Tool Tip: Pencil Sharpeners

I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently on what kind of pencil sharpener I use for my coloured pencils. For a long time I was using a basic metal sharpener, which did the job just fine, until my pencils started getting really short. Once they were about half of their normal length, the majority of my pencils would break when I tried to get them to really sharp points, which was incredibly frustrating. 

I went looking for a solution, and realized it was definitely a fault of the sharpening process, not the cores of my pencils being broken. Apparently as you sharpen a pencil, if you aren’t holding it perfectly straight, you’ll start sharpening it off-centre from the core. This difference is very slight but gets worse as the pencil gets shorter, so hence why it only affected my short pencils. 

A selection of my current pencil sharpeners. I definitely don’t use the big electric one for my coloured pencils, but it’s cool so I included it.

I was browsing my local art store and came across the Bostich Twist and Sharp, a cheap sharpener that has a ratchet mechanism that holds the pencil in place. It was fairly cheap so I bought it and wow, what a difference! I haven’t had a single pencil break since I’ve been using it, even my very short stubby pencils. We’ll see how it holds up over time, but for under $3 I’m very impressed. 

Update: I still love these sharpeners, but as with any sharpener, the blade inside dulls over time. Once the blade is dull it’s very hard to get a nice sharp point from the Bostitch sharpener, and as of yet I haven’t figured out how to replace the blade. Most sharpeners have replacement blades that you can change by undoing a very small screw, and the Bostitch is no exception. The problem is I haven’t been able to find any replacement blades that will fit my trusty Bostitch sharpener! If anyone knows where to get some, please let me know. 

On the whole I’ve still found this to be one of the best sharpeners I’ve used, and I would absolutely recommend them if not for the problem of replacing the blades. Right now I’ve simply bought a new one, though it’s now dull as well. It seems so wasteful to keep buying a whole new sharpener, so I guess I’m still on the lookout for a better sharpener. If you have recommendations, please share them! 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Bostitch or get any money from the sale of their products. I just like their sharpener a lot.  

Pollinators in Danger

My drawing of a Western Bumblebee. Reference photo by Stephen Ausmus

Last year I was approached over the Christmas holidays to produce some art centred around pollinators that are threatened by climate change and human activity. While I was aware that pollinators and bees in particular have been declining in numbers, I didn’t know which bees have been most affected. I assumed that honeybees, the most well known type of bee, were primarily the ones in trouble. 

A rusty-patched bumblebee. Isn’t he cute?? Reference photo by USFWS Midwest Region

It turns out there’s lots of different types of bees, and though honeybees are affected by climate change and pesticide use, their status as domestic bees means human intervention can help mitigate these factors. Wild bees are much more at risk, and I was asked to draw some bumblebees whose numbers have been declining to help call attention to the plight of less well-known species. 

The three bees are the Rusty-patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), which is endangered, the Yellow banded bumblebee (Bombus terricola), which is listed as a species of special concern, and the Western bumblebee (Bombus occidentalis), which is listed as threatened.

And finally the yellow banded bumblebee! Reference photo by Kent McFarland

Drawing these three bees was a ton of fun, and something I have quite a bit of practice doing thanks to my work drawing for Guelph Bug Day. One tip I have for drawing bees in coloured pencil is to indent the paper for the thin hair lines. The coloured pencil won’t fill in the indents, giving the option of super fine hairs with minimal effort. I use the tip of a metal mechanical pencil for the indents, because that’s what I have available. 

I think the most challenging parts of these pieces were the flowers, as I don’t have a ton of practice doing floral art. But it is always a pleasure to work in colours that are different from the browns and blacks that I normally use in pet portrait art. And I’m very happy with how they turned out! Which bee is your favourite? 

You’re So Talented

When I share my work, in person or on social media, it’s always gratifying when someone tells me how much they like it. I put hours of careful work and detail into each piece, so I love getting positive feedback. One of the things I do hear about my work is ‘you’re so talented!’ While this is absolutely meant as a compliment, and I do appreciate the sentiment, I’m not a huge fan of that phrase. 

One of my first coloured pencil drawings. It’s not terrible, but I’ve certainly improved a lot.

‘Talent’ implies an innate level of skill, or natural aptitude for something. And perhaps I do have talent, but more importantly, I draw A LOT. When I first started my business five years ago, I was working multiple other jobs, and so I kept my drawing time to two hours a day. When I started growing my business, that time increased to three to four hours a day. 

When you practice a skill multiple hours a day, you’re going to get better at it. I did not pick up a pencil and start drawing highly realistic animals — it took time, and lots of crappy drawings, and many, many hours of practice. 

So when people tell me I’m very talented, I feel like it skips over the hard work and time I’ve spent developing and fine tuning my skills. I don’t take it personally — again, I know it’s meant as a compliment. But what really bothers me about the idea of talent, is that there’s an implication that if you don’t have talent, you can’t draw or can’t learn to draw. 

Just a bit more detailed and realistic! This is the result of hours and hours of practice.

I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn to draw realistic portraits, with enough time and practice. So if you want to learn to draw animals, or landscapes, or any kind of art, don’t worry if you have talent or not. Just start drawing! Take some classes or watch some online tutorials to learn techniques. If you put in the time and effort, you’ll improve and get to where you want to be. 

I follow a lot of artists on Instagram, and many of them are ‘better’ than me. They produce art that I look at and think, ‘Wow, I wish I could do that,’ and then I set that as my goal line. I work and practice until I can draw the way I wish I could. The danger of thinking in terms of talent is that you might look at another artist’s work and think that level is unachievable, because you don’t have innate talent. 

So please don’t give up, whether you’re an established artist or just beginning. If you have a goal in mind, you can get there, no matter where you’re starting from! 

Sharp Pencils

A lot of artists I follow online suggest having razor sharp pencils for drawing fur, to get those wonderfully soft thin lines that make fur look realistic. Unfortunately, keeping your pencils super super sharp is a great way to use them up really fast, which adds a lot to your costs. So today I wanted to share my opinion on when you should have sharp pencils, and when not to worry about it too much. 

I draw mostly fur, and there’s definitely stages of my drawing where I want to have the sharpest pencils possible. Usually this is the final stage of the drawing, when I’m putting in the very fine hairs to get that soft fur look. When you’re putting fine details on a drawing, regardless of whether it’s fur or scales or a rock, you always want to have sharp pencils. 

A close up of a portrait showing the fine hairs and my sharp purple pencil I was using to deepen some of the colours

But in the early stages of a drawing, it doesn’t matter quite as much. I usually work in three broad stages: the first is when I just block in shapes using my coloured pencils, and I certainly don’t need to have them sharp for that. I don’t press down hard and it’s basically a rough sketch, though I am careful to still move my pencil in the direction of the fur. During this stage my pencils are usually super blunt, and it really doesn’t make much of a difference. 

The second stage is when I start deepening colours and tones, and it is helpful to have relatively sharp pencils for this one, but I don’t need them razor sharp. I also use a technique called burnishing, where I use a light pencil to blend the colours beneath it and cover all the tooth of the paper. For burnishing I really don’t need that light pencil to be sharp, which is a good thing because burnishing uses up a lot of the pencil! 

In that final stage, like I said before, is when I really need sharp pencils. Adding details and fine hairs absolutely requires a sharp pencil. You are also going to want sharp pencils when you’re adding just a touch of colour – basically anything that requires a fine touch, you’ll want your pencils to be sharp. Still, there are some ways to help conserve your pencils. Keep turning the pencil as you work, to take advantage of sharp edges that develop on the lead as you work. And only sharpen your pencils when you need to! 

Preparing to Draw

Today I want to talk about how I get ready to draw a portrait, and my techniques for laying down a basic sketch. I’ll preface by saying that I am quite lazy, and thus don’t put in as much prep work as some artists I’ve seen. Still, what I do works for me, and that’s what matters, right?

A good example of my very very basic line drawing and the partially blocked in first layer of colour.

The first thing I always do is delineate my drawing space. I almost always work on paper, so I start off making sure my ‘canvas’ is the size I want it to be. When I work in ink or coloured pencil, that involves drawing a light pencil line in the size I want my drawing to be. If I’m working in pastel, I usually put down tape around the edges because I usually have backgrounds in my pastel pieces, and it’s really fun to peel off tape and see nice crisp edges on your drawing. 

Once that’s done, I put in a grid if I am using one. I don’t always use a grid for my drawings, but for complicated ones or for people’s pets I usually do. I used to draw the full grid, but after spending lots of time erasing I’ve made things a bit easier for myself. I usually only put in little dots where the lines of the grid intersect, which saves me a whole lot of time erasing. 

Finally, I put in the sketch. I’ve seen lots of artists online who block out  sections of colour on their portraits, and seem to spend quite a bit of time on the sketch part of the drawing. I’m sure this works for lots of people, but it doesn’t for me. Like I said, I’m lazy, so once I have the proportions right of a most basic outline, I’m ready to get started. 

All the colour variations and subtle textures I just do freehand as I’m laying down the first layer of coloured pencil, or ink, or pastel. I would argue that my true ’sketch’ is this first layer of colour, as that’s when I put down all the subtleties I’m going to refine later. It’s a bit of a strange way to do things, as I could probably save myself some time during that initial layer phase by spending some more time on sketches. But I’m lazy, and I really do like getting to laying down colour as soon as I can, because that’s the fun part of drawing for me. And every artist has a system that works for them, which is what really matters. If you have a specific way of getting things ready for a drawing, feel free to share! 

Pricing Your Art

Pricing your work is one of the hardest things to do as an artist. It’s something I’ve struggled with and I still find it difficult to decide how much I should charge for a portrait. Artists chronically undersell themselves, often learning less than minimum wage. There are a few reasons for this. 

The first is that if you’re like me, you are nagged by constant self-doubt. That voice of doubt likes to make you think that your work isn’t good enough to be charging reasonable prices, or even charging for it at all. Especially if you’re online and you see all the other amazing artists out there, it can be very intimidating to start charging for your work. 

Another problem with pricing is that for most of us, art is what we love doing. If no one was paying us we’d still be drawing. That’s still true for me — if I have a break in commissions I work on my own projects or draw something just for fun. For some reason, there’s a philosophy that if we’re having fun doing work, we shouldn’t get paid for it. 

One of my first coloured pencil portraits. Though I’m happy with how it turned out, my skills have improved over the last three years, and I’ve increased my pricing as a result.

The third reason is a bit of a false one, and it’s very much related to that self-doubt. We assume that with too high prices, we’ll shut ourself out of the market and no one will buy our work. It’s better to have lots of commissions at lower prices than none at all at higher prices, right? 

Let’s talk about each of these points, and figure out which are worth thinking about and which are not. 

Is your work good enough to charge for? Well, the simplest answer is that if someone is willing to pay for it, you can charge for it. That being said, take a look at other artists online who do work similar to yours at the same skill level. If you’re just starting out, it makes sense to charge less than an established artist who’s been working for years on building their skills and portfolio. 

The second point — that artists like drawing so we shouldn’t be paid for it — is just bogus. I love teaching people how to train their dogs, and I would be very annoyed if someone told me I shouldn’t be paid just because I like my job. No matter how much fun you have drawing, you’re putting time, materials, and tons of effort into each piece you make, and you should be compensated for it. Don’t listen to anyone who tries to use this argument to make you feel like you shouldn’t charge for your work. 

The third point, about the market for commissioned art, is a little more complex. The thought here is that if someone is charging $30 for a portrait, and I charge $400, there’s no way I’ll be able to compete with their prices. The funny thing is, you won’t be competing with them. The prices are so different, you’re in a completely different market. Your target audience is different, and so don’t worry if you see portraits available for rock bottom prices. You do want to make sure your prices aren’t outrageously out of the norm — if you’re charging $1000 for a portrait and others with your skill level are charging $200, that might be a bit of a hard sell. 

So what should you charge for your work? How do you justify your prices? 

First, do market research! Look around and see what others are charging. Try your best to be objective here, even asking friends and others to help you find artists that are similar. That will give you an idea of a market price for the type of work you are doing. 

Second, decide what you want to get paid for your work. Are you doing art as a hobby? Part-time job? Full-time job? What do you need to earn from your art to support yourself? Then calculate your goal price based on that. You may not be able to charge that price right away if you’re just starting out, but you can have it as a goal. 

A more recent portrait, after I increased my prices.

Third, how much does it cost to make a piece? How much do the paper, paints, or pencils cost? Don’t forget to include the materials in your calculations, because the costs certainly add up! 

Fourth, how much time does it take to finish a commission? I don’t like using estimates here, because it’s easy to forget a few minutes here or there. I actually track each hour I spend on a commission, because data collection is the first step. I have little circles on my daily to do list that let me track how much time I spend on each piece.

Once you have an average time per commission, you can calculate an hourly rate. It takes me roughly 20 hours for an 8×10 coloured pencil commission, and I was charging $250 for one. That’s $12.50/hr, far less than I should be making based on my skills and the number of years I’ve spent developing my skill. So I raised my prices, because I’ve spent three years working on developing my coloured pencil skills and now should be earning more than $12.50/hr. 

Although there’s no easy solution or clear answer to how much you should be charging for your work, hopefully that gives you a place to start with pricing. Just remember: we all struggle with this part! You’re not alone. 

Product Review: Faber-Castell Polychromos

It’s been a while since I did a product review, so I think it’s about time I did another one. My last review focused on Prismacolor Premier coloured pencils. Since that post, I’ve done a lot of work in coloured pencil, and the main brand that I use has shifted. So today I thought I’d review my new favourite pencils, Faber-Castell Polychromos. 

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils come in a range of 120 colours, which is more than enough to create pretty much any colour you can think of. They are sold in sets of various sizes, but also as individual pencils. I love brands where I can buy individual pencils, because I tend to use certain colours much more than others (not a lot of call for bright pinks or greens in pet portraits). This means that when one of my pencils runs low, I don’t have to buy a whole tin just to get the colour I need. 

A small sample of some of my Polychromos pencils.

Polychromos pencils are bright, vibrant pencils that produce amazing colours. I love how easy it is to get deep, rich pigment on the paper with these pencils. Another great thing about Polychromos pencils is their lightfastness. Out of 120 pencils, 102 are rated at maximum lightfastness, and only two are rated as ‘good’, which is the lowest rating. Lightfastness isn’t the most important thing if you’re drawing for yourself or making prints, but for a pet portrait artist, it’s very important to have pigments that won’t fade over time. 

One of my very first drawings using Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. I was thrilled with how vibrant the colours were.

If you’ve ever held a Faber-Castell pencil next to another brand, you’ll notice that the Faber-Castell pencil is bigger. The wood surrounding the pencil core is thicker than most other pencils, which is wonderful if you’re like me, and drop your pencils constantly. This extra wood helps protect the core from breaking, meaning you don’t have as much chance of damaging the pencil if you drop it.

One of the other great things about Faber-Castell pencils is they can sharpen to fine points, which is great for details and fur. Though there are harder pencils out there that are better for details, I find I rarely have to use them and the Polychromos are perfectly suitable for portraits. 

Now, on to the not-so-good stuff. Polychromos are not particularly cheap, though they are not crazy expensive (as these things go) among artist pencils. I built my collection gradually, buying individual colours as I needed them. I do like sets in their beautiful tins, so I totally understand the allure of getting one of the premade sets. Just be prepared to spend quite a bit! 

Another interesting thing about Polychromos pencils is the binder used in the pigment, which is primarily oil based, rather than wax based like other pencils. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does make these pencils different. While it avoids things like wax bloom, I did find the oil-based Faber-Castells very hard to blend when I first started working with them. The key is layering, but until I figured that out, I was at a bit of a loss with these guys. 

Overall, I love my Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils. They are versatile, vibrant, and have become the pencil I rely on above all others. 

Is It Done?

I find that no matter how much time I’ve spent on a piece, or how meticulous I’ve been, there’s always a part of it I feel I can still work on. When I look at one of my portraits, I always see something I could refine, something I could do better. So how do I decide when something is finished? When do I put the pencil or brush down, and step away from my work? 

The elephant portrait in question. I think it turned out pretty well!

It’s a tricky question, and I have a feeling every artist has struggled with it at one time or another. Sometimes it’s easy, and you put that last stroke in and just know you’re finished. Even then, I still struggle with going back and adding a black line here, or a whisker there. 

More often, I find myself agonizing over the tiny details, attempting to get them just right. This was really evident when I was working on an extra-large elephant portrait. I knew I was getting close to finishing, and figured one or two days more of work would just about do it. But how to know when I was actually done? 

The first step is always to simply let your piece be for a while. Step away from it, leave it a day or two, and then come back to it. Chances are, those parts that you were struggling with will come a lot easier with fresh eyes. Or you might look at the piece and realize you’re actually satisfied with it, and that the piece is finished. Either way, being able to take some time away is a great plan. Unfortunately sometimes deadlines get in the way of this strategy, but if you can do it, you should! 

A recent portrait I completed – It was really hard to step away from this one, as I wanted to keep making small adjustments, especially in the carpet and the curls of the fur.

I also find if I’m going back to the same place over and over, with no real change in the drawing, it’s a good sign that it’s probably time to stop. I just finished a portrait tonight with a lot of white fur, and when I was just constantly going over the white parts again and again to try and get them to stand out, I realized I was probably finished. 

Another thing to watch out for when you’re finishing up: there are times when I just can’t stop working on a part of a portrait, trying to get it just right. At a certain point, though, I find the more I try and get it ‘perfect’, the more off it gets. When I reach this point, I have to force myself to step away and stop fiddling, or I’ll ruin the portrait. I started falling into this trap with the elephant portrait. Every little adjustment I made teetered on the brink of making things worse. So I stopped, put my pencils away, and when I looked at the portrait the next day I was thrilled with it. 

Those are some of my thoughts on finishing portraits. Every artist probably has their own system and I’d love to hear your thoughts, so if you have anything to add, please let me know! 

The Ugly Stage

Have you ever looked at a drawing you’re working on and decided it’s complete crap? I certainly have, and I guarantee every other artist out there has as well. I’ve heard it referred to as The Ugly Stage, and it’s an apt name. 

It’s the stage in a drawing or painting where you’ve just laid down all the basic colours, or the tones if you’re working in black and white. You haven’t really put any detail in yet and so it’s easy to look at your work and despair. 

A portrait of my dog, Gabbie, partway through me adding the second layer. The part on the right is what I would consider ‘the Ugly Stage’, where it looks like rough scribbles that may not come together for a decent drawing.

I’ve noticed I go through this process with almost every piece I work on. There’s always a point when I’m sure that I won’t be able complete the drawing the way I had wanted, and that if I do, it will be awful. 

The thing is, almost every single time, once you get through the ugly stage, the drawings looks great. Though I’ve had many doubts during my drawings, I’m always happy with the end result. So my advice is: do your best to finish every drawing.

The main reason for my Ugly Stage is that I work in broad layers – the first I block out the basic shapes and colours, the second I deepen the colours and add details, and the third is where I do touch ups and final details.

The final portrait of gabbie – It certainly came together well!

There are some artists who prefer to work on one section of the piece until it’s pretty much finished, and then move on to the next section, so they may not have as pronounced an ‘Ugly Stage’ as me. But the key is to keep going, because more often then not, the drawing comes together as the final details are put in.

That being said, some drawings just don’t work out the way you want, and that’s fine. But at least if you finish them you might learn something. And you might be pleasantly surprised with the results. The temptation is often to give up as soon as something in the drawing doesn’t look right, but perseverance certainly pays off. 

Ink and Splatter

One of my most popular styles, Ink and Watercolour splatter, is also one I don’t see other artists use very often. I thought I’d share a bit on here about how I draw these, what I materials I use, and how I get that fun splatter effect! 

I first started using ink pens to draw when I bought myself a manga drawing kit. The kit came with four Sakura Pigma Sensei pens, in four different sizes: 1.0mm, 0.6mm, 0.4mm, and 0.3mm. I found the 0.4mm to be my favourite, because you can get different gradations of the ink by using the side of the nib rather than the tip. This let me shade in my ink drawings and get really subtle tones for detailed parts like the eyes. 

One of my favourite ink and splatter drawings, of a monarch butterfly. The red and yellow in my orange mixture separated while the paint dried, which ended up looking amazing. That’s the thing about splatter drawings – the splatter isn’t something you have a ton of control over, and it will often surprise you!

My very first drawing I did this way was a cheetah, and it turned out surprisingly well! After thinking about it for a while, I wanted to add a bit of colour to the drawing, just a ‘splash’, if you will. The way I did this (and still do, to this day) was a bit odd. 

I use a shot glass, fill it up with water, and mix in watercolour paint until I get my desired colour and darkness. The key here is to put in enough paint that the colour isn’t washed out – you want a good splash of colour on the drawing. It’s a good idea to do some test droplets on a scrap piece of paper before you splatter the drawing. 

To get a nice splatter effect, you want to drop the colour onto your drawing from a decent height. I usually pour it from the shot glass at about a foot or a foot and a half up. Pro tip: Make sure any other art nearby is covered, because the splatter travels far! I usually splatter my drawings on the floor so I don’t get paint all over my work surfaces. 

Often I use colours from the natural colour of the animal, but the fun thing with ink and splatter is that any colour will do! Here’s a portrait with a splash of green that really makes it pop!

Once you’ve poured your paint onto the drawing you can play around with how the paint sits within the splatter. If you’re getting lots of water bunching in one area, you may want to absorb some of it with a paper towel. The paper will warp at this point, due to the liquid, and those warps often collect water (and thus pigment). When everything is dry, the areas with the most water will be darker, so this can look a bit weird. One strategy I use is to gently adjust the warp of the paper until the centre of the paper is the highest point, which will make the pigment collect on the outer edges of the splatter, which often look really neat! Don’t worry if some of the water runs off the drawing, those drips are often a really cool effect. 

Another pro-tip: Once you’ve splattered, keep your drawing on a flat surface that is closed away from any pets, so you don’t get dogs or cats knocking it over and messing up your splatter. The splatter takes a few hours to fully dry, and I like to check on it now and then to see if I want to move any of the pigment around before it’s dry. 

Once everything is dry, you have to go back over the ink parts of the drawing that are covered by splatter, so they stand out. This will blunt the tip of your ink pen, but it’s worth it to get a really nice bold effect. And then you’re done! I love these types of drawings, they’re a unique and fun way to bring some colour and character to a subject while still drawing realism.