Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Teaching Drawing and Painting One Student at a Time

4 Colored Pencil Mistakes I’ve Made (And How You Can Avoid Them)

Colored pencil mistakes. If you’ve drawing for any length of time, you’ve made them.

4 Mistakes I've Made with Colored Pencil

We’ve all done it. Made some mistake with a drawing that frustrates us at best and can necessitate starting over at worst (don’t tell me I’m the only one who’s ever done that!).

Artists like learning new ways of doing things. We want to be more creative and more productive. We want to learn how to do things in the best possible way.

Most of the time, though, the best way to learn how to do something right is by discovering all the ways to do it wrong.

So here are four things I’ve learned how to do right by doing them wrong!

Four Common Colored Pencil Mistakes

Mistake #1: Destroying Highlights

I was an oil painter for nearly twenty years before I started with colored pencils. I was accustomed to being able to add opaque highlights over everything else because oil paints are well suited to that process.

Colored pencils, on the other hand, are not.

I started with Prismacolor pencils because that’s what was available where I lived when I first started using colored pencils. I didn’t shop online (it wasn’t widely available way back then) and I had no idea there were other brands of colored pencils.

Or that Prismacolor pencils were wax-based or that there were oil-based pencils.

I used what I had and what I had wouldn’t allow me to add highlights over everything else. Usually because there was already too much pigment and wax on the paper by then, but also because all colored pencils are more or less translucent. Lighter colors simply disappear when applied over dark colors.

So I was forever creating colored pencil artwork with few or no bright highlights.

And I hated them!

How to Avoid It

hoof-drawing-demo-03I eventually began outlining highlights during the drawing process. It was much easier to work around highlights if I knew in advance where they were. It’s still all-too-easy to layer color over the highlights, but it happens much less frequently than it used to.

I’ve also started outlining shadows, as the drawing at the right shows. The heaviest lines are the outside edges. I use a medium weight dotted line to define the strongest shadows and a light, dotted or broken line to outline highlights. Those lines are all transferred when the drawing is transferred, so I have a clear map for developing highlights and shadows.

I’ve also learned how to lift color after it’s on the paper. For highlights with extremely soft edges, I now glaze color lightly over the highlight, then lift color from the brightest areas with an eraser, sticky-stuff, or tape.

It’s also possible to burnish a lighter color over a darker color to create a subtle highlight.

Use all three methods to draw a range of highlights.

Mistake #2: Getting Too Dark Too Soon

I like my colored pencil drawings to look like my oil paintings. It is possible, but it takes a light hand and lots of layers. When I was first getting started with colored pencils, I didn’t know that and I often put too many darks on the paper too early in the drawing process.

And often over the highlights (see Mistake #1).

How to Avoid Getting Too Dark Too Soon

limitedpalettedogdetail1-carrielewisUse light pressure and light colors at the beginning of the drawing. Glaze colors carefully and work slowly to avoid getting too dark too quickly. The illustration at right shows several layers of color and you can still see paper through it. Even with darker colors, this technique helps you keep from going too dark to quickly.

Use harder, dryer pencils like Prismacolor Verithin pencils for work in the first stages. They go onto the paper more lightly and are easier to erase if necessary.

They also contain less wax, so you can add a lot of layers without filling in the paper tooth. Because they contain less wax, softer pencils can be applied over them with ease.

Mistake #3: Giving Up on Drawings Because They’re Ugly

These two mistakes led invariably to my third mistake: Giving up on drawings. I might add, giving up too soon, but in most cases, any time I gave up, it was too soon. A little more work, and I could have gotten past the problem.

How to Avoid Giving Up on a Drawing

The most important thing I’ve learned about colored pencil drawing (and most artwork) is that every piece goes through an awkward or ugly phase. At some point, a drawing starts to look hopeless.

But I’ve also learned that a drawing can go from looking hopeless to looking finished almost from one stroke of the pencil to the next. I can’t explain it but I know it happens.

Mistake #4: Giving Up on Drawings Because They’re Taking Too Long

Even if a drawing skipped the “ugly phase”, it sometimes took so long to finish a—especially a large drawing—that I just got tired of it. New drawings started to look real attractive and a lot more exciting. It’s oh-so-easy to giving up on a large or time-consuming drawing because I just get tired of it.

How to Avoid Giving Up on a Drawing

If you tend to work all over a drawing at the same time, cover everything except one element of the drawing with paper. Work on that element to near completion, then move to another element.

You might also try working section by section. Divide the drawing into sections by the square inch (or square foot or whatever size works best). Finish or nearly finish that section, then move to the next. Keep the edges between the sections soft so you can blend them together. When the drawing is nearly finished all over, work on the entire piece again to do whatever fine-tuning is necessary to finish the drawing.

Another method that works well for me is to have more than one piece in progress at the same time. If I get tired of one, I move to the other. You can alternate by the day or by the week, or simply move to the second drawing whenever you get tired of the first one.

Those are four of my early mistakes. I confess. I still struggle with all of them once in a while and with a couple of them routinely.

They are not, by any means, the extent of my mistakes!

What about you? What mistakes would you add to my list? How did you overcome them if you did?

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39 Comments

  1. Carrie…thank you so much for these terrific posts I am enjoying them . I’ve been there & done that in everyone and the inspiration you give is truly appreciated….

    • Patricia,

      Thank you so much for reading and for the encouragement. It just goes to show that nothing truly goes to waste. If my mistakes and the lessons I’ve learned from them can help you or anyone else avoid the same mistakes, then it’s all to the good!

      Carrie

  2. Bev Symonds

    Hi Carrie and a huge thank you for all you give of your self and your talent!
    I have learned more from you, both on EE and here on your site, than I have from all the other art sites combined!

    My biggest mistake and one I make every time, is to “over think” the drawing/painting. It’s gotta be perfect. . . OCD? who? not me 😉 haha! If I could only learn to stop fiddling.

    Thanks again, Carrie, I really love your horses!!
    Cheers,
    Bev

    • Bev,

      I have to chuckle at your comment about over thinking your art. I am exactly the same way!

      Part of that is my desire to make every painting or drawing the absolute best it can be. Another part is that most of my work is portrait work and it’s important that the portrait of a client’s animal look like their animal.

      But the biggest contributor is that fact that we’re often our own worst critics. No matter how good a painting turns out, I tend to focus on the things I could have done better.

      I’ll bet you have the same problem.

      The secret is learning to keep that information to ourselves!

      Thank you for your very kind comments. I’m thrilled I’ve been able to help you improve your artwork.

      Best wishes and happy drawing,

      Carrie

      PS: Maybe we should start a support group. Fiddlers Anonymous. And no, it’s not a musical organization!

  3. I read your article, thanks, I have used pencil for many years, of course we all have our go to pencil, I truly love Crayola brand. I always start out light, and then go dark. It was a techniek my father used when he did his art, water color, go light then add dark around it.
    I never say art is ugly, it just needs more work. My art can take from a week or two to finish, I never hurry it.
    We all draw different, see different and think different.
    Thanks for the words of encouragement.

    • Ann,

      I’m glad you found the article helpful. Thank you for taking time to reply and for joining the conversation.

      I’ve never used Crayola colored pencils, though I love the crayons.

      Best wishes with your art.

      Carrie

  4. Stevie MacDiarmid

    One thing I have found with art is that no matter what the style of work or material used is that there is method in everything. So, thank you for making this area simpler less the frustration.

    • Stevie,

      You are right. In most things creative, there is no Right Way.

      I’m glad the article has been helpful to you, especially in reducing frustration!

      Thank you for reading and for joining the discussion.

      Carrie

  5. Lorie

    Well, as I am most of the time a marker artist, this makes a lot of sense to me… Marker are impossible to highlight after and need a lot of patience… Including the possibly of ink missing… And goes way to often trough an ugly phase.

    • Lorie,

      Thanks! I’m glad to have been of help to you.

      I’ve done very little marker work and it’s been a long time since then, but you are right about not being able to add highlights. I hadn’t thought of that.

      Fortunately, the principles that work for colored pencil also work for marker. Work around those highlights!

      Thanks for reading this post and for joining the conversation.

      Carrie

  6. Jan

    Thanks for sharing! I was once in a watercolor class, and I asked the teacher what I could do to improve it. She said to “throw it out and start over”!
    I took it home and played with it for 2 days. I entered it into a local art show a while later, and I won “First place”!
    Jan

    • Jan,

      Good for you! Sometimes, it looks like the best thing we can do with something is throw it out and start over. That’s rarely the case, though, and you’ve proved it.

      Congratulations on the first place, too! Way to go!

      Carrie

  7. I enjoyed this article! I mostly fall victim to #4 – just getting plain tired of a piece because it’s taking too long. I don’t like having too many pieces in progress at the same time though because sometimes it makes me feel overwhelmed. It might be my small art space though. If I had a big studio or room, I might would have a bunch going at a time. But when I get bored, I have to either push through it or just walk away for a day or two. I did the latter recently. I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to continue on a colored pencil drawing I was doing because I was tired of it even though it’s going well. (I’ve been working on it for months because it has lots of detail). So I just left it for a couple of days. By the third day away from it, I came back to it much more charged up because I felt kind of empty not working on it! I missed it and had much more enthusiasm adding to it. That doesn’t always happen but it’s nice when it does.

    • Nikki,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Sometimes, setting a drawing aside is the best solution. I’ve done that, too, for one reason or another.

      I recently wrote an article about how to finish drawings for EmptyEasel. If you’re looking for more ideas, read How to Finish What You Start (The Artists’ Edition), though it sounds like you’ve already found the solution that works best for you.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Carrie

  8. Ellen Kudlicki

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make with colored pencil is not to use the right surface. Watercolor paper, cold press illustration board and even coarse drawing paper is preferable to bristol or slick surfaces. One of my favorite surfaces is black illustration board. I map out the entire drawing with a wash of white, come in with shadows in blue violet and then layer the colors using associated colors to develop the depth. I’ve also begun using workable fixative when the tooth of the paper or board starts to fill up.

    • Ellen,

      You’re right about choosing the right surface. Knowing what you want to draw and how you want to draw it is key in knowing what type or weight of paper to use. Especially if you use water soluble colored pencils or a lot of solvent to blend colors.

      Your method for black illustration board is intriguing.

      Thank you for reading and for joining the conversation.

      Carrie

  9. Bev Symonds

    Hi Ellen,
    Thanks for the tip about the “blue violet” for shadows. I just started working on black so I’ll have a chance to try your suggestion!
    Also, how many times do you use the fixative on one CP painting? I mean how many times can you spray and work some more and, what is your preferred workable fixative?
    Thanks, Bev
    To Carrie. . . . .
    “Fiddlers Anonymous” . . . LOL!! . . . I’d be a charter member, for sure!

    • Bev,

      Fiddlers Anonymous! What a great idea! I can see it all now. Memberships. Shows. Cruises (doesn’t everybody do a group cruise sooner or later?).

      Carrie

  10. Annie

    Hi Carrie, thanks for sharing. A simple question, what paper do you recommend. I have only just found your site and am a watercolor novice. I feel I need to practice/learn more about sketching and feel watercolor pencils may be an interesting way too start. Thanks again. Annie

    • Annie,

      Watercolor pencils (or water soluble pencils) would be a wonderful way to sketch. You can draw with them dry, then make washes by brushing water over them or you can dampen them and draw with them that way.

      I am not a watercolor artist per se, but I can tell you which papers I used for the demonstrations in the articles above.

      The sunrise demo was on Rising Stonehenge paper. I do not recommend this for watercolor. It’s strictly a drawing paper but it can take a little water. I used water soluble pencils for the background only and it held up well for that use.

      The painting with two images of the same horse was drawn/painted on a Strathmore watercolor paper. I don’t recall the weight, but it was pretty solid. It was also very “pebbly” in surface texture, so was most likely a cold-press paper.

      The small headstudy was on an unidentified scrap of watercolor paper, probably the same type.

      Perhaps some of your fellow readers who also do watercolor can make some suggestions and good papers to try.

      Carrie

  11. Johanna Gallon

    You mentioned in your article that you learned by the mistake of not leaving highlights with colour pencils. I have had that problem too, so now I use a touch of gouache white for highlights in the eyes or other small areas. I know it is cheating but found that very effective.

    • Johanna,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for leaving the comment.

      I’ve heard other artists talk about using gouache to add highlights. I’ve never done that, but have tried white acrylic. That looked good until the paint dried, then the brightness seemed to fade away. I realize now that it may have flaked off the drawing because wax and water don’t mix.

      Does gouache remain bright after it dries?

  12. Bev Symonds

    Hello again Carrie and everyone. . . . . .
    Don’t know if it was you, Carrie, or if I read it somewhere, but I have been using my bright white pencil (Polychromos or Prismacolor or Luminance) to outline the highlight area and then fill the whole area in with a good coat of white. This seem to help me stay away from my “whites” but if I need to shade into the white area it’s no problem. I use a fairly light hand on the outline, and I don’t burnish the white in the highlight area until the painting is almost finished.
    Hope this helps. . . it’s made a huge difference to me!
    Bev.

    • Bev,

      I haven’t heard of that method. I’ll have to give it a try. Thanks for the tip.

      Luminance pencils will lay down light colors over dark so that’s another good way to add highlights after a drawing is finished.

      Carrie

  13. Rowan

    Hi Carrie!

    So you mentioned in this article about how you used to use oil paints, but then started colour pencil. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start oil painting/watercolour?
    I always see on Pinterest these amazing, beautiful pieces of art that are in oil paint or watercolour, and I particularly like that style, but i’m complete crap at it!

    I’m quite the perfectionist you could say, but I love that style of art that seems almost “careless” I guess you could say, but whenever I attempt to do that “careless” style, I end up overcomplicating everything because I worry that I’ll mess it up. I’m a young (don’t want to reveal my age on the internet) artist and I only recently started drawing again after

    Thanks!

    • Rowan,

      I still oil paint. I’m working a portrait these days, as a matter-of-fact.

      The best advice I can give you is to keep trying. Nothing worth doing comes easily. I’ve been painting portraits for nearly 40 years and know first hand how long it takes to perfect a technique. I’m still trying!

      I’ve tried painting in a looser style and have never been satisfied because nothing ever looked unfinished. Some time ago, I decided to concentrate on what I did best and to become the best I could with those mediums and methods.

      If you want to give painting a try but don’t want to go it alone, look for a local artist who does classes or gives lessons. Contact the local gallery (if there’s one nearby). They quite often host classes.

      Above all, have fun. Finger paint if you have to!

      Carrie

  14. Callie G

    Try not to use a colour for a single item in a picture, unless you want the object to stand out from the rest of the picture, if the same colour is not used on more than one part of a picture,it looks odd and out of place .
    I use dark Indigo rather than black on deep shadows especially in foliage, it looks more natural, in fact I rarely use black, if you use dark indigo over a dark warm brown (van dyke) or darker for eye pupils it looks more “alive” than black.

  15. jan pendergast

    Lots of good tips here , one of the best is not to give up on a piece , I find it’s better to not try to do too many at the same time , as I lose focus.

    • Jan,

      You’re absolutely right. Not giving up is the best way to finish a drawing. The trick is finding ways to stay motivated on a current drawing when a new idea looks a lot more interesting! Do you have any tips for that?

      Carrie

      • jan pendergast

        It’s always tempting to start something new , because we’ve always got ideas buzzing about in our heads ?
        I like to do pen drawings ( doodles) , and graphite , as well , so usually vary it this way . Just having a couple of prijects at the same time . Happy drawing , everyone

  16. Betty Zlatich

    I am new to color pencil! Like others, I too mess up getting the lighter areas to dark.
    I have used oil paints for many years. Love doing portraits. Due to health problems, I can’t stay at a project for very long, so lots of breaks are necessary. I feel doing this helps me be a better artist. When I come back to the project, I see when more work needs to be done, and mistakes that needs help.
    Happy creating!

    • Betty,

      Thanks for the comment.

      You’re right about taking frequent breaks. It’s a good idea whether you have a health problem or not. Being able to look at a painting or drawing with a fresh eye is a great way to spot problems you might not have otherwise seen.

      Carrie

  17. Cynthia Carter

    I agree with you 100%. I am my own worst critic. I have found pin & ink drawings that are almost finished but I stopped and put them away because of a mistake that I could not “fix” at the time. Later (a month or 2 or 3 I go through my box of mistakes and on 99% of them I can’t find the mistake anymore. So if I don’t see it who will?

    • Cynthia,

      Thanks for sharing! Your experience with pen-and-ink drawings is the very reason I no longer throw things away. Sooner or later, I take another look at them and realize they’re pretty good after all and worth finishing!

      Carrie

    • Bev Symonds

      Hi Cynthia, Carrie and everyone!
      Cynthia you made me smile. . . . . . I did a watercolour of 3 pears about a year ago and decided it was just crap – to put it bluntly. I shoved it into my “looser box” and got on with things. The other day I found a painting worth framing. . . . the “Three Pears” is quite a nice piece and is now hanging on the wall!! I have no idea why I thought it was so bad.
      I have now stopped throwing things into the fireplace just because I don’t like them. They go into the “looser box” for later examination.
      Cheers,
      Bev

      • Bev,

        Thanks for the comment and for sharing your experiences. I like the idea of a looser box.

        Even better is the idea of looking through it periodically to see what might be worth finishing or framing. Thanks!

  18. I work that art till there is no paper left to work. I try to fix everything to perfection. Knowing when to leave it alone is something I wish were in my thinking process.
    I by no means think I am an artist but love to try and just keep trying. Old age has not brought wisdom . I want perfect and only God does that.
    Just love talented people who can create beautiful things.
    You are a winner. Just know what i like.
    Janell

    • Janell,

      Yes. To all perfection there is a limit!

      We’re a lot alike in that respect. I’m not a perfectionist in most things, but about art and writing, I am definitely a Perfectionist with a capital P.

      What I’ve discovered over countless years of trying is that nothing I do will ever be perfect. When I reach the point at which I don’t know what else to do with a drawing, I consider the drawing done (even if it looks unfinished) and move on to the next one.

      Second, I’ve also discovered that when I look at drawings I used to hate, they no longer look so bad. It would seem the intensity of the drawing process creates the sense that nothing’s right and everything’s trash. It takes time and distance from a project to be able to judge it on it’s merits.

      Do you find that’s true?

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Carrie

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