Undercover White

Wafting” 36 x 28.5 cm. September 2019

During the previous fortnight while I worked on a commission of a Japanese lantern, I reminded myself of the principle of undercover white.  What do I mean by this?  The same colour (let’s say red) when mixed with white, results in a different pink/light-red depending on whether white is put down underneath the red, or over it.  The following diagram illustrates this…

The first swatch in the diagram is Caran d’Ache Permanent Red 061.  In the middle swatch I have put down a layer of Holbein Soft White 501 and THEN layered Permanent Red 061 over the top.  Notice how soft and glowing the result is – perfect for creating luminosity – as in lanterns.  The final swatch is the result of Permanent Red 061 underneath with Soft White on top.  This is the SAME red with white, but mixed in reverse order.  TOTALLY DIFFERENT!

In the above drawing “Wafting”  the entire area of the lantern has Soft White underneath.  White acts like a secret agent; Undercover White.  This method creates glow.

Four years ago I wrote a post about this use of white (which I taught myself) however after doing the current drawing, it seems like a good idea to repeat the lesson.  It is useful knowledge to have up your sleeve.

The delicate-red parasol in “Being There” also employed this technique.

https://juliepodstolski.wordpress.com/2015/02/12/the-power-of-glow/   –  the link to the first post on this subject in 2015.

“Good thinking, 99”.

In case it is still confusing here is another colour chart: –

The first column shows three primary colours; red, yellow and blue. In the second column I have put down a layer of white pencil directly onto the paper and then put colour on top. Compare this to the third column where red, yellow and blue went onto the paper FIRST with a layer of white over the top. Can you see in each case that the colour produced in column 2 is more luminous and bright than the colour in column 3?

Conclusion: The result of putting white underneath a colour is NOT the same as the result of putting white over the top of a colour.

Undercover white is not only a useful method for rendering neon, lanterns, and lamps. It can be used in a universe of subject matter – anything that requires a bit of zing.

Two small drawings in stages to illustrate my theory of undercover white.

“Art” a drawing shown in six stages. 6 x 9 inches.

I made two drawings, photographing them in stages, to show my undercover white process. The first work is on Arches Aquarelle hot-pressed (smooth) paper using Caran d’Ache Neocolor wax pastels and Luminance 6901 coloured pencils. The exercise was for the Colored Pencil Society of America publication “To the Point” magazine, November 2020. Click on the images to enlarge them for better viewing.

I took the source photo for the drawing “Art” in Paris. I had stood transfixed looking at a blue neon sign in an art gallery window which read, “The Liberation of Art”. At the time I had wondered to myself, “But what IS the liberation of art?”

Figure 1

Figure 1: What you see here is mostly paper without pigment on. The letters ‘art’ and any other patches of colour you can see already have white pencil underneath them. These are the areas that will be glowing in the finished piece. (At this stage all areas of colour you can see are made with Luminance pencil, not Neocolor.)

Figure 2

Figure 2: I lightly under-painted with Neocolor all the areas except for the lettering and the other small areas of colour already seen on Figure 1. Then I put the Neocolor away and only used pencils from this point onwards. After the underpainting I set the darkest tone with heavy-pressured Luminance.

Figure 3

Figure 3: With the darkest area in place, I began building up and intensifying other colours, not touching the letters ‘art’ for the time being.

Figure 4

Figure 4: There was a dance between blue and purple going on in this drawing. But what was blue and what was purple? Where did one begin and the other end? Blue and purple are so close to one another that whenever I adjusted one colour, I needed to adjust its neighbour. There was constant readjusting happening just as if I was putting ingredients into a recipe; a bit more of this, less of that, more, less, more – ad infinitum – trying to achieve exactly the flavour required.

Figure 5

Figure 5: At this point I built up the blues on the three letters. This was a matter of careful gradation; pale to deep blue on top of undercover white, trying to be even-handed at all times. I called the painting finished at this stage. But it wasn’t. It looked very much like the source photo I was working from, but it wasn’t glowing like it was supposed to. I wanted the painting to be a statement – “ART!” But it was more of a sigh – “ho hum…art”. So I put the source photo away in a drawer and rolled up my sleeves. It was time to leave the source behind – and see what I could do by myself.

Figure 6 – the finished piece

Figure 6 – the finished piece: I figured out the problem by turning the composition upside down. Sometimes I turn a work on its head or sideways in order to see it with a fresh eye or (another method) look at it reversed in a mirror. When I saw it upside down I realised that one half was working while the other half wasn’t. Why? The top half had the intensity I wanted – that strong contrast between pale blue neon letters and bottomless blue/blackness behind. The panel of colour on the lower half was wishy-washy, neither here nor there. It needed to be as intense as the saturated black of the upper half.

I made minimal adjustments to the word ‘art’ when I was fine-tuning the drawing, mostly adding more blue to the outer edges of the letters. The bulk of the changes were made outside of those letters. Once I altered the lower panel by deepening and enriching its colours, the neon lettering came into its own.

Problem solving can be like that, where the thing you thought was wrong actually isn’t wrong – but some other part is. Fix that other area and the initial thing which was worrying you suddenly and mysteriously works. That reminds me, another problem-solving technique is to cover a section of your work. Is the part you can still see problematic or is it not? Then move the cover around so that you are isolating different sections for critiquing.

“Super Dry”

The second drawing was composed from a detail of a photo I took in downtown Osaka. The composition shows part of a neon advertisement for Asahi Beer with some traffic signage on the left.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The first image of “Super Dry” shows the underpainting completed. I did the underpainting with Neocolor wax pastels except for the letters which were layered in white coloured pencil only. There is white Neocolor underneath the yellow area. I put yellow over the white Neocolor before taking the photo so that the word ‘dry’ (while still only in white pencil) could be distinguished from its surrounds.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The only difference between Figure 1 and Figure 2 is that in this one a layer of red pencil was gently worked over the white area of the letters. After the underpainting was completed in Figure 1 I finished with the Neocolor and from here on all else was (and will be) worked in Luminance.

Figure 3

Figure 3: More layering has taken place, especially in the dark area above the word ‘super’. Because I wanted the neon red to ‘pop’ I worked red’s complement – green – into the coloured panels surrounding the letters. From the top to the bottom of the artwork everything around those red letters contains green except the left-hand street signs.

Figure 4

Figure 4: At this middle stage of the work I was continuing the colour intensification process by methodically adding more layers of colour. I mixed the complementary colours red and green to produce the dark tertiary colour which surrounds the word ‘super’. Mixing any two complementary colours together (red/green; orange/blue; yellow/purple) make richer tertiary colours than, say, using one tertiary (for example grey) coloured pencil.

Figure 5

Figure 5: I worked on the traffic signs on the composition’s left side. Not influenced by electricity, these plain street signs didn’t need to glow. Their muted tones don’t compete with the bright red and yellow of the neon but drive your eye towards it. In fact there is an arrow directing your eye away from the left edge.

Figure 6: “Super Dry”

Figure 6: “Super Dry” is complete. Undercover white pencil was used on the lettering. Undercover white Neocolor was used on the bright yellow area. Although it is not obvious, there was liberal use of green all through the work to bring out the luminous red letter as much as possible.


A recent glow piece I drew is of a railway station at night. The title is “Europe Endless”. I show it in three stages. The first image shows the drawing fully undercoated in Neocolor II. It looks like you can see nothing but Neocolor, however underneath the white lamps and their yellow halos, the tracks, fence railings and circular signals there is a layer of white coloured pencil. Keep an eye on these pale areas because these are going to be the glowing areas in the finished drawing.

Neocolor II undercoat of “Europe Endless”

In the following image the top section of the drawing has Luminance worked over the top of the Neocolor but the lower part (the tracks) are still only undercoat. Note at the undercoat stage that when I put Neocolor on, I have not been overly careful. I use Neocolor with light pressure so it fully disappears under Luminance, therefore it does not have to be tidy.

Finally you see the finished work. The joy of the ‘glow’ genre is in the contrast between extremely light areas and the equally extreme inky dark areas. This is a simple composition which only took six days from start to finish (which is fast for me). While the shapes are uncomplicated and there is not much detail, the power of the piece is in the colour intensity and the contrast of electricity lighting up the night. Putting white pencil underneath the light areas increases their brightness immeasurably.

The Prettiest Star

“The Prettiest Star” coloured pencils, 23 x 23 cm. September 2022

In the past I have written about “undercover white” (Click on the underlined words to see the post). This is my method of putting a layer of white underneath colour to increase its glow and luminosity.

In this drawing I did something different – and for the first time. I put a light layer of grey underneath all of the surroundings (but not under the bird himself) before putting colour layers over the top. I did so because I wanted the background to be exceedingly muted. My hope was that the purple-backed fairy wren, with his pure un-greyed colours, would stand out from all the rest.

I drew the same bird several months ago. “Beautiful Bird” sold earlier this year but I liked him so much that I did another drawing of him for my April 2023 exhibition.

In the latest drawing “The Prettiest Star” (thank you, David Bowie, for the title) the bird is slightly inclining his head towards the viewer.

Here is the drawing I did last December. Both drawings are sourced from a photo-burst I took of him while he stood still for at least two seconds. Purple-backed fairy wrens don’t hang about for long.

“Beautiful Bird” December 2021

Neighbourhood Watch

“Neighbourhood Watch” Luminance pencils, 32 x 28 cm. March 2021

Biko, a fine feline friend of mine, watches the comings and goings in the neighbourhood from a table on a veranda in South Fremantle. As he observes others, so I observe him.

I’ve been using Neocolor II wax pastels to undercoat many recent drawings however “Neighbourhood Watch” is drawn with coloured pencils only. My method doesn’t change much whether my undercoat is with wax pastel or coloured pencil. First I block in the undercoat. There are already a couple of layers of undercoat on the wall in this image.

Luminance undercoat

When I am building up tones I decide early on that the deepest darks and the brightest whites will be on the cat’s fur so he will stand out from his surroundings. With this in mind I use my UNDERCOVER WHITE method on all the lighter (and white) areas of his fur. But I don’t use undercover white anywhere else in the drawing. It is the cat I want to glow, not his surroundings.

Surroundings mostly done. Cat still in undercoat stage.

Even though there appear to be dark areas under the table and in the bit of window behind the cat, they still are not quite as dark as what I save for parts of the fur. Though the window frame is kind of white, it is actually done in various greys because I don’t want it to compete with the fur.

So Biko sits on his throne looking out at the world. And when I have finished photographing him, I make sure I catch his eye so that he jumps down and comes to me for some stroking and scratching behind his ears.

Click HERE for my UNDERCOVER WHITE theory and method.

Europe Endless

Neocolor II undercoat of “Europe Endless” 23.5 x 20 cm. February 2021

NOW – February 2021: There are two albums I listen to which take me straight back to Europe. They are by German group, Kraftwerk, and are from the 1970s. One album is “Autobahn” and the other “Trans Europe Express“. The first track (no pun intended) on “Trans Europe Express” is “Europe Endless“. As I am working on this drawing, the tune of “Europe Endless” rolls into my head and brakes. It is the name I will use for my title.

Luminance coloured pencils going over the top of Neocolor undercoat.

THEN – July 2018: I am in Chamonix Mont Blanc. As I walk with my camera (having deposited Matthew in our hotel room) the evening sky blackens and a thunderstorm begins. While crossing a railway line I attempt to capture the glowing station lights and wet reflecting tracks before rushing back to a dry hotel, dodging lightning forks as I go.

“Europe Endless” completed. 23.5 x 20 cm. February 2021

This seems like a fitting drawing to finish off my exhibition collection. It tells me that even though I am having an exhibition in April, it is not the end of the line, merely a station along the way. The train, so to speak, will continue on after a brief stop, forever going to new places.

I pay homage to Florian Schneider who co-founded Kraftwerk. He died last year – but perhaps he only changed trains and is continuing his journey on another line.

Meanwhile the song fades, “Europe Endless Endless Endless Endless Endless...”

PS: “Europe Endless” is a drawing where I employed my theory of UNDERCOVER WHITE to help achieve glowing colours. If you would like to know more about using undercover white in your own work, I have explained my methods in the post UNDERCOVER WHITE

Perfect Partners: Neocolor and Luminance

Recently I have been sharing a method in Facebook coloured pencil groups which has piqued the interest of some of my peers; therefore, I have decided to write a post about it.

My method is to use Neocolor 2; a water soluble wax pastel by Caran d’Ache (I use it without water) as undercoat for coloured pencil drawings.

Putting Neocolor onto the paper before coloured pencils are applied speeds up the process of the drawing – which is especially good if I am working on a large picture.  (The drawing shown here is 33.5 x 48.5 cm.)  Anyone who uses coloured pencils alone to render big areas like sky or still water knows how tedious it is.  Neocolor makes the process faster and more pleasurable.

The texture of Neocolor 2 makes a welcoming cushion-like base for coloured pencil to relax into.  The pencil glides over Neocolor so much more readily than it glides over virgin paper.

I find that complicated areas (such as Venetian palace facades) cannot help but be simplified when the initial layer is put on with Neocolor.  You can’t be too fussy with this medium because it is never super-sharp.  (I use a knife to sharpen the pastel but even at its sharpest, it is kind of blunt.)  Therefore it attunes my brain to the main shapes as opposed to fiddly tiny details.

I use very light pressure when putting Neocolor on.  It is barely there – and yet it makes SUCH a difference to the surface texture.

Work in progress 1:  undercoat of Neocolor 2 before any coloured pencil is applied.

Because I don’t like holding a crayon-length instrument, I use a Fixpencil 0012 (also by Caran d’Ache) to hold it with.  I find this longer length much more comfortable for my hand and it gives me added control.

Applying Neocolor 2 (held inside a Fixpencil 0012).

If you’ve read other posts of mine, you’ll know that Luminance is my number one pencil.  However in the photo below you’ll see I’m blending using a Derwent Blender.  This blender is hard and dry.  There’s enough wax already in the Neocolor/Luminance mix.  It doesn’t need added wax in the form of a wax-based blender, so the raspy dry Derwent blender makes the perfect tool.  Once I’ve blended, that isn’t the end of it.  I can carry on adding more colour over the top; no problem.

Enter the Derwent Blender

The final image shows where I’m up to currently with the drawing.  In my opinion, the partnership of Neocolor with coloured pencil gives a soft painterly aesthetic which, to me, is delicious.

Work in Progress – as it was on 13th January 2020.
Work in progress – as it was on 18th January 2020

Postscript:  The drawing is finished on 24th January, 2020.  It is called “Most Serene”.

Most Serene January 2020

See also Art Materials page

See also Brush and Pencil post

Here is a step-by-step exercise to show my impressionistic technique using Neocolor and Luminance. I originally created the piece “Daydream” for Ann Kullberg’s COLOR Magazine. It is featured in the November 2020 issue. You can click on the images to enlarge them.

Source photo for “Daydream” exercise
Line drawing for “Daydream” exercise.

Working from a cropped photo I took of a maiko (apprentice geisha) I trace minimal lines onto a piece of Arches Aquarelle smooth paper, 9 x 7 inches. The lines are arbitrary for when everything is blurry where exactly does one draw the line? With no sharp tonal boundaries and everything merging the graphite guide lines may only be approximate.

Once I have my graphite lines on the paper I begin the undercoat process. This can be done purely with coloured pencils but I like to begin with Caran d’Ache Neocolor wax pastels. Neocolor’s waxy texture makes a nice surface for coloured pencils to go over. Because a Neocolor stick is a fairly blunt instrument it encourages me to work in a loose manner. As I put Neocolor on I simultaneously erase the graphite lines. I work with such light pressure that if I put a colour in the wrong place I can lift most of it off with an eraser.

Once the page is filled with Neocolor I bring in the coloured pencils. At this early stage I am working them over the Neocolor gradually intensifying the values. I am using light to light-medium pressure only. I still see this as a continuation of undercoat even though I’m now using pencils. My pencil work is reasonably free and non-fussy as I begin to build tone over the page. I lay white pencil over the pale pink kimono (but nowhere else in the drawing) because I want the maiko eventually to stand out from the rest of the drawing. The application of white will give her kimono a glow. I use the pencils in a vigorous way letting all manner of expressive marks show.

From now on it is a matter of layer-building. I mostly work with small vertical strokes however I use other directional strokes too. For instance on the path you can see that my strokes are diagonal – in tune with the perspective. I also use an all-over-the-place scribble which helps the diffused look. My scribble marks are gossamer-light however; no heavy-handed scribbling. (What is scribble if not a type of mark-making?) Stroke direction can also add to a feeling of movement. I want the maiko to look like she is rushing away from me so my directional strokes help to create that effect.

To create blurriness there is a lot of colour overlapping taking place. For example I push the pink of the kimono into the grey path and push the grey of the path into the pink kimono. Throughout the drawing I am pushing and pulling colours which constantly merges the boundaries between areas and objects.

Because this kind of drawing comes together from a distance I only sit down to work on it in the early stages. I work in an expressive way with my whole self. That is, I work from one end of the room to the other. The drawing stands on an easel. I walk up to it and away from it, putting a mark here, going away to check how it looks, going back to adjust, stepping back again to see from afar. It is action work. And as I go I continually adjust and fine-tune until at some point I think I am done.

“Daydream” is complete. What were my aims? I was seeking a mood, an impression, an atmosphere, in this case perhaps a sense of walking speed as well. The source photo was my jumping off point – or you could say it was my way back to the memory of that Kyoto afternoon.

An Italian Dream – technical note

How the drawing looked as a work in progress.

In “An Italian Dream” I wanted the colours in the foreground to be the most deeply saturated parts of the picture, being closest to the viewer. So I put Neocolor II wax pastels down as undercoat for this water/boat area. The sky, hills and buildings have no Neocolor underneath. They are rendered with coloured pencils only. Having wax pastels for the pencils to work into and over makes for a finish of delicious intensity.

“An Italian Dream” December 2020

How do I manage to do fairly detailed work at the undercoat stage with Neocolor? The answer is that I sharpen my Neocolors using the Faber Castell dual pencil sharpener. The larger of the openings of the dual sharpener fits Neocolor perfectly.

Currently (January 2021) I am working on a drawing of sunrise on the Grand Canal.

Undercoat stage with Neocolor II completed. Ready to begin with Luminance.

When you see the Luminance colour go over the top of the Neocolor undercoat, you can appreciate by comparing the coloured pencil with the pastel areas how lightly I use the Neocolor. Neocolor maps in the shapes with the lightest pressure. The Luminance going over the top does 95% of the work. Despite the light pressure of the Neocolor, its presence makes a difference – enriching the work as a whole.

Luminance making its presence felt on the left of the work.

The drawing continues – Luminance over Neocolor gradually moving from left to right across the buildings. Also I adjust as I go, for instance, intensifying the glow in the sky.

In the next image I am working on the building on the right. These are not its final colours; rather, it is perhaps half-way completed.

Finally, the finished piece, “Morning has Broken”. Ready for my April 2021 exhibition “An Italian Dream”. (You can have a sneak preview of all the pieces which will be exhibited HERE.)

“Morning has Broken” January 2021

February 2022: I photographed another drawing in stages. Here are six stages of “Box Seat” .

Stage 1: Neocolor undercoat covering everything except bird.
Stage 2: Bird undercoated with coloured pencil only.
Stage 3: Starting to build up layers with pencils on lower part of drawing.
Stage 4: Coloured pencil layers moving upwards and outwards over undercoated Neocolor.
Stage 5: The picture is at a stage now where I decide to begin on the box seat and bird.
“Box Seat” the finished drawing. Because the bird is drawn using coloured pencils only (no Neocolor undercoat) he stands out from the rest of the picture. Also I used my technique of Undercover White to make the bird glow.

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Feedback, Questions and Comments

I love to talk about art. I am keen to discuss and share drawing experiences. If there is anything you would like to know or discuss, please get in touch.  Chances are other people will be wondering the same things that you are. It is really useful when using coloured pencils to know about colour […]

Art Materials

Choosing art materials is as personal as choosing friends.  What works for me may also work for you.  Here is a page showing you the art materials I use for my drawings.   Some of my drawings are 100% coloured pencils while others use wax/oil crayons combined with coloured pencils. SCROLL TO THE END OF THIS […]

About Julie Podstolski

Welcome to my blog!  Here is a short introduction to my art career.  Born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand, I studied art at University of Canterbury in Christchurch,  gaining a Diploma of Fine Arts (3 year course) with a major in painting.  I graduated in 1980. I moved to Australia with my husband in 1982.  We thought […]