Drawing Natural Textures with Pens

A drawing done with micron and brush pens showing lichen and moss growing upon a tree.

I think of these little shards of the natural world as tiny places in their own right, exaggerated by art and ready for imaginative exploration. Micro-environments. If you’re interested in learning how I make them, read on.

Underdrawing

First I block in the major shapes I’ll be focusing upon. I love the shape of lichen. It’s like brains, or coral. They might only grow a millimeter or two each year, but they fill every nook & cranny of whatever they’re growing on. They grow on top of themselves and force themselves into strange knots & blossoms.

I’m using a pencil to provide guidelines for the initial pen drawing.

Though lichens, mushrooms, and other little natural gribblies can take almost any shape, I use reference pictures to ground the image in reality. I actually make considerable effort to stay accurate to the whorls & folds of the real organism (lichen is a symbiote involving a plant and one or more fungi… who knew?). I also move things around, simplify & complicate, and even grab material from other photographs, though. I’m using a photograph, but I’m not drawing it.

Here’s the main mass of lichen. All this will be erased and I do not try to convey volumes at this stage.

Here you can see all the lichen blocked in with a Sakura .2mm micron pen, then colored with the lightest color in the blue palette. Because the line work was so complicated, I did the lichen first, then came back in with the pencil and blocked in the tree bark & moss. Usually I render all the major shapes in pen before adding any color.

Here is most of the line work laid out in pen. Once all the basic shapes are rendered in pen I’ll erase the underlying pencil drawing.

Here I had to erase in stages because of the addition of color. I do not color over the pencil, as it can smudge and muddy the image.

It’s all pens from here on.

After the initial line work is completed I start adding color. Using Copic brush pens, I build up from the lightest colors to darker shades. Remember that once it’s on there you can’t take it off, so don’t darken something until you know it’s what the image needs.

I’m paying close attention to contrast here, including light-dark, complementary colors, temperature, saturation, and texture.

Here I’m using color to begin establishing volumes & light source. Brush pens allow you to create a watercolor-like effect with soft edges & beautiful translucent tones.

Now I’ve used colored micron pens to further differentiate the three types of surface represented in the image. The moss features tiny green rounded hatches which I rotate to suggest volume. The tree bark is shaded with reddish brown vertical lines. And on the lichen I’ve used very slightly rounded blue lines in all directions, again implying volume as well as shadow.

You can see the difference it makes when I finally start applying the black micron pen for shading and fine details. Everything begins to look more solid.

I’m reinforcing volumes with the same sort of lines for each different texture as before.

Here I’ve gone over all the main shapes using a .5mm micron, adding a hard shadow on the bottom of each raised element. This helps separate each component of the image. You can begin to see the various nubbins pop off the page at this point.

Now some hatching darkens shadows and roughens up the surfaces.

Before I finish the piece off, I look at the whole and find anything that needs balancing. By adding more of the red-brown tones in the left crease of the bark, I’ve reinforced the composition, drawn out the greens along the left edge, and addressed a sort of nebulous zone by creating a few hard edges.

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And that’s how I do it! I find the repetitive nature of much of it takes me to a quiet and enjoyable headspace. It’s intricate but not fussy. You can make changes as you go and the image will surprise you as it evolves.  Give it a try!

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If you’re looking for the tools I use, the linked images below will get you there, and you’ll be helping ToadChapel by buying through us.  Purchasing this way costs you nothing, but I receive a portion of the sale.

 

Sakura micron pens are the best for detailed line work.  Ink flows from them smoothly, never faltering and never pooling.  Sakuras produce a precise black line that does not require additional passes to darken.  I find the color markers great for adding brilliant splashes in a way that won’t make your artwork look cartoonish.

Copic brush pens (they’re actually double sided, with a brush on one side and a wedge on the other) feel like a watercolor brush in your hand, and they can produce similarly beautiful results.  Their fine tip can also serve for ultra-precise work.  Copics are refillable and the tips can be replaced, so, while they’re an expensive investment initially, they’re a lifetime purchase.

 

When I’m making these drawings I get into the mood and relax with the sound of falling rain or a babbling brook.  I’ve been enjoying this set recently.  You can’t draw lichens with death metal in the background!

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