I made a tentative foray into dry colour media in June 2019, and haven’t looked back since. The move seemed balanced on a sharpish edge, with one side arguing “keep specialising!”, and the other yelling “expand your services!”

Without a control scenario, it’s never easy to tell which would have paid off better. Being boxed in by one medium seems to have its pros and cons – I know people who have made a sustainable living as a result of being known for one particular thing. I’m also sure they love their work.

But, to extrapolate the “con” side, if I were to work on an assembly line, doing exactly the same thing thousands of times a week, I’d lose my mind! (As I say, I extrapolate – I don’t mean that to sound reductive at all.)

I felt I’d reached a sort of zenith (by my standards) upon completing “Woman” (pictured below) – drawing upside down to focus only on the shapes and patterns instead of my own interpretation of things, spending around 140 hours tending to every last detail.

Woman Street Photo II

It seemed any extra smidge of quality I could have hoped to look forward to (without scaling up to tackling enormous pieces I just don’t have the room for) involved an awful lot more recursive, tedious practice, so I decided to future-proof against any potential feelings of boredom or stagnation by branching out instead.

As I might covertly joke now and again about the irregularity of demand, “I’m not in this for the money”, but this is actually as true as I can afford it to be. I’d sooner enjoy variety every day than have spending power I’ve lived happily without exercising so far. If I ever have any money, I put it away. Probably for nothing in particular.

Also, since this is my career, medium- and long-term plans need to continue to take shape for the course of the next 30-40 years.

Despite recent evidence circulating the topic of “neuroplasticity”, which proposes we can spread the natural apex of our learning abilities through brain training, one thing I want to ensure is I also take full advantage of the tail-end of that traditional apex. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about during my long sabbatical from standardised education, or any form of professional development, and tipped the decision firmly in favour of “expand”.

While I was waiting for my full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils to arrive (there’s not much “trying it out” where I’m concerned – make the decision, and stick with it!), I scoured YouTube for all I could learn about colour pencil.

This proved very useful indeed. But, just like at school, there was no amount of theory and pondering of techniques that could replace good old-fashioned first-hand practice. I took to it fairly well, using those tutorials viewed but leaning heavily on whatever graphite skills I already had, making the European Kestrel drawing you see below:

Colour pencil drawing of a European Kestrel

Reference photo credit: Neil Goss.

I also branched out into dry-brushed charcoal, pastel and acrylic.


I’ve spoken to several people who were on the fence about expanding, and my advice here is to ask yourself how much you want to learn, how much space you have for new supplies, how much variety you’d like and your attitude towards being proficient.

[I’ll cut into this with a note on diversifying your services themselves. You might wonder whether to start a Patreon, offer workshops or other forms of tuition. Make sure you have designated enough time on a regular basis to spin those plates, as it really is a commitment. Successful Patreons in particular are subscription-based, so your patrons will expect regular, compounded content as their skills progress. The only reason I haven’t made a Patreon (…yet?) is that I want to be absolutely certain I won’t under-deliver before committing. If I’m being trusted and paid for such content, I’ll be doing it all the way, with a strong base of content from the off, and no half-measures.] 

If sitting at the drawing board is time you use to let your mind wander, be present with your chosen medium, or even switch off, free from the stresses of your job, you may think it’s worth securing your perimeter and sticking with one medium.

Or as a full-time artist, if you’re enjoying healthy levels of paid work and recognition in your existing space, you might also worry about diluting that. I’ve found there to be no drop-off in demand, with most new customers opting for my new commission types. It’s certainly also opened up glorious avenues of discovery in my portfolio work. The most vibrant or iridescent reference photos I’ve used of the natural world may have been a little wasted on renditions in graphite.

You can keep wondering, or you can at least give it a go. It won’t break the bank to buy 12 pencils and a few sheets of different paper.

If you’re like me and want to pre-empt your potential lack of willingness to commit, buy a big box of the best tools. An attitude I’ve always found helpful is “jump, and the net will appear”. I won’t reverse a decision if I make such a thing unaffordable!

If much of your enjoyment of the task is being proficient at it, just erase the idea that you’re a beginner, even if you are one. I’ll never forget what a barman said to me one sweltering evening down in Bath in June 2017, as I was considering a sheepish foray into home-brewing beer and pecked at him for info. He said “just start at expert level”. However personally limited my version of that attitude might be, I’ll take that sentence to the grave as it nearly made me fall out of my chair. Pioneering, spirited, iron-willed. Kind of unforgettable, isn’t it?

Tighten the learning curve by finding out everything you can, get out of your own way and stride along confidently. That said, make sure you DO as much as time allows. Don’t let the theory of something get in the way of actually taking action – an all too common mistake of mine. 

Just apply knowledge with a healthy regard for what you haven’t tried yet, going at whatever speed with which you’re happiest. It’s never, ever a mistake to tread lightly when using dry media, as you’re almost guaranteed to recover from any errors, if they’re noticeable at all!

Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, however quickly it comes. And it will indeed come if you keep at it. Your skill level, regardless of the discipline, is a function of how much time you’ve spent building it. Have faith in this above all else 🙂


  • Linda says:

    Thank you, this was perfect! I received notification that the Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils that were backordered are on their way. I am starting late in life, and am enjoying the graphite, (I began drawing again less than a year ago while recovering from surgery, set up my website in June). Your attention to detail is amazing, and the Kestrel is beautiful.
    Money is the hard part. Thank you for your insight. I saw this quote yesterday, and it made me think of so many of you, opening up and sharing your talent and knowledge: “Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more”. Thank you!

    • Alex Fleming says:

      Thanks very much for your kind words, Linda! I’ve just been to your website – heck of an amount of progress in under a year, and the site is lovely. Well done!

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