Blending colored pencil is a very popular topic, and there are oodles of articles addressing the how-to-blend question. Many articles discuss materials and tools you can use to blend this medium.
In fact my own earlier article, “6 Ways for How to Blend Colored Pencil”, included discussion of materials you can use to blend.
But what if you could just blend with the pencils alone without the use of tools or materials like solvents, q-tips, erasers, etc. Impossible you say? Not impossible!
I decided to write another article and delve into this topic from a different perspective—covering what pencil techniques you can use, plus a little bit of discussion on quality materials—that will have you blending like a pro with just you, your pencils and your paper.
This article contains product links for your convenience. They are affiliate links – click here for explanation.
I would be remiss in discussing this topic without first making sure you have the right soft pencils to begin with. Nothing is worse than trying to do a job, but the item helping you to do it is inferior and affects the desired outcome. If you use a hard-leaded pencil of inferior quality, it simply won’t do the job.
A softer lead, on the other hand, means the pigment will be able to flow into the “tooth” of the paper more easily—very important (more on paper later). All the technique in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the softness required to accomplish blending.
So here is my suggestion: stay away from dollar store variety or other cheaper brands because they simply fall way short of what you need in order to blend your artwork.
I’m not knocking dollar stores, mind you (I love dollar stores!), or less expensive brands of colored pencils per se, but when you wish to achieve beautiful blends, it’s important to work with a pencil you can depend on.
Invest in a soft but quality pencil. Here are a few brands I love for their softness and quality:
If you’d like to read up some more on these top 3, you can hop over to my reviews of them by clicking on the following links:
And for more information, here is a link to an interesting video by Jennifer Stay doing a blind-folded test for the softest colored pencil. Click here. Hint: the winner did not surprise me, and I happen to agree with her!
Gotta Have the Right Paper
Another essential is the right paper. I’m hoping that by now, you already know you cannot use just any old paper for colored pencil. It won’t hold up as you layer and will be limited in the amount of layering and blending you are able to do.
Also, heavier card stock will not work either. It is stronger for sure and you won’t run the risk of it tearing as you work, but it will dent more easily and will have similar issues with respect to layering and blending.
Please do yourself a favor, and look for a paper that’s at least 60 pounds with a little “tooth”. This is perfect for colored pencil as I have explained in my post, “Best Paper For Colored Pencil – It’s All In The Tooth” .
In this post, I recommend several brands and have linked them for your purchase convenience. The one I use most often, though, is Neenah Paper Exact Vellum Bristol, shown here.
OK, on to the 5 techniques for how to blend with colored pencils as I promised….and you will not need solvents, q-tips, erasers, etc.—just time and willingness to practice.
1. Pressure Variation on the Fly
Have you really perfected the art of what I call varying your pressure “on the fly”? Varying your pressure during the application is just as important as layering in order to be successful using colored pencil as an art medium.
And I dare say, this is crucial to your success. There are wonderful exercises that will help with this.
Here’s one you can try: On scrap art paper, apply the pencil heavier that you normally would when just starting out. Then moving from left to right, begin to let up on the pressure, going for a while, then increasing pressure again, all while not stopping.
Continue varying your pressure on the fly like this while the pencil is moving. This will get you in tune with the pressure you’re applying. You’ll get very familiar with your own hand pressure and what level of pressure produces what result. Here is a photo of what this exercise would look like.
Making Quick adjustments
As you’re working along, pressure variation allows you to make quick adjustments to your application to allow for overlap and blending.
Examples of situations in which you would want to do this is: gradient blending in which you have a smooth transition from one color to another without definitive lines of demarcation, or simply wanting to end an application softly.
2. Hand Positions
Does it really matter how you hold the pencil? You bet it does, particularly if you tend to have either a very heavy hand or a very light hand.
Did you know if you hold your pencil farther away from the lead as shown here, it prevents you from actually being able to press too hard? It does, try it—both holding it farther away from the point and closer to the point.
In blending techniques, there will be times you need to press hard and other times, to barely touch the paper.
3. Layering Patiently
Being patient with layering is something I cannot stress enough as it is extremely important. I truly believe, to achieve the best possible application and ultimate blending of color-mixing and layering, you need to methodically and patiently do one layer at a time, gradually increasing pressure and changing direction with each layer to achieve the desired outcome.
Too Fast and Too Heavy
This photo proves my point. The square on the left was done much more quickly where I applied magenta very heavily and light blue very heavily to mix the two colors. It’s plain to see the application resulted in uneven, streaky color, a lousy color mix, and poor blending.
In addition, the color magenta, which went on first, shows up more predominantly. This is because if you apply the first layer too heavily, the paper has trouble accepting the second layer. Why?
This is because if you go heavy right out of the gate, you’ll damage and smash the tooth of the paper, not allowing any room in the tooth for subsequent layers to mix with the first.
In other words, you want to respect the tooth of the paper. You treat it well and it will help you with your color mixes. 🙂
Slowly and Gradually
In contrast, the square on the right was done slowly and gradually. Holding my pencil away from the point at first helped me to apply the first magenta layer lightly. Going a different direction, the light blue was applied with the same light pressure.
I continued alternating the colors, building up successive layers, gradually increasing my pressure with each layer until I achieved a beautiful color mix with a much more even application and virtually no strokes showing.
Also, notice how this mix is much more of an equal mix (if an equal mix is what you’re going for, that is).
4. Different Strokes for Different Folks
Does how you stroke on your application affect the results? You bet it does! How you stroke on the pigment can produce wonderful blending results. Let’s talk about a few.
The Circle Stroke
This stroke is helpful in blending shadows where you want them to end softly. Take these birch trees in my colored pencil drawing, for example. I applied black to the left edge of the trees with a circular stroke and varied my pressure on the fly to end it softly on the inner edge of the shadow.
Then I was able to overlap where the black ended using gray and again with circular strokes. I let up on the pressure where the gray was needed to blend and fade into the white on the right side.
The circle stroke is also helpful with layering when you really don’t want the direction of stroke to show.
This square patch shows the use of two colors layered with the circular stroke overlapped like crazy.
There may be subjects where you don’t want any stroke direction to show. I call also call this my “no-show stroke“.
The Taper or One Direction Stroke
This type of stroke allows a beautiful faded edge which is also good when doing shadows. What you do is simply apply your stroke going one direction (as opposed to back and forth) and lifting the pencil off at the end of each stroke creating a soft taper. When you do this repeatedly, here is the result:
Overlapping Ovals or Ellipses
This is what I refer to as the basic stroke and is very important when you’re trying to carefully blend your layers, particularly at the outset.
Remember: how you lay down your first few layers will determine how subsequent layers will look.
Here’s an example of two squares. The layers on the left were applied with straight, back and forth strokes. In the right square, I have applied the layers using overlapping oval—really elliptical—strokes.
You can see the right square is better blended.
So if you want your edges to appear softer and not show a hard line that the colored pencil tends to produce, I would use what I call the fuzzy stroke.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to our squares again. I’ve added a third square to show the fuzzy stroke on the edges. The square almost looks like it’s in soft focus. Cool, huh?
Back when I was oil painting, my mentor would say, “Get out your big bottle of vague”. He meant, keep the edges from looking too hard. He taught me the beauty of softening the edges and avoiding hard lines.
Carrying this over to colored pencil was a bit of a challenge as it was way easier to create softness using a brush vs. a pencil point. But here again, it’s all in your technique!
5. Blending Using Burnishing
I’ve talked about burnishing in previous posts so we know that it means heavy pressure. I use this as a final step at the end of the project to produce a painted look.
Burnishing serves as eliminating the remaining tooth of the paper, leaving only pigment showing. Furthermore, it also serves to help you blend.
First I recommend you get yourself a colorless blender pencil. Prismacolor makes a good one. Here’s the link. Now this may seem like a tool, and I said this article was about not using tools. But actually, the colorless blender pencil is a pencil, just without the color, so one could say it is not a tool, it’s just another pencil.
Let’s illustrate how burnishing with the colorless blender can help you.
First, you need to have many layers on the paper for the process to work. It works by mushing and moving the pigment around, and what’s left of the tooth is flattened, leaving just the pigment. And by having enough pigment, it will easily do this. Here are a couple of photos:
This flower petal shows that the left half of it has been burnished. The blending technique with the colorless blender pencil produced a beautiful gradient and painted look.
In contrast, you can see that the right half is not burnished and still shows a graininess from the tooth.
The magenta and lavender rectangles below show before and after burnishing; you can see how the hard edge between the colors is softened subtly by burnishing.
You don’t have to use the blender to burnish if you don’t wish to. You can use your colors or white to burnish as well. But just understand the effects of each.
Applying white may lighten or slightly wash out your colors—if that’s what you want, that’s OK, though. Using colors to burnish may slightly alter the color mixes you’ve worked hard to achieve. But again, if you’re OK with that alteration, that’s fine.
Tricks Up Your Sleeve
Congrats! If you have read down to the end here, you now have the five techniques (essentially master-level) for how to blend colored pencils to create the most beautiful blends! You also know the right materials to have in your colored pencil bin, too.
I’m sure if you put into practice the materials and techniques discussed in this post, you will notice the difference in your artwork. And I would love it if you would share how it has worked for you.
As always, I welcome your comments, and remember your email address will never be shared.
For additional posts you may find helpful, please visit:
==>>Shading with Colored Pencils<<==
Thanks for reading!
Happy colored penciling!