California artist Alyona Nickelsen uses odorless mineral spirits to dissolve some of the pigment in her colored pencil drawings, eliminating the pencil strokes and creating rich, luminous color.
by Lynne Moss Perricelli
2006, colored pencil,
9½ x 11.
Collection the artist.
Viewers are often puzzled upon first seeing a drawing by Alyona Nickelsen. “What medium is this?” they invariably ask. With the brilliant color and smooth surface of the drawings, most are surprised to learn Nickelsen’s medium is colored pencil. Attracted to vibrant color and painterly effects—but adverse to the odor of turpentine and the inconvenience of oil—the artist devised a technique in which she carefully blends some 20 to 30 layers of colored pencil and uses Gamblin Gamsol odorless mineral spirits to dissolve some of the pigment in the process. The result yields the luscious color and forms of the fruits and flowers that first caught the artist’s eye.
Like many still-life artists, Nickelsen finds her subjects in her everyday life: at the market or in her own kitchen. First she envisions the painting, then seeks out the subjects. Once she has collected and assembled all the items for a setup, she conducts numerous photo sessions over the course of several weeks, using different light effects and points of view. Using her Nikon 8800 digital camera, she takes hundreds of photos. “Most of the photos are useful,” she says. “Things are missing. So I eliminate some elements, change the light, do another photo session.” Later she can combine photos or modify them in Photoshop to achieve the composition she has in mind. This part of the process can take about a week, working eight to nine hours a day. “I first have to figure out what I want to show,” she explains. “Is it the roundness of the orange? The curling peel? And I have to make sure the colors are working together, that there is enough contrast. It’s a lot of trial and error, but sooner or later I get it.”
2005, colored pencil,
13½ x 12.
Collection the artist.
Once she has completed the reference photo, she makes a gray-scale study in which she focuses on perfecting the drawing basics and finalizes the composition, often modifying the elements of the photo to suit the composition. Using Saral wax-free transfer paper, she then transfers the sketch to the final surface. Next, she develops the background, first concentrating on the area farthest from the viewer and moving progressively toward the foreground. To preserve the highlights, she applies Winsor & Newton colorless masking fluid at this point. She then lays in lemon yellow or canary yellow to all the lighted areas to act as an undertone to the layers that she will apply on top.
A key aspect of Nickelsen’s technique is dissolving some of the pigment with a light wash of Gamblin Gamsol mineral spirits. She usually applies the Gamsol in the early layers to create an underpainting, but she also uses it—very cautiously—in later stages to assist in blending the colors. “The Gamsol does not change the tooth of the paper, and after it dries I can lay in more pencil,” Nickelsen notes. “It makes the surface smooth and painterly.”
|Ripe Point of View
2004, colored pencil,
8½ x 11½.
Courtesy Art Source
Gallery, Reno, Nevada.
Working from light to dark, much like a watercolorist, Nickelsen layers the colored pencil slowly. She relies on the translucent quality of her medium to gradually bring each form into a three-dimensional representation. She often uses complementary colors in the shadow areas to create a color vibration when the eye blends the colors, achieving a greater sense of depth. A small amount of fixative toward the end helps restore the tooth, and for the smallest highlights she uses an X-Acto knife to scrape away remaining pencil residue. A swipe of tissue removes any bothersome wax bloom.
Nickelsen is not particular about the ways in which she applies the pencil strokes. “I’m eliminating all the strokes anyway,” she says. “I can use heavy pressure, light pressure, or the point. It depends on what I’m doing.” To show a rough texture, such as an orange peel, she sometimes places a pumice stone underneath the paper and applies the pencil on top. This kind of rubbing saves her time and creates the perfect impression of a mottled surface. If she needs to remove layers to make a correction, she gently applies Scotch tape, then slowly lifts it off at an angle.
|The Color of White
2004, colored pencil,
10½ x 8. Courtesy Art Source Gallery,
The artist’s preferred supplies are Prismacolor colored pencils and Stonehenge paper. Occasionally she uses Derwent when she needs a harder pencil. She manages to store all her supplies and maintain her workspace in a corner of her bedroom. Under her bed, she says, is the perfect place for her paper. In drawers next to her worktable she organizes her pencils by color. A separate drawer contains the pencils for the current work-in-progress. Another essential item to her studio is her computer. An Excel spreadsheet keeps track of her pencil inventory, with categories for which pencils are in use, how many are left, and which ones to restock. A notebook next to her computer holds her color-mixing notes and test swatches. Entering about 15 shows a year, Nickelsen also uses the computer to track which slides have been sent out. “I’m my own manager and producer,” she says, “so I have to keep everything organized.”
Originally from the Ukraine, Nickelsen calls upon her childhood memories in creating much of her work. As a young girl she was particularly fascinated by the patterns of bright colors against dark backgrounds in the shawls women wore in folklore costumes. “I think about the dark backgrounds now as a symbol of hard reality and the bright colors as challenging it,” she says. “In my work, as a reminiscence of a child’s vision, I use the highest contrast, brightest colors, and seek the most realistic rendering possible for an eye-popping effect. So even a small artwork can attract attention from across the room.” Her attraction to ordinary items also stems from her childhood. “I had a whole collection of writings by Hans Christian Andersen,” she recalls. “In his stories he gave his characters an adventure, and at the end there was a moral. He had an incredible imagination and talent as a storyteller. I’m trying to do the same thing using the language of shapes and colors: to attract attention and tell a story with common things.”
2006, colored pencil,
13 x 9. Collection the artist.
Nickelsen’s recent success in juried shows—winning 16 awards in the last two years—points to her dedication to both her art and her career as an artist. Realizing the importance of entering shows and publicizing her work, she is attracting the kind of attention that will motivate her even more. This artist has found a technique that works for her, and even if they cannot believe her medium is colored pencil, viewers like what they see.
About the Artist
Primarily self-taught, Alyona Nickelsen began working in colored pencil in 2002. She has since won 16 awards in the last two years, most recently the Pauline Law Memorial Award for Graphics at the 93rd Annual National 2006 Exhibition at the Allied Artists of America. She lives in Aliso Viejo, California, and limited edition prints of her work are available through Art Source Gallery, in Reno, Nevada.
A former editor of American Artist, Lynne Moss Perricelli is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.