Thursday, March 12, 2015

Experiments: Building up with light and color

Many artists start creating their pieces building up from light to dark. It can be a great way to gain depth and go step by step into the details, but in this post I want to talk about the opposite practice: building up with light and color. 
In some ways this method can be similar to a few printmaking techniques, where the artist creates the white areas from within a black canvas.

Playing with acrylics and positive/negative
One of my favorite children’s book artists is the Italian Simona Mulazzani, illustrator of picture books such as “I wish I had...” and “The Big Book of Slumber”.

She starts with a black background; slowly blocking shapes from black to light. Thanks to this black contrast her compositions are also full of vivid rich colors which enhance the beautiful fantasy in her images.
Page from Mulazzani's article "The Creation of an Illustrated Book" in "Le Immagini della Fantasia" Catalogue 2008, Sarmede, Italy

There are many other fun ways of creating pieces with lighter tones, such as using darker tones on top of an already dry surface with bright and colorful tones and drawing its surface with a dry (and often pointy) object while it's still wet. 
If you're using a surface harder than paper (such as wood) you can always use a knife for that.

Details from some paintings for the show "Animaginary Landscapes" at Tr!ckster Gallery, Berkeley, 2015

Playing with scratchboards and positive/negative
One of my favorite techniques for playing with the brighter tones is to create your own scratchboard. This process emulates printmaking without having to use a press.
Some amazing illustrators that use scratchboards are Remi Saillard (who taught me the beauty and fun of scratchboards), Beth KrommesThomas Ott,  and even Shaun Tan in “Tales from Outer Suburbia”

Illustration from "O Corbeau" by Marcus Malte, illustrated by Remi Saillard, Syros 2010 

Illustration by Remi Saillard

Illustration from "Cinema Panopticum" by Thomas Ott, Edition Moderne, 2005

"The House in the Night" by Susan Marie Swanson illustrated by Beth Krommes (2009 Randolph Caldecott Medal), Houghton Mifflin, 2008

Illustration from "Tales from Outer Suburbia" by Shaun Tan, Arthur A.Levine Books, 2009

Scratchboards can be bought, although I would recommend making them by hand. That way you can play and experiment with different colors and ideas.

Not too long ago I experimented with the following process:
1. I projected the final sketches in illustration boards
2. Then I painted with very liquid acrylic paints, creating liquid textures using colors of choice
3. I filled all the surface with oil pastels or crayons of the according color
4. After that I covered the greasy surface with Indian ink or airbrush ink
5. and once it was wet, I scratched it off with a good knife (Olfa is the best, it feels like butter).

Illustrations and process for the pieces in "Case" written by Chiara Di Palma, Il Gioco Di Leggere Edizioni, 2012

You can also check out Beth Krommes' process for scratchboard here

Lately I’ve been experimenting with watercolors and inks in the scratchboards. It’s lots of fun! My process is very similar to what I previously described, but it feels more spontaneous:
1. First use a cold press board/cold press stretched paper, draw the general lines of the piece
2. Then go crazy creating washes with watercolor and inks (Dr. Ph. Martin’s, Winsor and Newton, Ecoline)
3. Cover all the part you want to scratch with a white crayon (I like using the Caran d'Ache crayon, but any greasy crayon will do)
4. Paint the dark shapes with Indian ink or airbrush ink, playing with positive and negative.
5. Scratch the parts where you want to have some details, patterns, etc.
When you’re not planning exactly which color will be, some unexpected and fun surprises come in the way!

Illustration for Mandalah Mexico

To me is more natural to create dark shapes and build up with light, since I love to have bright and vivid colors in my illustrations. What do you enjoy the most? Dark on light or light on dark? How do you have fun with light and color?

I hope this little post gives you some ideas on how to create, play and overall, to have fun!

Thanks for stopping by!

Ana Aranda writes/illustrates for children and creates murals.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Twitter: @anaranda2
Instagram: @Anarandaillustration


  1. Thank you Ana for a glimpse into your process! I love the graphic punch your illustrations have, and I see how starting with black would achieve that quicker than trying to build it up later. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Thank you for reading Kathryn, I'm happy you liked the post! I love your work too! Happy creations :)