Creating an Ideal Reality

Arlene Steinberg blends a formal sensibility with a modern toolkit that lets her scale up.

By Holly Davis

In Spring Symphony (colored pencil and wax crayon on paper, 15×25) Steinberg lightened the vases’ blue values to better match the hydrangea, helping the blues recede and the red tulips pop.

A colored pencil work by artist Arlene Steinberg features precise draftsmanship, refined realism, and masterful color, portraying moments of beauty. Yet often she reinvents and combines images to create the perfect arrangement. Read on for more about Steinberg’s creative path (colored pencil wasn’t her first love, but an early-career pivot) and how she blends formal still-life techniques with, when appropriate, a contemporary toolkit. For a demo by Steinberg, see Master Colored Pencil with this Step-by-Step Demonstration.

Drawn to Drawing

“When I was in college,” Steinberg says, “to be a ‘real’ artist, you needed to paint in oil or acrylic, and no one was doing realism.” Her inclinations were different. She admired the Dutch masters, and preferred drawing to painting. “I remained an art major, but I switched my emphasis to textile design because I felt I wasn’t learning anything from fine art painting,” Steinberg says, “plus my dad kept reminding me that I’d starve if I became a fine artist.”

After graduating, Steinberg worked as a fabric and wallpaper designer and even owned a wallpaper company. Limited in the number of colors she could use, she learned to make the most of her colors’ values, simplify her drawings and stay alert to compositional misplacements. “I learned to use color and values and composition to pull the eye throughout the wallpaper or fabric,” Steinberg says.

As the wallpaper industry declined in the 1990s, Steinberg decided to try to make it as a fine artist. For five years, she created paper sculptures embellished with paint, beads, feathers — and passages of colored pencil. When her enthusiasm for creating the sculptures waned, a friend suggested she try a different medium. “My colored pencils were handy and they weren’t messy,” says Steinberg. “I quickly drew a parrot from a magazine for my daughter. I was hooked and now, 15 years later, the love affair continues.”

Focused on the Details

For the smooth texture of the plums in The Cat’s Meow (colored pencil and wax crayon on paper, 13×20), Steinberg applied a base of Neocolor II crayon before layering in colored pencil.

Steinberg also gravitated toward still life. “Some people are ‘big picture’ people. I’m not,” she says. “I remember one day when my partner, Gil, and I were walking, he asked me if I’d seen some classic car in the distance. No, I hadn’t because I’d been so focused on a leaf in a small puddle. I’m detail oriented, and still life suits me for that reason.”

When creating a setup, she’ll almost certainly try to include an item of glass or other reflective surface. “What I love most is capturing reflections and translucence and finding all the colors and values within,” says Steinberg. “I love setting up beautiful items in different arrangements and seeing how the light affects them.”

Her appreciation for the complex still lifes of 17th-century Dutch masters and Jean-Siméon Chardin isn’t surprising. Then again, her background in textile design prepared her for simplifying her compositions. Although she’s adept at showing depth and conveying the turning of form in space, she often sets up her objects along a single plane.

Adjusting Reality

Falling Into Place (colored pencil, 32×21) reflects a series of creative changes in Steinber’s work — adopting the Icarus board, moving away from trompe l’oeil still life, and returning to vibrant color.

Steinberg spends days perfecting her composition and lighting before touching colored pencil to paper. Her original setup may stay the same, but she’ll shoot between 100 and 200 photographs, either in early morning or late afternoon, with natural light. Backlighting enables her to capture the translucence of a leaf, petal or fruit slice.

Steinberg puts in the time to capture just the right slant of light, the perfect turn of each leaf, the best camera angle. To include moving objects such as falling leaves (see Falling Into Place), her partner gamely holds the objects in the air, each one separately, while Steinberg snaps away on the camera.

She’ll then spend hours on the computer, organizing and culling the best photos in Adobe Lightroom and then working in Adobe Photoshop. With Photoshop she may change the background to a wallpaper pattern or an ombré plane of diffused light and adjust the positions and sizes of objects. Frequently she cobbles parts of two or three photos to create her final reference.

“The ‘reality’ that is my drawing is a made up reality,” she says. As painstaking as her quest for the perfect reference may be, she still works from life. The photo is helpful for drawing perishable objects like fruit or flowers, but as Steinberg draws and colors, she keeps objects of a more permanent nature in front of her.

Taking Off With Icarus

Backlighting brought out the translucence of the lemons, which Steinberg captured in Lemonade (colored pencil and wax crayon on paper, 15×24) with the blending of layers of multiple colors.

With reference image and objects before her, Steinberg is ready to create her compositional drawing and then transfer her drawing to Legion Stonehenge paper set on an Icarus Art drawing board. This tool, invented by colored pencil artist Esther Roi, has been a life-changer for Steinberg.

The Icarus board has a cool (room temperature) side and a warm (electrically regulated) side. Colored pencil softens on the heated side and resolidifies on the cool side. The heat of the Icarus board helps meld the pencil marks, making constant pencil-sharpening unnecessary. With this tool, a background that once took days becomes a half-day’s work.

Steinberg also began to explore using Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble crayons. These crayons (actually water-soluble oil pastels) react similarly to colored pencils on the Icarus board, but their high pigment concentration and soft consistency help artists cover large areas more quickly than they could with colored pencil. Steinberg now lays in the initial layers of her backgrounds with these crayons, except on pieces intended for competitions that prohibit the use of any medium except colored pencil.

With this new tool, Steinberg could begin creating larger pictures. Before using the Icarus board, her largest painting was 14×18; now her paintings average from 12×24 to 18×24. The heated board also facilitated blending colors. Steinberg shades with layers of complementary colors. With the Icarus board, she first puts down a color closer to the color of the object, then layers on the shading colors.

Rooted in the Fundamentals

Steinberg’s Quiet Balance (colored pencil and wax crayon on paper, 8×22) offers a beautiful example of an ombré color shift. The Icarus board softens the colored pencil and wax crayon marks, making the smooth color blending possible.

The advantages offered by camera, computer and heated drawing board still depend on Steinberg’s vision and abilities. “Getting the composition right is the most important part,” she says, and she’ll spend days doing so. “Value range is number one — next to composition.”  Draftsmanship is also important; when painting realistically, what is composition if the drawing is off? Finally, Steinberg says, “Light is what creates values, plus light creates translucence.” Indeed, carefully orchestrated light and translucent auras are hallmarks of her work.

In short, Steinberg is a perfectionist, but her talent lies in convincing the viewer to accept the perfection she depicts. Nothing in this world is flawless but, if you’re curious about what a flawless world would look like, you can catch glimpses in Steinberg’s paintings.

The Artist’s Toolkit

  • SURFACE: Legion Stonehenge Paper
  • MEDIUMS: Prismacolor Premier colored pencils, Caran d’Ache Luminance 6901 colored pencils, Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water- soluble wax crayons (for large areas and highlights on non-competition pieces), General’s Scribe-All white pencil (for highlights on competition pieces)
  • OTHER: Icarus Art drawing board, Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, drafting tape, Badger Air-Brush Co. Foto/Frisket Film, X-Acto knife, towel to keep artist’s hand from becoming too warm on the Icarus board, Prismacolor colorless blender pencil and paper stumps for blending, electric eraser, 3/0 round watercolor brush, Lascaux workable spray acrylic fixative

Meet the Artist

ARLENE STEINBERG earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in textile design from Syracuse University (N.Y.) and worked as a textile/wallpaper designer for more than 20 years. Steinberg spent several years creating fine art paper sculptures, and during that time began using colored pencils. Now a 10-year signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America, a juried member of the Salmagundi Club and a juried member of the International Guild of Realism, Steinberg exhibits her colored pencil work throughout the United States and teaches workshops. Visit Steinberg’s website at

HOLLY DAVIS is the senior editor of The Artist’s Magazine, where a version of this article first appeared.

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