Derwent Tinted Charcoal pencils

October 14, 2012

I would have gone back today to Darling Harbour to try and better capture the shadows cast by the Classic and Wooden Boats on the water, but needed to spend the morning thinking instead. Also the weather was wrong: bright morning sunshine yesterday gave me an inspiring subject, yesterday’s afternoon overcast light (the same as today’s) was less so.

Quite a while back I bought a tin of Derwent Tinted Charcoal pencils, destined more for adding colour to charcoal sketches than the graphite pencils I do by and large. I relegated them previously to Landscape Only: country landscapes, not urban landscapes. Why I took them with me on a sunny day, I don’t know, but I tried to incorporate them in yesterday’s sketch, along with watercolor from a malfunctioning water brush. Unfortunately the sketch was too small – charcoal demands wide hand movements across an A2 or A3 page – and I was stuck with a sketch much smaller than sight-size (something I rarely do).

Yesterday’s frustration juggling pencils, watercolours and sketchbook, all while standing up, precipitated some new understandings about sketching on location. Juggling matrials and comments from various passers-by (all encouraging but I was too “in the zone” to be distracted) was in addition to the frustration of not capturing the glorious dark greens and blues of the sea in shadow. Admittedly on the my sketching journey, I’ve been more preoccupied with Proportion, Measurement and Tone than Colour, but confidence in ‘getting down’ a scene is increasing.

I’ve run the colours of my tin (the entire range is 24 colours) across a page in an old white 150g Daler-Rowney sketchbook paper and compared them with ‘brights’ in other pencils. I often lose light linework done in Derwent Graphite Pencils in the cream D-R sketchbooks I’m using at the moment, but from the scan above it’s obvious only one colour loses out almost completely, a beautiful “anonymous” blue pencil which looks great in the original. I knew the lights in the Prismacolour would die as well. Interesting – I ought to sketch more with the beautifully waxy Pitt Faber-Castell pencils, for instance, on this white paper.

I’m emboldened to do the same on my current cream Daler-Rowney 150g sketchbooks to see if this affects scanning. I’m indebted to a Sydney Sketch Club meetup because I’d overlooked how dark my cream pages were compared to everyone else’s white cartridge paper, yet they are far from “tinted”.

I equate sketching with immediacy: capturing the moment as you see it. Unfortunately watercolour, by its very nature, is not immediate; it’s about adding colour then waiting around for it to dry and fade (by which time the subject has changed). Watercolour thus only seems to work to capture local colour, not the colour of an object under a light source. Taking a photo and touching up with colour later on seems inauthentic and very often ends up distorting images in a false way reminiscent of old-fashioned colour-touched black-and-white photographs.

So how to handle colour in difficult urban sketching settings?

1. sketching on location either involves standing up in a frenzied urban environment or finding a secluded, quiet place in which to contemplate the world. Pencils Only while standing up; preference for Watercolours while sitting down (I adopt a frenzied approach to line and tone in chaotic environments, such as busy Pyrmont Bridge, and revel in a slowquiet line when far from the madding crowds); 

2. for objects in bright sunshine, add colour using Prismacolor Coloured Pencils; if overcast and sketching dark shadows, use Tinted Charcoal insteads, especially for any dull/dark greens and browns (e.g. vegetation, sea shadows), especially if drawing large enough to capture small areas of colour; 

3. sunny sketches benefit from watercolour (I baulk at watercolour in the main because it’s too optimistic and illustrationist, too often surface-driven) but watercolour only really ‘works’ when sitting down and in a calm environment; sketching in overcast light benefits from Tinted Charcoal with water washes added then or later.

4. Pyrmont sandstone, so often used in Sydney buildings, comes out of the ground grey and yellows to a honey colour over time. Derwent Tinted Charcoal Sand TC01 looks great for sandstone in sun, conveying a lot of its gritty texture; the yellow’s complementary colour opposite, is purple so Lavender TC07 is suitable for shadows cast on sandstone.

5. Having hit on colours for sandstone in sunshine and shade, I haven’t come up with colours suitable for liver brick and slate as featured in much of Sydney’s historic buildings, but for that I either turn to other Tinted Charcoal pencils or the untried Derwent range of Graphitint pencils.

6. One of the main reasons I grew disaffected wth urban sketching previously was that I was too busy capturing tone than detail. To rectify that,  I keep graphite pencils razor-sharp. Tinted Charcoal thus seems like a “backward” step to the vagueness of charcoal tonalism, but I wonder if I can’t retain my concern for detail alongside the sensuousness of colour as it is and when I see it.

The illustrated examples of sketches using Derwent Tinted Charcoal and Graphitint in their promotional material are not all that inspiring and I’m not aware yet of anyone creating great work in these media.  

I’m about to embark on a new sketchbook for on-site (urban) sketching, with a focus on buildings. Step 1 – ‘theoretical’ drawings based on photographs (to get a firm understanding of the building’s structure – wjhy tackle a well-known historic building on location without studying it at home first?); Step 2 – architectural detail obvious from photos (often too far away and lost on-site); Step 3 – on-site sketching facades in tonal thumbnails using charcoal pencils; Step 4 – own original sketching on-site of facades using graphite pencils, with up to five tonal shades from grey to black; Step 5 – try to match it with an interior sketch (Sydney Open, as organised by Historic Houses Trust, is allowing the general public into five buildings early next month). This approach should make two nice double-spreads for each building, in this instance. I’m intending to do the same with the Sydney Town Hall and Sydney Opera House where getting inside is possible.

Apart from that, I’m going to introduce more dry colour on-site, with individual sketches done in a similar product line (Lyra Skin Tones, Derwent Tinted Graphite, Pitt Faber-Castel wax pencils, etc.). Those, like Derwent Graphitint and Tinted Charcoal, which can take water, will have water added later or where possible on location.

Some new undestandings and new resolutions!

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