How to draw with coloured pencils for fine artists.
Artist grade coloured pencils are an increasingly popular medium. Due to their high pigment content and archival qualities, artists can create professional works that can emulate the effects of pastel and even oil paint.
The advantage of coloured pencil is that artists benefit from the same level of control and immediacy that they get with other drawing mediums. Anyone who has experience drawing with graphite, will be able to draw with coloured pencils. Coloured pencils are lightweight, portable and mess free. Artists can carry them around in a pencil case to take anywhere they go, to start drawing when inspiration strikes.
Use this guide for the essential drawing techniques, some tips for beginners, to understand materials better and to learn how to improve at drawing quickly.
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How to draw with coloured pencils: get some inspiration
You may know what kinds of art styles you’re attracted to already, you may already have your own art style. For many artists, finding their style is a huge turning point in their art journey, and it can take some time!
A popular style for many coloured pencil artists is realism. This is because coloured pencil gives the artist optimal control, to create precise and detailed marks on the paper. The softness of coloured pencils allow artists to layer colour, creating beautiful gradients and subtle tonal transitions.
As you can see, with multiple layers of coloured pencil application, this artist achieves hyperrealistic effects. This really shows the true potential of the coloured pencil medium.
Coloured Pencil Supplies
Part of learning how to draw with coloured pencils, is understanding how to choose supplies and how to use them effectively.
Each type of material has its own special use and some supplies are more essential than others. You may find something that could improve your drawing process, take a look.
Best Coloured Pencils
A quality, artist grade coloured pencil will have a soft core that is resistant to breakage. Pencils will be highly pigmented and pigments should be lightfast. Professional artist coloured pencils will be wax based or oil based. You can get information about different coloured pencils from our coloured pencil brand review. Here are our top three product picks:
Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils: These high quality, popular pencils are highly pigmented, made from an oil binder and have a medium soft core that is resistant to breakage.
Sanford Prismacolor pencils are wax based, softer than Polychromos and are also highly pigmented. Due to the softer core, less pressure is required to achieve techniques like blending and burnishing. The tips are less resistant to breakage.
Bruynzeel Design Colour pencils are great for beginners in that they are inexpensive and wax based. But they provide all the brilliant attributes of an artist grade pencil, such as high pigmentation and lightfastness. The only drawback is that these pencils have a small colour range. However, you could buy some pencils from other brands to fill in colour gaps, as these can be used with any wax or oil based pencil.
Best paper for coloured pencils
Look for paper that is acid-free, as this means that it is archival quality. Paper that is thicker is better and isn’t likely to tear when erasing. Thickness of paper is measured in gsm, any paper above 300gsm is thick and will be suitable for all manner of applications. Another attribute of a good quality paper is the tooth or surface texture. A slight tooth will hold onto pencil pigment, making it easier to layer and blend colours, and making colours appear brighter on the surface.
Pastelmat is a thick, heavyweight paper that comes in a range of colours. Pigment is released smoothly from the paper onto the surface as the paper has just the right amount of tooth, that helps pencil binder adhere. Apply multiple layers of colour without the need for a fixative between layers.
Other coloured pencil supplies
The great thing about coloured pencil drawing, is that you don’t need too many supplies to get started.
It’s useful to have a good eraser. When working on paper like Pastelmat, you’ll want an eraser that can lift colour without damaging the tooth of the paper. To lift light pencil marks, get a kneaded eraser, roll onto the paper and lift areas of colour. The great thing about a kneaded eraser is that it is mouldable—mould it to a point to lift finer details.
To erase more indelible marks, get a Tombow Sand eraser. These erasers are designed to remove thicker coloured pencil marks.
A good sharpener is another essential tool that can make all the difference. A sharpener like this Swordfish Pencil Sharpener will sharpen pencils to an ultra fine point and prevent pencil waste. Pencils with last longer when using this sharpener.
To read up on more coloured pencil supplies, including solvents, mediums, fixatives and extra accessories, check out our guide.
How to draw with coloured pencils: Essential tips
Start with an outline drawing
If you’re aiming to create accurate, detailed and realistic pieces, start with an outline sketch.
By establishing your composition and structure as the first step of your drawing process, you can focus more on applying and mixing colour in later stages.
To create an accurate drawing, check out our tutorial, which covers two different methods.
Artists’ quality coloured pencils can be layered. The ability to layer colours is what gives colour pencil artists the ability to create realistic effects and smooth transitions.
Layer colour to alter the hues and tones of the colours beneath. Pencil is semi transparent so colours applied in previous layers will show through.
Create details last
Details and the lightest highlights will be the last thing you create. If you focus on intricate details too early, they may get lost to other elements and you may find yourself having to reapply them.
Start drawing light to dark
Coloured pencil binder has a certain amount of opacity, but if you draw with a light colour over a dark colour, you won’t get complete coverage. For that reason, start with your light colours and slowly layer in the darks.
Dark pencil marks can be more difficult to remove from the paper and cover, which is why artists gradually build out shadows at the start of the drawing and increase contrasts later on.
Drawing light to dark is a general parameter and an indication of how to start the drawing. However, artists usually apply the very lightest highlights as the final step along with fine details and other finishing touches.
Leave out these bright highlighted areas so the lightness of the paper is showing, then apply heavy pressure with the light coloured pencil at the end to emphasise them. A useful tip, when at the outline stage of your drawing, is to draw around where the brightest highlights will be, so as not to colour over them with a dark colour by mistake early on.
To lighten the colour profile of an area of the drawing, apply heavier pressure with white or a light pigment over the areas you want to look brighter. To increase the darkness and shadows of an area, layer a darker colour over the area you want to deepen. The effect of layering a darker colour will be more dramatic than layering a lighter colour. Values can be toggled in this way throughout a drawing, once the general composition has been established.
Start with a light touch and build pressure
Your pencil drawings won’t look smooth in the first layer. Often, pencil artists that draw in realistic styles start with light layers of colour and build them out.
Apply heavy pressure to the paper in the final layers, colours will mix and blend into one another. Layer the pencil with heavier pressure in the last layers of a drawing to achieve a smooth appearance.
Colours will mix on the paper
Understanding how to use colour is a pivotal step in taking your skills from beginner, to intermediate level and beyond.
Being good at coloured pencil drawing isn’t just about being able to render lines accurately to emulate a subject. By elegantly mixing and combining colours, brilliantly aesthetically pleasing artworks can be created.
Read about colour theory—the tutorial is pretty in-depth and aimed at anyone who wants to further understand pigments and how they combine and interact. By having a basic understanding of colour theory, you will be able to confidently and accurately layer colour to achieve your intended results. The tutorial was written with painters in mind, but from it you can learn colour jargon (hues, tones, etc), how to observe and read colour accurately from a reference and how to translate this to an artwork.
When thinking about how colours will mix on the paper, pay attention to tonal transitions in your reference. Then choose the appropriate colour pencils and plan how you will layer them to achieve the intended result.
Coloured pencil is a fairly flexible medium. Alter the tones and saturation of colours by layering. For example, if you are drawing a red rose, and you notice that some areas of the colour on one petal has pink undertones, you could start with a red colour, then layer magenta on top to alter the colour profile.
How to avoid smudging coloured pencil
Most coloured pencils don’t smudge easily. The wax and oil binders are pretty stable and won’t budge much when applied to paper, especially if you’re using a toothy paper. However, oils on your hands can smudge the pigments when resting on the drawing.
Simply put a piece of paper between your hand and drawing to avoid smudging when resting on the paper. You could also get a smudge guard glove for this purpose.
It can take some time to create a drawing
We’ve spoken a lot about layering coloured pencil and it takes time! Of course, you choose how long you spend on a drawing and the amount of time it takes also depends on the size of the drawing and the amount of detail you use. But if you want to achieve a smooth, blended, realistic look, expect to it to take multiple layers and multiple hours.
Coloured pencil techniques
There are several coloured pencil techniques that are central to creating wonderfully rich results and an incredible range of effects.
For a more thorough look at every single coloured pencil technique, check our techniques tutorial.
I’ve summarised the two most essential techniques to practise to improve your drawing skills.
Colours are blended by using the layering approach. Start with light colours and light pressure. As you build pressure, pigments will crush and blend into the paper tooth, yielding smooth mixes and gradients
To prevent colours mixing into previous layers, use a fixative.
Another option is brushing a small amount of solvent over colours you want to blend together. Use odourless mineral spirits to thin and dilute the binder. Colours thinned with solvent will appear more transparent and like thin layers of oil paint.
Burnishing occurs when the artist applies heavy pressure to the pencil. Smooth colour blends and gradients can be achieved with this technique.
As you build layers on the paper with increasing pressure, you may find yourself burnishing in the final layers.
The technique works best on paper that has tooth to it, like Pastelmat. Hold the pencil at a slight angle and apply pressure. The pigment and binder will release smoothly and evenly onto the paper, for maximum coverage.
Burnish different pigments over the top of colour layers to create a variety of effects. By burnishing white over a particular area, you can lighten the colour profile. Choose to use a warm tone for burnishing to increase the warmth of the drawing. For a more in depth look at methods of this technique, check out our burnishing tutorial.
How to finish a coloured pencil drawing
Coloured pencil drawings can be sprayed with a texture fixative as you go along, to prevent layers from blending into one another.
At the end, it’s essential to spray the drawing with a final fixative to protect the drawing from the elements. The final fixative spray can be used indoors, it’s acid-free and archival quality. It preserves layers in a pencil drawing and prevents smudging.
How to store and display a coloured pencil drawing
When storing drawings, store them flat in a box or file with acid-free glassine sheets separating them.
Coloured pencil art should be presented under glass frames, to protect colours from UV, dirt and pollutants.
How to draw with coloured pencils: Pin it!
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