Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers —
Color Your World
By Tamia Nelson
October 5, 2010
With just a little practice, any paddler can learn to sketch whatever she (or he) sees. That's the premise underlying "Eye and Hand." All you need are a pencil and a journal or sketchbook. And as we've seen, this low‑tech, low‑cost method of fixing images on the emulsion of memory has a lot to recommend it. But there's one place where it falls short: The ordinary lead pencil just doesn't do color, and color is all around us — particularly now, when Canoe Country hills are ablaze in their autumn drapery of red and gold. Is this shortcoming really the sketchbook scribbler's Achilles heel? Not necessarily. Pencils come in many hues besides graphite gray. So if you want to add color to your world, all you have to do is…
Carry Colored Pencils in Your Kit
They aren't only for schoolkids, after all. And they're a very democratic medium, easily mastered and cheap to buy. Any Big Box store probably has a few sets for sale. My collection was acquired piecemeal over many years, from several different sources. It now includes a basic set of Dixon COLORARTs, along with a larger selection of artists' Berol Prismacolor pencils. I store the Dixons in the plastic sleeve they came in, while the Prismacolors rest in an old cigar box between engagements. But when I take them with me into the field or out on the water, they travel together in a ziplock bag.
Don't get me wrong. Though kids have been doodling away happily with colored pencils for years, serious artists have used the same tools to create polished professional work. When I reach for my Dixons and Berols, however, my goal is easier to achieve than the pros' lofty ends. It's simply to add color to my field sketches. This isn't always necessary — the everyday lead pencil is often plenty good enough — but it is sometimes desirable. Here's a for‑instance:
First, let's look at a quick sketch I made with a lead pencil:
Something's missing, right? And that something is color. No problem. A little work with my Berols did the trick:
The color sketch evokes the scene without reproducing it exactly. I worked quickly, laying on colors in long, light strokes that parallel the direction of the current. Rather than pressing down hard on the paper, I built up layers of color with repeated passes, beginning with orange and then overlaying red and yellow until I'd arrived at something close to the true, brick‑red hue of the reflections in the water. The match isn't exact, but it was as close as I could get in a short time with my limited palette of colors.
An undemanding exercise, you say? You're right. Nature isn't always so obliging. But the same approach — a light touch, multiple passes, layered colors — also lends itself to…
More Complex Scenes
And the autumn woods provide numberless examples by way of illustration. Take this shot of maples reflected in quiet water:
Here we have an intricate tapestry of forms and colors — red and yellow and orange, blue and black, and a lingering vestige of green. The outlines of the reflections are distorted by tiny ripples, while the serrated margin of the shadowed shore is guarded by the stark uprights of trunks already stripped bare. Simple? No. But let's see what can be done. I began by roughing in the shapes that define the scene, using an easy touch and a hard pencil:
Then I laid down a series of light, horizontal strokes with my orange pencil, increasing the width of the lines in the shadows. The yellow pencil came out of the box next. Here, too, I varied the line thickness to suggest the intensity of the reflected light.
Now the red and green pencils had their turns, followed by a Berol in ultramarine blue. As before, I tried to keep my touch light, relying on line thickness and multiple layers of color to evoke different intensities. Finally, when I was happy with the result, I used a black pencil — a black colored pencil, that is, not an ordinary lead pencil — to darken the shadows along the shore:
It's not a photo, and it lacks the delicate clarity of a watercolor, but I think my hasty sketch embodies the essentials of the scene. And that's exactly what I wanted it to do.
Landscapes are challenging subjects, of course, and you might prefer to try your hand first on…
After all, there's color to be found in almost everything. Consider a single fallen leaf. Careful examination will reveal a whole range of hues and intensities. And a leaf is a good subject for another reason: you don't even have to sketch the outline. You can trace it, instead. (I have artist Loretta Byrne to thank for this suggestion. Thanks, Loretta!) Don't think for one moment that tracing is cheating. In fact, it's been suggested that even the old masters made generous use of traced images, with the help of a clever device called a camera obscura. So here I am, imitating the great Canaletto and tracing a maple leaf:
Try it yourself. And don't worry if your tracing isn't exact. Nature's not perfect, either. Then, once you have the outline, sketch in the principal veins:
The smudges on the paper came from the leaf pigments, by the way. Now the hard work begins. You want to try to match the leaf's color. Easy? Not really. Close inspection will probably show that your "brown" leaf boasts quite a range of colors. I found red and orange hues on mine, along with a hint of yellow and…you guessed it…browns. It took me some minutes to decide on the best matches in my collection of colored pencils.
In the end, I laid down layer after layer of color, using no less than seven in all.
And the result illustrates one of the limitations of colored pencils. The pigments in the leaf are opaque. Not so the colors I laid on with my pencils. So the light, white background shines through in my sketch, and the leaf veins stand out much more prominently than they do in the original. That said, the sketch captures the form of the leaf and the intricate tracery of the veins, and it does a pretty fair job of reproducing the range of colors, too — though I'm afraid a computer monitor (even one boasting "millions of colors") simply can't do justice to the subtle variations.
In any case, don't limit your experiments to fallen leaves. Color often adds a critical element in sketches of flowers and trees, not to mention birds and animals. And autumn isn't the only colorful time of year. Even winter snowscapes exhibit near infinite shades of blue. Your colored pencils will be useful in every season and all weathers. (A hint: Both scribblers and photographers will find that an umbrella is a very handy thing to have along, as at least one celebrity cartographer and television presenter can attest. A sturdy umbrella also makes a passable spinnaker in a canoe or kayak.) Best of all, pencils don't go dead in cold weather — and, yes, it's possible to produce perfectly adequate sketches with mittened hands.
Practice at home first, of course. Make sketches from photographs until you've got the hang of color. Then grab your paddle and light out for the territories before the snow flies.
The ordinary lead pencil is a versatile tool, but it has an important limitation — it only comes in one color, graphite gray. That can be frustrating, particularly at this time of year, when every Canoe Country hillside is ablaze in red and gold. But there's a simple, inexpensive solution to the problem: colored pencils. And there's no easier way to add color to your world. Give it a try and see if you don't agree.
We're not done with color yet. Next time out I'll introduce watercolor sketching. And no, it's not just for art students. Until cameras became cheap (and portable), many explorers illustrated their journals with watercolors. You could say it's a traditional backcountry art — like paddling. But that's a month away. For now, if you have any sketches you'd like to share, just photograph them and send the photos along to me. I'd love to see them.
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