How I Use Pencils in Watercolour Portraits

Continuing my “how I use the stuff I haveposts, I thought that I’d show how I use pencils when I’m working on a series of portraits of the same person.

Since I work in watercolour which is notoriously not great for correcting and changing your mind mid painting, when there’s a face that I know that I’ll want to explore I usually create a “construction” sketch which I transfer to paper several times. I can then paint the portrait in different tones, or focus on a certain aspect that interests me, or take it to really wild places without spending too much time on the technicalities of the preliminary sketch.

I start the “construction” sketch on newsprint paper. It’s much more detailed and “searching” than it needs to be, but that doesn’t matter much. Ultimately only the lines that will help me construct the face and note where the major light and dark transitions are will remain. I draw this with a Faber Castell 9000 2B or 3B pencil that’s sharpened with a pocket knife to allow me to use it without having to pause for sharpening. Newsprint paper is pretty transparent and also generally too fragile for regular erasers, so I use a kneaded eraser to lift off unnecessary lines, or simply ignore them.

Once I’m done with that, I flip the page to the other side and scribble on it with a Faber Castell 9000 6B or Palomino Blackwing MMX. These are again sharpened with a pocket knife, and the point is to get as much coverage as possible. If I’m doing a lot of transfers then I might have to repeat this process, adding more graphite to the back of the sketch.

I then transfer the most important lines in my sketch on to a piece of watercolour paper. This is done by placing the newsprint paper with the sketch over the watercolour paper and going over the lines in the sketch with a 2H pencil (I use a Faber Castell 9000 2H, but this isn’t that important). The pencil needs to be a hard pencil for the lines to transfer to the paper below, but it can’t be too hard or too sharp or it will rip the newsprint paper. It’s also important to put just enough pressure when you’re tracing so the graphite on the underside of the sketch transfers to the paper, but not too much to bruise the watercolour paper. Using a 300 gsm watercolour paper helps protect it, but it’s mostly a matter of practice. When you’re done you get something like this:

The lines are pretty faint, which is great when working with watercolour, because they don’t distract too much from the figure once you start working.

I created about five watercolour portraits of Dame Judi Dench from this sketch so far, and there’s a good chance that I’ll go explore her some more in the future.

How I Use Pencils in Watercolour Portraits

Neil Gaiman Portrait (Work in Progress)

I decided to work on a monochrome Neil Gaiman watercolour portrait, and I remembered to take progress photos for a change.

The initial sketch was done with a Faber Castell 9000 2H on Bockingford 300gsm watercolour paper.

Then I did some light initial shading (I use Schmincke watercolours):

This is with most of the work done:

Final pass, differentiating more between light and dark:

Neil Gaiman Portrait (Work in Progress)

Pentel Fude Touch Brush Sign Pen Review

I planned to review the Sharpie brush pen, after spending the best part of a week with it, but as it turns out, I forgot it at the office. I’ve been using the Pentel Fude Touch Brush Sign Pen instead, so here’s a review of this boring little brush pen instead.

Today’s journal comic/review, drawn on a Moleskine Star Wars crawl text blank notebook. This paper is smooth, although not Rhodia smooth, but the pen still really dragged on it. It was worse on any sort of paper with even the slightest tooth, making it super not fun to use.

The brush pen tip is pretty firm, which means that you get a medium amount of line variation, but that it’s very easy to control. If you’re starting out in the wild world of brush pens, either for drawing or lettering, this tip grade is probably the best for you.

The black ink is black, and not greyish or brownish, and completely not waterproof, which can be a good thing (if you want to “stretch” it or use it for shading, as wet it produces a good 50% cool grey), or a terrible thing (if you want to combine it with watercolours).

A closeup of a D&D character group drawing that I did with the Pentel Fude Brush Sign Pen. 

The pen body itself looks and feels cheap and plasticy, which isn’t too unusual in the disposable brush pen market. Why do all these companies have a thing for a dark pen body with pronounced gold lettered marketing splashed all over it? Pentel’s also put sparkles in its, body, just for some extra garish fun.


The pen is torpedo shaped with facets along the body that somewhat help keep the pen from rolling. It’s borderline too thin to use for long periods of time without cramping, but ¬†otherwise it’s comfortable to hold and use.

The Pentel Fude Brush Sign Pen would be a good beginners’ brush pen if there wasn’t so much competition at the same price. As it is, buy a Zebra brush pen, which allows for greater line variation, or a Kuretake brush pen, which is also waterproof, or add a little more and get the experience of two brush pens in one with the Pilot Futayaku. As it is, this Pentel pen lacks enough line variation to make it fun and interesting to use, and it isn’t cheap enough to justify buying it over the competition.

Pentel Fude Touch Brush Sign Pen Review