Colored Pencil has certainly risen in popularity over the past decade with the advent of coloring books for adults.
It is a wonderful medium that is fun to use, relatively easy to learn, and is very relaxing.
Whether you are an avid colorist who wants to go to the next level, an artist who never really perfected the use of colored pencil, or you’re simply not quite sure how to use them artistically, this article will cover the basics to get you started.
But what is there to know? We learned everything in kindergarten, didn’t we?
Color evenly and always, always stay in the lines, right? Well, not exactly… Let’s get right to the point (see what I did there?) and discuss basic Colored Pencil techniques and uses.
A few basic rules to keep in mind:
- Use a paper that has a little “tooth” (texture) needed for layering colored pencil, 67lb at least.
- Avoid cheap pencils—they tend to have more binder than pigment and don’t layer that well.
- Work on a hard, smooth surface. If you don’t have a smooth surface, a clipboard will work well. (click here for info on the perfect drawing board)
- Always keep your pencil sharp for several layers. (click here for how to sharpen colored pencils)
- Rotate the pencil often, and get more life out of the point before needing to sharpen again.
- Work light to dark.
- Use workable fixative to preserve and lock in color.
- Have patience and enjoy the process—this is a slower medium, but the end results are spectacular!
Five Elements for Success
To be successful in colored pencil, you will need to understand these five elements:
- Hand positions
- Pressure variation
- Stroke techniques
How you hold the pencil will determine how you apply the color to the paper, which will produce varied
The overhand position (how you normally hold a pencil to write with it) will produce a finer stroke and uses mostly the end of the point. You would want to use this when rendering any smooth subject.
Conversely, the underhand position (holding the pencil so you position it under your hand) will allow you to apply a broad part of the lead, producing an “airier” look. If texture is what you’re going for, this is good for that.
Additionally, when you hold the pencil a few inches away from the point, you will create a lighter, softer stroke—good for the first layer. If you hold it closer to the point, you can increase pressure more easily to apply more pigment—good for later layers.
Pressure variation is very important. Learn this, and you will have a key skill in colored pencil art.
Generally, my technique is to always apply colored pencil lightly at first, using light pressure I call glazing. Then gradually, I increase pressure with each subsequent layer. If I’m going for a “painted” look, I will apply the final layer using very heavy pressure, which is called burnishing (more on this later).
TIP: I don’t recommend skipping layers and just going heavy at the start. If you apply heavy layers right off the bat, you will flatten the tooth of the paper making it more difficult to apply other colors. This results in unsatisfactory color mixes, and your application will look streaky.
Sometimes you will want to vary your pressure while you’re applying the color in order to create soft color transitions and blending. (More on that later).
Basic Stroke Techniques
There are three basic and common stroke types: back-and-forth ellipses using the point, the flat stroke, and the taper stroke.
The back-and-forth ellipses is the most basic and common stroke. It is a rapid, back-and-forth stroke that is elliptical and continually overlaps as you progress (in the overhand position).
Therefore, it is like you’re going two steps forward and one step back to cover an area more efficiently and evenly.
Further, you can vary the range of this stroke depending on the size of the area you are covering. The application should look even and dense, even though it’s light.
Thus, you will create a broad, textured stroke—not smooth. This stroke produces an “airy” application that looks looser and less dense, thereby creating a rougher, textured look.
The taper stroke is when you move the pencil on your paper in one direction (not back and forth).
Stroke it on in one direction and lift the point off the paper at the end of the stroke, creating a point on the end (or taper). You will want to use this for anything needing a taper at the end—grass blades, pine needles, fur, etc. (it’s really awesome; try it just for fun!)
As you cannot mix colored pencils like paint on a palette, you mix colors by layering right on the art surface to achieve rich tones, using at least two colors in any one area.
As a result, layering does add to the time-consuming nature of this medium, but is so worth it in the end. (Really!)
You should build up the first few layers lightly. Then you will need to gradually increase pressure to build up the color. You will essentially be repeating any color sequence you have established until it is fully saturated.
Additionally, as you layer, it’s best to try to stroke back and forth in one direction for each layer, and change stroke direction for each layer to fill in the “tooth” of the paper better. You will see the tooth gradually filling in.
To virtually eliminate the graininess, you will need to burnish (use heavy pressure). More on burnishing in the next section.
TIP: Even though the first layers will feel like coloring, be sure to pay close attention to how you are applying it. The first layers do affect how subsequent layers will look. For example: if you are going for a smooth, even look, don’t use the flat stroke.
Blending is a very important technique to learn to take your art from “oh that’s nice” to “WOW, that’s amazing!” (And who wouldn’t want to hear that about their art, right??)
And this is where pressure variation is key. In fact, I would say this is one of the most fundamental of the basic techniques for colored pencil. Master this and you will have achieved an important skill that can lead to amazing art!
Blending requires letting up on your pressure and fading where you want to end your color.
You can use blending when you are creating smooth, gradual transitions from one color to another, creating gradients, softening hard lines or edges (yes even slightly outside the lines!) and lightening a shadow as it fades into the light.
TIP: A great practice technique is to try going heavy to light and vice versa without stopping.
Another type of blending where you wish to create transitions is through the use of burnishing.
Remember burnishing is using heavy pressure. You can achieve this with the local color (the color you are using in area), a white pencil, or a colorless blender pencil (my personal favorite).
Through this process, you are essentially completely saturating an area with color and eliminating any remaining tooth of the paper.
Therefore, the tiny white specs virtually disappear, and you are left with a painterly effect. (Seriously, it looks so much like paint that people will say, “That’s colored pencil??!!”)
TIP: if you want a hard edge between colors, do not burnish back and forth over this edge. But if you wish a more blurred transition, by all means burnish away over color boundaries!
These basic colored pencil techniques will certainly help you get started.
Even with just following the guidelines and elements for success, you’ll be well on your way to creating more captivating colored pencil art, such as my primrose picture here. (Prints available here.)
And did I mention how portable and convenient this medium is? You literally can take it anywhere (OK, well maybe not everywhere but you get the idea!)
So, why not pick up those pencils today and get started? I’m guessing you will have fun and amaze yourself!
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. Your email address will never be shared.
Thanks for reading!
Have a colorful day!