How to Color on Black Paper

I have seen many artists who use black paper and their work is amazing.

It must be something about isolating the subject that adds drama or something?

It's like when people take pictures in portrait mode with their phones and it eliminates the background. There is something special about art on black paper.

So, I decided recently to work on black paper because I wanted to do something different. What I didn't realize is how much of a challenge it would be - because you have to think differently. No matter what medium you typically use when you work on black paper it all changes.

Let me share what I learned working on black paper this week.

Normally, when I start to color, I work dark to light. I look for the darkest areas and put those in. Well, on black paper it's already there - lol. This challenged my brain to focus on the highlights and the colors of the highlights. Finding the highlight areas was not difficult but realizing that to make the highlights it would require many (many, many, I mean many) layers because the black paper is always trying to creep through my coloring. I really needed to fill in the tooth of the paper with lots of layers of colored pencil.

When you use white paper, the white helps you with highlights because you can leave bits of the paper showing in the brightest part of the highlight. Well you would believe that should then be true on black paper for the darkest areas. What I found is that it is true per se, but the black of the paper is a very dull flat color. Leaving bits of black exposed in the shadows just looked like a hole in the image not necessarily like the shadow I was looking for. So that meant I had to layer several different colors in the shadow areas to bring life back into those areas.

The other thing I learned is not all paper is the same. On this project I worked on Stonehenge black paper. I love Stonehenge paper. The feel of this paper is great for colored pencils. What I didn't realize is that this paper being “cold pressed” is very soft and not forgiving with my sharp pencils. Typically, I use super sharp pencils to help get into the tooth of the paper nicely. That trick didn't work so well for me on this paper. I found the sharper the pencil the easier it was to put a hole in the paper. The pencil was not putting pigment down it was chewing up the paper. Not only was I having to think backwards to color light to dark but now pencil pressure was also a significant concern in order to fill the tooth of the paper without making a hole.

The other challenge was getting my sketch onto black paper. I normally use a Tuscan red Col-erase pencil (Prismacolor) to get the outline of my project down. Well you can barely see Tuscan red on black, so I needed to go a different route. I decided to use a pink pencil to get my outlines in. Totally a brain teaser as well because I typically make my sketches with marking in the tonal values – to establish where the darker areas are. Obviously, this was not going to work on black paper, so I decided to mark in the highlight areas only. That was weird for me because when I do my typical sketch when I mark in the dark areas it helps to create the shape and form. When I was marking in the highlights it was not creating the form for me. This project had me stopping and staring at the paper many times wondering how to change my thinking to work on this paper better. Each time I needed to get up and walk away and think about something else because it was chewing up a lot of my brain cells to work my way through it. Ultimately, I found that walking away helped me a great deal to relax a bit and the answer would come to me - oh try this or maybe this will work. Each time I came back with a renewed energy ready to tackle the challenges this black paper was throwing at me.

Making mistakes on black paper shows up like a shiny bad penny. I made a mistake where I placed the chin on this piece. Normally I can erase my initial line and it is ok - on white paper that is forgiving. Black paper does not like mistakes. Even when you try to erase, black paper will hold on to that pigment as if you want to tell the world about your mistake. Even though the black paper was being stubborn in not letting me erase I figured out a better trick to resolve it. Simply use a black pencil to layer over the mistake. Yes, that worked like a charm.

Overall, I have learned that working on black paper is quite the challenge. I also learned that it is worth it. Working on black paper requires a lot of preplanning, using the right pencils, pay close attention to pencil pressure, and patience to build lots of layers. For me black paper presented several challenges that I am now proud to say I conquered. Now that I made it through, I really enjoy the end result so much so that all the taxation on my brain is now a distant memory. I am thrilled not only that I made it through without giving up, but I am excited to work on another project on black paper. I love the drama it adds to the subject that pulls you into the story. I encourage everyone to work on black paper at least once it is worth all the changes you will need to do from how you normally work and you will be proud of yourself in the end.

What's happening in the Corner . . .

With the holiday season rapidly approaching, we are surrounded by more and more shiny things. So, do you want to learn how to add shine to the objects you color. Join us all month as we learn what and how to make something shine.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you can find the Work-at-Your-Own-Pace Practice for Shiny Things here.

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