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Trumpet Choir – Mastering the art of creating white highlights on a black substrate

Hi Everyone!

Here is my latest piece, Trumpet Choir.  This photo was taken at Dallas Arboretum this spring just after the rain. I was very lucky to catch a walk in the garden right after the morning rain so decided to make this an opportunity to take photos of the garden.  I was looking through the photos when a water drop landed on the screen.  As I looked up the welcoming sight of trumpet flowers hanging from the pergola greeted me, and left me simply at awe with the beautiful filtered lights through the lush green trumpet vines and bright orange flowers.  I snapped a few photos and now I am happy to see this turned into a piece of art.

Trumpet Choir, 18″x 30″ Colored Pencil & White Gouache on Black Art Board

This piece was my experimentation of using white gouache and colored pencil on a black substrate.  I used Canson Mi-Teintes Black Art Board and as I continued my experimentation with gouache and colored pencils, I came to a full circle and realized that I can create just as effective bright white highlights with colored pencils alone.  Below is my analysis on using gouache, and which colored pencils I used to create an effective bright white highlight.

Using White Gouache

Here is my take on using white gouache to highlight colored pencil work

  • White Gouache is far more effective than using white acrylic, since it allows some applications of colored pencil over it and it does not change the surface texture as much.  When it is used alone, it certainly has less “white-out” look and lends well with colored pencil.

  • While using gouache does not add brushstroke texture like acrylic would, it does eliminate the tooth and creates more slippery surface.  Layering colors over the gouache underpainting can become a challenging task. Pressing the colored pencil on the substrate to blend the colors resulted in white gouache scraping off and revealing some black colors underneath. For this reason, I do not recommend using white gouache as the underpainting for colored pencil.

  • I noticed that true opacity can be achieved by applying about 3 to 4 layers of gouache, using as little water as possible.

  • The most effective usages of white gouache are in creating pure white highlight in a larger area, and giving a light white wash over some leaves that needed to be brighter.

Close-up images of the areas where white gouache was used

Left – Gouache underpainting is applied before adding the foliage details

Right – Gouache is applied in a larger area to create the sky peeking through the vines

As you can see in the two close-up images shown, there are less color contrast of the foliage on the left image where I applied the gouache underpainting.  Luckily this happens to be the area where the foliage had brighter colors so it worked out to my advantage.  On the right image, I used gouache in the highlighted area only and utilized colored pencil to brighten the foliage colors. When you see them side-by side, you can see the richer range of colors achieved on the right image compared to the left.

Using Colored Pencil

Now, let’s talk about colored pencils.  As many of you know, most artist-grade colored pencils are either wax or oil based.  I find it useful to blend the two to achieve the opacity needed to cover the black surface, and which order you layer controls the outcome.  Here is the list of the pencils I used.

3 different colored pencils I used on a black art board, plus white gouache on the right for comparison. Please note that photo shows the whites bit more vibrant than in naked eyes because of the way camera processes the color.

Prismacolor Premier (AKA Softcore pencil) in White

  • Excellent for small detail highlights and underpainting when you want to layer a lot of colors over it.

  • When used alone, it shows slight grayish hue from the black surface and tooth surface pattern is somewhat visible even after a heavy application of colors

  • Works great when applying subtle highlight on the edge of the leaf as a final touch

Stabilo All-Marking Pencil in White

  • This oil-based pencil worked the best in adding bright highlights after you already have enough layers of colors. This is the only pencil that allowed additional layers of colors over the area where I put gouache underpainting.

  • When used alone, the white was not opaque enough to create pure white.  When this pencil was used as the initial layer, I could not make the highlight bright enough even when I added the other white pencils.

Derwent Drawing Pencil in China White

  • By far this is provided the most opaque white, especially when used as the initial layer.  Using this pencil as the second or third layer was not as effective.

  •  The lead of this pencil tends to be chalky and brittle so it is not ideal in creating details or defining a crisp clean line.  The chalky lead also made it difficult to have even layering of colors and often missed covering all the tooth of substrate.

Close-up images of the areas where I only used colored pencils

Left – Bright white highlights created by using Derwent pencil as the initial underpainting. Bright colored foliage was achieved by the combination of Derwent China White, Prismacolor Pale Sage, Yellow Chartreuse, and Spring Green

Right – Bright white highlight using Derwent and Prismacolor, and thin white highlights created using Prismacolor White

Here are the formulas that worked the best:

Bright White Highlight

  1. Start with Derwent Drawing China White to cover the general area.  As discussed earlier, you will not be able to define a clear outline.  That’s OK.  The lead will break a bit and leave bits of white on the substrate. Do not brush them off yet.

  2. Apply Prismacolor White.  Define the outline using a sharp point, and utilize the broken bits of Derwent pencil to fill the tooth of paper in small circular motions.  The wax from the Prismacolor lead should create a seal and set the Derwent white in its place.

  3. Once even coverage of the highlighted area is achieved, add white Stabilo pencil in circular motion.  Brush off the pencils bits. Don’t blow them off since they can go to the area where it is not white and leave white specks that would not remove easily.

Foliage with Bright Lights Filtering Through

  1. Study the area where is it the brightest.  Add light coat of Derwent pencils only in the brightest area.  Careful not to add too much China White here as it can lead to difficulty in having enough green to show through later.

  2. For a very bright area add Prismacolor white in circular motion.  Otherwise, add the brightest color of the color group such as Pale Sage, Cream or Deco Pink depending on the color(s) of the foliage you see.

  3. In the area where you have not applied the colors, start adding the colors two to three shades brighter than your desired goal.  The black substrate will naturally tone it down.

  4. Blend the two areas using the same colors you used in #3.

  5. If the area needs to be brighter, add Stabilo pencil, and layer the colors over it to blend the colors.

Every substrate surface is different, so I would not say this is a silver-bullet that works all the time.  I also noticed that Derwent pencil’s opacity varies between pencils. When I switched to a new Derwent pencil in the middle of the project, the lead was noticeably less chalky and much easier to sharpen but was far less opaque.  Even with less opacity of the new Derwent pencil, I believe it still created better white underpainting than Prismacolor white.

I hope this helps to create your new project on a black substrate.

Happy Drawing!

(This blog was originally published on 10/15/2016)

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