7 Colored Pencil Tips and Tricks

fabel-castell

While colored pencils may have been a medium you encountered back in primary school, their usefulness in fine arts shouldn’t be trivialized. Highly detailed and unique pieces can be made with colored pencils. Unlike other media from your schooldays, colored pencils give you extreme flexibility in color choice and precision. Through their unique blending abilities and interaction with the paper, the possibilities for what colored pencils can do will really open up if you follow these few tricks and tips below. Fair warning, however, is that these are a guide—like any craft, knowing what to do is barely half the battle. The real “trick” is focused practice. Taking the time to hone these skills through exercises will help you produce the work you’re striving for.

1. Work with the tooth, work in layers

The tooth of the paper refers to the tiny hills and valleys made from the paper’s grain. Colored pencils aren’t designed to be used on perfectly smooth surfaces, so it’s important to find quality paper with a good tooth before you begin.
Finding paper with a good tooth shouldn’t be hard, but it will take some skill to learn how to work with it. First, consider the angle that you hold your pencil. Rather than holding your pencil on its side to graze the peaks of the tooth, keep the pencil closer to the vertical, like you would when writing. This helps ensure that your sharp tip is making the most contact.
Next, aim for circular or oval-shaped strokes. When you zigzag back and forth, you create unbalanced color as you change direction against the tooth. Circles or ovals lead to smoother, more easily blended colors without leaving obvious stroke marks. Unless you’re deliberately aiming to crosshatch, circles will almost always create better coverage.
How hard you press is going to affect how much of the valleys are filled in. You want to begin with a light touch. Instead of smashing down on your expensive pencils and repeatedly breaking the tips, instead work in layers. The more layers you build, the bolder your colors will be. In addition, when you get to blending, if there’s more material layered on, it will blend more smoothly.
It’s also important when considering pressure not to smash the tooth of the paper. Pressing too hard will flatten the tooth completely, which could ruin the blending of your work. Of course there are times when you will want to smash the tooth—or brandish—but we’ll cover that below.

2. Know your colors

Understanding the colors you have and how they actually look on your paper is as important with colored pencils as it is with paint. Just looking at the color painted onto the wood or even the pigment inside will not tell you exactly how it will look on the paper.
The best way to know what you have is to create your own color swatches for your pencil sets. For each swatch, make a gradient on the paper you’ll actually be using (with more color on one side than on the other). This way on each swatch you can see how the color reacts in different quantities. Once you’ve drawn your samples, label them with the names on the pencils and keep them handy. This way there’s no guessing about whether you’ve chosen the right color. You can simply hold up your swatch and compare.
You can make them last longer if you organize them in groups (like “shades of green”), put them on a strip together, laminate them, and then bind them with a ring just like in a paint shop. Your colors will always be handy for comparison and you’ll know what each pencil is capable of producing.

3. Get good pencils

Artist-quality colored pencils are entirely different from what’s sold as school supplies. Although following these other techniques will allow you to create greater works with lesser materials, you want as much flexibility as possible from your pencils.
Most professional colored pencils are softer than their cheaper counterparts. When choosing a brand, the two biggest on the market are Faber Castell Polychromos and Prismacolor. The former is an oil-based pencil, great for making many layers. However, oil-based pencils are difficult to add light colors on top of dark. Prismacolor makes wax-based pencils. While that’s the same base that Crayola uses, these are much softer and better made. Wax-based pencils blend quite well, but the wax will build up at some point, making it difficult to add to. Their softness also makes them prone to breaking and difficult to keep sharp (which we’ll get to in the next tip).
Colored pencils can be bought in large packs or individually. When testing what works best for you, consider buying the same color from a few different brands to figure out which blends the way you like the most. You should do this before you invest in a 72-color pack for over 100 USD. Some artists even prefer the way oil and wax mix together, and will layer them on top of each other. Regardless of which is best for you, the professional quality pencils will blend so much better than the ones for children.

4. Keep them sharp

How sharp should you keep your pencils? If you answered “very,” you’ve got an edge up on this tip! A sharp tip leads to more control—both for fine lines and when filling in areas with your big circles. When the tip is dull, you need to push harder, and that pressure can ruin the tooth.
To keep them sharp you have a few options. Some artists recommend using a knife like an Xacto blade to keep the tip sharp. This allows you a lot of control, and minimal waste. These pencils aren’t cheap, so you don’t want to blast them all away on a mechanical sharpener. Other artists prefer mechanical sharpeners, however, because even though it eats away at your pencils faster, the softer pencils are less likely to break in the process. Remember, these are much more fragile than what’s sold for school children. Simply dropping them could fracture the inside of them (though it’s possible to fuse them back together with a little heat), so you want to take care with your sharpening.
The key is this: sharpen well, and sharpen often.

5. Learn the many ways to blend

Blending is what it’s all about with colored pencils, and there are plenty of techniques to try to get the precise smoothness you’re looking for.
First, you can go with solvents. Odorless mineral spirits work best for both wax and oil-based pencils. After you’ve built up many layers of color, brushing them with the solvent helps the pigment seep into the valleys of the teeth, blurring their edges and creating a natural look. Some pencil companies sell markers that contain a solvent as well, but be sure to clean them after each use before they dry out. Coupled with the solvents, tissue can also help smooth your work even further. But be careful—the tissue will also pick up a lot of the color, so you may need to go back over it and repeat the process to get the desired blend.
You can also use some pencils for the blending. For both oil- and wax-based pencils, the white pencil can serve as a blender. Going over your layers with the white will smooth the color and help fill in the valleys. However, with wax-based pencils, this will also lighten the color overall. Because of this, some wax-based pencils will sell a colorless blender specifically for this purpose.
In any case, blending works best after you’ve built up plenty of color layers. Don’t be afraid to mix different colors here too. The process is anything but fast—so be prepared to take quite a while to get the layers and the blend you’re looking for.

6. Burnish last

Remember how earlier we said to avoid pushing down too hard and smashing the tooth of the paper? That can actually be used to quite a strong effect. Known as burnishing, when you apply great pressure to the pencil, the color that comes out will be much darker and bolder. If you do this atop many layers, the area will be bolder as you fill in the layers, but it also aids in pushing previous layers into the valleys. The result is a little darker and could be a bit shiny, but there are plenty of cases when that’s an effect worth having.
Burnishing is always a last step. Once you’ve crushed the tooth, it would need to be sprayed with some kind of workable fixative to get a tooth back on. It’s much easier to save it for the last step.

7. Get your drawing right before you color

This final tip may seem obvious, but it’s an easy beginner’s mistake to make. In some media, it’s very easy to change the rough design and shift big pieces. With colored pencils, the work is all about layering, so you want to make sure your drawing is perfect before you start building up, because there’s very little you can change about it afterward. Focusing on precision early before picking up the color will allow you to spend more of your time getting those perfect colors right rather than fretting over proportions that are long since unchangeable.


(angle of the pencils, tooth of the paper, circles/ovals)

(layers, when to burnish or not, blending with odorless mineral spirits, keeping your pencils sharp, more about tooth—you want smooth, circles/ovals)

(Avoid burnishing until you want to, use a knife to sharpen to save money, white colored pencil is a blender,)

(make color charts showing how each pencil works and keep them handy, a solvent to blend with a brush, then careful to lose brush strokes with a tissue and add more layers if needed—Prismacolors (wax-based soft, bright), Polychromos (oil-based), combined, they mix really well because the wax would build a lot and become shiny with too many layers, together you get a lot more. also, oil-based won’t really go light-over-dark, but wax-based can. )

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

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