Colored Pencil Art - Jesse Lane -
Jesse Lane, “Abyss,” colored pencil on Strathmore bristol board, 39 x 28 in.

Jesse Lane broke from his tradition of realist colored pencil portraits to create “Abyss.” Here, he takes us into his drawing process.

The Making of Abyss

By Jesse Lane (

“Abyss” was inspired by the feeling of being in love.

The feelings of love engulf us.

Love makes us feel weightless. It’s magical. It means stepping outside ourselves into new territory and experiencing someone different from us.

However, love is delicate. Our emotions can spiral. We realize that to love someone means being vulnerable. Even if we’re careful, we can get hurt … so hurt it can feel as though we will never recover.

As confusing as love is, it’s something we live for. Whatever feelings we experience, they are often deep, like an abyss.

Colored Pencil Art: Creating “Abyss”

Pencils Used: Derwent Lightfast, Derwent Coloursoft, Derwent Drawing, Prismacolor, and Polychromos

“Abyss” is a turning point in my body of work. It began with a visit to an aquarium on my honeymoon … a time when I was thinking about love. The moment I discovered sea nettle jellyfish, my mind began to see them as a metaphor for love. I reflected on my experiences. Love is an incredible force that lives within us. Love is delicate, beautiful, and graceful. But it also means opening yourself up, and being vulnerable to great emotional pain.

Later on in my honeymoon, I began planning “Abyss.” At first, this new concept seemed far-fetched. I was more of a traditional portrait artist. I was nervous, but also deeply excited and motivated to explore new territory. I decided to go all in. I dove into a piece that would take over one thousand hours to complete.

I met with a model, Jackie Hardee. I took hundreds of reference photos of Jackie, making sure I had plenty of tight shots showing detail. For the shots of her face, hands, and body, she posed in a chair. Next, she lay on her back as I photographed her long locks of hair, fanned out around her on the floor. I placed a small cushion under her hair so it would sink and rise, as if flowing underwater.

I’d taken photos of the jellyfish on my honeymoon, using the camera on my phone. Hoping to get better shots, I headed back to the aquarium with a DSLR camera. This time, though, the jellyfish didn’t cooperate. They didn’t come close to the poses I’d captured before. I was able to get detail shots, but wound up working mostly with the earlier photos.

Next, I pieced the best photos together, making a collage in Photoshop. This step took two weeks. I went back and forth, aiming to design everything in the most graceful way possible. I mapped out where I wanted bubbles to rise.

Finally, I was ready to begin my drawing.

I work exclusively in colored pencil. At 39 x 28 inches, this was going to be my largest piece yet. I began by rendering a black area of the hands and face since that is my focal point. I always start with a small section of black to establish my values. I begin with the focal point, so — as the piece progresses — I know if anything else is overpowering it. I draw on white paper. I left a small amount of pure white in the hands and face, so they would have the most contrast. As I worked my way down the body, I started using darker highlights.

For skin tone, I established the values first, applying colors on top in a grisaille method. I made the edges of the body dark where they met the black background to blend them into darkness. I spent 30 hours rendering the black background. I’ve found that if I don’t do the black background all at once, a seam will appear where I stop working. I use a very light pressure to avoid scribble marks.

Going into this piece, I decided not be restricted by trying to create something that looked completely real. “Abyss” is more whimsical and imaginative than my previous photorealistic work. I wanted this to be my interpretation of underwater, almost as if it were a dream. I made the bubbles full of colorful reflections and saturated the colors of the jellyfish. I also added yellow shadows to the skin from the light passing through the jellyfish. There is a playful mood, which juxtaposes the seriousness of the model and the danger of the jellyfish.

My greatest difficulty was drawing the jellyfish, with their lacy, detailed tentacles. They curve and spin around on a path like a roller coaster, not to mention the red stringy tentacles flowing around the white ones. I quickly learned that in order to unify the piece, the whites would have to reflect the colors of their surroundings.

The last thing I did was add dark blue, working it into the hair and arms. I put dark blue in some tentacles as well.

This is one of my most challenging pieces. But it’s also my favorite. I finished it a few months ago, and it’s made an impact on me. “Abyss” took me into magical new territory, blending the borders of realism, surrealism, and romanticism.

Jesse Lane with "Abyss"
Jesse Lane with “Abyss”

Additional Colored Pencil Works:

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Adrenaline,” colored pencil, 40 x 27 in.

“Adrenaline” is about accepting loss and finding renewal. The body of water overwhelmingly crashes down around the man gracefully. To me, it’s acknowledging the fact that loss can, eventually, lead to new growth.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Face Reality,” colored pencil, 40 x 23 in.

In December 2016, I had my first solo show (also called “Face Reality”) at RJD Gallery in Sag Harbor, New York. The morning after the show closed, the gallery was destroyed by fire. Eighty-three works were lost, including five of mine. I decided to make a piece about starting over. This experience has stayed with me ever since. It showed me every day creating is a gift, because nothing lasts. Make the most of today.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Labyrinth,” colored pencil, 29 x 23 in.

“Labyrinth” was inspired by a haunting feeling of loss … and the road through it … hopefully to recovery. The man’s hands hold his head as he tries to regain a sense of self. Water runs down his face, suggesting healing. His closed eyes provide a sense of inner contemplation, as well as mystery.

I think there’s a labyrinth in all of us.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Echoes,” colored pencil, 30 x 20 in.

“Echoes” captures a moment of vulnerability. I made the eye a cold blue, to contrast against her warm skin tone. Everything in the composition circles around her eye.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “After the Storm,” colored pencil, 28 x 22 in.

“After the Storm” is a self-portrait. It has appeared on the cover of Artist’s magazine. Simplicity and design are two of the things I focus on most in my compositions. This piece is my simplest, placing the viewer face-to-face with a dramatic moment.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Manifest,” colored pencil, 30 x 20 in.

“Manifest” is an invitation for human connection between the subject and the viewer. It’s one of my more hopeful images.

Colored pencil portrait drawing
Jesse Lane, “Hypnosis,” colored pencil, 20 x 13 in.

“Hypnosis” was inspired by the idea of obsession. Sometimes I find myself fixating on certain things for long periods of time. It’s haunting in a way. People with minor roles in my life begin to dominate my thinking. While it’s insignificant to many, it’s a space we sometimes visit. “Hypnosis” is on the cover of Derwent Pencils’ 100 set of lightfast colored pencils

Photo of the artist Jesse Lane

Connect with Jesse Lane:
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