What I've Learned From Swatching My Copic Markers and Prismacolor Pencils.

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

I have been coloring for a few years now but as when I started, I still am addicted to learning everything I can to help me improve my coloring. It’s funny how much of what I thought I learned four years ago I didn’t fully understand. This was especially true when it came to organizing my Copic markers and colored pencils. When I heard that I should store my markers and pencils by color families, I immediately reorganized my supplies even though I had no idea that there were more than 9 or 10 color families as identified by the Copic company or that the art world classifies color families based on RGB or CMY (whatever that might mean). You see I was really a rookie!

Nonetheless, I dutifully organized my markers and pencils by Copic color families. I got all my yellows in one bin, the reds in another . . . you get the picture. My markers and pencils were eye candy on my desk when not in use. Oh, they would inspire me just by looking at them. But the love affair ended there. Whenever I started to color something on my own, I couldn’t find the right color whether it was a marker or colored pencil. That left me with two choices if I was going to color: 1) go online and look for Copic color blending recipes, or 2) take an online class that comes with the marker and pencil numbers to use. Regardless of the approach I took, once I finished with my coloring, I would put my markers and pencils back into the color families I took them from.

As I continued to color, I kept hearing about this thing called “swatching”. I must admit, my thought was if I am only coloring by tutorial or online class, why do I need to swatch? For goodness sake, I was given the right colors to use. So I didn’t swatch. But maybe I should be. I mean, clearly, I’m missing something. I Googled “swatch templates” and Google returned 2,400,000 results. Someone clearly knows something that I don’t know.

But when I looked closely at many of the swatch templates that Google presented to me, I was still confused. I saw many templates where you simply color in a small shape with each of the colored pencils or Copic markers you own. Some might be swatching color combinations for techniques like metal finishes or gradients to use for a sunset. Oh, that’s it, I can swatch anything I want. Then when done I have a reference to use later.

Truth be told, I have swatched my colored pencil collections a few times. I created great reference swatches when I swatched my pencils on the different papers (white/black/kraft, etc.). Since I don’t use kraft or black paper often, it’s great to pull out my swatches because it saves me time from having to swatch everything from scratch. I have also swatched my entire collection of Copics. I’ve heard that they fade over time and so it might be a good idea to update my swatches again, but I will wait until I start to notice a difference in my reference swatches and my current coloring.

90% of my current coloring projects are now “original” works that I’m creating from scratch. That means that I must determine my own color selections. So now I swatch my project colors before I start coloring. I wish I could say that I swatch all the colors for my project before I start, but I am not that disciplined in my approach. Instead, I “adjust” colors on the fly if I didn’t get something quite as I wanted.

I color predominately from photo references and normally let the photo tell me what colors I’m going to use. But lately, I have been challenging myself to change the colors. And it’s been quite a challenge that made me admit to myself that I didn’t know how to find my own colors and make them work together.

To do so, I clearly had to learn more about color. Remember above when I said I put my markers and pencils into color families? Well, it would seem my color families were quite diverse. Even though the marker might be a R14 or the pencil might be labeled Poppy Red, neither look red on my paper—they are coming out orange with a hint of red in it! So how the heck am I going to find the red I want? I can swatch every R marker and all the red looking pencils I have. But I don’t think that this should be a guessing game every time I start to color.

That led me to really study color until I could gain some understanding and control over my color selections. I learned that I needed to equate my Copic markers and colored pencils to a CMY color wheel. By doing that I was able to classify both these mediums into the same 12 color families. That was a benefit right off the bat. If you don’t learn anything else from my experience, let it be that you can’t judge a Copic marker or colored pencil by it’s name, its number, or the color on the cap or paint on the pencil--you have to swatch it.

That is what lead me to developing the CMY/Copic and CMY Prismacolor wheels. Now when I know I want a specific color, I can locate it on the wheel first and that reduces the amount of swatching I have to do! To color with realism, you use complement colors. By creating these wheels, I finally know where to find the complements for my markers and pencils.

I took my color study a step deeper recently when I “deconstructed” my entire collection of Prismacolor pencils. The reason to do this was to finally learn what color family each pencil belongs to. I did that by figuring out what colors were mixed to create each pencil. As an added benefit, I now know how to blend colors to create a hue I don’t have. Now I can finally see (tell) the difference in my colors. I know that my Prismacolor 1013 is a blend of orange and red-orange even though I originally thought it was a shade of pink. But Prismacolor 993 is actually a mix of red and red-violet. Before I figured this out I would just grab for what I thought was a "pink" pencil and not understand why it didn't look good with other colors. Now I understand it is because it was not from the right color family and therefore it didn't play so well with my other colors.

It’s been a real learning adventure that I’m so happy I took. I do have more color confidence than before doing all of this. If you lack color knowledge like I did, then you might consider doing the same kind of swatching and study to help you finally unlock the code to identify the CMY color families your pencils belong to and better able to match your Copic markers to your Prismacolor Premier pencils.

All this swatching has taught me a lot about my pencils. First, I know that I really prefer the feel of my Prismacolor Premier pencils over my Caran d’ache Luminance pencils. But I found that when I get enough layers down of the Luminance pencil it becomes smooth and I start to enjoy it as much as my Prismacolor pencil. I know which colors work well on black paper and which don't, and the same for kraft paper. I know which of my pencils are opaque and which are translucent. I read about most of these things overtime, but the only way I finally understood it was by physically swatching my markers and pencils.

Lastly, I now sort and store my colored pencils in the twelve CMY color families. I used to lump together all the pencils I thought were in a color family. By example, I put all the yellow pencils in one cup. However, some of those pencils are actually yellow-green, some are yellow-orange and some pure yellow. Knowing which family a pencil or marker belongs to cuts down the number I have to swatch or dig through to find the right one for my project.

Until next time, keep calm and swatch on.

Even though the month of July is ending, there is still plenty of summer left with a lot of opportunities to continue to study shadows.

Consider adding shadows to your next coloring project to anchor an image to the page, set a mood, or add depth and dimension. It's time to overcome the fear of coloring shadows.

If you are reading this after we moved on to the next technique, you will be able to find the Practice Technique Pack for Shadows here.

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