Colored pencils are one of the most approachable artistic media. In most cases, all you need to get started drawing with colored pencils are the pencils themselves and a piece of paper.
What actually is a colored pencil?
Colored pencils are composed of a core of colored pigments protected by wood casing. While graphite pencils typically use clay as a binder, colored pencil pigments are bound with wax or oils, as well as other binding agents and additives. These binders to help the pigments move and blend smoothly across the paper.
A Quick Background on Colored Pencils
Early uses of colored pencils throughout the 19th century were for checking and marking, to add a contrastive color for marking up documents in graphite or black ink. Red and blue colored pencils, for example, were particularly used by newspaper and print editors for marking up drafts.
By the early 20th century, the general production and use of colored pencils for the specific purpose as an artistic medium was well underway. In addition to finished colored pencil artwork, colored pencils are often used by hand-illustrators, since they are easier to erase than other media.
Choosing Your Colored Pencils
When looking for the best colored pencils to suit your needs, you’ll find two primary categories: artist grade and student grade colored pencils.
Artist grade are high-quality pencils most often used for professional or finished works. These pencils will have a higher concentration of quality pigments. They will also be more “light fast”, meaning that the pigments won’t fade over time when exposed to light. They might also be less fragile and prone to breakage, particularly in the core. Additionally, artist grade pencils, both wax-based and oil-based, will tend to be more water-resistant than student-grade pencils. Nonetheless, these colored pencils are more expensive and can set your art budget back.
Student grade colored pencils, on the other hand, tend to be lower quality but great for practicing. They might not be as erasable, and they are most often not light-fast, meaning they will fade over time when hung in the sunlight. They are great for the pages of your sketchbook as you work on composition and techniques.
These aren’t the only differences, though, and colored pencils can vary greatly from brand to brand. It’s worth it to do some experimenting to find a brand that you like and that works well with your artistic style.
Key Colored Pencil Techniques
- Layering - Layering is a technique and begins a colored pencil drawing. The idea is to create different tones on your page by using only primary colors at the base of your drawing. When layering, you will gradually build up the tone, using soft layers one on top of the other. Colored pencil drawings that use only layering will often gain texture from the paper’s texture and tooth. A finished piece might have a grainy, soft, or slightly fuzzy look.
- Burnishing - Burnishing is generally practiced once you have a few layers of colored pencil on a page. This technique can help minimize the appearance of pencil strokes. You can do this with a colorless blending tool or a light-colored pencil. Use the blending tool firmly against the paper. This will smooth out and mix your colors while also producing a shiny surface. This technique will most often obscure the natural grain of the paper, since it presses the pigments deep into the grain.
- Roughening - This is a technique that will allow you to create a textured surface as you draw or shade. To do it, place a textured or rough paper below your drawing paper. Use a smooth object to rub your drawing paper against the rough paper. This will give your drawing paper some texture. Now, draw over the texture, and the colored pencil should visibly shade the design.
- Scoring Patterns - Scoring can be a creative way of making highlights or lighter patterns in your drawing. To try it, you’ll need tracing paper or some other see-through or transparent paper, as well as a pointed pen that you can use to press with. Use the pen on the paper to create an impression that will make a scored texture, allowing your lines or patterns to be lighter than other areas. To do this, place your tracing paper over the area that you want to score. Using a medium amount of pressure, draw the desired line or pattern into the transparent paper.
- Color Blending and Fusing - This is the process of physically blending together the pigments of the colored pencils. You can blend the pigments with solvents or using a blender, often a colorless blending pencil. This will mix and blend your two colors into a single color or allow you to create a gradient.
Colored Pencil Tips and Tricks
- Pressing harder with a colored pencil will intensify the hue by adding more pigment, but it will not darken it. The best way to darken a color is to layer a slightly darker neighboring color over it.
- Mix colors to create the hues, tones, and shades that you want. You won’t have the perfect pencil in your box for every color that you want to render on the paper. You’ll need to create some of these colors by thoughtfully blending and mixing the colors you do have.
- Be patient and layer your colors. This will always help you to develop more depth from your image.
- When layering colors, try out darker blues or darker browns before shading all the way with black.
- If you draw softly with your black colored pencil, you can still layer over top of it to give the color a more interesting shade.
- You can often lighten a color by layering pigments over it, using a lighter version of the color or lighter color neighbor. Remember you may need multiple layers for this.
- Use a brush to move pigments, blend, and help the pigments to fill in the white spaces caused by the tooth of the paper.
- When shading, hold the pencil sideways to shade with the broadest edge of the pencil lead. This will help you to keep your layers light, smooth, and controlled.
- Use a hand-sharpener and make sure it doesn’t have a dull blade. Colored pencils can be fragile, and you want to use as much of the pencil as possible for your art. It can be frustrating when a pencil breaks int he sharpener, so keep yours honed.
- Think about the tooth of your paper before you begin a drawing. If you’re drawing on rougher paper, this will change how you plan and implement your techniques as well as how you embrace the paper’s overall texture.
Colored pencils are a very versatile artistic medium. They’re easy to carry around and use anywhere that you are. You can create complex colorful images with them, go monochrome and focus on your shading, or draw soft pictures and illustrations. Try out a few techniques and see what you like!