Techniques and Tips

All-in-One Guide to Colored Pencils

All-in-One Guide to Colored Pencils

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There’s a lot to like about drawing with colored pencils. They’re utterly convenient—a handful of colored pencils and a pad of paper are all you really need to start creating. Prep time and cleanup are practically non-issues, the materials are light and portable, and you don’t need messy or toxic solvents. At the same time, colored pencil drawing lends itself to highly refined and exquisite works of art that rival those created with any other medium.

Colored pencils are relatively inexpensive, and the palette is extensive. The color is pure, clean and bright. The medium is permanent, and colored pencil drawings do not require elaborate care or storage. Along with hard and soft colored pencils, watercolor pencils and oil-based colored pencils offer more options for beginning artists.

Aside from their convenience and versatility, much of the appeal of colored pencils is the control they offer. You can do loose work, tight work or anything in between. You can use colored pencil to tint a drawing with light strokes that let the color of the paper show through, or you can use colored pencil to create a solid deposit of many layers of color. Because colored pencil is primarily a dry medium, there’s no drying time to worry about. You can walk away from the work and come back and pick up right where you left off. You can start and stop at any time.

Colored pencil offers the pleasures and rewards of both drawing and painting. Whatever other medium you enjoy, you’ll find colored pencil a worthwhile addition to your repertoire.

Enjoy these colored pencil techniques tips, perfect for beginners or artists new to colored pencil drawing and painting. Learn how to draw with colored pencils and start working with colored pencils.


Any good drawing paper is acceptable for colored pencil, but a fine-toothed, firm, durable paper or illustration board is best for extensive layering and burnishing. Not all papers can stand up to the pressure of the pencil, especially if you’re layering multiple colors, burnishing and blending. Paper with a rough surface can produce interesting textures, but rough surfaces aren’t conducive to the application of even deposits of color. Experiment with different papers until you find the ones best for your work. Here are some good surfaces to begin with:

  • Hot-pressed watercolor paper, which has a smooth surface, is suitable to work on because it will take many layers of color and give good results when the deposit of colored pencil is blended.
  • Bristol board is a good, lightweight board with two types of surfaces: plate, which is very smooth and is excellent for layering and blending; and vellum, which has a more textured surface and is less amenable to blending and burnishing.
  • Charcoal paper, which comes in a variety of colors with smooth and textured sides, is suitable for various techniques.


With these basic colored pencil drawing techniques tips, you’ll be ready to start drawing right away. Discover these colored pencil shading and blending techniques. You can also learn more about creating textures in your colored pencil drawings with Painting Textures in Colored Pencil with Gary Greene.

  • Shading: produced with an even, side-to-side stroke that creates a smooth even layer of color; a light touch will deposit a faint amount of color for graduated colored pencil shading.
  • Hatching: a series of evenly spaced, parallel lines that leave a little white or color of the underlying surface visible; hatching in colored pencil adds texture to your compositions.
  • Cross-hatching: hatching overlaid at an angle to build up layers of color or value; keep the pencil tips sharp to create fine, even lines.
  • Burnishing: layers of colored pencil applied with strong, even pressure so the colors blend or intermix, completely covering the paper with a smooth solid color; a stump or tortillion or a smooth metal tool rubbed with even, heavy pressure in a circular motion against a deposit of color will also burnish the color. Burnish light-colored areas first.
  • Blending: produced by applying heavy, even pressure with a pigmentless blending pencil or a white or light-colored pencil (such as cream or light gray), creating slick, evenly blended color; a stiff bristle brush can be used to blend colors as well. Colored pencil blending techniques can help add depth to your colored pencil drawings. Burnishing or blending with pale ochre creates an aged or antique look for metallic surfaces. Alternatively, you can use cloud blue to suggest atmospheric perspective. A colorless marker can also be used to blend layers of color together. Permanent markers are good for making washes or underpaintings in colored pencil drawings.
  • Scumbling: an irregular or broken deposit of one color over another allowing the underlying color to be visible through the top layer.
  • Sgraffito: produced by scratching through a thick upper layer of color pencil with a sharp instrument to expose underlying color or paper; this is a useful technique to draw cat whiskers in colored pencil, wisps of hair in a colored pencil portrait or other fine linear details. Be careful not to damage the surface of your paper.
  • Solvent effects: using a solvent such as mineral spirits—applied with a cotton swab or brush—softens the colored pencil deposit and creates a wide range of interesting colored pencil effects.


  • Good sharpener: A good quality hand-held sharpener is a must; an electric sharpener saves time and energy.
  • Colorless blender: A colored pencil with a core made of pigmentless wax can be used to blend colors or soften edges without adding more color.
  • Erasers: White plastic erasers will remove or manipulate colored pencil marks; eraser pencils and sticks are useful for concise erasure.
  • Eraser shields: This small, flat metal tool with openings of various shapes can be used for precise, controlled erasure.
  • Cotton swabs: These can be used for burnishing or for applying solvents.
  • Knives: Use these or other sharp instruments for sgraffito.
  • Spray workable fixative: Use fixative to protect a finished drawing and prevent wax blooms.
  • Sturdy storage box: Keep your pencils orderly and protected.


Colored pencils are stable and permanent. Their cores are made of very finely ground pigment bound with hard wax. Watercolor pencils are made with water-soluble cores; oil-based colored pencils have soft cores that are soluble in solvents such as mineral spirits. Some colored pencils are made without wood casing.


Colored pencils are probably the safest professional art materials available. There’s almost no risk of ingestion of pigments. If you do use solvents in your colored pencil paintings, ensure that your workspace has proper ventilation. Observe normal safe studio practices, and take care to dispose of pencil shavings neatly.


How do watercolor pencils differ from other colored pencils?
Watercolor pencils look and feel like wax-based colored pencils, but the binder in the core is water-soluble. This allows the artist to use a wet brush to blend the colors and make colorful washes, soft edges and many other effects. You might be shocked when you see the paint-like results of colored pencils. You can discover even more keys to painting with colored pencils in, Painting Light with Colored Pencil Paperback by Cecile Baird. Watercolor pencils are an exciting medium because they enable the artist to switch from drawing to painting instantly.

Are different brands of colored pencil compatible?
Yes, but the hardness of colored pencils’ cores varies by brand. Layering softer pencils over hard is easier than the reverse. Wax-based colored pencils can be used with watercolor pencils but won’t react to water in the same way.

How can I correct and prevent wax bloom?
Wax bloom is a whitish buildup of wax that comes from a heavy deposit of wax-based colored pencil. To remove wax bloom, wipe the surface of the paper with a soft tissue. Then to prevent wax bloom from reoccurring, lightly spray the drawing with two to four layers of workable fixative. Keep the surface of the paper clean by using a soft brush to sweep away stray particles of color and dust, especially after employing a technique such as sgraffito (scraping away a layer of color).

How should I store and display colored pencil art?
Spray finished colored pencil drawings with a final, non-workable fixative to protect them from smearing. Drawings are best stored flat in boxes or a flat file with sheets of glassine or white drawing paper between the drawings. For better protection of your best drawings, consider matting. Colored pencil art should be displayed under glass to protect it from damage and pollutants.

Are colored pencils permanent?
Colored pencils are very stable but are only as permanent as the surface they’re on. Creating your art on acid-free paper will ensure that it lasts a long time. Protect your colored pencil art from rapid changes in humidity or temperature, and take special care to store it away from heat.

This Mediapedia article by Gary Greene first appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Want to learn even more about drawing painting with colored pencil? Delve deep into the world of drawing with colored pencil with The Ultimate Guide to Colored Pencil by Gary Greene.


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