One artist I have been admiring recently is Ester Roi, the inventor of the Icarus board.
She has mastered the encaustic-like technique of blending colored pencils on a heated drawing board. I have not. So I set out to study her techniques to help me improve.
Ester is an Italian-born colored pencil artist, who teaches on her techniques in Southern California where she also works and lives.
Ester is most well-known for her colorful, up-close pebbles under moving water. Pretty much she likes anything immersed in water and loves drawing movement in her large-scale colored pencil pieces.
Her invention, the Icarus Board, is a professional-grade drawing board that heats up to melt wax-based pencils or crayons so they glide smoothly onto artist paper with little effort.
The Icarus board is a breakthrough for artists suffering with arthritis or other ailments in their hands because her technique greatly reduces the need to burnish colored pencils to blend them.
I am one of those artists, and we all know burnishing means sore hands later.
I didn’t want to give up colored pencils so I have been on a quest to find better ways to achieve seamless blends without burnishing.
Icarus Board features
The board, which is used to sort of liquefy wax-based pencils, is a hefty price and not one most poor starving artists will want to dish out immediately.
A 14” x 20” board costs $289, a 20” x 26” board costs $359, and the deluxe 22” x 28” will set you back $389.
Although the Icarus board is not astronomically priced, it is definitely not a spur of the moment purchase either.
The board has both a cool and warming zones with a heat dial that ranges from minimum to maximum (numbering 2 to 9).
Those heat settings are very important to control how fast the pencils melt and what techniques you can accomplish on the board.
You really aren’t limited to the techniques you can use with the board. When the board is cold, you just go about your business and draw on the board as you would any other substrate surface i.e. plastic or brown drawing boards, etc.
However, when you heat the board, the magic happens.
The primary pencils I have seen artists use on the Icarus board are Prismacolor and Caran D’Ache Neocolor II watersoluble. Ester has more recommendations that you can check out on her FAQ page.
CP artists, the good news is you may already own many of the supplies you need to get started in this technique, and you don’t even need to wait if you are willing to go outside the box – or in this case should I say the board.
Rigging up my own cheap “Icarus” board alternative
Upon recommendation from a friend, I purchased a warming tray that is way less advanced but works on the same principle. Here are some of the pros and cons on using a warming board versus the Icarus.
Warming trays are much, much cheaper. I got mine for less than $15. You can pick up new warming trays online from $50 to $300.
Most people are finding older devices from the 70s at garage sales and thrift shops. The Frugral Crafter, a You Tuber who frequently used colored pencils on her instructional videos, picked one up for less than a dollar.
Beyond being just plain ugly and clunky, warming plates are a good alternative to find out if you even like this technique.
After all, Ester started out by warming up cookie trays in her oven and experimenting on the back of them.
Can I digress to say, “Boy, are those warming trays ugly!” I’m a 70s child, but I have never liked the brown, yellow and rust combo that was epidemic in 70s design.
They are also a potential safety hazard. Make sure you check out your thrift store find to ensure it is electrically safe and please don’t leave the device plugged in and unattended.
Temperature regulation is an issue here. With a warming plate, you are guessing the entire time on how far to turn up or down the dial. There are no numbers to keep you on track and help you to remember the particular settings you prefer.
I guess you could use a marker and draw a slash or a star on the warming plate dial where you find it most comfortable to heat the pencils without completely chewing through them and turning everything to one big, melty mess – as I did.
My first time using the warming tray
…was a disaster!
I didn’t have the recommended Neocolor II watersoluble pencils lying around and had to order them.
So I thought I would experiment with my Prismacolor pencils I already had in the meantime. If you are looking for a wow factor using Prisma(s) by themselves on a warming board you aren’t going to get it or at least not in my experience.
On Ester’s videos, she clearly recommends laying a base color down with Neocolor and then layering Prismacolors over top. So I was forewarned.
Of course I didn’t listen and frustration ensued.
Since I didn’t have the Neocolors, I thought why not let me start with regular old Crayola crayons, and oh yeah, they melt. But, I quickly found out the color pay off isn’t so great on non-artist grade crayons and pencils.
Although it is fun to watch the Crayola crayons melt into an oil slick across your surface (or at least I did), it really doesn’t get you the effect you want.
As I said earlier temperature regulation is an issue on the warming plate. My warming plate seemed to get way too hot after a long torturous lag time to heat.
Then I would almost burn the Neocolor onto the paper. The Neocolor crayons almost seemed to curdle like scorched milk, so I would get scared and turn it down.
Consequently, the plate would get too cold and nothing blended. So I would crank it up again and the process started all over.
My husband says I do this extreme back and forth adjustments with the heat and A/C dials as well, so this might just be a Melissa thing.
Second time using warming tray
When the Neocolors arrived in the mail, I eagerly busted those puppies open and started chewing through them. Because of course, I had the heat level too high again.
Neocolors aren’t extremely expensive but they aren’t as cheap as regular crayons either.
So it was back to square one for me, and I sat down to watch Ester Roi’s mussel video series again.
It really does pay to rewind her videos several times to catch all her tips to work in this method.
Ester advices you to block in colors on the cool zone with the Neocolor crayons. I like that idea because you can add various colors together to create interesting blends (check out how she creates the background on her mussel video) but for whatever reason I couldn’t seem to get enough crayon coverage while drawing on a cold surface.
Also, the Neocolor crayon tips are wide, and I couldn’t find a pencil sharpener that would accept the wide core and sharpen it to a point.
So in my opinion any type of nuanced application of color isn’t really going to happen with those crayons.
I ended up wiping off excess clumps of the crayon, which is like throwing money right down the drain.
So I am still figuring out the balance and suspect I will for a while.
Final diagnosis: I am optimistic and pushing on
I will continue to use the warming tray I picked up at the thrift store, especially when I am color blocking.
One of my favorite artists is Georgia O’Keeffe, who used big bold colors in her oil paintings. I really think the Neocolor II crayons are great for replicating her pieces or creating any abstract art work.
The crayons make fast work out of laying down color versus using traditional colored pencils (polys, Kohr or prismas), which are extremely tedious to lay down large areas of color.
So that definitely is a pro for the encaustic technique using either the Icarus board or warming plate.
I am very interested in what will happen when I receive her recommended color shapers in the mail.
If you watch closely in most of her videos you will see her using what she refers to as “color shapers.” They are actually tools used to shape clay. Make sure you don’t buy the soft clay shapers either; the plastic tips just melt on the warming surface.
When I rewound her video, she actually suggests using the black or gray hard-tipped shapers, which are a little harder to find.
I found the blending stumps just didn’t work well for me at all on the thrift store warming plate. They worked somewhat to blend out my Prismacolor pencils after I had tons of layers built up but it did nothing but create weird streaks on top of the Neocolor II crayons.
I discovered through trial and error that cheap paint brushes actually blended out the Neocolor II crayons and left me with a smooth, glasslike surface but it still ate up a lot of product getting the crayons on thick enough to blend with a brush.
Now I am having problems getting the Prismacolor to lay over top the thicker Neocolor II crayons.
So this method is a definitely a learning curve but I am enjoying the journey.
I have to remind myself great art takes time and to mindfully give myself permission to mess up in order to learn. Otherwise I would never start in the first place because as you can see my first attempt was downright ugly.
Here are a few tips and tricks I picked up along the way.
– This sounds simple but learn all you can about this technique before you go rushing in to try it out. Watch Ester’s films about the Icarus board on You Tube. She is a really good teacher, and she is still the queen of this encaustic-like technique…at least I haven’t come across another artist that rivals her yet. I also included links below to two other artists trying out the technique.
– Place a folded towel under your hand as you work or you will burn your hand and forearm guaranteed.
– My own personal tip is to use a pair of Copper Hands gloves (a As Seen on TV product) or any kind of thin gloves with the tips cut off. Wear the gloves on both hands to minimize burns if you accidentally do touch the board. Artists, this is also a great time to slather on moisturizer to repair dry and cracked hands.
– Have everything you need ready to go. That means Q-tips, color shapers, paper towels, cotton balls and blending stumps within arm’s reach. Essentially this technique can turn really messy fast if you aren’t ready blend and fix mistakes at a moment’s notice without running to another room to get supplies.
– Remember to have fun watching those gorgeous colors slide across your paper and think about hard it would be to achieve that dense of a color build up with traditional colored pencils. Then keep on practicing.
My final analysis
If you have the money to purchase the Icarus board, I think it is worth the price.
However, if you are on the fence, then go on the cheap and experiment with a warming plate until you save up. You cannot loose either way.
- – Purchase a new Icarus board at http://icarusart.net.
- – New warming plates: If you type in “warming plate” into Google shopping, you will get several new options from $50 to upwards of $300. You can check out some suggestions at http://bit.ly/21rGQjB.
- – Clay sculpting/color shapers at Amazon: http://amzn.to/21rHnSC
- – Caran D’Ache Neocolor II watersoluble at Amazon: http://amzn.to/1LmNV30
- – Prismacolor pencils: Amazon, Jerrysartarama, Dick Blick, etc.
- – Q-tips and cotton balls
- – Blending stumps
- – Viva paper towels
- – Wet wipes
- – Hand towel: purchase anywhere; don’t spend a ton of money they do get wax on them
- – Paper towels: I suggest Viva towels which have less fibers in them to get caught up in the wax or your taped board
- – Paper: Ester used ColorFix paper on the mussel drawing but experiment to see what meets your needs. I just used some drawing paper I had laying around.
- – Icarus techniques: http://esterroi.com/artist/technique
- – Learn the latest colored pencil techniques at Colored Pencil Magazine on their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ColoredPencilMagazine/ or purchase back issues of the magazine at http://coloredpencilmag.com/issues/. You can also download a free sample issue to read at your leisure.
- Ester Roi’s mussel instruction from start to finish on Icarus board: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL75386B7DA7301F61
- Watch Wendy Layne review the Icarus board at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukSCW0mQoo4.
- The Frugal Crafter Lindsay Weirich tries her hand at encaustic techniques with colored pencils on a garage sale warming plate at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PPWHOWN7E40.
I would love to hear any techniques you have picked up using either the warming plate or Icarus board. Leave them in the comments below. I am sure other CP artists would love to read them as well.
#Coloredpencilfail #workinprogress #CPturnuptheheat
Melissa LeGates is a professional freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist. She specializes in long-form features and loves to write about living a victorious Christian life, art and health.
Melissa is an avid blogger and currently maintains three blogs:
– PTSD/my first book “Set My Captives Free” launch at http://setmycaptivesfree.wordpress.com
– Writing career at http://melissalegates.wordpress.com
– The world of colored pencil art and artists at https://coloredpencilenthusiast.wordpress.com.
She and her husband live in Delaware. In her free time, she is a student of colored pencil, watercolor, acrylics and oils.
You can contact Melissa at email@example.com.
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