Sketchbook colours: blue and gold

Three Pitt Pens

When I’m sketching, I work in a Moleskine pocket notebook, and use mostly Faber Castell PITT artist pens — often quite vigorously. However, these are three of my current favourite sketching pens (for more on favourite colours, see Loving the tools):

  • Small Black Fineliner 199
  • Sky Blue brush tip 146
  • Green Gold brush tip 268 (note — it’s not metallic, but more of an old mustard colour)

The first time I really started using them as a set was at the Natural History Museum in Oxford — and mostly because it was a very blue-and-gold place.

sketches of architecture and skeletons at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford
Museum of Natural History, Oxford

At this point I was mostly using the two colours to identify the blue and yellow of what I was looking at, as well as using the blue for some shadows.

I’d already been using blue for shading, sometimes — especially when I didn’t have the time to record more detailed colours. It’s more vivid than a grey shadow — I like how it lifts the picture off the page as a little object, instead of making the figures sink into it. (By “shading” I mean both adding actual shadows, and indicating darker colours.) And while the blue is cool, it doesn’t look cold on the warm cream of the Moleskine pages.

Sketches of people in medieval and hobbit costumes
Costumes at the Arthurian Festival at Château de Comper

I began using the mustard yellow to do the same. It had a much warmer effect than the blue, but I liked its old-school monochrome effect. And neither of them seemed to say This Is What The Scene Is About in the way some other colours, such as green, do.

Sketches of people sketching in Boston MFA, and in transit at Penn Station
Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Amtrak Penn Station

But since I liked both the blue and the yellow for this purpose, I kept using them together.

Sketches of people browsing in Book Moon Books
Book Moon Books, Easthampton Massachusetts

In these sketches (above) at Book Moon Books, I used the blue for the figures — for shadow and cold and to make them stand out, and because their backs were mostly to me — and yellow for the books and store, for the warmth and light. I really like how the use of the two colours distinguishes the figures from the background (which doesn’t really happen with the white dress in the grey sketch at Château de Comper, earlier).

By the time I got to Avid Reader for Love Your Bookshop Day last year (context: Queensland, Australia, where that was safe and legal!), you can see the use has shifted again. You can also see that I bought new pens which hadn’t begun drying and darkening.

A sketch of people browsing in Avid Reader
Avid Reader, Brisbane

In the Avid Reader drawings, I’m using both colours on each figure, instead of using them to separate elements. I suspect this was in part because it was daylight, and warm weather — there’s a breezier feeling to these than the Book Moon sketches! But I was also using the two colours to quickly note the direction of light and where shadows fell, as well as to distinguish some areas of different colour, even if they weren’t exactly these colours.

Recently, I’ve been sketching some workshops at the University of Queensland (I’ll post more of these soon — but the art is already up for patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel). Going back over those pages, I realised how many things the colours were doing.

A sketch of four people at a table talking
University of Queensland — Defence Innovation Bridge

Even just in the scene above, you can see where I’ve used the colours to show shadow, the direction of light, the colour of the background, to separate figures from each other and the table, and to keep the events in the speech bubbles at a remove by only using blue in them. And in the image below, I’ve also used the yellow over the blue to hint at a khaki uniform.

A sketch of an army officer talking about a bulldozer

So! Here are a few benefits/uses of very limited colours, especially for fast sketching:

  • Speed
  • Portability
  • Shadow (and shape and direction of light)
  • Warmth and cold
  • Tone and more colours than you’d think
  • Separating elements
  • Separating styles
  • Pulling a sketch together
  • Anchoring a drawing to or lifting it from the page
  • Very quickly communicating the most important details
  • Unifying a group of drawings/creating a consistent style for a project
  • Echoing particular printing styles (I love, for example, what Evaline Ness could do with two colours.)

Writing/Illustration activity

  1. Choose two colours you like. It doesn’t have to be blue and yellow. Blue and red is another popular choice, and an image search of Risograph prints will give you some ideas of what can be done with a limited palette. Or pull out two coloured pencils at random.
  2. Do a few small monochrome sketches (in words or pictures!). If stuck for ideas, perhaps do 20-second sketches (e.g. this very fast Ramon Casas study) or one-minute written descriptions of some famous paintings. Work in black line or pencil or, if writing, in bare-bones description with no colour.
  3. Now, rework each sketch by adding hints of those two colours (coloured pencil, watercolour, markers, digital colour, words…). Here are a few approaches you could try:
    1. Show the direction of light and shadow, or where the highlights are (Dorothy Dunnett does this fabulously in some of her novels, and John Dickson Carr creates lurid effects with green and red in The Waxworks Murder).
    2. To pick out as much of the original colour as you can.
    3. To distinguish between a figure and the background.
    4. To show warm and cold areas.
  4. Bonus round: Change the colours and see what happens.

Note: This post began as a post for supporters on Patreon — if you’d like to support art and posts about it, patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

4 thoughts on “Sketchbook colours: blue and gold

  1. Pingback: March 2021 — round-up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

  2. Pingback: Sketching matrix games | Kathleen Jennings

  3. Pingback: Library sketching — Next Library Camp at the State Library of Queensland | Kathleen Jennings

  4. Pingback: WQ Magazine — art process | Kathleen Jennings

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