PM CST, and so on…
    • The sessions will be broadcast via Twitch which is a high-quality live stream platform owned by the Amazon company. The online class will stream as high definition. For this reason you will need a fluent internet connection.
    • The classes are live and we utilize live text chatting, where you can ask your instructor questions as well as chat with fellow artists. Type the full statement in capital letters if it is a question or comment to Johannes so it stands out. To activate this option you will need to create a free Twitch account (only new users). Make sure not to include blank spaces while typing in the username and password. The video screen has the option of full screen. The clickable option is at the bottom right of the video screen. There is also a theater mode option that places the chat box next to the video.
    • In case you do not attend the live sessions, the streaming recordings will be posted right after the class is over. A few days later you will be able to download the recordings and store them locally. Check the student page regularly for updates–instructions for access will be sent with your workshop purchase. All workshop-related materials and links will appear there.

What are the technical requirements for participating in an online seminar?

  • You need a computer and a reliable broadband connection, as well as a Web browser (Mozilla Firefox is recommended for best viewing experience).
  • You will also want to be connected to the Internet via an Ethernet Cable (available at any computer store) if possible versus wireless connectivity which can cause buffering issues. In case you have not acquired the cable, try to narrow the space from your device to the modem, preferably watch your video in the same room where the modem is located.
  • A 5mbps download speed on your computer is recommended. Run a speed test here: http://speedtest.net. If you get 5mbps download you are good to go.
  • You can also watch the class on a large HDTV by connecting an HDMI cable. If it is a smart TV, you can watch it directly.

What can I do during an online seminar?

  • Hear the presenter deliver the workshop (via Internet connection)
  • See visuals from the presenter’s computer (e.g., PowerPoint, web browser, or any document they wish to share)
  • Ask the presenter questions in real time. Type the full statement in capital letters if it is a question or comment to Johannes so it stands out. To activate this option you will need to create a free Twitch account (only new users). Make sure not to include blank spaces while typing in the username and password.

What if I have any technical problems getting into the seminar?

  • We have technical support on hand to help you. Contact NorthLightShop.com live chat during regular office hours. Nearly 100% of our attendees don’t have any trouble after we assist them. You can sign on at least 10 minutes before the session is scheduled to begin, giving you time to ask questions if you have any trouble.
  • Our seminar system will work with both Macs and PCs.

What happens if I miss something during the seminar?

  • In case you do not attend the live sessions, the streaming recordings will be posted right after the class is over. A few days later you will be able to download the recordings and store them locally. Check the student page regularly for updates–instructions for access will be sent with your workshop purchase. All workshop related materials and links will appear there.
  • We also record our seminars and offer them for sale at NorthLightShop.com following the close of the course.


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Colored Pencil Techniques: Create Art That Is Elegant, Subtle and Mysterious

Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Colored pencil art by Janie Gildow

Artist Janie Gildow isn’t scared to work on the dark side when drawing with colored pencils — that is, the dark side of paper. Below, Gildow demonstrates how to draw an owl’s eye and feathers on a black surface using colored pencil techniques.

Her drawing tips and tricks are a real “hoot.” Enjoy!

Working on the Dark Side

Colored pencil on white paper glows with bright color, but colored pencil on black is elegant, subtle and mysterious. All it requires is to take a close look at the lower values and use some “reversed” thinking.

When you work on black, every color you apply to the surface will take on some of that darkness. Before you start on your good paper, make some color swatches on a scrap of the same surface. I recommend Strathmore Artagain black acid-free paper or black acid-free mat board.

Colored pencil is semi-transparent by its very nature, and some colors are more transparent than others. The more opaque colors tend to block some of the effects of the black surface and almost appear to float on it. The more transparent colors allow more of the black surface to show through them. And, because of that, they appear much darker than you might expect.

When you apply more pressure, most colors look lighter. With less pressure, they appear darker. Since this is backward from using graphite or colored pencil on white paper, you’ll need to think in “reverse pressure” as you apply colors on the black surface.

In my reference photo, the sky was blue, and the owl was perched on a branch in the sun. I cropped the image to include only the head, made the blue sky black (Photoshop) and printed the photo.

But that left the owl bright and light. In order to carry along the “night” theme, I had to modify the colored pencils I used; because the colors in the photo were a lot lighter than what was going to happen on the black surface. And, that’s where the color swatches came in handy.

Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

I’ve applied some colors on white and on black. You can compare the two. Some colors may surprise you, so it’s good to always make some swatches with your pencils. To make a color appear darker, merely reduce your pencil pressure to allow more of the black to show through.

Creating Eyes of a Night Owl, Step-by-Step

The face of the owl (and especially the shadow of the eyelid across the eye) fascinated me. I wanted to really emphasize these features, leaving the feathers as secondary accents.

Also, I wanted to make the owl a night creature, lighted perhaps only by the moon, but definitely portrayed in the dark. Now, let’s get started with the eyes!

Step 1: Transfer the line drawing to your black surface. Begin the eye color, keeping the lighter yellow on the bright side of the eye and applying the darker yellow to the shadowed portion.

Increase pressure to indicate the roundness of the iris in both the light and shadowed areas. The application can be rough at this point, but the eye will already look quite realistic.

Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 1


Step 2: Refine and smooth the color in the iris, then begin to outline the eye. The pupil should remain the black of the paper.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 2


Step 3: Begin to pencil in the feathers. The feathers on the owl’s face can be made with single strokes in the direction the feathers grow. And they can consist of both warm and cool grays and muted browns.

Flick the pencil to point the end of each stroke. Wherever two colors meet, merge the strokes together.

In some areas, you can apply solid color with light pressure and then go over those areas with strokes of heavier pressure to indicate the separate feathers.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 3


Step 4: Complete the feathers. Apply strokes in the direction of the growth. Use a blunted pencil to establish a color base in some areas, then gradually add sharper individual strokes.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 4

Colored Pencil Techniques for Drawing Feathers

Now that we know how to draw the owl’s eyes on the black surface, let’s move on to the feathers.

Step 1: Begin to develop the individual feathers with a series of small strokes. Leave some darker areas between rows of feathers.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 1


Step 2: Keep adding feathers, separated by darker areas. Use both warm and cool grays and, if you have them, some very light browns or French grays.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 2


Step 3: Continue to add feathers, and begin to create some much smaller ones — again leaving dark areas between them.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 3


Step 4: Connect the feathers by using very sharp pencils to make thin lines over the dark areas that separate them. These pencils should be darker in value than the feathers themselves. Again, use a combination of warm and cool grays and light browns.


Colored pencil techniques | Janie Gildow, ArtistsNetwork.com

Step 4


And there you have it: simple colored pencil techniques for drawing realistic feathers and eyes. Now you are ready to put it all together to create your own night creature owl. Good luck, artists!

Night Owl | Colored Pencil Techniques | Black Paper | Art Demonstration | Janie Gildow | Artists Network

Colored pencil art by Janie Gildow

Want More Colored Pencil Instruction?

Watch the preview trailer below of Janie Gildow’s video workshop, Colored Pencil Techniques Made Easy, for an inside look into more of this artist’s simple colored pencil techniques, including the basics for keeping your pencils sharp, the best strokes to use for your subject and blending tips.

Enjoyed the workshop trailer? Head to ArtistsNetwork.tv to start streaming the entire video instruction!

The post Colored Pencil Techniques: Create Art That Is Elegant, Subtle and Mysterious appeared first on Artist's Network.

Time for a Little Facelift! Change is Ahead

Calling all artists! We have an exciting announcement to share with you! Artists Network is getting a face lift. That means a brand new redesign, new features throughout the site, gorgeous imagery as always and a new gallery where you can upload your art.

We will be looking good and feeling fine as the main headquarters for all your art needs with a website that is now and always built just for you, artists.

Artists Network Changes Ahead!

Coming Together

We’re also bringing together several of our sister sites with us. Artist Daily, Artists Network University, Artists Network TV and Artists Network will come together to make one multimedia destination art community for you. You’ll get the same great expertise you’ve always come to expect, just as part of a bigger home.

Whether you’re picking up a paintbrush for the first time or preparing for a solo exhibition or group show… Whether you are art curious or an appreciator who relishes all the rich historic, creative and cultural intersections that art provides… Artist Network is with you for every step of your artful journey.

Connecting you with ideas, inspiration, and skill — that’s what we do. Soon it will just be even better with our newly updated website!

Be in the Know

Exclusive announcements, offers and giveaways are coming soon too! Stay tuned. We can’t wait for you to see this exciting change and where it takes us!

Let us know if you have questions or what you hope to see on the new website. Comment below or send an email to info@artistsnetwork.com.

The post Time for a Little Facelift! Change is Ahead appeared first on Artist's Network.

Break Through Artist Block with This Fun and Unique Exercise

Bust Through Artist Block

Artist | Artist Block | Getting ready to paint | art process | Getty Images | Artists Network

We’ve covered it numerous times: artist block. Art prompts, exercises, warm-ups and icebreakers — whatever it may be — can help you get into the creative mindset to start your next art project.

Other times, all it might take to break jumpstart your process is playing a cognitive game — or as I like to call them, “brain boosters,” such as a word search, crossword puzzle or even a quick game of Tetris.

But, what if you want both a brain boost and an artsy exercise to get you through the dreaded artist block? That’s where Matthew Cole’s new book, This is Not a Maze, comes in.

Don’t Get Caught in a Maze

This is Not a Maze is a unique activity book that essentially fuses a hidden search game and a coloring book into one to create a challenging but fun hybrid. Hidden in labyrinth designs are 1,000+ animals, objects and symbols.

Every page interlocks linear designs that may look the same at first, but each one focuses on finding distinctive images themed around a different letter from A to Z, or a number from 1 to 10. Watch the book trailer below, and then read on for your free excerpt.

How it Works

We’ve pulled a page from Cole’s book to help you find your way through the artist block maze so you can start your next successful art piece. The hidden objects to color in all start with “A,” since we are artists and art lovers, of course!

But, before you begin, here are a few important tips to keep in mind:

  • Objects and animals are not sized proportionally to one another.
  • No two objects or animals overlap one another.
  • Rotating the page may help you find all the objects and animals, because almost nothing is oriented vertically.
  • Everything is a closed shape, meaning you can fill in each object and animal with a fine felt-tip marker. Doing so will help you find every last item on the lists.
  • If you are unfamiliar with one of the listed objects or animals, ask a friend — or try searching the internet.
  • S. states have their state initials inside them. These letters do not count toward the small hidden letters in “Expert Mode.”
  • Don’t flip straight to the answers! While it’s fun to fill in the objects and animals by following the keys in the back of the book, the real fun is in finding everything for yourself.
  • Sophocles once said, “I would prefer even to fail with honor than to win by cheating.” In other words, resist the urge to flip to the back for the answers.

Ready to get started? Click here to download your free hidden image search. Enjoy!

The post Break Through Artist Block with This Fun and Unique Exercise appeared first on Artist's Network.

Color and Shapes Come Together with No Hesitation

Creative Layering Techniques for Abstract Painting

Building a visual rhythm in a painting often has to do with ease of movement as you layer color and texture. A lot of artists call this different things: intuitive, gestural, or freedom. But it all comes down to shutting the mind off — going on creative autopilot — so that the thinking mind does not interfere with the acting hand. Exploring abstract painting can reward you with major gains in this area because free-flowing movement is what it is all about.

At first painting this way can seem awkward. But that’s the unfamiliarity of it. Explore the layering techniques of four skilled abstract painters whose approaches make clear that abstract painting is a gateway for satisfying artistic expression because it entails working with color, form, and texture — all the things that artists hold dear.


Abstract painting: Bursts #7 by Genady Arkhipau, pastel on watercolor paper.

Bursts #7 by Genady Arkhipau, pastel on watercolor paper.

Genady Arkhipau

+Work on the floor. Outside or inside — it doesn’t matter, but I have to have enough room to move around the piece.

+Warm up for about an hour with drawing, which helps me loosen up, reach that degree of careless confidence and get in the zone.

+Work on up to five pieces, one at a time, with the one in the middle usually being the best of the bunch.

+Start with a theme and build out radically when abstract painting. For this work I started with a simple figure and then came an explosion of layering abstract shapes and lines.

+I get creative ideas while working, and I explore my creative hunches when they come my way.

+Inspirations: AbEx movement, the color works of Franz Kline.


Abstract Painting: Morning Glory by Anna Wainright, pastel painting.

Morning Glory by Anna Wainright, pastel painting.

Anna Wainright

+Choose a color in an instant. Don’t second guess. Then choose another and another, layering and blending in an intuitive way.

+Use a representational touchstone. My abstracts usually reflect an image that can be seen as a possible landscape.

+Give the work a story. Bring your experiences to what you paint. For this painting, it was about the sense of weather and temperature — early morning and sense of awakening to a new day.

+Let color be the driver.

+Artists and movements I love: Tonalist painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; William Turner, George Inness, Camille Corot, James McNeill Whistler.


Abstract painting

Memories by Pirkko Makela-Haapalinna, pastel and ink on painted paper.

Pirkko Makela-Haapalinna

+Paint without a plan. Sometimes the theme finds you.

+Combining materials and letting them guide me is essential. I brought together ink and pastels in this painting. Started with the inks, only using water under it. Let it run by changing the position of the paper. While the ink was wet, I used a wooden stick like a drawing tool and the ink ran into those carved lines, giving a graphic effect. Then I brought in pastels for the negative space.

+All the work doesn’t happen when you are working. I recommend long walks in the woods or along the seashore.


Abstract painting: Spring Breeze by Kari Feuer, oil painting.

Spring Breeze by Kari Feuer, oil painting.

Kari Feuer

+I don’t trust artificial light when choosing color.

+If you want to get active with your layering, choose a strong surface. I paint in oils on linen with a palette knife. The linen is strong and takes a lot of scraping and slathering.

+Use a knife and it isn’t about precision. It can’t be. Blending and texturing are a little bit out of control — you learn to observe what happens and let go of what you think you want to happen.

+Inspirations: Hudson River Valley School artists. JMW Turner’s late work. Richard Diebenkorn’s early paintings.


Explore Art Journey Art Collection if you are hungry for more freedom in your art like you’ve seen here. Liberate your self-expression from words like “should” and “must,” and instead embrace abstract painting as well as explorations of realism as a way to discover what your true artistic sensibility is. Enjoy this journey, artists!




The post Color and Shapes Come Together with No Hesitation appeared first on Artist's Network.

How Different Materials Affect Your Drawing Process

Your drawing materials can determine the overall success of your finished artwork. And some are better than others when it comes to achieving certain effects.

If you want more successful drawings, knowing the pros and cons of the various materials available is key. Below, artist Dan Gheno shares his expert insight into the ins and outs of some of the most common drawing materials. Enjoy!

Drawing Materials, Explained

There is no substitute for skill and experience. A quill pen did not draw Michaelangelo’s Study of a Male Nude. The identical pen and ink in the hands of a rookie would not produce a similar masterpiece. But it’s also true if Michelangelo had used a ballpoint pen or a No. 2 pencil, the drawing would not possess the same depth of value or volume.

The choice of materials is a vital part of how an artist approaches his or her work, and it’s critical to pick the right drawing instruments, surfaces and other tools to fit the needs of your artistic vision.


Drawing Materials | Michelangelo | Artist's Network

Study of a Male Nude by Michelangelo, ca. 1503–1504, pen-and-brown-ink. Collection Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy.


If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you shouldn’t try to make a material do something it can’t. Just as you can’t force a cat to bark or a dog to meow, it’s impossible to force your materials to do something against their essential nature.

For instance, graphite, sanguine chalk and colored pencil all yield less contrast than compressed charcoal or ink. If you’re interested in deep, divergent contrasts, you want charcoal rather than graphite. However when the goal is a more delicate form of rendering, charcoal can work; but I personally prefer graphite or colored pencil, which I find more readily suited to this goal.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the advantages and pitfalls of the drawing materials I’ve personally grown to know over my decades as an artist. We’ll examine the pros and cons of media including graphite, colored pencil, charcoal and ink, along with surfaces and other tools. We’ll discuss when to use them, when to avoid them and what you can expect (or not expect) from each medium.


Drawing Materials | Artist's Network

A sample of my favorite drawing materials. At top, from left to right: mechanical pencil; ballpoint pen; holders for large crayons and graphite sticks; various colored pencils and pencil holders; oil-based, charcoal, carbon and chalk pencils; and pointed eraser. Middle: vine charcoal. At bottom, from left to right: compressed charcoal, sharp single-edge razor blades; and two block erasers — one for colored media, another for dark media.


If you discount the mural I drew with Crayola crayons at age four on the side of my older sister’s 1951 Chevrolet sedan, my first experiences in drawing were rendered with a yellow No. 2 pencil, a common first experience.

Because of this early familiarity, graphite pencils remain the most comfortable and safe choice for many artists until they start taking art classes. Well-meaning teachers sometimes try to get their students to kick the graphite habit, forcing them to use charcoal instead.

However, I usually encourage novice students to first work with what’s familiar to them. When trying to grasp such challenging issues as human proportions and value shapes, it doesn’t help to struggle with the technical problems of a new medium as well.

Known mostly as a linear medium, graphite is more flexible than many artists and teachers give it credit for. You can actually get some very fluid and painterly effects with it — for instance, by applying powdered graphite to the paper with a brush or chamois. Graphite also comes in sticks of various shapes, sizes and hardness. This allows for a variety of delicately blended masses or broad, assertively expressive strokes.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Contrapposto Male Figure by Dan Gheno, 2016, graphite


The main drawback to graphite is its inability to achieve the intensity of darkness you can get from compressed charcoal or paint. You can go only so dark with graphite before the material builds into a reflective sheen that actually looks lighter instead of darker. In fact, the more you try to rub and grind graphite into one area of the paper, the more you will burnish it into a dense, shiny mass, canceling out any sense of

In fact, the more you try to rub and grind graphite into one area of the paper, the more you will burnish it into a dense, shiny mass. And this cancels out any sense of realistic value and atmosphere you have achieved elsewhere in the drawing.

I don’t often use graphite anymore, but when I do it’s usually for precise rendering or for analyzing complex shapes or anatomical forms on the body that I find confusing. Indeed, when graphite was first developed as an artistic medium by the English in the mid-1500s, it was promoted as an easier, more practical and more fluid alternative to metalpoint for detailed, analytical drawing. Graphite doesn’t drag on the paper like

Graphite doesn’t drag on the paper like metalpoint does. With graphite, artists can apply value masses in a more natural, fluid manner. But one thing missing from graphite is metalpoint’s varied depth of line, which can seem to pulsate in a three-dimensional manner.

Discover the basics of drawing with charcoal, graphite and Conté crayons with this FREE download! Just enter your email below, to start getting your learn on!

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Colored Pencil

For me, colored pencil seems to combine the strengths of graphite and metalpoint. Some brands of colored pencils impart a similar delicacy and depth of line as metalpoint. And although colored pencils aren’t quite as erasable as graphite, brands such as Stabilo Original and Caran d’Ache have much of graphite’s potential for revision and sensitive ease of application.

Colored pencils are particularly suited to exacting linework. Many brands of this medium can be sharpened to pinpoint precision using a razor blade.

I use a mid-value sanguine color for most of my colored pencil drawings, particularly when drawing on white paper. It allows for a delicate touch, but upon pressing harder I can get a darker, more assertive line. I will often use a darker sepia color when working on toned paper.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Reclined, Looking Over Shoulder by Dan Gheno, 2014, colored pencil


Colored pencils share graphite’s limited range of value contrast. But I find this can work to my advantage, forcing me to take my time to analyze the model’s light and dark patterns as I render them.

I usually prefer to build up my values gradually, shading across large shadow shapes with succeeding sweeps of tone, until I reach the desired darkness. Working in successive layers can allow one to better maintain the weave of the paper and help to impart a sense of atmosphere.

This medium can require a gentle touch. Colored Pencils are often fragile and prone to snapping in mid-stroke if you press too hard, leaving an unerasable skid mark on the paper.

If you try to push your values too dark all at once, they will become dense and shiny. With certain colors the hue may even change with heavy pressure or when you let your pencil point get too short, allowing the wood casing to chafe your linework.

Chalk and Charcoal

Whether you’re using them in pencil, stick or powder form, pure black chalk and charcoal provide the greatest value contrasts. I often like to work with them in a loose manner, starting with a broad value mass that relates to the big, gestural shadow shape found on the model.

Some artists prefer powdered charcoal for this initial stage. But I frequently begin my sketches in a faint, linear manner with vine charcoal because it’s so easily erased or adjusted. I then follow up with a more permanent compressed charcoal pencil or stick, which usually works as a sealant, holding the more ephemeral, easily smudged vine against the paper.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Twisting by Dan Gheno, 1995, sanguine chalk


Charcoal pencils come in several grades of hardness, like graphite. Softer charcoal is often good for building up masses on large, expressive drawings; whereas harder compressed charcoal or carbon pencils, such as H and HB, are more suited to line work on a smaller scale.

Hard charcoal pencils, which are easy to sharpen to long, sharp points, can be used to quickly render thick and thin lines by varying the position of your hand. And you can build toward your dark value masses with a rapid weaving of strokes.

Broad, lineless tones are possible as well. Holding the pencil to the side, you can glide the long portion of the charcoal shaft across the page, gradually building up the tone into a broad value mass, much as you would when using a colored pencil.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Female Figure in Shadow by Dan Gheno, 2003, charcoal


You might notice that vine charcoal tends to be a bit warmer than compressed charcoal. When using both, I often need to go back into my drawing at the end, sweeping over my value masses with one or the other to harmonize between cool and warm.

For the same reasons, it’s not a good idea to mix white pencil or chalk with black charcoal (or graphite), unless you do so systematically throughout the drawing. Otherwise, the mixed-up results will look cloudy or just plain chaotic, especially on toned paper.

Pro tip:  When working in compressed charcoal or in graphite, keep to a limited range of pencil hardness to maintain evenness and texture harmony in your toning. Jumping between divergent grades — for instance from an HB to a much softer 6B — can result in a distracting cacophony of rough and smooth textures.


Perhaps it was the sense of shame I felt for drawing on my sister’s car — and the adverse conditioning that came from the hours of elbow grease I spent rubbing out my scribbles. But it was a long time before I renewed my interest in grease- or oil-based drawing instruments.

When I did, using a variety of brands from Cretacolor to Faber-Castell’s Pitt, I found the medium offers a handy compromise between the darkness achievable with softer chalks and pastels, and the smoothness of colored pencil and graphite. When drawing with crayon, I generally use a sanguine color.

I’d recommend not combining different brands of crayon in one drawing. Hues differ greatly between manufacturers, even if they have the same name.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Scanning the Distance by Dan Gheno, 2016, oil-based crayon

Ink and Ballpoint

Over the years I’ve worked with a variety of inking tools, including brushes, dip pens, fountain pens, ballpoint pens and Rapidograph pens.

During the 1970s, when I did drawings such as Woman Seated, Looking Away, my favorite way to work was by using a fountain pen to render the lines and a felt brush marker to wash in the big value masses.

Normally, I dipped my “fountain” pen into a bottle of ink so I could use a dark, heavy ink that would otherwise clog up the pen. I used an italic point held sideways, which offered a delicate fine line and provided thick-thin variation. Likewise, I used a grinding stone to sharpen and reshape my pen points to get extra fine lines.

Water-based felt brushes, such as the one I used to lay in masses in this drawing, wear out quickly. Instead of throwing them away, I open their tops and fill them with watered-down ink to rejuvenate their wells. I often prefer the more watery effect of these recharged brushes to the results I get with a new one.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Woman Seated, Looking Away by Dan Gheno, ca. 1974–1975, ink


Although I still work in this technique on occasion, today when I work in ink I usually use ballpoint pens, most often for eye-hand coordination exercises. Because ink is irrevocable, it’s a great training tool. It reinforces the habit of thinking before you put down a line.

I was first attracted to ballpoint pens for their ability to replicate fine, etch-like lines. Over the years, however, manufacturing standards have diminished, and now many brands of ballpoint spurt out unexpected blobs of ink — usually at the worst possible moment.

I recommend experimenting to find the best and most consistent brands (I’m a fan of the Pilot EasyTouch .7mm fine pen and its refill catridges, which can even be used on their own). In all cases, you’ll need to get in the habit of regularly cleaning off the paper detritus that builds up around the pen point. This can produce splotching after only a few minutes of work.

I find it helpful to locate the beginning and end points of the objects I’m drawing in ink. For instance, when drawing a hand on the hip, I might place dots at the shoulder, elbow and hip, and then draw in between these points.

If you don’t put placeholder points for all the major beginning and end points — or at least try to imagine them in your mind — it’s easy to underestimate any foreshortening and draw a line too long. And with ink, of course, there’s no erasing your mistakes.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Artist by Dan Gheno, 2016, ballpoint pen

Mixing Media

There’s no need to confine yourself to one medium. Don’t be afraid of mixing unrelated media, combining different colored pencils or exploring unorthodox approaches. For example, I sometimes like to combine graphite and colored pencil with ink, starting loosely with pencil and finishing with ink.

As you experiment with combining media you’ll learn to work within some important limitations. You may find it difficult, for instance, to apply a chalkier medium on top of a slicker medium such as graphite or colored pencil. You’ll also discover you can’t splash heavy washes on thin paper.

In fact, you may want to consider tougher surfaces such as canvas, sanded paper or pastel cloth for many mixed media approaches. These provide wonderful traction, grabbing onto both dry and wet media and allowing combinations such as charcoal and paint — as we see in Robin Smith’s Marmadu — that wouldn’t be possible on most papers.


Drawing Materials | Robin Smith | Artist's Network

Marmadu by Robin Smith, 2015, oil, charcoal and white chalk on canvas. Private collection

Choosing the Right Paper

Some artists delight in rummaging through stacks of unusual and expensive papers. But I’m not a paper connoisseur. I prefer the smooth bond-paper surface that I’ve drawn on since I was a child.

Bond paper is not hard to find in letter size, although it takes a little detective work to find my preferred size of 18 x 24 inches. Different manufacturers sell large-format bond papers that are acid-free and archival, but they vary greatly in tooth and paper weight. Try out different brands until you find one that feels right for you.

Among the ones I use are Borden and Riley No. 39, a 16-lb layout bond paper that comes close to the smooth, bright-white surface of photocopy paper; and 50-lb Canson Sketch paper, which has a slightly warmer and darker surface. It’s also a little rougher, which I sometimes prefer for the way it grabs my pencil, producing darker lines and value masses.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Embrace by Dan Gheno, 2015, charcoal and carbon pencil with white charcoal on toned paper


Slick bond surfaces are not always conducive to vine charcoal or pastel-based media. Believe it or not, newsprint is perfect for these. It grabs onto the materials, giving a smooth, gliding effect to one’s value massing and linework.

Unfortunately, newsprint is also highly acidic, making it yellow and decay rather rapidly. I know many artists who love this ephemeral surface but are forever in pursuit of an archival substitute.

The best replacement I’ve found is Arches Text Wove, which shares most of the same properties. I also find absorbent printmaking papers such as Rives BFK take charcoal and pastel in a similar manner. Take care to work gently on printmaking papers, which don’t have much sizing. Their fibers are delicate and start to pill when erasing or applying material with a heavy hand.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Figure Sleeping by Dan Gheno, 2016, colored pencil and white charcoal on toned paper


Many good options are available for artists who want to work on toned paper. When I’m working on a toned ground, I gravitate toward smoother surfaces, such as Strathmore’s 400 Series Toned and Artagain, as well as Canson Mi-Teintes, preferring the silky, blotter backside of this paper over its more textural front. They allow for delicate, blended rendering, as well as distinctive linework.

I’m also fond of the lightly textured surface of Strathmore’s 500 Series Charcoal Assorted Tints paper. You can create a clean, shimmering effect on this paper if you’re careful not to press too hard and fill in its textural valleys. I like to stroke my dark and white pencils gently along the top surface of the paper texture, allowing the resulting tones to vibrate against the color of the paper.

Working with Erasers

Some teachers ban erasers in an effort to get students to look closely and commit before making a mark. Yes, an eraser is no substitute for failing to look closely at the model and thinking before you put down a line. But I firmly believe erasers are an important tool when not overused.

I subscribe to the view of America’s greatest draftsman, Thomas Eakins, that drawing is a process of revision. You put down something, and then adjust this estimate toward greater accuracy as you work. Just remember to look closely at the model and draw lightly so that you can more easily erase later on.

Erasers are not all created equal. The best type of eraser can vary depending on the media and paper you’re using. Kneaded erasers are usually effective for adjusting small vine charcoal shapes. Plastic erasers, such as those made by Tombow and Staedtler, are more efficient at lightening or removing colored pencil, compressed charcoal and carbon pencil from smooth paper.

There are also long, pointed plastic erasers that look like mechanical pencils — such as those made by Tuff Stuff and Tombow — which I’ve found indispensable for cleaning up small details and sharpening the edge of a shape. Even though you can roll a kneaded eraser into a sharp point, it won’t give you as clean a shape. Rather, these soft erasers create a more blurry edge — which can be useful when you want such an effect.


Drawing Materials | Dan Gheno | Artist's Network

Fast Sketch by Dan Gheno, 2016, sanguine chalk


Unfortunately, erasers harden and become worthless as they get older. They can even smear or rub a line deeper into the paper. Additionally, it doesn’t hurt to reserve separate erasers for black media and for colored pigments. And, you should clean erasers frequently to prevent smudge-making pigment from accumulating on them and leaving stains where you want clean paper.

When you keep your erasers new and clean, you will find that they are excellent drawing tools, not only for removing unwanted marks but for making wanted ones, as well. I often lay a broad tone of chalk or charcoal across my figure drawing, and then draw light hatch lines into the mass with a pointed eraser to create a modeled effect — much as you might use a white pencil on toned paper.

Sometimes, I will blend a tonal mass with the flat side of a block eraser. And, on occasion, I will press down with a kneaded eraser to lessen the assertiveness of a line. Other times, I’ll thin out a line by chiseling at its edge with a pointed plastic eraser, making some of the marks more delicate and fainter than other lines for rhythmic purposes. I often do this to imitate the effects of form and light, particularly where the boundary line of a volume faces the light source, or to indicate a softer fleshy form compared to a more distinct line of a projecting bone.

There are also many other tools to consider. Razor blades and sandpaper are useful for sharpening pencils. Many artists like to use chamois and stumps to blend charcoal, pastel and graphite for even tones.

I prefer to use my fingers for blending small, delicate masses. And I’ll use a facial tissue (sans ointment) to get a broader, even value mass. When using your fingers, it’s important to keep them clean and dry. I usually wipe my finger on a paper towel before each use. Otherwise, the oils of your skin will interfere with the drawing.

Pro tip: I find it makes a difference what order you employ various erasers when using more than one type in a single drawing. If I try to erase a deeply inscribed line with a kneaded eraser first, the line becomes even more resistant to subsequent attempts by a plastic eraser. I avoid using the smaller pointed plastic erasers on large areas, since they can embed the pigment into the paper; I’ve found the larger plastic erasers better suited to such tasks.

Changing Things Up

It’s natural to have a favorite material, but try not to become too dependent on any one product or brand. It never fails: After you get used to one type of pencil or paper, it gets discontinued! It’s happened to me many times, for instance with my favorite charcoal pencils and sanguine chalk.

Speaking from experience, I suggest experimenting with various brands of your favorite drawing medium so you’re not left in the lurch when a material changes or becomes unavailable. I also advise holding on to pencil nibs. If you’re caught off-guard by a surprise cancellation, you can put them in a pencil extender and get quite a bit more mileage out of them.

Even if they don’t stop making your favorite drawing utensil, you might find it useful to change media once in a while. It’s quite possible to fall into complacency when using the same materials for too long. Switching things up can help maintain your sense of enthusiasm. It can also help break bad habits that might be creeping into your work. Many artists develop muscle memory based upon the traction and resistance that the same pencil has against the same paper.

After continually using the same materials, you may find your hand wants to go at the same speed and angle regardless of the subject matter. These habits can get in the way of seeing your subject’s specific shapes and size relationships and can even interfere with the drawing process — for instance by demanding a heavy line when your goals demand delicacy, or vice versa.

Sometimes the change of material can be something as minimal as a change of color to jump start your visual perceptions. If you find = your line weight is too heavy for your goals, you might switch to a lighter color — for example, from a heavy black charcoal pencil to light sanguine pencil. You could also try the opposite tack by using an even darker material to train your hand to back off and use a lighter touch.


Drawing Materials | Hendrick Goltzius | Artist's Network

Three depictions of the Farnese Hercules by Hendrick Goltzius, ca. 1591–1592. From left: engraving; black chalk on blue paper; red chalk.


There’s no doubt an artist’s choice of materials will impact the superficial look of a drawing. And, the drawing materials mentioned here are just some of those I’ve found helpful to my particular vision.

In the end, it’s the artist who makes the drawing, not the materials. Consider Hendrick Goltzius’ multiple versions of the Farnese Hercules. Whatever material he was using, Goltzius’ intense interest in sculptural volume makes the artworks compelling, giving the images power and lasting artistic importance.

About the Artist

Dan Gheno is a New York artist whose work can be found in collections including the Museum of the City of New York and the New Britain Museum of American Art, in Connecticut. He teaches drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York and the National Academy School of Fine Arts. And, you can find his insightful book, Figure Drawing Master Class, at NorthLightShop.com.

*This article by Dan Gheno first appeared in Drawing magazine‘s Winter 2017 issue.

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