Colored pencils are among an artist’s greatest tools. Offering the look of a painting, with deep, rich color and shine, but with far more control, colored pencils enable artists to create detailed and amazingly natural looking artwork.
Choosing the Right Colored Pencils
Let’s start with the basics. Colored pencils are just what they seem: wooden shafts filled with colored pigment. The pigments are either wax- or oil-based. Different manufacturers utilize different combinations of pigments, additives, and binding agents in their pencils. Most colored pencils are wax-based, but try both to see which you prefer. Wax-based pencils are easier to lighten and also blend and layer well. Oil-based pencils are a bit harder to find, but are more durable, easier to sharpen, and offer a unique texture.
You can also choose colored pencils with hard or soft lead. Hard lead is best for the beginning of your drawings—their fine points make cleaner lines and edges and can be sharpened to a very fine point, making them perfect for detailed work. Soft lead contains more wax and is better for color work, layering, and blending.
Tips for Sharpening Colored Pencils
A note on sharpening: since the pigment in colored pencils is made of wax or oil, you may want to use an inexpensive hand-held sharpener as the wax (or oil) can build up and ruin expensive sharpeners fairly quickly. To sharpen with a hand held sharpener, insert the pencil, and turn the sharpener in complete circles around the pencil until you achieve your desired point. Turning and rocking the pencil back and forth can damage the pencil. If you’d like to use an electric sharpener, hold your pencil steady, sharpen only a few colored pencils at a time, then give the sharpener time to cool off before beginning again. As an electric sharpener heats up, it can soften and “grab” the wax core of your pencil and pull it out. Run a regular, graphite pencil through the sharpener every so often to clean the blades.
Colored Pencil Techniques & Examples
Using colored pencils is fairly intuitive, but there are a few techniques to note:
Cover an area with tiny dots of color to add texture using this impressionistic technique. Experiment with stippling using both dull and sharp pencils for varying results.
Add a series of parallel lines to create texture or to add shading to an area. Sketch the lines close together or far apart for differing looks.
Add a second set of parallel lines, going in the opposite direction, over your hatched lines to create shading.
Back and Forth
Move your pencil back and forth across your page, without lifting it, to cover the paper with solid color.
Move your pencil in a circular motion, without lifting it, to cover the page with solid color.
Layering, Mixing, and Blending
Layer shades of the same color—or opposite colors—for a more natural, realistic look with more depth. It’s important to layer colors in steps, rather than trying to put down heavy layers of color at once. Remember to layer colors to create custom shades, rather than using a ready-made secondary colored pencil. This will give you a more natural effect. Once you’ve got your color and shading complete, blend hard edges with a colorless blending pencil. These wax-based pencils blend and soften edges without adding additional color.