White: A Delicate Explosion of Color
Render the elusive, subtle colors present in white objects, using colored pencil.
By Alyona Nickelsen
For centuries artists have been fascinated by white and have presented their visions in a wide array of subjects. White mysteriously shimmers in snowy landscapes, glows in luminous flower petals and shines from the coats of grazing horses. White startles us with high contrast and deep shadows and whispers to us in barely defined lines and shapes of diffused light.
If you look very carefully at the white objects that surround us, you can see that each is really a delicate explosion of color. In this photograph of white flowers (above), a few areas are isolated and enlarged to illustrate that the color we call white is actually created from tremendous variations of other colors.
In this article, I’ll demonstrate how I rendered the color variations in a still life composed of all white objects.
Setting Up the Still Life
For this composition, I selected items that are readily available in most households: a white ceramic mug and saucer, milk, white eggs and some white flowers. I arranged them on a white sheet of paper and took a photograph under the bright California sun with my Canon EOS 50D Digital SLR (single-lens reflex) camera. As a result, there’s enough contrast to unveil white objects that would otherwise be camouflaged against a white background.
1. Image Transfer
I began by transferring the outline of my photo image, at the same size (8×10), to the drawing surface. Using graphite transfer paper, I indicated the shape and direction of cast shadows. I also marked the shapes and placement of major highlights, which help to define the properties of the various surfaces.
2. Background and Cast Shadow
Though the original background for my setup was a white sheet of paper, I used Photoshop to translate the background white to a light purplish color in the digital version. So, for the brightest highlights of the composition, I was able to reserve the white color of the Stonehenge paper.
I created the pale purple color for the background by mixing the powder from cloud blue and light peach pencils. A cotton pad proves to be very convenient for applying powder to larger areas such as the background.
I also added indigo blue to the cast shadow of the saucer and the flowers, using Prismacolor Verithin pencils or a very light touch of Prismacolor Premier pencils. This cooled down the color of the shadow by introducing more blue. The black in the indigo blue pencil also darkened the value of the cast shadow and dulled its local color. I was careful not to give a hard edge to the cast shadow, while still indicating its boundaries.
3. Color and Value Mapping
I applied light layers of cloud blue and cream followed by blue violet lake and light peach along object edges and contours, gradually darkening and shaping the objects as I went along.
Tip: When light is warm, the lighted areas of white seem to have more pale yellows, pinks and warm purples in them; the areas in shadow have more cool blues and greens.
The combination of the yellows, blues and reds in exacting proportions will create a neutral color. If there’s more yellow and blue compared to the red, the color mix will lean toward green. If there’s more red and blue, the mix will lean toward purple.
If there’s more yellow and red, the mix will have more orange in it.
So, to control the color of white, I actually manipulate reds, blues and yellows to create a balance. If I want to indicate a lighted area, my mix will have more yellows and reds. If I want more shadow, I add more blues in the mix.
I established the local color of the leaves by applying a light layer of canary yellow followed by grass green pencil.
4. Darkest Areas for Contrast
At this point it was time to bring contrast into play. I worked on the dark values of the leaves as well as the shadowed areas to emphasize the lighter values and create depth. I shaped the leaves with dark green and kelp green and then deepened the cast shadow under them with indigo blue and touches of sand and magenta.
Using odorless mineral spirits (OMS), I softened the deposited mix of wax and, with the colorless blender, spread the mix more evenly in the areas of the cast shadow. The OMS also helped me to blend strokes and better define the transparent nature of the cast shadow.
Tip: When working with a colorless blender (a colored pencil containing wax and fillers but no pigment, used in blending overlaid colors), you will notice some pencil crumbs on your paper. These are wax fragments that were displaced from the paper surface by the colorless blender. You need to cautiously brush the crumbs from the paper so you don’t soil the surface.
Working with indigo blue, blush pink, sand and touches of canary yellow, I next created the darkest values of the shadowed area on the flowers. I applied several light layers and avoided pressing hard. Stonehenge paper is very forgiving and will easily withstand the abuse of applying multiple layers.
5. Individual Objects: Values and Shapes
Next I established the lighted areas of the flowers and shaped the eggs. The background color and values affect the foreground. In this case, the flowers are a background for the eggs, so I worked from the back of the composition toward the front. I shaped each flower petal with a combination of cloud blue, cream, light peach and blush pink. Because certain parts of the petals were more exposed to the light, I used more yellows and pinks in the white for those areas. I paid close attention to the values of each petal and its cast shadow to better indicate the shapes and curves.
The centers of the flowers I just touched lightly with canary yellow and magenta. To tone down the colors and indicate that portions of the centers are more in shadow, I used cloud blue and blue violet lake.
To round the eggs, I began working with cream followed by cloud blue and gradually shaped them with blue violet lake, blush pink and sand—being certain to preserve the white of the paper for the brightest highlights and indicating the reflected light by lightening the values with mounting putty.
I used the same approach when shaping the mug, adding the reflections on its surface at the very end by emphasizing the shapes with white pencil. White pencil is translucent and will not create bright opaque highlights but will have enough strength to lighten the values and create a glare effect.
This step was the most important and fun stage of the project for me: revealing shapes by adjusting values and refining the details. These tiny tweaks—lightening and darkening values, softening and sharpening edges, and dulling and brightening the color—play a crucial role in the realistic appearance of the image.
For example, if the darks on the eggs weren’t dark enough, the eggs would appear flat. If the values of the mug’s handle were placed slightly askew, the result could easily be a distortion in perspective. If all the edges are equally defined, the image would look either blurry and out of focus or artificially outlined and decorative, rather than realistic.
I hope this demonstration helps to make the process of painting the color white a bit less complicated for you. And I hope it encourages you to explore the subtle color explosions inherent in this amazing color.
The following is a list of materials I used for this project:
white Stonehenge paper: size 8×11
Gamsol odorless mineral spirits (OMS): The use of OMS is completely optional—I can achieve the same results without it. However, a miniscule amount simplifies the task and makes the process much faster by softening the binding of the colored pencil medium.
waterbrush: This tool has bristles at one end but, instead of a solid handle, it has a plastic reservoir designed to hold water, which gradually seeps down to keep the bristles moist. This is an excellent tool for applying a measured amount of OMS to the paper. (OMS will not affect the brush’s plastic container.)
cotton pads and swabs: handy for larger applications of OMS
colorless blender: a colored pencil containing wax and fillers but no pigment, used in blending overlaid colors without adding any additional color
Scotch magic tape: for more aggressive erasing
Blu-Tack mounting putty: for gentle lightening of values
metal tea strainer: I use this to help grind the core of a pencil, capturing the resulting powder in a plastic container placed under the strainer.
Prismacolor Verithin (harder) and Premier (softer) colored pencils
Alyona Nickelsen is an award-winning artist whose work has been featured in numerous art magazines and national and international exhibitions. A signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America, the International Guild of Realism and the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club, she’s the author of Colored Pencil Painting Bible: Techniques for Achieving Luminous Color and Ultra-realistic Effects (Watson-Guptill, 2009) and the founder of Online Colored Pencil Painting School. For more information, visit her website, www.brushandpencil.com.
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