Does Your Coloring Look Like a Paint-by-Number piece . . . or Are You a Smooth Colorer?

By now, I suspect you know that if it’s a day that ends in “y” I’m coloring something. So, it should come as no surprise that I’ve already been coloring this morning. My goal today is to really concentrate on creating smooth color transitions with my colored pencils.

At this point you might think that I have that down pat. After all, I color constantly. But truth be told, I don’t believe I’ve spent any time focused on achieving smooth color transitions. There are things I seem to do on “auto pilot” when I’m coloring. It’s somewhat like walking. I can walk anywhere and everywhere without giving it much thought. On occasion I might pay extra attention if I’m going over cobblestones or down a rugged path, but around the house, I don’t give it any thought at all. In both those scenarios I get to the desired destination. When I color, I’ve been known to pick up the colored pencils that are called for by the instructor and just start coloring. I set down one pencil and pick up the next. I mean what’s there to think about if I’m putting the color where I’m told to? Right? Wrong . . . it turns out there is plenty I should have been thinking about.

For starters, I’ve learned that I should never start a new project before I figure out what paper would be best to use. The paper itself can make or break my image. I should have been thinking about the amount of texture I’m wanting to come into play with my image. For example, if I’m about to do a portrait of a beautiful baby I certainly wouldn’t want to color it on “rough” watercolor paper. In this case It would be best for me to avoid other papers too such as Bristol Vellum or any cold press watercolor paper I might have on hand. Any paper with texture is going to make it more difficult for me to create smooth color transitions.

I think back to my earliest colored pencil pieces and now realize that some of them better resemble the paint-by-number art I did as a young girl. I would start coloring in the outlined shapes of the image. To this day I have a hard time coloring over the outlines of my images. I don’t know if that is because I was repeatedly schooled about “coloring within the lines” but as a result, I didn’t have color transitions, I had blocks of color that sat side-by-side. Knowing that now, I am very aware of this as I am coloring, and I am working hard to color over the outlines within my images.

So how do I do it smoothly you ask? Well, I’m learning that there are a couple of key factors that work for me. The first is working in layers. Ok, I know that is nothing new. We all hear that colored pencil is all about building up our images in layers. But what I realize now is that I start out by establishing my initial layer of colors with a very light pressure. It becomes my color map for subsequent layers. As I build up the layers of color, I watch for the areas that one color is a neighbor to another. I lessen the pressure on my pencils in the area where the two are coming together and overlap these colors until I blend them from one to the other. No longer do I abruptly stop at the boundary (outline) between the two.

The other thing I like to do once I’ve laid down enough layers to achieve the color I’m looking for is to go over it with the Prismacolor Colorless Blender pencil (#1077). I had tried this pencil in the past and it didn’t work for me. Turns out that I wasn’t putting enough pigment on my paper before I used it, or I was applying too much pressure on the pencil—which meant I was a burnishing, not blending, my work.

When I have enough pigment on a project, I don’t have to burnish it to see the colors blend. That means that I’m not losing the rest of the tooth of the paper at the same time. Once I have gone over the areas with the blender pencil, I can add additional layers of color if I feel it needs it. At this point it is easier for me to touch up or enhance any of my smooth color transitions.

When coloring for realism, nearly everything I do is coloring from one color transition to the next. Value changes for depth are a great example of that, or even going from the highlight on a cheek down into the cheekbone. Learning how to blend my colors smooth has led to me being able to create a better overall piece.

Really, smooth transitions could also be called a color gradient. This is a valuable skill that you can find me practicing daily. You can do this too with as little as one colored pencil and a piece of scrap paper. If you have more pencils, use those too. It has become a form of doodling for me. When I’m sitting with a few minutes, I will just create a gradient swatch with whatever I have nearby (nearby could even be an envelope from the trash here under my desk). These aren’t works of art, they are only practice. It all leads to improving my coloring. And before I know it, I will consistently be coloring smooth transitions without giving it any more thought than I give to something I do as automatic as walking over to my coloring desk.

Speaking of which, time to head back over and do a few more swatches. Have a great coloring weekend.

What's happening in the Corner . . .

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you are attracted to an image, so much so that you want to color it too? Whether it is whimsical or realistic, chances are it's the shading of the image that caught your attention. Join us this month as we focus our practice on the creation of clean edges and smooth color transitions.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you can find the Work-at-Your-Own-Pace Practice for Clean Edges & Smooth Color Transitions here.

You can see more of my work or follow me on Instagram.

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