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4 Artists Push Colored Pencil Drawing to the Expressive Edge

Learn the secrets of these daring creatives who are taking a formerly staid medium to new heights.

By Maureen Bloomfield

Prisoner of One’s Device (colored pencil on frosted acetate, 16×20) by Joseph Crone

Joseph Crone

Bleak Moods & Sinister Stories

Joseph Crone came across colored pencil drawing while doing lithography at the Herron School of Art and Design. “I fell in love with drawing on stone using wax crayons. But when it came to the printing process, I couldn’t replicate the beauty of the original image. As an alternative to lithography, the combination of colored pencil on frosted acetate is by far the closest to that of crayon on stone.”

Since Crone restricts his palette to black and white, why not just use charcoal or graphite? “I love colored pencil drawing for the contrast and saturation of pigment I’m able to achieve. Also, colored pencils don’t create much of a glossy buildup or unwanted smudging the way most graphite pencils do, for me at least.”

Salut (colored pencil on frosted acetate, 12×9) by Joseph Crone

Black & White on Acetate

With a cast of characters who seem to be inhabiting a gangster movie, the artist asserts his fascination with film noir. “The mood of an older, black-and-white film can be intense or subtle,” he says. “I similarly limit my palette. I like to think that I’m both telling a story and depicting a mood in black and white.”

If the drawings seems luminous in a ghostly way, the reason is the surface: Frosted acetate. It is technically an acetate alternative, Grafix Dura-Lar. “Not only is it archival and resilient, it’s also receptive to the pencil’s touch, so I can depict subtle textures. (For example, see the lamp’s base, crystal ashtray, and newspaper pages in Salut).

“Another advantage of acetate is that both sides are frosted; thus, I’m able to use either or both sides to reinforce darks,” he says. Being able to use both sides also comes in handy when he has erased too zealously. “If I erase beyond repair on one side, I can recover that specific section by simply turning the piece over and building it up once again in the same fashion because the acetate is semitransparent and both sides are frosted.” The advantage of acetate has a qualifier; there’s a finite amount of frost, which can easily be removed by an eraser.

Leave Her to the Mountain (colored pencil on frosted acetate, 5×7) by Joseph Crone

The Origin of the Stories

The sense of alarm in Crone’s work is palpable. Something dramatic has either happened or is about to happen. His drawings have both the narrative authority of a film still and also its evocative ambiguity. Of the multiple sources of his inspiration, he says, “The sporadic moments that make an impression which I can’t shake are what influence my work. Whether it’s a scene from Dial M for Murder, a passage from The Maltese Falcon, or a room with interesting lighting that I come across in an old building, the conceptual process begins. Outside influences range from the filmmaker David Lynch to the TV show Mad Men, from electronic music to Edith Piaf, and so forth.”

And in keeping with the proclivities of his overwrought characters, he’s not averse to a shot of solace. “On occasion I’ll have a nip of Scotch to warm the gullet and relax the mind, letting loose the ideas that are in a constant state of circulation.”

Joseph Crone’s Materials

  • Surface: Grafix Dura-Lar .005 matte and translucent polyester film (an acetate alternative); various other papers to manipulate textures
  • Colored Pencils: black Prismacolor Premier Verithin colored pencils
  • Other tools: white thermoplastic board (a strong form of plexiglass); jeweler’s magnifying glasses; pencil extender; blending stumps for softening; Sakura electric eraser for highlights; kneaded eraser for overall use; SmudgeGuard glove

Learn more about Joseph Crone and see more of his work at josephcronefineart.com.


Eddie, No. 3 (Marine) (colored pencil on museum-grade matboard, 32×40) by John P. Smolko

John P. Smolko

Tapestry of Lines

During the 35 years that John P. Smolko taught high school art, he emphasized drawing skills. “Colored pencils were the perfect bridge between drawing and learning about color as a preparation for painting,” he says. Teaching of course didn’t leave him a lot of studio time to create his own art. But colored pencils proved expedient. “I love to draw, and holding a pencil was natural to me; I could start working immediately and just walk out of my studio when finished for the day.”

Smolko’s content, like that of Joseph Crone’s, exposes emotional realities. “Having a nephew in the Marines has put me in a unique position to experience the cost of war on families,” he says. “Considering that only about one percent of the population has a personal connection to our conflicts suggests that most of the population does not have the same skin in the game as military families.

“The pictures of Abu Ghraib had a real effect on me. I found a need to try to reproduce those compositions with broken dolls and toys in Collateral Damage. The toys make it a little easier for the public to approach the images objectively in order to evaluate the message. No one comes back from war the same, and the loss of innocence is a tragedy.”

Collateral Damage (colored pencil on museum-grade matboard, 40×30) by John P. Smolko

Crosshatching then Scribbling

After studying lithography, drawing in graphite, and earning his master of fine arts degree in painting, Smolko was searching for an alternative to photorealism. “At the same time, I was teaching my students to render with pen and ink and master the skill of cross-hatching. I decided to transfer this skill to my own process by crosshatching with colored pencil. I actually took my lithographs and crosshatched color over them to help enhance my skills at making marks and choosing colors. The lithographs were tightly rendered and monochromatic, so the addition of colored lines seemed effortless.”

This experiment became a style when one of his colleagues, Tom Lehnert, whom Smolko calls “an abstract expressionist, master draftsman, and best friend,” suggested that he stop controlling the line and start scribbling. “His words sent me in a direction that I still find challenging and rewarding,” says Smolko. “My work keeps evolving, and the possibilities are endless. I love line!”

Audrey, No. 3 (Senior) (colored pencil on museum-grade matboard, 40×32) by John P. Smolko

John P. Smolko’s Materials

  • Surface: colored museum-grade matboard or Gatorfoam foam board
  • Colored pencils: primarily Prismacolor Premier Soft Core colored pencils; Prismacolor Premier Verithin (for the initial drawing); Stabilo Woody 3-in-1 pencils for thick, large, juicy lines; Caran d’Ache Luminance 6901 pencils
  • Other: Prismacolor Premier Art Stix (to block in large areas); Sakura Cray-Pas oil pastels (for certain areas on large drawings)

See more of John P. Smolko’s work on his Instagram page, @jpsmolkoart.


Paradise Dreams (colored pencil and water-soluble crayons on heated paper, 12×12) by Arlene Steinberg

Arlene Steinberg

Some Like It Hot

Eleven years ago Arlene Steinberg was working as a textile designer while creating paper sculptures on the side. Then she took up colored pencil drawing and says, “I haven’t looked back.” As a throwback to her childhood love of crayons, she delights in colored pencil’s waxy component. One reason Steinberg’s color is so intense and saturated is that she works on Icarus Art drawing board, a portable board that has warm and cool areas; the board is placed under the paper, and the wax reacts to the heated part of the surface.

Cherries Under Glass 1 (colored pencil, 11 x 7 3⁄4) by Arlene Steinberg

Color That Sizzles

She starts with an underpainting that consists primarily of local colors; then on the warm side of the Icarus Art board, using a very low heat setting, she adds a layer of a complementary color to create shadows on the paper. “If I’m creating a red cherry,” she explains, “I’ll use a combination of a dark green and a dark blue to create shading. On top of the complements, I’ll layer darker shades of local color, then blend in different colors (reds, yellows, pinks, oranges).” To make the colors merge together, she uses a colorless blender pencil or paper stump on the warm side of the Icarus Art board.

At first glance, Steinberg’s work seems a rhapsody on one primary and maybe one secondary color, but actually she uses between 25 to 35 different colors artfully blended. To “add back the whites” at the very end, she scrapes shavings from Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons (softer than colored pencils and denser in the concentration of wax). The scrapings of pigment go into a small container; she wets the pigment and then, using a small watercolor brush, she puts back the highlights. The result is arresting color that seems to sizzle on the page.

It Takes Two (colored pencil and water-soluble crayons on heated paper, 71⁄2×24) by Arlene Steinberg

Arlene Steinberg’s Materials

  • Surface: Stonehenge paper, which takes a beating and accepts multiple layers of pencil
  • Colored pencils: wax-based for ease of blending — mostly Prismacolor Premier Soft Core; also Caran d’Ache Luminance; Derwent Coloursoft; and old, out-of-production Bruynzeel Design Fullcolor pencils (when she’s looking for more transparent coverage)
  • Other: Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons; Icarus Art board, which has warm and cool areas (The warm surface allows the wax based colored pencils to soften enough so Steinberg can layer on color more quickly than through more traditional methods. It also allows for more saturated color.); camera and Photoshop (she shoots her still life setup, sometimes taking over 200 photos, changing the angles and lighting.)

Learn more about Arlene Steinberg and see more of her work at arlenesteinberg.com.


Unfurled (colored pencil on Ampersand Pastelbord, 7×5) by Shawn Falchetti

Shawn Falchetti

Dark Papers and Luminous Tones

“The subtlety of tones and the control afforded by a pencil, combined with the rich colors, are the best of both worlds for me,” says Shawn Falchetti.

For the majority of his works, he sticks to colored pencil drawing on paper, but he has tried applying Turpenoid with an old brush over a base layer of color on Pastelbord; turps make the colored pencil liquefy (see Unfurled).

“After a few seconds, I can move the pigment around in a way that’s similar to how I’d work with acrylic.” Once that application dries, he draws over the color with several layers of colored pencil.

In addition to colored pencil, Falchetti, in common with Joseph Crone and Arlene Steinberg, uses Neocolor II water-soluble crayons; for Opaline Dreams, he used the Neocolor II crayons to block in the darks, then used a water-soaked brush to move the pigment around. “Neocolors help me push the value range, especially when I’m working on a a lighter-toned paper, where it can be difficult to achieve solid darks.”

Bend (colored pencil on Artspectrum Colour-fix paper, 24×18) by Shawn Falchetti

The Color of the Paper

Falchetti, who first worked in oil, likes to start dark. “I prefer to build color starting with a dark base on dark paper, but it can be difficult to achieve brights due to the transparency of the pencils and the sanded texture of the paper.” For subdued pieces like Bend, darker tones and pure colored pencil work, but for drawings with a wider value range like Opaline Dreams (see demonstration below), he starts with Neocolor II crayons.

If Falchetti’s drawings seem to glimmer, they actually do, an effect that follows from a palette of metallic colors. For Bend, which posits that the contours of a body are akin to those of a river bank, he used Prismacolor metallic colored pencils on the “storm blue” shade of Artspectrum Colourfix paper.

“The pose was initially captured with a photo; then I created thumbnails to work out a color map,” he says. He next blocked in the darks using both warm (70%) and cool (90%) grays and filled in the midtones of the sheets with metallic tile blue, metallic rose and blue slate. The lights of the bedsheets were added with powder blue and warm gray (10%). Using ivory oxide for the sunlit areas with French gray (20%), transitioning through metallic rose and French gray (50%), into a mix of warm and cool grays in the shadows, he delineated the figure. The upper body and reflected light on the shadow side are a mix of cool grays, metallic tile blue, and French grays.

“Once all of the colors were in place,” Falchetti says, “I pushed the lightest and darkest areas with several additional layers of ivory oxide and cool gray (90%) to increase their intensity. Although some areas have dozens of layers, I kept my touch light to allow the soft texture of the paper to show through. The mix of metallics adjacent to grays helped create a sandy, opalescent effect, reinforcing the concept of the figure as a landscape.”

Cascade (colored pencil on Artspectrum Colour-fix paper, 27×18) by Shawn Falchetti

Shawn Falchetti’s Materials

  • Surface: Artspectrum Colourfix paper; Ampersand Pastelbord; Canson Mi-Teintes Touch and Stonehenge papers
  • Colored pencils: Prismacolor Premier Soft Core (which have a wax binder, great opacity and color selection, and a creamy feel)
  • Other: Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons

Demo: Colored Pencil Plus Water

Here, Falchetti demonstrates his colored pencil drawing process for Opaline Dreams.

Step 1

With raw umber, brown and black Neocolor II crayons, I blocked in the major dark shapes on a sheet of “fresh gray” Artspectrum Colourfix paper. Loading a watercolor brush with water, I scumbled the pigment until it liquefied.


Step 2

The paper dried overnight. With a very sharp Prismacolor Premier colored pencil, I blocked in the lights, as well as the midtone local color, with a scumbling motion and medium pressure to apply an even base layer.


Step 3

I developed transitions between Neocolor II and colored pencil areas as I
applied layers of colored pencil over the dried washes; some edges I left soft.


Opaline Dreams (colored pencil and water-soluble crayon, 20×12) by Shawn Falchetti

Step 4

It took up to 20 layers of color to develop the skin tones and dress folds, but
for some areas of the dress, I allowed the bare green paper to shine through. I added the fine details of the lace last by drawing just a few of the shadows and highlights in Opaline Dreams.

Learn more about Shawn Falchetti and see more of his work at shawnfalchetti.com and on his Instagram page, @shawnfalchetti.


A version of this article originally appeared in Artists Magazine.

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