This is a revised version of an article I wrote for “Talking Point” – the journal of the UK Coloured Pencil Society about my techniques for CP on wooden panels.
Now that I’ve become a part of the wider CP world by joining UKCPS, I’ve realised that my own work in this medium is a bit unconventional! My first experiments of working on wooden panels arose from some accidental marks in the studio and I’ve now developed my way of working to make these accidents more consistent and “future-proof”.
I first worked in this way on the sort of white-faced hardboard that you see in DIY stores and is used for the bottoms of drawers and backs of pack-flat bookshelves and cupboards. I now prepare my own panels from 6mm MDF which has had an inset wooden frame attached to the rear. The frame prevents the panels from warping and lets the paintings (which do not have conventional picture frames) stand off the wall by a couple of inches. The whole panel is coated with white gesso front and rear to seal the wood and the front is given a further 4 or 5 coats. When the surface is thoroughly dry, the front is sanded to a very smooth hard surface with an electric orbital sander. The process is time consuming and I prepare several panels at a time (see fig.1). One of my standard sizes is 36” x 24”and I have several finished pieces in this size. However, I also work on smaller panels (about half this size) – but I am planning an even bigger panel for the New Year 2010 which may be as large as 48” x 36”!
These pictures take a long time to complete and it is impractical to work from life. I usually work from my own photographs and spend a lot of time selecting and arranging compositions and setting up the photos. In the case of “Moo-vergne)”, I saw the cows in a field while touring the Auvergne region of France in 2007 and spent some time crouched in the ditch waiting for the cows to arrange themselves into a good composition by the fence post! I use Photoshop to crop, adjust and compile compositions and either square up the chosen image to transfer it to the panel or print out an actual size “tiled” poster on copy paper. I transfer the basic image by rubbing graphite lightly on the back of the print, taping it to the panel and tracing over the main elements with a hard pencil (see fig. 2). I also print out a monochrome version of the original which will help me to understand the tonal range of the image. I favour quite closely cropped subjects which fill the frame. For me, this picture is not really about the cows. It is a tonal composition that uses diagonals and a transition from bright and light at the top right to dark and indistinct at bottom left.
My way of working on these panels is to keep the marks light, loose and non-directional (“scribbling” being the technical term!). I slowly build up tone and colour by layering of light applications of individual colours. I am deliberately not “filling in” and aim for some of the surface to remain in view between the marks so that light is reflected back through the layers of colour. The overall effect is a kind of “photo-realism” when seen from a reasonable viewing distance. However, the work seems more abstract and textural when viewed from close quarters and when the whole image cannot be taken in at one view.
I tend to work across the panel in a pretty random fashion and aim to get a loose application of marks and colour across the whole surface early on (see figs. 3 & 4). This is so that I can keep an eye on the balance of the whole piece. Working on such a hard, white surface means that it takes a lot of adjusting to get the values right (in the early stages, I feel that I should wear sunglasses!). In the case of “Moo-vergne”, I was demonstrating at The Pencil Museum mid way during the work and, as a result, got one of the cows to quite a finished state (see fig 5). Whether I’m painting or drawing, my priorities are (a) composition, (b) tonal value and, finally, (c) colour. I work with a fairly limited palette of colours and have developed some general “rules” for this work:
- I rarely use a single colour to describe a shape when several will do the job in layers;
- I avoid individual describing lines where possible;
- I keep the marks loose and in random directions, often turning the panel on its side or upside down while I’m working;
- I lose edges where possible and keep hard edges to a minimum;
Only when I get to the final stages of the piece do I start to “tighten up”! This is when I will pay attention to where I want any hard edges, highlights or more subtle reflected lights. I use various rubbers, an electric eraser and a scalpel to remove colour and get back to the white of the panel as appropriate. The scalpel is particularly useful for sharp highlights in hair, whiskers and eyes. With “Moo-vergne”, I’d filled in a general tone in the left foreground to keep the balance about right as I was working. However, I knew that I wanted some details of foliage to be right at the front of the picture. So – I erased and scraped out where it would go and then used the most relatively saturated colours in my palette to draw in the blades of grass, leaves and flowers etc. I used the same technique to clean up and colour the barbed wire to ensure that it stayed right at the front of the picture plane (see figs. 6 & 7). Fig. 8 shows the finished piece.
I paint the edge of the panel and the outside edge of the frame with a neutral colour grey and the whole work is protected with a couple of coats of artists’ quality spray matt varnish. Incidentally, the matt varnish does provide extra tooth which permits additional work on areas that have become “saturated”.
All my earlier pieces were done with Creta Aqua Monolith woodless crayons. However, since becoming an occasional demonstrator at The Cumberland Pencil Museum, I have started using Derwent Aquacolour woodless crayons which are slightly softer and waxier than the Creta version. I like the fact that there is very little wastage and that I’m not constantly sharpening away all that wood. However, despite the fact that both products are water soluble, I use them completely dry and don’t do any mixing! Instead, I rely on a kind of optical mixing that happens as a result of perceiving the build up of several layers of individual colour.