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AQUARELLES - Watercolour Pencils

AQUARELLE PENCIL TECHNIQUES  - 3 - Why Underpaint ? Traditional wax pencils ( that is to say wax or oil based pencils used without any solvent ) build up layers of transparent and semi transparent colour on your paper.  They depend 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 on the rougher surface. The prime problem is the little flecks of white coming through from the valleys in the paper surface. The pencil point skims over the paper 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 colour.      UNDERPAINTING is a 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. Pencil Societies impose a ‘pure’ coloured pencil rule to provide a challenging environment for competitive exhibitions and to advance skills using a single technique. With underpainting, you will be able to work with a layer of colour bonded to the whole of the paper surface, and 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. You are able to start work with your wax based 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. There should be no white flecks from the paper and the under colour will provide a pre-coloured foundation to develop. Where you are using a heavily sized watercolour paper like Arches paper, which has quite a polished surface,  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 you use 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. KNOW YOUR PENCILS. The paper will react to the addition of water and you will need to understand the way paper expands and contracts. 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 of the colours among brands of aquarelle pencils such as  Faber Castell : Albrecht Durer,  and Derwent Watercolour Pencils, do have some more ‘traditional’ natural earth based watercolour pigments included which are fine when used on the paper as a dry colour and also when 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 may 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 ( the first image below) was positioned on the paper with plenty of room round it. After making a start and adding the first colour to the paper, it became clear that the composition could be improved by adding more to the scene on the left hand side. You can see the difference between to two images I think this improved the overall composition. You will also see that I tried to remove some of the  underpainted tree foliage to the upper 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.
Underpainting Here we look at how we can get stronger colour more quickly if we are using traditional wax type pencils. Watercolour pencils can be a great help
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 the Step By Step section later on the site. This method has the benefit of simplicity, but it can result in a strongly coloured underpainting. Often we are looking for some areas of the underpainting to provide a delicate range of tints ( Skies and water particularly ). In this case we can use traditional watercolour methods using pencil colour The most controlled way of laying down your first colour to the paper is using pigment in watercolour taken 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. However, 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 ) The technique depends on taking fine shavings of pigment from the long Aquarelle pencil tip and place them in a dish and then add water to make a colour wash
In the palette ( Left ) you will seee the colour has come up too strong and I have transferred a small amount of the paint across to the next segment ( to the left left ) and added more water to dilute the colour further. This means I still have the original mixture to go back to if I need a little more, or a little stronger
This is a regular 300gsm hot pressed watercolour paper and I have laid down three areas of light blue tint. When this was dry, I have added a second layer of the blue wash to No 2 and 3 over the top of the first coating When that was dry I added a little more of the wash to area 3 ( bottom right ) This makes the colour more intense but under tight control. If I wish to soften edges I can do so while the watercolour is still damp - either by adding a little clean water at the edges or by dabbing with the edge of a piece of kitchen roll.
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 colour layers
Revised February 2019