Crayolas, childhood desires, and why you should graduate to better art supplies

This is two stories in one, and it began with a trip to the grocery store this week. I stumbled across the “school and office supplies” section, and staring me in the face was a set of 96 Crayola crayons for $7.97. I almost bought it.

You see, when I was a little girl, every August when Mom bought me new school supplies for the year, I begged for a big set of Crayolas. She insisted that a set of 24 colors was enough, so that’s all I ever got. I watched with envy as some of my classmates–whose families were no better off than ours–showed up on the first day of school with the 48 box, or even the gigantic 64 box with built-in sharpener. I watched in dismay when they carelessly broke or dropped colors that I’d never have–if those were mine, that wouldn’t happen! Oh what I could’ve done with all those strange and wonderful hues which went unappreciated by their owners, who mostly stuck to the basics. For them, a set of 24 really would’ve been enough.

Of course I eventually outgrew crayons, as we all do. I learned how to use many other media in art classes in high school and college. I forgot all about Crayolas. Until this week’s trip to the grocery store. There it was, all 64 colors I’d always wanted, plus 32 more! What magical hues could they be? Would they have that familiar and comforting waxy smell that I remember? Would they be any good? I almost bought the set, but put it back on the shelf as I imagined Mom’s oh-so-practical advice in my head, “You don’t need those. Save the $8 to buy something you need.”


The set that I almost bought in the grocery store.

I posted a photo of the box on the shelf to Facebook. To my surprise and amusement, some of my friends confessed they had similar experiences when they were a kid, and bought those objects of desire as an adult just because they could, and were glad they did. One friend pointed out that the largest set of Crayolas is now 152, for only $14.88. Another suggested I should go buy it to satisfy my old want and then donate it to a needy child. So last night, I did it. I bought the biggest honkin’ set there is. I opened it up, inhaled and smiled–they smelled exactly as I remembered. I enjoyed looking at all the fabulous colors and their creative names, like “macaroni and cheese”, “cotton candy”, and “shamrock”. The kid in me excitedly said “MINE MINE MINE!” and I was satisfied.



Here’s where the second story begins.

Today I got the Crayolas out to see how well they work. My brain was whirling with ideas for how I might use them for a painting that was a commentary on my childhood desire. I pulled six crayons at random and made blurry blobs to find out what range of pressure I needed to get from a whisper of color to a solid color. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Although the colors look very strong in the crayon, when applied to paper they are pretty washed out, and even with quite a bit of pressure applied, I got more blobby wax without much more color. There were crumbs.

Out of curiosity, I pulled out my 120 set of Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble wax pastels. They are basically adult artist’s crayons; they have far more pigment saturation, and a much higher price.  (The 84 set retails for $230.) I picked out approximately the same colors based on the crayons’ appearance, and repeated the exercise.

Wow! What a difference! The Neocolor II crayons required almost no pressure, and quickly created lush, saturated, solid color. Very little crayon was needed, and there were no crumbs. Here they all are, on Canson XL Mix Media paper. (By the way, the Neocolors were already dull from use before this exercise.)


Top, Crayolas: Manatee, Wisteria, Fuchsia, Wild Watermelon, Jungle Green, Cerulean.           Bottom, Neocolor IIs: Payne’s Grey, Mauve, Purple, Raspberry Red, Greenish Blue, Pthalocyanine Blue.

But wait, there’s more! Neocolor IIs are also water-soluble, so they’re more versatile than mere crayons. You can use them like watercolors or as an underpainting for other media. And since they’re waxy, they also respond to heat, which makes it easy to create painterly effects as they become buttery.


The Neocolor II areas dissolved with a little water

Although I didn’t set out to do this, the lesson is clear: you get what you pay for. If you’re trying to get better at your art and you’re frustrated with the results you’re getting even though you’re pretty sure you’re following all the instruction you’ve picked up from books, videos, classes or workshops, it’s time to take a hard look at your materials. Cheap is fine for getting started when you don’t know whether that medium is for you, but as you get better you should consider “graduating” to better-quality materials. Yes, they cost more (sometimes a lot more), but generally they go farther so you’ll need less of them, and their quality is higher so you’ll be much happier with how they work. This is true not only for consumables like paint, pencils, paper and canvas, but also things like brushes and easels. Take the time to do enough research to buy the best quality supplies you can afford.

What’s next for my big set of 152 Crayolas? Well, I’ve also learned that they’re not lightfast, which means they’ll all fade away or change color when exposed to light over time. So I’ll keep them for a few months, occasionally open the box to smell them, and donate them to a needy child come Christmas. There will be one less kid who grows up wishing Mom would buy him/her the big set.




Get a cutting mat!

A couple of years ago, I finally broke down and bought a 24″ x 36″ self-healing cutting mat and an aluminum meter stick. Now I wonder why I waited so long!

I buy drawing paper in 22″ x 30″ sheets (or even larger sometimes) for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s much cheaper to cut smaller sheets of the dimensions I really want from these, than it is to buy pre-cut standard sizes
  2. Some of the papers I like are only available as large sheets.

Furthermore, mat board is only available in 30″ x 40″ or larger sheets.

Here’s what I used to do–perhaps this sounds familiar to how you work.  Starting with a large sheet of paper or mat board, I measured from each end, made hash marks in the right spots, and lightly connected them with guide lines with an 18″ metal ruler and pencil.  Four hash marks, two intersecting lines. Then I followed the lines with my ruler and utility knife. For anything longer than 18″, I had to carefully move and align the ruler and make more hash marks, lines and cuts.  All too often and despite my effort, these longer lines or cuts weren’t perfectly aligned. Or my final dimensions were a little off, so my cut paper wasn’t perfectly rectangular.  But I didn’t know it yet!  I lightly marked a 1/2″ margin inside the edges all around and spent days or weeks creating my drawing within the margin.  Then when I finished and prepared to mat it with a 1/4″ margin all around, I discovered that the drawing’s dimensions were a little “off”!  DOH!

With the cutting mat and meter stick, I simply line up the edges of the full sheet with the mat’s grid, lay the meter stick along the line I need, and cut along it. Done! For the inside margin lines, same thing:  I line up the cut paper on the mat, lay the meter stick along the line I need, and lightly draw the margin line along it. Done! And both the cut dimensions and the margin box are truly rectangular. Perfect dimensions in a fraction of the time.


Ready to cut an 8″ x 10″ from a larger piece of drawing paper

Today I cut 5 sheets of 26″ x 40″ Stonhenge paper into 60 sheets of 8″ x 10″ in only about 45 minutes, working at a leisurely pace. And they’re all perfect, according to how well they stacked.

You might be saying “What about the fact that a meter stick is 39″ and a full sheet of mat board is 40″? I lay my 18” ruler atop the meter stick to effectively extend it.

The cutting mat also has lines denoting 45- and 60-degree angles (but I haven’t needed those yet).  And if you prefer metric measurement, two edges of the mat are marked in centimeters.

When not in use, I slide my cutting mat behind my desk against the wall, and hang my meter stick on a nail.

Self-healing cutting mats of various sizes, and aluminum measuring sticks are available at any art supply store, and they’re not expensive. If you cut paper or mat board more than a couple of times a year, I recommend the investment. You, too, will wonder why you waited so long!

Every four seconds

During the afternoon of my most recent workshop, while we were all heads-down working on the next light layer of color, one of my students said “You look at your reference every four seconds.  I timed you.” I laughed, because I was unaware that anyone was watching me so closely and also because I was unaware of how frequently I check my reference.

It makes sense, though. When your goal is realism, close observation is key whether you’re working from a photo or from life. From one moment to the next, I’m figuratively “connecting the dots” that I’ve noticed in the details of color, line and form. I have observed beginners look for awhile at their reference and then draw without looking at it again for awhile, maybe even a couple of minutes, then wonder where they went astray. I think this is because we naturally believe we “know” what something looks like and work from that, rather than setting that belief aside to truly observe. Checking your reference every few seconds is a good habit to get into.

When I was learning to drive, the driving instructor hammered into us that we should check our mirrors every eight seconds. I still remember him repeating over and over “Mirror check….mirror check…mirror check.” Finally, one fellow student challenged him “Why? What’s behind us doesn’t matter.” He quickly responded “What’s behind you might be next to you in a moment.” There’s a certain parallel, here:  driving well requires moment-to-moment observation and awareness to avoid unpleasant surprises, and so does drawing well.

Here’s an idea for how to get yourself to check your reference more often: there are timer apps that can be set to ping at regular intervals. Try setting it to ping every ten seconds (for starters) as you draw. Whenever it pings, take a quick look at the spot on your reference that you’re working from. Don’t just glance at it, see it.

Drawing is all about seeing, so keep seeing.

Making time to make art

As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous blog post, I work full-time as a software engineer in Silicon Valley but art is not my “hobby”–I consider it my other career.  I had to scale way back on some other time-consuming activities I enjoy in order to make this possible.  However, you don’t need to do this in order to make some time for art in your own life!  Here are a few suggestions I have for how to work art creation into your busy schedule.

  1. Set up a small area in your home as a dedicated “art space”, where your drawing board, chair and supplies are always ready.  They will be right there inviting you to sit down and play, and you won’t have to waste a single minute on setup or takedown.  This makes it so much easier to decide you have time!
  2. If you think you need at least three hours of uninterrupted time to merit starting, think again.  Sure, we’d all like to have that luxury, but you can make a lot of progress by accumulating much shorter time increments.  Maybe today all you have time to do is select and print out your reference(s).  Maybe tomorrow all you have time to do is cut the paper.  Maybe the day after that all you have time to do is draw the basic outline.  That’s all progress!
  3. If you’re tired or don’t feel like drawing, tell yourself “just 30 minutes”.
  4. Divide and conquer. Some people like to work all over an image as they go, developing it as a whole.  And that’s fine, but it makes for a long wait before you finally start to see the finish line.  Depending upon your temperament, you might lose patience or interest before you get far enough along to see it take shape.  So an alternative is to fully complete one small area at a time.  If your subject is a bunch of grapes, focus on just one or two grapes until they look finished (you can always come back later for finishing, unifying touches).
  5. Keep the colors you have used so far on a drawing out from the rest of the set until you’ve finished the drawing, so you don’t have to remember them to proceed with the next section.
  6. Only work on one drawing at a time.  This doesn’t apply to painters who must wait for hours or days for layers of paint to dry, but for dry media you’ll have more work to show sooner if you focus on one at a time.
  7. Have the references for your next few pieces queued up.  If you’re like me, it can take days to decide what to work on next–a big time suck!  By choosing in advance, you can launch right into the next one as soon as your finished with the previous one.  If you change your mind later, that’s fine, but at least you have a plan.
  8. Work small.  You’ll finish sooner by working smaller.  If you’re still learning techniques, you’ll learn more and faster by trying something small and moving on, rather than trying to struggle your way through a larger, long-term piece.  This is the philosophy behind the painting-a-day-for-30-days challenge.

I hope this helps you fit a little bit of art-making into your life!

Know what your framer is doing: a horror story

Here is a horror story worthy of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as told to me by the victim who lived it.

It took nearly a year for one of my CPSA chapter members to finish a drawing which she decided to enter in this year’s CPSA International Exhibition. (Her first time entering.) After spraying it with coats of workable Krylon fixative and final Lascaux fixative, she took it to a local privately-owned frame shop which was recommended by several artist friends. He told her he’s framed “thousands” of drawings, so she was sure it was in good hands.

For some reason, the framer chose to permanently heat-mount her drawing to foam board, as one might do with a photographic print. The heat reacted with the wax-based pigment, and possibly the layers of fixative. The drawing was covered with blisters which broke and flaked off!

But wait, there’s more! When he permanently adhered it to the foam board, he didn’t even use a large enough board to leave a margin around it for more flexible framing options–the board was the same size as the drawing.  And then he taped it to the back of a window mat, with the drawing barely covering the opening!

To top it all off, before she got to the shop to see this butchery, the framer took it on himself to “repair” a section of the drawing with oil pastels!  Oil pastels are not compatible with wax-based colored pencils, and of course nobody has any business “repairing” an artist’s work except the artist or a conservator (think of Smithsonian art restoration specialists).

Her artwork was completely destroyed. One has to wonder, WHAT WAS HE THINKING?

The framer apologized, didn’t charge her for framing, paid her the declared value of her drawing, and paid for her non-refundable CPSA IE entry fee (since she had already entered).

She brought the destroyed drawing to our CPSA chapter meeting to see if anyone had suggestions for how to save it. We were all aghast.  The best we could come up with was maybe solvent. The oil pastel probably already disqualified it for the IE anyway, but we suggested that if the piece is accepted she could relate the story to the national exhibitions director for a judgment call.

I think it’s important to share this story as a public service.  Make sure you know what your framer is doing.  Make sure you both agree on exactly what will be done with your artwork, before you leave your artwork in their hands.  Ask questions.  If he/she uses a term you don’t understand (e.g., “preservation fit”), don’t feel stupid, ASK.   It’s irrelevant whether you take your work to a large chain store like Aaron Brothers, or a privately-owned local shop that’s been in business for 30 years.

I’ve never felt the need to go over specs in great detail with my framers before, but after seeing and hearing this story directly from the victim, I certainly will from now on.

Saving a Lot of Time with Swatch Charts

When you first start working with colored pencils, deciding which pencil is the right color for the moment is a matter of picking up one that seems like it might be close (based on the color of its core), scribbling a little on a scrap or the border of your drawing, assessing whether that’s indeed the color you hoped, and if it’s not, trying again.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

This adds up to a lot of time over the course of a finished drawing, especially since those little scribbles can’t tell you later which pencil they came from.  It’s surprising how different from the pencil core a swatch can look.  You end up trying the same pencils multiple times.  I actually saw a finished drawing at the California State Fair in which the artist left their test-swatch border clearly visible and remarked on it in the artwork description.


Before I made a swatch chart for this set of pencils!

This time loss is compounded if you have a large set of colored pencils such as the full set of 150 Prismacolors, and even more if you have multiple large sets of colored pencils.  So many greens!  So many blues!  Where to even start? It can seem overwhelming.  You might be tempted to print a color sheet from the manufacturer, but don’t: your printer’s inks will not match the pencils’ cores, and the printed colors will vary from printer to printer.

Here’s my time-saving system.  In a previous blog post I described how I organize my sets of pencils, and that is half the solution.  The other half is making your own swatch charts and keeping them on your drawing table while you work.  I’ve already done the hard part for you!  You can download swatch charts for the full sets of most major brands of colored pencils from my website.  They’re free–my gift to you as a fellow colored pencil artist.  Print one out and color the “points” with your own pencils, matching the color name on your pencil to the color name on the chart.  I recommend only coloring the “points”, not the whole “pencils”, so you can easily read the numbers and names.  Tape your finished chart to the top of your drawing board.  It’s important that your reference, your drawing, and the chart all be illuminated by the same light, otherwise your eyes may be fooled into mismatches. Now, notice that the swatches are numbered from 1 to whatever the set size is.  Those numbers correspond to the number tags you put on your pencils (you did read my other blog post, right?).  I recommend the numeric tags, because the color names on pencils are stamped with metallic paint and are therefore hard to read and take even more of your precious time.


A portion of a swatch chart after I colored the “points” with my own pencils.

Now when you’re working on a landscape and your reference has a deep blue color, look for a match on your swatch chart.  If its number is 44, pull the pencil tagged 44 from your set. Voilá!  Look how much time you just saved!


I looked for a violet color on the chart. I found it at #44, so I pulled out my #44 pencil.

You’re welcome!  🙂

How I try out new materials

I often see people at art material trade shows or art supply stores, trying out pencils, pens, paints or papers by making a few quick strokes.  In ten seconds, they’ve already decided whether they like it or not and will ever buy it.  They put it down and walk away. This is unfortunate.  Think of how many things you hated or were awful at on your very first attempt or usage:  climbing a tree, driving a car, wearing a bra, drinking beer, speaking in front of a group, ice skating, using a new phone.  In each case, there is nothing inherently wrong with the object or activity, it’s only that one quick try isn’t enough to understand it or have any skill with it.  One needs to invest a little more time with it, and then it’s fine.  It might even be better than fine, it might be terrific!

Many art supply manufacturers know of this short-attention-span problem and give out free samples for folks to take home and try on a small project.  A small sheet of paper, or a pencil, for example.  But that doesn’t seem to help; many artists I know have drawers or boxes full of free samples they’ve never used but can’t bring themselves to donate.

I have a few free samples laying around, too.  But if something comes recommended, such as a particular brand of colored pencils or a particular type of paper, I don’t simply do a quickie scribble.  I launch into a full-scale project with it.  By the end of the project, I’ve spent several hours learning how that material behaves under the full range of my expectations, and I either have a new finished artwork to add to my body of work, or a binned failure.  The latter is pretty rare, though, because I can generally augment the process with materials I do already like and it turns out fine anyway.

Two recent cases illustrate my point.

Case #1: Pencils

Tree of Stories, 15"x20", colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories, 15″ x 20″, colored pencil on Stonehenge paper

Tree of Stories was my first time using Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils.  It’s 15″ x 20″, so I knew I was in for several weeks of familiarization.

The first few strokes I put on my Stonehenge paper, I thought “Uh-oh, this isn’t going to work at all.  I’ve made an expensive mistake buying the whole 120 set.”  They are oil-based so are much more powdery than waxy Prismacolor Premiers or Caran d’Ache Luminance.  Because of that, I could lightly run my finger across the surface of the paper and quite a bit of pigment lifted right off.  Horrors!  But then I thought, “Well, maybe I can use that powderiness to my advantage–it probably will fill the tooth of the paper easier.”  And it did.  I was careful to keep a paper shield under my drawing hand at all times and never scoot it to move it.

Then after a day or two I noticed that it seemed the darker colors had faded and I had to re-apply them to enforce their intensity.  It wasn’t my imagination.  From talking to other artists I learned that Stonehenge paper seems to absorb something in the Polychromos.  That was easy to fix–I added a bit of Prismacolor on top of those areas.  By the time I finished a few weeks later, I knew how to use Polychromos pencils to do what I want, admired their range of browns and greens, and had a drawing that was good enough for acceptance into the 2014 CPSA International Exhibition.

If I had stopped after those first few strokes, Tree of Stories would still have happened with other pencils, but I would be telling people, very mistakenly, that these great Polychromos pencils are awful.

Case #2: Paper

Mutual Support, 14"x21", graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, graphite on Canson 88 paper

Mutual Support, 14″ x 21″, was my first time using Arches 88 paper.  I had been looking for some good paper for graphite, to achieve darks without a lot of shininess.  Stonehenge paper works great for colored pencil but isn’t quite what I wanted for graphite.  Gil McMillon, the owner of Accent Arts in Palo Alto, suggested another printmaking paper, Arches 88.  It’s 100% cotton like Stonehenge but has almost a plate surface.  I was skeptical–how could such a smooth surface work for graphite?  I bought a single 22″x30″ sheet for about $8.50–quite a bit more than a sheet of Stonehenge costs.  The first few strokes I took on it seemed to confirm my fear–there was virtually no tooth at all, so the graphite went on very smoothly.  I thought “Oh no, the pencil is going to skate right off the surface and the whole drawing will end up light gray. I just wasted $8.50 on this big sheet I can’t use for anything else.”  But I kept going, and within an hour I was sold on it.  The fact that it’s 100% cotton makes it hold graphite despite its plate surface. It’s easy to achieve smooth shading and very dark darks since there is virtually no tooth to fill.  I used only a 4B pencil for the entire drawing and am very pleased with how it turned out.  I returned to Accent Arts yesterday to buy two more sheets!

To summarize, it takes more than a few strokes to decide if an art material is right for your way of working; you won’t really know before you invest a few hours with it.  Be brave, launch into a full-fledged piece with the same determination you give to your usual work.