Using coloured pencil on black paper

The ability to use coloured pencil on black paper allows us to introduce very strong contrasts. It can also eliminate the need to produce a background from the pencils themselves.

But there are things you will need to know before attempting this type of artwork. We will cover some of these before demonstrating the working of a drawing in coloured pencil on black paper.

How permanent is the paper colour?

One thing you do not want to do is take time to draw on paper that is not lightfast!

A simple test is to leave some paper in a sunny windowsill for a month or so during the summer. Then you can compare it with fresh paper that has not been exposed. If the paper has faded then it could be considered as non-lightfast and is best avoided. Of course this is not a scientific test but it does show which papers are more liable to fade than others.

Coloured pencil on black paper can be sprayed with fixatives which have UV filters, and this may reduce fading. But the fixative can have the effect of making the pencil more translucent and the black of the paper can show through. 

Hanging the work out of the sun, preferably on a north facing wall is always a wise move, whatever colour paper you have used. 

Another thing to be aware of is that if you 'touch up' your edges with a black pencil to neaten them, the pencil may not fade but the paper might. You can then be left with darker 'splodges' along the edges of your drawing which look very out of place!

There is more on the best black paper options at the bottom of this (long) page. 

NOTE: Avoid cheaper craft papers as they are notorious for fading. Check your supplier and read the sales descriptions for the paper you buy to draw on.

Peter's first attempt

Peter's first step into the magical world of coloured pencil on black paper and the techniques for handling extreme contrasts was Crabapple Tea.  He used Stonehenge black paper with Faber Castell Polychromos and finished with highlights of Caran d'Ache Luminance pencils. The original photo by Gemma Gylling CPSA.

From this he learned that it is best to use the actual colour desired and not to put down a layer of white pencil first under the colours.  He also found that it was best to start off with a hard or medium hard pencil and keep the softer brands for the final stages and highlights. 

Keeping the background 'clean' proved to be important, so a protection for the working surface was devised. He cut a piece of clear plastic in an L shape, and used this under his hand so it did not rest on the paper and smudge the drawing as he worked. 

Crabapple Tea

What makes a suitable picture for a black background?

Despite the challenges, black paper provides some creative options for your artwork, but its worth taking the time to consider whether the image will benefit from its use.  Let's look at an example.

This photo is of a wine merchant (cave) and bar in the small southern French town of Sorez. 

The varnished wood surround to the shop front is carved. It is situated in a parade of half timbered buildings with some interesting shapes to it. If you think of doing a painting of this on white paper an immediate problem presents itself. as shown in the enlargement below.  The grill on the inside of the window and the posters on display present issues. Also how would you work around the lettering on the window and keep them nice and crisp?

Photo of the French building
Close up of the window

Peter did first attempt this image on white paper, and quickly decided that the likely end result did not justify the effort. 

Therefore he started again on black Stonehenge paper and carefully drew out the image with a white Caran d'Ache Pablo pencil. 

The outline in white pencil
Finished drawing

The lines gave the general shape and he then refined and corrected them as he worked with the coloured pencil on black paper. 

An afternoon's work on a wet day resulted in a fairly respectable (Peter's words) stab at the shop front. You can see how the white pencil has given good coverage of the timber frame upper story of the building. 

This may not be a brilliant example of coloured pencil artwork, but it does show how it is possible to work a picture in reverse from a black paper base.

The Sweet Jar - coloured pencil on black paper

Original photo of the sweet jar

Let's move on to look at a more controlled and 'finished' picture. This has echoes of the 'Crabapple Tea' picture and was a photo taken of a jar of sweets just after Easter. The intention was to work with coloured pencil on black paper and therefore the photo was taken against a sheet of black mount board. 

The arrangement and selection of sweets was not ideal, as most of the good ones had been eaten! However, Peter knew that he could correct the composition as he worked the picture. 

For those of you who would like to try this picture at home, you can download the photo as a high quality PDF for you to print. You can also download full notes on the drawing of this piece here. 

There were a number of factors to consider...

  • Getting the correct shape for the ellipse of the jar top and the lid
  • What brand of pencils to use
  • What techniques would be required

1. The drawing

Peter could have drawn this freehand, as he did with the shop front above, but the chances of accuracy would have been low, and curves, circles and ellipses need to be accurate. Therefore he opted to do a trace of the critical shapes. The lid itself has three curves, the jar has the top edge and the bowl. These five curves were traced. The rest of the drawing was done freehand. 

2. The brand of pencils

With numerous brands to choose from, the pencils to use was the next decision. Peter wanted to select one box and work from that, rather than using a mixture of pencils. This meant he could specify which brand he had used and had the experience of developing his knowledge of that brand in action. 

He started by completing a chart of a range of colours from eight brands, on the paper he had selected for the finished picture (Stonehenge). The idea was to set out a number of squares of colour done in 5 stages - from one layer through to five. The stages were not exactly graduated. The first was a very light layer and the aim for the last was to get the maximum coverage. This staged layering is a good test for black paper where you usually need good coverage to get a good colour.

Peter noted the pencil number against each block and the brands from top to bottom, which were...

  • Pablo
  • Supracolor *
  • Polychromos
  • Prismacolor
  • Coloursoft
  • Luminance
  • Lyra Polycolor
  • Albrecht Durer *

Those marked with an asterisk are watercolour pencils and the were included to test whether using wet or dry pencil made any difference to the end result.

The range of both Polychromos and Albrecht Durer contain the same colours, as do those of the Pablo and Supracolor pencils. Therefore, Peter took the opportunity to spread the sampling.

RESULT - There was not a great deal to choose between the brands. 

  • Prismacolor and Luminance worked well - but then they should as they were the softest pencils. 
  • Polychromos and Pablo offered the greatest colour choice (120 in each of his tins) as he didn't have the full range of Prismacolor. . 
  • Coloursoft and Lyra Polycolour were too restrictive in colour choice but still worked well. 

He decided to use the Pablo, but did eventually include some Polychromos in order to get a better range of reds. Pablo is very good for greens, Polychromos for reds. 

3. The technique

Unsure how to approach the different shades of colour in the shiny sweets (candies to those of you in the USA), Peter set out to trial sample images on a spare piece of Stonehenge. However, the first sample worked so well he stayed with that method.

He took four shades of the colour - the lightest shade in the box, two intermediate ones of the same general tint and the darkest one he could find. To these he added white and sometimes black for final touch up in a top layer when lighter highlights or deeper shadows were required.  The samples came out like this...

After these initial testing stages he was ready to make a start.

Peter intended to invent some sweets to fill the darker areas of the jar later. He made a mental note to take future photos before the family had the opportunity to eat his models!

After the steps in the first 5 pictures above, the bulk of the work has been done.

All that remains is to tidy up the edges, complete some missing bits on the egg wrappers, look again at the twisted ends of the transparent wrappers on some of the sweets, and then punch in some stronger colour and white with sharp pointed pencils.

The paper would not allow further layers of Pablo pencils in places, so Luminance (which are much softer) proved excellent for the finishing touches. The last picture shows the finished picture. 

Peter put in some of the reflected back light in the glass with a very pale blue. It looks quite heavy on the scan, but the original is nowhere near as strongly tinted. He also added in one or two bits of colour to make the shapes more logical.  A mid grey helped to represent some of the twisted wrapper ends. 

The final step was to work over the black paper with a ball of sticky BluTac to pick up any pigment dust and then sharpen up one or two edges with a clean plastic eraser. 

Same image, different black paper

One of Peter's students wanted to tackle this reference photo with coloured pencil on black paper, even though Peter had not yet attempted it. 

The chosen paper was black Stonehenge - a smooth absorbent surface ideal for coloured pencil. The pencils were Polychromos. 

The student sent an in progress scan and gave his permission to include it here.

Given the student's engineering background, Peter was not surprised to see the bricks in all their glory in the finished piece, shown below. 

A few month's later Peter decided to have a go at the same picture, but on a slightly rougher surface - Somerset Velvet black paper. He started out using Caran d'Ache Supracolor aquarelles in white, to block in the lighter areas. 

You can see how the rougher paper is leaving  black flecks from the paper grain, 

The strong light coming from the two street lights, and the reflection in the middle of the water, would work best without those flecks showing. The railings also proved a challenge with the fine detail needed to get the light areas of the footpath behind them. 

Peter resolved this issue by bringing a white pastel into play and blocking in a long rectangle where the footpath fell. At the same time he treated the top of the left foreground boat, the lights and the wall at the end of the canal. 

He blended this white down into the grain of the paper and then added a layer of white Supracolor. This was then washed into the paper, and in doing so the white pigment was bulked out by the pastel to produce a good white surface. 

Once dry, the whole area had another layer of dry white Supracolor pigment laid on top. This produced a solid white area which would then take a black Supracolor fine point to draw in the railings. This was much easier than drawing in each segment of white and leaving the fine black lines of the paper surface. 

This picture is currently still unfinished and stored in Peter's 'to do' file. 

Alternative black papers

Peter was happy to test out the black Stonehenge, from Legion Papers in the USA. That source of supply enabled him to run a number of course studies with students. 

Other black papers are available, but most have hard surfaces and are not archival black. As discussed previously, if you use coloured pencil on black paper that is not archival the black may well fade. Not ideal!

Peter prefers two black papers - the Stonehenge and UK manufactured Somerset Velvet. 

Stonehenge has a soft printmaking surface which is absorbent and holds colour against a matt background. 

The Somerset Velvet was excellent but went off the market in 2014 when there were problems over the pigment used.

Happily, St Cuthbert's Mill announced a new formula Velvet paper in March 2019. This newly pigmented black paper is a warm shade of intense black with soft textured finish of the other Velvet colours in the Somerset range. 

Peter was able to test a sample and compare it to the original. 

The digital photo of the two samples was taken in a north facing window on a grey day. The paper surface is near identical and the take up of colour virtually the same. The one sample of the Pitt Pastel pencil shows some loss of white pigment on the heavier end of the test strip on the new paper. Pigment retention on the old paper was better. 

The new paper is not as 'Black' and the photo records this faithfully. Take up of colour from the range of pencil types was better on the old surface which, being more intense black, shows the colours better. 

The pencils sampled (from top left in each case) were:

  • Prismacolor - Blue Slate
  • Bruynzeel Aquarelle - 33 Red
  • Caran d'Ache Luminance  - white
  • Faber Castell Polychromos - silver
  • Derwent Drawing  - Terracotta
  • Staedtler Karat Aquarelle - white
  • Faber Castell Pitt Pastel - white
  • Derwent watercolour - kingfisher blue

Peter's Opinion

From this short test it is clear that the new formula paper is very good, possibly not as good as the old one, but better than not having this paper available at all. This new version is probably only bettered by Legion Stonehenge which is a blacker black and a good working surface. 

White coloured pencil on black paper

Peter was testing aquarelles and coloured pencil on black paper one afternoon, and picked up a white pencil from his 'Sundries' pot to test against a brand he had just received for examination. 

Surprise! The result on the paper was excellent - better than a lot of whites he had tried in this situation in the past. The pencil was a Stabilo 'ALL' White pencil (8052) which is described on the shaft as 'Aquarellable' and is also labeled as suitable for 'Paper- Glass - Plastic - Metal'.

His recommendation is to acquire one if you see it listed. 

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