Artists have been making marks for millennia, using natural pigments, burnt twigs, their fingers, coloured sands etc. Around 1662, a deposit of natural Graphite was discovered near Keswick, Cumberland, and this was used by masons to mark stones, and farmers to keep tallies of sheep. It took around 200 years to work out that this was a bit messy to handle, and to discover a way of embedding graphite strips between two pieces of wood, thus turning the crayon into a pencil. Coloured pencils, which are not based on graphite at all, but which have cores made from wax or oil based binders with various pigments mixed in, were not invented until the 1920’s, with Derwent, for example, producing its first range of 24 coloured pencils in 1939. They have struggled ever since to be taken seriously as an art medium—but are now beginning to gain recognition.

The Colored Pencil Society of America was formed in the early 1990’s, and has done an enormous job in raising the status of coloured pencils, by showcasing artists via their Annual exhibitions and via North Light Publications, who produced a series of books entitled “Best of Coloured Pencil” which featured the work entered in these exhibitions. It also works closely with manufacturers on establishing a lightfastness standard, the lack of which has really been holding back the acceptance of coloured pencils—who wants fine art that vanishes in months? Since June 2001, there has also been a UK Coloured Pencil Society which now has over 300 members, worldwide, and which held its first exhibition at Patchings Farm Nottingham in July this year. This society receives sponsorship from all of the major manufacturers of coloured pencil, produces a quarterly newsletter in full colour, and has plans to organise regional meetings and exhibitions as well as its National Juried one.

So what is special about coloured pencils? Surely these are just children’s tools, not worthy of fine art or artists? Well, try telling that to David Hockney for starters! They are probably the most versatile, cleanest, most convenient, and, OK, the slowest, art medium around at present. If you enjoy spontaneity, risk, and serendipitous artwork then they may not be for you, though they are quite capable of producing loose sketches of course. The kind of artist who is becoming more drawn (excuse the pun) to coloured pencil is the person who, when the watercolour tutor is saying “Loose, the detail!” replies “Why?” The person who likes colour that stays where you put it. The person who gets lost in their work, spending hours in what Betty Edwards (“Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”) calls “the zone”. The person who likes intense, focused colour, rather than loose washes. Yes, we are a strange, but growing, breed.

One problem people have when they start to use coloured pencil is that they are not aware of what is possible with them. They do not see examples of coloured pencil work, and do not know of some simple techniques that enable intense colour to be achieved. Let us look at some examples first. One of the winners in the recent UKCPS Exhibition was Takako Ikuta, from Japan. Her work “On a Monday Morning” really shows the ultimate detail and intensity that coloured pencil can achieve.

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When this arrived for the exhibition, I took it out of the frame to make sure Takako had not sent me a photograph by mistake! This is typical of much American work with this medium – very highly burnished, many layers, every attempt made to hide the marks of the pencil and produce something photo-realistic. This has led a little bit to what I call the “cut glass and old lace” syndrome, which affects some coloured pencil artists – an obsession with technique at the expense of communication. Fortunately, many UK and US artists are redressing that imbalance. Gail Burton for example, relies on getting a message across, often in a dramatic way, using coloured pencil on black card, as this picture “Extinct” shows.

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Coloured pencils are also wonderful for portraits and skin tones. Ann Kullberg, US artist and author of “Coloured pencil Portraits Step-by-step” gives many super examples of how layering coloured pencil very gently can produce extremely subtle gradations of colour and glowing skin. We were lucky enough to have a workshop with Ann in Nottingham in July, and in a few short days, my own technique improved no end. Fortunately we have found many UK artists who are producing comparable work – take a look at Maddy Swan’s “Painted Faces” which won the Derwent award at our exhibition.

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Even beginners can produce excellent results when they turn to coloured pencil. Richard Lovesey has been mainly a graphite or pastel artist, and was inspired to try his first coloured pencil portrait recently – he did a very good job with “Ellie”! And the winner of “Beginner Artist of the Year” in the SAA competition recently was Sarah Rayner, one of our members, who depicts her children and relatives in a unique style, as shown by “Bundle”. Sarah has ambitions to become an illustrator, especially of children’s books.

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We have found that particular genres of artists predominate in coloured pencil. Chief amongst these are botanical artists and wildlife artists. This is probably because coloured pencils are a wonderful medium for showing detail, whether that be of flowers, or of fur. Beverley Lewis, for example, produced this picture of a cheetah and her cubs for the exhibition.

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Landscape artists are few and far between with coloured pencil – perhaps because it is very hard to capture the textures of the English landscape in such a detailed medium! One artist who succeeds wonderfully in a difficult genre is Graham Brace . Two examples here, “The Red Boat” and “A Shower of Rain”, show the fine work that Graham produces. It should be said here also that Graham incorporates gouache and graphite into his pictures at times, so is not a “purist” in the medium. So what? Whatever he uses, it works! The UKCPS is not a purist Society, and will support artists who use mixed media, except in one case. The Exhibition is not a mixed media exhibition, and pictures will only be accepted into it if they are pure coloured pencil only. The reason for this is to show what is possible using only the “humble” coloured pencil.

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One final genre – still life. This is represented by two artists here. Jill Heaps shows a very traditional still life entitled “Pots of Fun”.

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Gwen Kitching finishes our article with a very delicate “Feather”.

I hope you have found the article interesting, and I hope you will now take out that box of pencils you have never used – yes, I know you all have one! – and use it. – Bob Ebdon, Founder, UKCPS.