Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Maggie on Art Materials, Part I

I was going to confess that this post was supposed to happen yesterday, but I got caught up in that lovely event known as Tax Day. No, I didn't intend to wait until the last moment . . . em, but I did. Why? Because I love that warm toasty feeling that comes from staying up until midnight doing your taxes (thanks, Dad, for helping me).

Anyway, after an eventful barf-filled and tax-punctuated extended weekend, here I am. And this is the first art materials post, as I promised. I think I'll break it down this way: what I use in my daily work in the first post, other materials that I use more rarely or have used in the second post, and suppliers and random bits that I'm sure that I'll figure out when I get there in the third post.

Now y'all know that I'm a colored pencil artist by profession, so while I do use acrylics and pastels, these posts are largely going to be directed towards colored pencil artists or those who want to dabble in them. Feel free to pitch in the comments with questions or suggestions.

So first. Pencils, baby! I started out >gasp< with Crayolas -- the sort that you use as a school kid. I struggled with them for a long time and the truth of the matter is that you'll drive yourself crazy trying to layer them and your pieces won't last very long -- the reds and pinks in my old pieces have faded with age, like Joan Rivers. So I always recommend that beginners invest in artist-quality pencils from the get-go. If you can't afford a whole set, you can buy just the colors you need open-stock (one at a time). I use the same 26 colors over and over again for the most part, but I had to have all of the colors available before I found out which were my palette.

There are several different sorts of colored pencils out there. I use Prismacolors and I love them. They are softer and more buttery than the other two brands I've tried, Derwents and Polychromos, and I like their color range. You might like a firmer pencil -- if so, try those other brands or the Prismacolors Verithins.

Lightfastness, or how permanent a pigment is, is always an issue with colored pencils. Ratings are available for all of Prismas' colors and they also have a "lightfast" set of colors that are supposed to be far above their others for permanence. In practice, however, I've found that my regular pencil pieces sealed with varnish and taken to numerous outdoor shows show absolutely no fading after a year. Use your discretion and always warn your clients to take good care of their finished art pieces -- colored pencil pieces (like any other medium) are like vampires and don't like direct sunlight.

My absolute favorite support for colored pencils is Ampersand Pastelbord, a sanded support on an archival board. The surface is very rough and grabby and until I got used to it, I hated it. But once you get the hang of it, it really makes the pigments glow and you can get lovely, almost oil-paint effects on it.

A similar sanded surface that I like quite a bit is Ampersand's Colorfix paper. It comes in a lot of different colors and is also available in primer form. That means you can buy a little jug of Colorfix goodness and paint it onto any piece of paper or board and voila! Instant sanded surface.

For beginners, I always recommend they start on a smooth, white paper. In some ways, it's easier -- you can get fine detail without sweating, you don't have to wonder what color the pencil will turn out to be when you put it down, and the layering is predictable. But it's slower and more demanding of proper technique -- which is why I want beginners to use it. Even if sanded supports are more forgiving and let you be sloppy, you should know how to do it right, because it'll still stand you in good stead if you get into a problematic corner (artistically. If you run out of gas, I don't think having good colored pencil technique will help you). Anyway, there are many many many papers that fit the bill out there, but for a cheap, acid-free, smooth paper, I like Bristol Smooth.

Final piece of the equation for me is solvents. I use solvents to melt my layers of colored pencil together. Especially on the sanded surfaces, solvents, for me, are a must. But solvents as a general are a smelly and noxious bunch, tending to give Future Queens of America such as myself headaches and encourage cancerous growths without proper ventilation. So I use Zest-It, a British product that unfortunately has to be shipped overseas -- it's non-toxic and smells like oranges. The shipping is indeed awful but the price of the solvent isn't, so I recommend that you buy a bunch at once to save on shipping -- maybe encourage a group of students to buy several containers all at once. It does go a long way, for what it's worth!

I apply my solvents with a brush and I learned the hard way that using a decent brush makes a huge difference. It's the difference between a work of art and a puddle of solvent (which might get you into some high-end galleries but won't thrill your portrait client). I use high-quality (though not super high-quality) synthetic flat brushes and I make sure to rinse them out between each use, especially when I've been doing large areas of dark color.

You'll also need a sketchbook (I like a small one with wire binding), a sharpener (I use a cheap Exact-o model), and a pencil case (I have two of these, organized inside by hue, and I love them).
Okay. That's enough for now. Question and comment away and I'll see y'all tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

About solvents. Have you tried "eco-house extra mild citrus thinner #115?" It is as you described the British solvent that you order. This is made in Canada, and I think I got my last batch from Dick Blick. Smells nice. For even lower toxicity you can't beat Gamblin's Gamsol. It just doesn't smell quite as nice.:-)
cheers, bill b.
(darn !gotta find that password)

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Nice one Maggie - I'll be referencing this (AGAIN!!!) on Sunday and have added it into my information site Coloured Pencils-Resources for Artists. I've put it in the Paper, Boards and the rest section as it seemed to be more about the items you use other than the pencils.

jackie said...

Hi Maggie, which retailer do you trust to place your overseas order with?

Jo Castillo said...

Great info. I'm bound to try more CP one of these days. You make it sound so easy. Right....


Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thanks, Bill, for the recommendation.

KT -- thanks so much for the linkage!

Jo -- of course it's easy. I can do it, how hard can it be? ;)

Reflections From Life Art Blog said...

Hi Maggie!!

Great article! Loved part II as well. I would just make one correction. Colourfix paper, boards, and primer are made by Art Spectrum, not Ampersand.