Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Teaching Drawing and Painting One Student at a Time

The Only Methods You’ll Ever Need for Blending Colored Pencil

There are many methods of blending colored pencil, but they can be classified in three basic ways.

  • Pencil blending
  • Dry blending
  • Solvent blending

Over the course of the years, I’ve touched on each of these methods in various demonstrations and mini-clinics. Today, we’ll take a look at them all in the same place.

The ONLY Blending Methods You'll Ever Need for Colored Pencil

Basic Methods of Blending Colored Pencil

Pencil Blending

Blending Colored Pencil With Another Colored PencilThis might seem painfully obvious, but the obvious is often the thing that gets overlooked most. One of the only 3 blending methods you’ll ever need for colored pencil is….

…Your colored pencils.

It’s also the method that is the most automatic. Every time you layer one color over another, you’re blending.

The most familiar way of blending colored pencil with colored pencil is burnishing. When you burnish, you use very heavy pressure to “grind” layers of color together. You can use any color over any color, but it’s most common to burnish with a color that’s lighter than the color you’re burnishing. The one thing to keep in mind is that the color with which you burnish will affect the color you’re burnishing.

When blending colored pencil with colored pencil, be careful to match pressure with sharpness. The sharper your pencil, the lighter the pressure. Using heavy pressure with a sharp pencil is likely to either break the tip off the pencil–possibly leaving an unsightly mark–or tear the paper. If you want to burnish, it’s best to use a blunt pencil, like the one shown above.

Dry Blending

Blending with Paper TowelFor the purpose of this discussion, when I refer to “dry blending”, I’m talking about blending without solvents (see below), but with a tool other than your colored pencils.

The blending tool I use most often are a couple of household items. Paper towel and bathroom tissue. Both are great for blending colored pencil and producing an eggshell smooth surface. They’re also easy to use. Simply fold a piece into quarters or smaller and rub them over the area you want to blend. You can use very heavy pressure if you want without risk of damaging the drawing paper. Granted, the effects are light, but if all you want is a light blend between layers, paper towel or facial tissue is the tool you’re looking for.

Blending stumps and tortillons are more often associated with graphite drawing, but they also work with colored pencil. I’ve found them to be slightly less effective than paper towel, but they are very useful if you want to blend a small area.

I also use a Prismacolor Colorless Blender. It’s basically a colored pencil without pigment and it works great for any colored pencil that’s wax-based, as Prismacolors are. Other lines of colored pencil may also include colorless blenders. One thing to note when using this type of blending tool is that it adds wax or oil (depending on the tool) to the paper.

Solvent Blending

Using solvent to blend colored pencil

Using solvent to blend colored pencil

I use three basic solvents for blending colored pencil. In order from mildest to most aggressive are rubbing alcohol, turpentine, and rubber cement thinner.

Before you try any solvent on a colored pencil, test it on a piece of scrap paper. You want to make sure the paper will stand up to a solvent blend. Nothing is more discouraging than to have your paper buckle or warp when it gets wet.

It’s also a good idea to see how colors react to the various solvents before blending a drawing. While solvent blends are appropriate in most cases, they may not produce the look you want.

If the paper you’re drawing on is very smooth or is heavily sized, it’s also possible to remove color completely, no matter how carefully you blend.

So test first!

Blending with Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol is ideal for doing a light blend. It breaks the wax binder in colored pencil just enough to move a little pigment around and to fill in paper holes. You need a good amount of pigment on the paper for the best results, but it also works with less pigment.

Make sure you’re using a rubbing alcohol that’s 70% or less. Any stronger than that and you risk destroying the drawing. I know of one case where a 90% solution was used and the color came right off the drawing! You do not want that to happen.

Use cotton balls or swabs or painting brushes to blend with rubbing alcohol. Because rubbing alcohol is relatively mild, you can do a little scrubbing with a bristle brush IF THE PAPER WILL TAKE THAT KIND OF ABUSE.

Blending with Turpentine

Turpentine will blend color more completely than rubbing alcohol. It breaks down the wax binder more completely, freeing pigment to blend more thoroughly. Again, the more pigment on the paper, the better the results, but you can also do a watercolor-like wash with turpentine.

For an even lighter tint, “melt” a little color in turpentine, then wash it over the paper. You can use turpentine a maximum of three times with heavily applied color between each blend. You need a sturdy paper or board for this kind of treatment, but the results can be very painterly and saturated.

Any type of turpentine that’s suitable for oil painting can also be used with colored pencil drawings.

Use bristle or soft brushes to blend with turpentine. In later layers, where there’s a lot of pigment on the paper, you can use heavier pressure, but it’s best to use medium pressure (normal handwriting pressure) to avoid scuffing the paper or removing color.

The most potent of the solvent blends I use is rubber cement thinner. It works the same way as turpentine, but breaks down wax-binder even more than turpentine. My experience has been a maximum of two blends before the solvent begins removing more color than it blends.

Use brushes to blend with rubber cement thinner. I don’t recommend more than medium pressure. Bristle brushes are good for more thorough blending, while softer brushes are excellent for creating washes or “gentle blends.”

Safety Tips

Make sure you use all of these solvents safely. Work in a well-ventilated space and exercise caution. Don’t work around children or pets and make sure to clean your work area and tools thoroughly and to secure cap containers when you finish.

Artwork should also dry thoroughly before you begin working on it again. I like to let drawings air for no less than an hour and often let them sit overnight.

And there you have it. The only three blending methods you’ll ever need for creating fabulous colored pencil work.

What method is your favorite?

Now also a lesson download.  Twice the content. Step-by-step instruction.

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29 Comments

  1. E Pyer

    Very interesting. I especially like the idea of using a paper towel. It would seem that once the colors were blended properly that one could come in with pastels say for the background and not affect the pencil coloring image. I may have to try this.

    • Paper towel is an excellent blending tool. One of the reasons I like it is that most types of paper towel have two surfaces. One side is usually more textured than the other. If I want to do a light blending but want something more than tissue, I use the smoother side of the paper towel. If I want to do more blending, I use the rougher side.

      Of course it’s also readily accessible and inexpensive!

      The bigger problem you might have with layering pastels over colored pencil is getting them to stick. Especially if you happen to combine wax-based pencils with dry pastels.

      My experiences with pastels are from years ago and were not happy ones, so I don’t do much with pastels. I could be wrong about this, so I encourage you to try. If you do, let us know what you find out.

      Thank you for reading and for the comment. Best wishes to you.

      Carrie

  2. jon

    I have had some experience in blending colours but never knew about the kitchen role trick will have to give it a try …thank you for the tip .

    • Jon,

      You’re welcome.

      I discovered how much could be done with ordinary, everyday items around the house by accident. Or maybe I should say desperation, since I needed to do something specific with a drawing and had neither the time nor the money for a trip the art store. It’s quite amazing what can be accomplished with non-art tools!

      Thank you for reading and for leaving a comment!

      Carrie

  3. Hi Carrie,
    I read your post on Empty Easel tha was about using Pinterest to drive traffic to your blog (which referenced this post about blending) I’m not a colored pencil artist but wanted to let you know I found the E.E. article so informative! I plan to review & implement the steps and see if I can also increase traffic. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!
    BTW, I had a featured artist article on Empty Easel a few months ago which increased traffic to my website quite a lot! (www.dorothylorenze.com)
    Best of luck to you! Your work is wonderful!

    • Dorothy,

      Thank you for your comments. I’m so glad the article was helpful.

      I did a little experiment on Pinterest the week the traffic went up so much. I created and pinned an old article. It took about two weeks, but that article is now starting to get some traffic. So don’t expect overnight success.

      I’ve been writing for EmptyEasel for three years now. Traffic to this blog increased markedly when I began that endeavor and EmptyEasel continues to be a good source for traffic.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. What I did with Pinterest can be duplicated for any online business.

      Thank you also for your comments about my work.

      Best wishes!

      Carrie

  4. Tessa Walsh

    I am a new pupil to coloed pencil I paint in Acrilic , but as I grow older my hands are not as steady and I can’t see as well . That’s anough about me . Pencils are better , and thank you for the help in blending Thank You Tessa X

    • Tessa,

      Thank you for reading and for leaving a comment. I’m glad you found this article helpful.

      Best wishes on changing your medium, too. Have fun with the pencils! They’re a great alternative to painting.

      Carrie

  5. Kathleen MAGUIRE, aka Lady MAGUIRE on Pinterest

    Carrie, Thanks for the great information, I have spent almost two months finding, what I believe to be the perfect books, three different brands of pencils, added thousands of pins to my new coloring boards, starting a ladies coloring this month, & finally today decided to actually start coloring. The tip about the paper towels worked great, I was a little too heavy handed with a medium blue, so even though there was no blending, it removed some of the color! Thanks again

    • Kathleen,

      Sounds like you’re ready for some serious colored pencil fun.

      That is one benefit of blending with paper towel or tissue that I didn’t mention. It lifts color as well as moves it around. It is possible to lay down color with paper towel or tissue. I may need to explore that a little further.

      Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment.

      Carrie

  6. Dave

    Good info, thanks. I have an alcohol brush that works well. Also I might add an obvious to the solvents – keep away from open flame.

  7. jan pendergast

    Gret ideas , having just come back to coloured pencils , after being inspired by methods used nowadays , such as blending with solvents . Never used to enjoy them , because I couldn’t get enough intensity of colour .
    I like to use baby oil , no worries about fumes. And I make my own little tortillons , there’s lots of tutorials on this . Thanks again , always looking for new ideas.

    • Jan,

      You’re welcome. A lot of people use baby oil (and many other substances) to blend colored pencil. I haven’t tried it yet, but I don’t do most of my blending with pencils or paper towels (or tissue).

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Carrie

    • Jan,

      Thank you! I’m glad to have been of assistance.

      I’ve read and seen a lot of information about using baby oil and other substances for blending colored pencil, but have yet to try it. Most of my blending is done either with the pencils or by dry blending.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting.

      Carrie

  8. I use walnut oil to blend my colored pencils and I work on wood panels or Gesso’d hardboard. The benefit is that the walnut oil will dry to a solid film that can in turn be worked on, and then I can add more of the oil on top as needed. Basically I am painting with oil paints in separate parts. I used to use turps or rubbing alcohol, but nothing has provided me the unparalleled versatility of walnut oil, and just a few drops applied with any tool to move the oil and color around (even the tips of leads themselves) can get amazing results. Give it a try sometime, very fine results. You can work on paper directly like this, but be warned that the oil will seep into the paper and if there are any wood fibers in the paper it will likely make your work not stable in as little as 25 years.

    • Thank you so much for your comments.

      When I oil paint, I use M. Graham Oils, which are ground with walnut oil at the vehicle. So I use walnut oil for that purpose.

      I also paint on rigid supports, so I’m 2/3s of the way there already. I will have to give this method a try.

      Thanks!

      Carrie

  9. Great ideas , I’m getting back into drawing and find your blog very interesting. Thank you for the content.

    You’re serving as an inspiration and source of ideas

  10. Ted Johnston

    OMG, Carrie, you live in Newton? I’m originally from Wichita and used to catch the train all the time in Newton. Once I learned that, I HAD to subscribe to your materials. It was like a “sign” or something. Here is a concern I have. Although I also use wax-based colored pencils, I really like to use Derwent water color pencils. They produce spectacular colors. However, once they have dried, they can’t be changed, although you can work on top of what can’t be changed. Occasionally I make big blunders with these pencils. So I try to catch any blunders before using the water. Any suggestions?

    • Ted,

      I’m glad to meet you. I’ve always wanted to “take the train somewhere” but it’s never worked into the schedule or budget. What I’d really like to do is organize a colored pencil class on a train and sketch and draw while the train rocks along. Can you imagine the views from the upper deck of a dome car?

      I’ve only dabbled with water soluble pencils and watercolor, so my experience correcting blunders is minimal.

      The only thing I can tell you is that you might benefit from a coat of retouch varnish to restore the paper’s tooth, then work over that.

      Lisa Clough (the artist behind Lachri Fine Art) is a huge fan of something called Touch Up Texture. It sounds fabulous, but I’ve yet to try it. Too many other things going on right now. It might work for you. Check out her YouTube channel. Almost any video she does on colored pencil will mention Touch Up texture at some point. Give this video a look and see what you think (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H3hOHx-qZ8).

      • Ted Johnston

        Thank you, Carrie! I haven’t been doing colored pencils that long, so I might ask you for more advice in the future. I’ve learned so much from doing each piece. I like portraits and landscapes. With portraits, if you have skin tone to deal with, and there are two or more areas to deal with, I’ve learned the hard way to do them all at once because say if you save the hands for later, the shade might just be slightly different, but enough to be obvious. I’ve also learned to be sure to have your original drawing well worked out because if you decide to make a major change after beginning the coloring process, you probably won’t be able to. Also, I’ve learned never use bleach to remove colored pencil that won’t erase. It will just make the paper deteriorate without totally removing the color, often causing you to have to start over.

        • Ted,

          Thank you! I’m glad to have been helpful to you.

          You’ve learned some important lessons; lessons I also had to learn the hard way. That’s one of the reasons for this blog—to help other artists avoid some of the disasters I experienced.

          I’ve never considered bleaching paper to remove colored pencil. Thank you so much for that tip.

          Carrie

          • Ted Johnston

            And I just put the smallest amount on the paper with the one end of a bleach-smeared toothpick. Fortunately, it didn’t ruin the paper totally, but it also only lightened the color I wished to remove slightly (of course, that was an area that already had several layers of color applied).

          • Ted,

            I’ll have to do a little experimentation. I’ve used bleach to remove stains from paper before drawing and it works very well for that.

            But I am intrigued by the idea of using it to lighten color. As you’ve pointed out, one would have to be very careful….

            Carrie

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