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 has been touted as being 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) made for layering colored pencil, 67lb at least.
- Avoid cheap pencils – they will not be pigmented well and won’t layer that great.
- 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 to 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
Successful colored pencil art is rendered with understanding these five elements:
- Hand positions
- Pressure variation
- Stroke techniques.
How you hold the pencil will determine how the color is applied to the paper and can produce varied results. Overhand (how you normally hold a pencil to write with it) will produce a finer stroke and uses mostly the end of the point. This would be good when rendering any smooth subject.
Underhand (holding the pencil so it is positioned under your hand) will allow for applying a broad part of the lead and produces a more “airy” broad stroke. This is good for creating texture.
Holding the pencil a few inches away from the point creates a lighter, softer stroke – good for the first layer. Holding it closer to the point allows for increased pressure to apply more pigment – good for later layers.
Pressure variation is very important. Generally, colored pencil art begins with light layers applied with light pressure called glazing, then gradually pressure is increased with each layer. The final layer can be burnished (applying very heavy pressure – more on this later).
TIP: I don’t recommend skipping layers and just going heavy at the start. This will flatten the tooth of the paper making it more difficult to apply other colors, thereby affecting your color mixes and can make your application look streaky.
Sometimes pressure can and should be varied 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 overlapped as you progress (in the overhand position). This is kind of like two steps forward and one step back so that an area is more efficiently and evenly covered. The range of this stroke can be varied depending on the size of the area you are covering. The application should look even and dense even though it’s light.
The flat stroke is great for creating texture. This is done holding the pencil in the underhand position with the side of the lead flat against the paper. This creates a broad, textured stroke – not smooth. It produces an “airy” application that looks looser and less dense, thereby creating a rougher, textured look.
Stroking the pencil on your paper in one direction (not back and forth) is what is called the taper stroke. 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. This is good for anything needing a taper at the end – grass blades, pine needles, fur, etc. (it’s really awesome – try it just for fun!)
There are other creative marks you can make with colored pencil that is best covered in a post about advanced techniques.
As colored pencil can’t be mixed like paint on a palette, the colors are mixed by layering right on the art surface to achieve rich tones using at least two colors in any one area. As a result, this does add to the time-consuming nature of this medium but is so worth it in the end. (Really!)
The first layer commonly referred to as glazing should be applied with light, steady pressure for even color application. Also, since colored pencil is a medium that works from light to dark, in general, it’s best to apply the lightest color first.
The first few layers will be built up lightly. Then pressure will be gradually increased to build up the color. You will essentially be repeating any color sequence you have established until it is fully saturated.
As you layer, it’s best to try to stroke back and forth in one direction for each layer and change directions of 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 do 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. It can be used 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. This can be achieved 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. 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!
There are other methods for blending – click here to read about 6 ways for how to blend colored pencils.
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.
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.