Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Book Review: Colored Pencil Painting Bible

Title: Colored Pencil Painting Bible: Techniques for Achieving Luminous Color and Ultra-Realistic Effects
Author (Publisher): Alyona Nickelsen (Watson Guptill; March 2009)
Synopsis: A coloured pencil art instruction book. It details and demonstrates techniques for rendering different textures and using solvents for painting with coloured pencils.
Suitable for: Beginners and Improvers interested in making art using coloured pencils – particularly those wanting to learn how to render different types of surfaces and achieve saturated colour
  • A very good balance between text and pictures – lots of very detailed explanations
  • Extensive and thorough review of art materials and tools for coloured pencil painting
  • Very good attention to the basics of what makes a good picture
  • Entertaining and effective use of metaphor to explain the rules of design and composition
  • A good range of step by step demonstrations of how to render different textures and surfaces
  • Comprehensive appendix: lists lightfastness ratings of artists’ brands/colours – according to manufacturers
  • Excellent production values - strong paperback with vivid colour reproduction.
Think Again?
  • All artwork is produced by Alyona making for a uniform (and strong) style throughout which some will love while others may not be fans. However the lessons apply to a wider range of styles and subject matter and the use of images from other artists would have helped to persuade on this point.
Summary: An excellent manual for those who prefer their coloured pencil to be realistic and their work to look like paintings. It provides very good guidance on basics for those starting out while at the same time providing detailed explanations about technical aspects which will provide an excellent refresher for more advanced artists. It also includes some excellent and practical summaries and tips for developing artwork

I first saw Alyona Nickelsen’s coloured pencil artwork on the Wet Canvas Coloured Pencils Forum. She had achieved an intensity and depth of colour which was quite unlike anything else I’d seen. There had to be a secret behind it and we all wanted to know what it was!

Alyona has been spending time of late explaining her techniques and approaches to coloured pencil art in articles for leading art journals, to students in her online art school and now at last her techniques are explained in full in her new book Colored Pencil Painting Bible: Techniques for Achieving Luminous Color and Ultra-Realistic Effects which was published last month by Watson Guptill – a copy of which was kindly sent to me by Watson Guptill for review (Thanks Kim!)

If you'd like to know more about Alyona you can read A "Making A Mark" interview with Alyona Nickelsen CPSA on Making A Mark today

The subtitle of the Coloured Pencil Painting Bible is ‘techniques for achieving luminous colour and ultrarealistic effects’ which is a very succinct way of describing the art in the book. Alyona makes extensive use of solvents for dissolving coloured pencils and speeding up the saturation of colour required for base layers before developing the detail of surfaces in her still life paintings.

In my view this book is going to be of most interest to people who like to produce realistic art with saturated colours. However, using solvent to speed up the drawing process and enhance saturation is a technique which anybody can use whatever your style of drawing. For example I like to use it to get a solid base coat down so that I can scribble on top of it!
I’m an inveterate ‘flicker’ – by which I mean I always start looking at a new book by flicking through it to get a sense of the whole and to see what catches my eye. I also always flick from the back and it came as a surprise to me when I immediately stopped at the very first section I came to!

At the end of the book there is a detailed appendix of all the various brands of artists’ coloured pencils. Each lists pencils by pencil number, name and lightfastness rating – as designated by the manufacturer. It also identifies the approach used by each manufacturer towards testing and describing lightfastness (and not all comply as yet with the ASTM standard). This is the very first time I’ve seen this in any coloured pencil book. CPSA produce a lightfastness workbook but you need to join the CPSA to be able to buy that which can make it a very expensive purchase! It’s good to see a coloured pencil artist/author giving such prominence to lightfastness in an instruction book.

The book is divided into five main sections:
• Reviewing the materials and basic set up
• Laying down a solid foundation
• Mastering essential techniques
• Creating textures and surfaces
• Practicing with simple still lifes

Reviewing the materials and basic set up - As in many art instruction books, the first section of this book is devoted to a review of materials and approaches to working with coloured pencil. I’ve always felt a particular affinity with Watson Guptill books as they almost always set very high standards for the quality of information they provide about art materials - and this one is no exception. Alyona provides a very thorough overview of paper, pencils and solvents. She has a lot of very useful information about best to store paper to avoid deterioration, highlights the composition (wax or oil) of all the major brands of coloured pencils and reviews in detail the range of solvents on the market. I’ve not seen the latter done in depth before and it’s most useful. She also provides an extremely comprehensive summary of a range of useful tools for working with coloured pencils. I thought I knew all of these but Alyona managed to surprise me with one or two!

Laying down a solid foundation - Next up is an overview of issues relating to composition and design and why they’re important to the development of any artwork plus highlights some useful tips. As I've commented in book reviews in the past this is an aspect which is often 'under-cooked' in a number of instruction books. This one is more useful than most.

I especially liked her explanation of the rules of composition as being akin to learning how to cook using a recipe book. You have to know how the ingredients work together before you can start adding and subtracting basic ingredients and start to break the rules and create your own unique style. Alyona is somebody who has had to learn a lot of new things in her life (read my interview with her on Making Mark today) and it strikes me that this is probably characteristic of her approach to life in general.

I rather think that for the processes for making art which root explanations in cooking and family life are going to sit well with a an awful lot of the potential readers of this book. Here’s an example she's used in relation to discussing harmonies between textures.
Conflict is like salt. The amount should be just right otherwise you end up with a spoiled dinner
Images are annotated in this section, but I found it a bit difficult to follow the links between areas A, B, C and D in the image and the comments about areas A, B, C and D in the text. From a personal perspective I'd have found an 'exploded' annotated version of an example image much more useful if the relevant sat right alongside the area being discussed. The content is all there - it's just not presented in a way which is as accessible as it could be.

Curve Appeal
12" x 13", Prismacolor on 250gsm White Stonehenge Paper
copyright Alyona Nickelsen / Watson Guptill Publications

At least part of Alyona's success is due to her understanding of colour, how it works and how to use colour contrasts to help make a painting stand out from the crowd. In particular, she has an excellent understanding of how the colour of a background can enhance the subject. Design and composition is is followed up by a section which discussions of colour, values and tonality and light. I particularly liked some of her tricks for working through issues to do with colour, value and colour mixing - the development of the colour chips, how to locate colours on the colour wheel, the use of coloured acetates and the use of digital technology to help you both visualise colour relationships and progressions and also to help you keep track of all the various colours and how they relate to one another. There are some very useful ideas which will be of interest to even experienced coloured pencil artists. There are also some very useful fact based tips sections which I can imagine will become well thumbed over time. Overall this section of the book provides a more in-depth review of basics than most while at the same time highlighting some very useful tips.

Mastering essential techniques - This section moves on to the different ways of getting coloured pencils down on paper. Other books pay more attention to conventional pencil techniques while this book focuses more on other techniques such as fusing colours using solvents, creating patterns in the paper prior to the application of pencils, using erasure to draw and create different marks, powder brushing and sgraffito rendering. It also tackles the use of photographs and all the various problems that photographs present in terms eg of misrepresenting values and altering colours and how these need to be addressed. There are also detailed explanations of various methods for transferring images to the drawing paper - this includes the photoshop method but excludes the use of projectors! I like the fact that Alyona clearly highlights the pros and cons of each method.

Creating textures and surfaces - There are a large number of detailed and well presented step by step demonstrations of how to render different surfaces If there was one criticism I'd make it's that I'd have liked to have seen images of Alyona actually applying an OMS wash using a brush when developing her artwork. There's one very small image of her using a cotton bud and that's it. We have the before and the after without the middle.

Again Alyona describes different ways that digital technology can be used to extract information useful for planning colours and layers. There was a point where I thought it was a mistake to omit Photoshop from the list of useful tools at the beginning. I absolutely agree with her it's very useful for experimenting and making decisions. (While reading, it struck me that there is very definite scope for a 'How to' book in relation to using PS for developing artwork!)

Practicing with simple still lifes -
The fifth chapter is devoted to a series of twelve exercises about how to render different types of surfaces - employing the techniques explained earlier. Also included are some traditional "take xyz pencil and apply...." exercises which can be followed by beginners wanting to try and emulate her work.

In conclusion - This book is highly relevant to any coloured pencil artist who likes realism, still life and flowers. It contains an awful lot of really useful material explaining how coloured pencils can be used to produce artwork with impact. Essentially this is a techniques and tips book. Personally I would have liked to see just a bit more variation in demonstrating how those techniques apply to a range of subjects and styles - possibly through the use of images from other artists.

Next week I’ll be reviewing Ann Kullberg’s new book Colored Pencil Secrets for Success: How to Critique and Improve Your Paintings - which is due to be published next month. It arrived yesterday and I've already had a quick skim and I'm looking forward to writing my next book review.

Note: If anybody would like to provide me with feedback on the summary template at the top please free to let me know your views. It's intended to provide a rapid scan overview to help people determine whether they want to read further.

Coloured Pencils - Resources for Artists
Find out about coloured pencils. This leading resource has information for everybody from experienced artists to beginners wanting to learn all they can. Topics include
  • tips and techniques for working with coloured pencils,
  • information about coloured pencil brands and associated products (CHECK OUT the poll - find out which make of artist grade coloured pencils is the favourite.)
  • coloured pencil societies,
  • coloured pencil artists and
  • forums where you can discuss coloured pencil matters with artists working in coloured pencils


Linda said...

Thanks for this post.

I'm thinking of taking up coloured pencils again and wanted a book that stressed the vibrant quality that could be obtained from coloured pencils. Before I buy a set I think I'll check out what she recommends.

Mahmud Yussop said...

A fair and balanced review. I see that realism is her forte, and Mr.Pixel has Ms.Pencil to worry about.

Charne said...

Super review Katherine! Got my coopy yesterday and i think you 'nailed' it pretty good!


Jade Scarlett said...

Thanks for the awesome review. This is definitely the best colored pencil book I've ever read. If I had any doubts about what can I achieve with cps, this book convinced me otherwise. I feel like anything is possible!


Unknown said...

I find the summary template at the top of the page like that very useful. I was checking out the information on this book, both and here. (There is no information yet at I am one to read everything but for those who like to scan quickly for their information the template is an excellent resource. Thank You.

Tracy Lee
BC Canada

Unknown said...

Oh man, Amazon. Had this book and other books in my "books recommended for you," cache. First I got a sample from Alyona's colored pencil book also in the cache was "The Ultimate Guide to Colored Pencil." (A wonderful spiral text book w/ CD). Couldn't chose one over the other I bought both. Both are extremely excellent pencil painting books.

Now when I got Alyona's book, I was delightfully treated to not just beautiful awe inspiring artwork, but also a vast book full of information and step-by-step exercises.

The only thing I would have to complain about and it's very minor, is the fact she brought up Photoshop. As a traditional artist, I don't want to rely on digital software. Granted, I don't mind it because sometimes I do create digital artwork but my main style is traditional and I don't like to rely on computers to enhance or help my artwork in any way.

But I absolutely adore this book. It just shows you that you can "paint" with colored pencil. A very beautiful detailed book that ANY colored pencil artist SHOULD have in their library. (Even if they're into drawing anime and manga/ cartoon comic pictures like I am). And I'm a young artist (24 yo) drawing realism should be the first step in ANY artist's life. And I wish I wasn't so adamant and stubborn in art class in high school.

I think this book should also be in ALL art schools (Jr. High to college) in order to be a good artist, we must paint what we see around us and this is one of the best books to help with that.

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