Palette Detective: Watercolor Mixes for "Nasturtium" Botanical

In watercolor, it's not about the paint color, it's about the colors you mix. "Nasturtium" analysis. |

Colorers tend to use color names as a security blanket

What colors did you use on this project?

What's the marker list for that image?

What's your favorite red blending combination?

Admittedly, this has always been a hard thing for me to wrap my brain around.

I totally understand that using the same exact marker or pencil colors as the instructor increases the odds that a student will be able to duplicate the look of a class project... but it seems to me that holding the same supplies in your hand is only about 20% of the necessary information.

This is especially hard for crafters, people who are used to working with detailed supply lists and step by step tutorials. 

I get it. You want specifics, lots and lots and lots of specifics.

But I'm warning you. The next time I'm up in the bell tower ranting at the top of my voice, this is what I'll be yelling-

It's not the colors you use, it's how you use them!

It's not the name on the tube of paint that matters, it's what you do with it. |

Write that down and tack it on your craft room cork board. Tie a string around your finger to remember it. Tattoo it onto your dog's forehead so that you see it multiple times daily.

I can tell you every single color that I use on a project. I can list all minute details right down to the UPC code and link to the best price on the internet. And yet that tells you virtually nothing.

It's especially true with paint

Very few painters use color straight out of the tube.

For my watercolor classes, it's not enough for me to tell you what brands and what color paints I used. If you want to duplicate my look, you need to understand the mixes I make and their concentration levels.

I saw a photo on instagram a few weeks ago

The watercolorist had captioned it something along the lines of "Isn't my palette almost as pretty as the painting?"

And she was right. Her palette was absolutely beautiful. But the more I stared at it, the more I understood her painting. Her palette told me what colors she was mixing and I could trace the mixes on her palette right back to specific areas of her project.

Her palette was a road map to recreating her artwork.

And that idea has been brewing in the back of my mind for weeks now.

Here's "Nasturtium", the project for tonight's watercolor class:

"Nasturtium" a beginner watercolor project for H2Oh! class. Teaching marker students to apply their coloring skills to watercolor paints. |

And here's my palette, which was clean when I started:

Green watercolor mixes used in "Nasturtium". Teaching marker colorers to apply their skills to watercolor paints. |
Orange watercolor mixes used in "Nasturtium". Teaching marker colorers to apply their skills to watercolor paints. |

okay students, be a palette detective

The greens are mixes of:

  • OH Sap Green
  • DS Hansa Light
  • MG Prussian Blue

The oranges* are mixes of:

  • DS Hansa Light
  • DS Pyrrol Scarlet
  • DS Carbazole Violet
  • sometimes I instinctively grab bits of MG Quin Red or Rose to brighten things

* remember that I shade last, so some of these oranges have now been neutralized by the violet. They appear dirtier than they did when I made my original passes on the petals.

We can make palette shots a regular thing

If you think it helps.


Can't wait to paint with you tonight!!!

Head to Head: Blending Cardstocks- Cryogen versus X-Press It


Nobody rides a bicycle on the beach...

Bikes are great; you can go a lot of places on a bicycle.

But if you're sunning your buns at one end of the beach and the daiquiri bar is way the heck down at the other end... it's highly unlikely that you're going to use peddle power to cross a mile of sugar sand beach.

Bicycles don't work very well in the desert; they're not so great underwater and I'd hate to be left with only a bike during a Michigan January.

Now I'm not beating up on bikes and bicycle enthusiasts. I love my bike.

But only an idiot tries to use a bike in a snowstorm. It simply isn't designed to do what you're asking it to do.


Smart people match the tool to the task

That includes paper.

Especially when you're working with Copics and colored pencil. Trying to blend alcohol markers on a dollar store drawing pad is like trying to peddle your way down Daytona Beach.

You're not using the right tool to facilitate good blending.


for years, I've used x-press it blending card 

Not just faithfully, I've used it exclusively. 

For my style of marker painting, it simply works best.

Ink stays wet on the surface of X-Press It paper slightly longer than with other blending cardstocks. That extra wet-time allows for better blending. I see significant improvement when I move students from their preferred paper to X-Press It.


But X-Press It has one major drawback

I combine marker with colored pencil. The combination of wet and dry gives me more depth, texture, and mark versatility than is possible with just marker alone. 

I love my X-Press It. The problem is that X-PI is everything a colored pencil paper should not be.

X-Press It is super slick with a slightly resistant surface. Way smoother than hot press, it's Bing Crosby driving a Zamboni eating butter kind of smooth.

Meanwhile colored pencil likes things gritty. Artists call it tooth; a good colored pencil paper has tiny jags and crevices which grab hold and collect pencil pigment as you color.

X-Press It cardstock is as toothless as the starting line-up for the 1972 Red Wings. Trying to color with colored pencil on X-PI is like spreading grape jelly onto a greased pig. About 70% of what you lay down ain't gonna stick.

So not to make light of Sophie's Choice, but at the start of every project, I'm usually standing at the train station trying to pick between X-Press It for Markers or Vellum Bristol for colored pencil.


Then I rediscovered cryogen

A student once handed me some sheets of "sparkle paper" in class. I'm always up for trying a new paper, but she presented it as a marker paper, something another Copic instructor had recommended.

It was a nice cardstock, smooth with an interesting pearly flake embedded in the pulp. I made a few test swatches and no angelic chorus descended from the heavens. I decided I liked X-Press It better and filed the Cryogen away in my drawer of assorted paper.

Time passed.

I cleaned out that drawer last month and came across some unmarked sheets of cardstock. As I'm mentally berating the wheel running hamster who lives in my head for not labeling the paper... my fingers... they were feeling the paper. I was actually petting the paper.

Cryogen vs XPress It head to head |

And the hamster started dancing

He danced and sang because we were petting a marker cardstock with a bit of tooth.

Holy Grail anyone?

I've been playing with sparkle paper Cryogen recently. I'm pretty pleased.

I wouldn't say Cryogen White is the answer to ALL my problems but it does get the Nazi off my back. Here's what I've found.


X-Press It- a superior marker blending card

  • Full Name: X-Press It Blending Card

  • Surface: ultra hot-press, feels coated but isn't

  • Color: bright white

  • Weight: about 110 lbs.

  • Tooth: very little

  • Thirst: coats well on first pass, no excessive ink usage

  • Alcohol Ink Blendability: extended wet-time makes for easy and amazing blends

  • Vividness: colors are bold, no visible changes upon drying.

  • Bleed (ink pulled by paper fibers beyond stamp lines): hardly noticeable

  • Leak-through (to back of paper): only after 3 coats

  • Water Damage: exposure to water will damage paper irreparably. Surface will buckle, then separate from core, can peel off.

  • Colored Pencil: accepts a first coat with a sharp pencil. Hard to layer or blend, must press harder than normal to collect color. Color can smear.

"Go Fish" colored on X-Press It Blending Card |

Cryogen-a balanced all purpose cardstock

  • Full Name: Cryogen Curious Metallics

  • Surface: hot-press

  • Color: "white" but is actually a creamy, yellow tinged white

  • Weight: 89 lbs.

  • Tooth: light tooth

  • Thirst: coats well on first pass, draws more ink than X-Press It

  • Alcohol Ink Blendability: moderate, some strokes remain visible after second pass.

  • Vividness: some colors mute slightly as they dry.

  • Bleed (ink pulled by paper fibers beyond stamp lines): light bleed but controlable

  • Leak-through (to back of paper): after 2nd coat

  • Water Damage: a light spray did not affect paper. A good soaking caused buckling and slight swelling. Swelling disappeared when dry but buckle remained. No peeling or bubbling.

  • Colored Pencil: accepts 2-3 coats of colored pencil, waxy pencils blended well. Easy to color softly with no visible stroke lines.

"Go Fish" Colored on Cryogen White |

Here's a side by side:

X-Press it on top, Cryogen on bottom. Creamy color of Cryogen is more noticeable in real life.

Cryogen vs. XPress It cardstocks. Marker vs colored pencil cardstock |

Overall, a move to Cryogen means that I sacrifice some marker blending ability in order to gain pencil blending ability.

  • You can see some unblendable marker strokes in the blue stripes just before the tail on the Cryogen. The B37 was especially stubborn.

  • B99 looks more deep and vibrant on the X-PI but it's only noticeable when side by side.

  • B32 (lightest blue in the stripes) is noticeably lighter and more even on X-Press It.

  • The difference in aqua colors here is solely due to the yellow of Cryogen making all colors look warmer.

  • Blue pencil over yellow marker on X-PI looks muddy. Same on Cryogen looks more subtle and pleasing.

  • Not only does pencil "stick" better to Cryogen, white gel pen adheres more smoothly

so am I a Cryogen Disciple now?

Not really. I'll still teach with X-Press It because I never want to place hurdles in front of my students. Blending is so much easier with X-PI that I can't justify the switch for my beginners and casual colorers.

But for any project (personal or with advanced students) that requires more than 50% colored pencil, I'll be using Cryogen.


Associate Links: (note XPI is a pack of 25 sheets while Cryogen is a pack of 50)


The Great Marker Challenge: Is this the Ideal Copic Starter Set? Coloring Butterflies



It's Friday and it's time for another Great Marker Challenge image! 

This is "Butterflies" by Urban Stamps. And by no coincidence, I'm teaching this project in my beginner level Copic Coloring classes in August.


Great Marker Challenge?


Copic doesn't seem to market themselves very well to new colorers. You hear rumors about these fabulous, mysterious, and beautiful markers but they don't sell a starter set.

What to do?

If you Google "Copic starter set" you get 9,000 recommendations from 4,200 bloggers and none of them agree.

Who do you trust? Who's list isn't full of bunk?

Okay, so I'll admit it, my recommended starter set is the 9,001 to hit the internet.

But here's the thing- I don't tell you what my favorite colors are. I don't wax endlessly about "if you color maple trees you'll need this marker but you don't need it if you only color penguins wearing bikinis..."

Simply put, I don't tell you, I show you.

Yeah, I don't dink around. You want info about what to buy today, not my inner philosophy on the merits of warm gray markers.

You can read about that another day.

Look at the range of images that I can color with my set of 42 markers. If they look like the kinds of stamps you own, the kind of images you want to color, then use my list as a shopping guide.

And hey, if you're in Southeastern Michigan and want to color this image in a class with me, check out the class details here.

Happy Friday, happy coloring!


Project Portfolios are not only for Professionals


My students often bring old projects to class

Because of the way my classes run, very few students actually finish a full image in class. Class time is essentially for learning a technique and for troubleshooting problems. The real work happens at home, so I'm always thrilled to see finished pieces.

I also love seeing what students have learned in other classes. It's great to hear about what other teachers are teaching, that helps to keep me on my toes!

But here's what I've noticed:

It's very rare for a student to show me a portfolio.

Nope. Most students bring one of two things:

Do you shove your projects into a sketchbook? Boy, do we need to talk! |
Do you store projects in file folders? Boy, do we need to talk! |

Either they drag out a sketchbook with loose drawings shoved in-between pages of other drawings.

Or they bring the File Folder of Death.

Can we please talk about this?


I'm about to make a suggestion...

And I know about 50% of you are going to object.

Or at least feel a little squidgy about the concept.

You need to start compiling a portfolio.


Yes, you.

Okay, let's hear the objections:

You're not an artist you're just someone who likes to color and this stuff is just class exercises and it's only mediocre work at best because someday you're doing to do these projects again and it'll all be perfect then and you'll think about putting THOSE perfect projects into a portfolio but why in the world would I tell you this stuff is worth putting into a portfolio???

I know. Portfolios are something artists do.

Real artists. The kind who wear berets and striped shirts and have officially been licensed as artists by the Worldwide Bureau of Artists Who Do Real Art (that's the WWBAWDRA for short). 



Portfolios are not an artist thing. They're an everyone thing.

But here's the twist-

I'm not telling you to start a portfolio to protect your artwork.

That's a given. It's common sense; proper storage of your pile o' projects helps keep them from getting torn or dog-eared.

And yes, it's especially important to protect Copic, colored pencil, or watercolor projects from sunlight. Sunlight does do nasty things to projects sitting out in the open. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

That is not the reason why I want you to start binding your projects together in portfolio format.

Here's my ulterior motive: 


You will learn more from your own history than from any other source

And that includes teachers like me.

Do you have a pile of projects just sitting there? Boy, do we need to talk! |

I can only teach you a technique.

You have to discover how to use that technique to your best advantage.

It's a self discovery process.

You need the ability to look back at projects you did last month, last year, two years ago, and even the stuff from wayyyyy back when you thought Donny Osmond was hot stuff.

Your cache of work is a record of what worked and what went horribly wrong. It's a valuable learning tool.

Flipping through the pages of a portfolio is the ideal way to make observations and comparisons. You forget most of what you learn in class, I'll bet 90% of what I tell students is completely wiped from their brain within 48 hours.

But you knew it long enough to use it in the project. Seeing that project helps you remember. Seeing a good project next to one that failed helps you diagnose and prevent carrying that bad technique on into future projects.

Portfolios aren't just a collection of past projects, they're the key to success on future projects.


So what kind of portfolio system should you look for?

Easy is the best.

You want your portfolio to be as simple as possible, something that takes only seconds to house your projects.

We're trying to eliminate the tendency that humans have to stack stuff. The last thing that we want is for you to stop shoving your projects into a sketchbook and start shoving them into a "to be filed someday" pile.

Portfolio sleeved-books are an easy solution to storing your past coloring projects |

Back when I freelanced, I used to mat all my good stuff and slide it into an acetate sleeve, then the whole thing was bound into a screw-post style hard-bound booklet. I also had a digital portfolio where everything was professionally photographed and then stored on a website. And yeah, both of those portfolios styles are pretty much a beret-wearing-mustachioed artiste kind of thing. 

But this is what I do with my class projects now and this is what I'm suggesting.

Plastic cover presentation books with clear PVC sleeves inside.

There are two styles, one with the sleeves permanently bound, the other is more of a ring binder system (usually 5+ rings). The ring style make it easier to re-order your projects but the perma-bound style is more compact and easier to store.

Pretty much all portfolio binders come with black sheets of paper in each sleeve, so it takes only a millisecond to pop your project into an empty slot.

Mount your projects to cardstock before placing them into a portfolio binder |

If you're feeling fancy (and I do recommend getting fancy) you can center mount your project on a piece of cardstock before sliding it home. Projects mounted to the correct size cardstock are less likely to fall out later.

I use double sided tape but if you want something less permanent, consider using adhesive photo corners to hold your project down.

Crop your art in a manner that best shows it off. I prefer keeping things square with a guillotine trimmer but occasionally it's nice to fussy cut an image (especially if the finished project is close to the binder page size).

For smaller projects, you can mount two projects to a page.

The point is to keep it all clean and crisp looking. Don't mount projects on colored or patterned paper, you want the art to shine, not the background! Stick with gray or black for best results, and keep the entire book uniform, this isn't the time to show off your extensive collection of cardstock.


What about the exceptions?

Maybe some of you work large (or teeny-tiny). Good news, portfolio/presentation books come in many different sizes.

And for all you card makers, those who generously give away their best projects? I definitely recommend photographing or scanning your art before you work it permanently into the card and send it off to Timbuktu or Kalamazoo. 

The same holds true for those who make 3D items or work on alternative surfaces like canvas or wood. Your camera, even a phone camera can be a life saver.

and psssttt... if you're photographing your own handi-work, please resist the urge to do the card-making blogger thing. Don't photograph the whole entire card from a pleasing angle in front of a nifty backdrop with four props alongside. That looks great on blogs but we're looking to record the art itself, not memorialize your still-life-shooting skills. Take that photo dead-on with no angle, in good light and with crisp detail.


Begin your portfolio today and keep using it

You'll thank me later.

It's a valuable learning resource and it looks great on your coffee table!