Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

A Beginners Guide to Burnishing

…you’re going to think me stupid when I ask how you burnish as I find all the videos online confusing when you are so clear. Hope you do not mind my question.
Kind regards
Joy

Thank you for the question, Joy. Let me assure you that the only “stupid question” is the one you don’t ask! I spent too many years trying to figure out how to do things myself to think any question is stupid!

Now, to answer your question.

A Beginners Guide to Burnishing

What Is Burnishing?

Burnishing is drawing with very heavy pressure. When you burnish, you push the pencil against the paper as hard as you can.

The purpose is to put so much pressure on the color layers already on the paper that you “grind” them together and also grind them into the tooth of the paper. That blends them and fills in the tooth of the paper so there are no paper holes remaining (or very few). The resulting color is brighter and richer.

Burnishing is one of the basic blending methods for colored pencil drawings.

What Tools Do You Need?

Colorless Blenders

The most commonly used tool for burnishing is something called a colorless blender. A colorless blender is basically a colored pencil without color. It’s made just like a regular colored pencil, but it’s just the wax binder (or oil-based binder for oil-based colored pencils.)

Prismacolor colorless blenders are shown below and will work with any wax-based colored pencil. Other brands with colorless blenders are Blick Studio and Lyra (oil-based.) Check your favorite brand to see if they make a colorless blender specifically for that brand. Otherwise, any of the other blenders are likely to work.

Beginners Guide to Burnishing 01

You use colorless blenders just like you use a regular, pigmented colored pencil, but you press very hard on the paper. The material in the colorless blender helps move the color around on the paper, filling in the tooth of the paper and blending the colors without adding any additional color.

Regular Colored Pencils

You can also use a colored pencil for burnishing.

If you use a lighter color to burnish darker colors, the lighter color will make the other colors lighter and tint them with whatever color you use. If you burnish dark blues or greens with a light yellow, for example, you’ll blend the dark colors together, but will also give them a yellow tint.

The same thing happens if you burnish light colors with a darker color, though the result is usually much more dramatic. The resulting color is usually quite a bit darker.

You can, of course, blend with the same color you’ve already used or with one of the colors you’ve used if you’ve layered more than one color. This won’t change the final color as much. If you burnish red with red, the color won’t change at all other than to appear brighter.

When to Burnish

For the best results, burnish after you’ve already put several layers of color on the paper, and when you’re nearly finished with your drawing. You can add more color after you’ve burnished, but it will be increasingly difficult. Why?

Because when you use very heavy pressure, you not only add color, you press down the tooth of the paper. That makes the paper smoother. The smoother the paper, the harder it is to add more color.

It’s also more difficult to remove color that’s been burnished. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to remove burnished color without risking damage to the paper or the drawing.

If you burnish before you have enough color on the paper, you press down the tooth of the paper—making it smoother and more difficult to draw on—without doing much blending.

So save burnishing until near the end of the drawing process.

An Example of Burnishing

In the following illustration, I’ve drawn six boxes with a medium value red, Scarlet Lake.

I didn’t do anything with the first box. It’s just red.

The second box is burnished with a colorless blender.

The third box is burnished with yellow and the fourth box is burnished with a blue that’s a darker value than the shade of red I used. The fifth box is burnished with white and the final box is burnished with the same red.

Beginners Guide to Burnishing 02

You can see how the color with which you chose to burnish can change the appearance of the colors you’re blending.

It’s a good idea to test new methods before using them on a drawing. Make a test strip like the one above to see what happens when you burnish with different colors.

Also try layering two or more colors, then burnishing them with a colorless blender, a lighter color, a darker color, white, and one of the original colors. The results will give you a good idea what to expect on a drawing.

How Burnishing Looks in Practice

Here’s a sample from one of my current drawings.  There are several layers of color on the paper at this point. Color is already fairly saturated—there isn’t much paper showing through the background.

Beginners Guide to Burnishing 03

I burnished a small part of the background (see red arrow.) You can tell exactly where I burnished and where I stopped. The color is darker and more saturated after burnishing than before.

Beginners Guide to Burnishing 04

I burnished with a cream colored pencil, so it was not only blended but tinted, as well. I could just as easily have used a colorless blender to blend the colors without changing them, or used different colors to burnish different areas and create subtle gradations of color.

Conclusion

And that’s my beginners guide to burnishing. It’s a very useful tool if used at the right time, especially if you prefer not to blend with solvents. Try it and let us know how it worked for you.

Additional Reading

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

Previous

More Fast & Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

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Changing Course in Life as an Artist

14 Comments

  1. Jane Swire

    Nice didn’t know a lot you explain we’ll. Thanks

  2. lou

    Thank you for explaining this so well.

  3. Pat

    That was so informative. I have heard of burnishing but never had anyone demonstrate or show examples. I’m in the learning stages of all these methods in my cardmaking and found this extremely helpful. Thank you.

    • Pat,

      I’m glad to have been of assistance. A lot of new artists hear the art terms, but aren’t sure what they mean. I was in the same situation when I was getting started.

      Carrie

  4. Susan

    You have a wonderful way of clearly describing things. Thank you for this and also the background feature which was very helpful.. I have just bought some Faber Castille polychromos. I love them after using cheaper pencils. Could you use a turpentine solvent to burnish these? I do so enjoy all of your tutorials and thank you very much for them.
    Regards, susan

    • Susan,

      You’re welcome. I’m delighted to hear that the background posts were helpful, too.

      You can blend Polychromos pencils with turpentine, though technically speaking, you’re not burnishing, you’re blending. There is a difference, which I’ll be explaining later this month. You could also use odorless mineral spirits to blend them.

      Using any brand of artist quality pencils will be a big difference from using any brand of cheaper pencils. You’ve chosen very wisely in choosing Polychromos. They’re among the most popular of the better pencils available.

      Carrie

  5. Jose A, Justiniano

    Thanks you Carrie you tutortal was verry helfull the diference betuing burnishing and blending I make a draw and my grandsond that’ have very fast hands make a few lines wit a ball poind I allmous cry but want you can do ,tray to fix it I make and error on the drawing belibing I blending but painter teacher here in P.R. toll me was incorect so my granson help in oder ways I read on one of your collum of the citrus thiner and at on the same time I fix the drawing God bless you.

  6. Kaye Ackerman

    Very interesting. What is under your paper. …a hard surface or padded?
    Thank you.

    • Kaye,

      I’m working at a regular office desk, with the drawing lying on the desk, but there this usually a piece of paper or two under whatever drawing I’m working on.

      When I’m not working at the desk, I use a homemade laptop drawing board which is a combination of two or three sheets of corrugated cardboard covered by a piece of smooth mat board. The drawing is clipped to the mat board, so that’s the surface under the drawing.

      When you burnish, you want a surface that’s solid enough to keep you from tearing your drawing, but not so hard that it has no “give.”

  7. Kay

    Thanks Carrie
    You explained this really well! I can use the colorless blender but was not sure about the burnish pencil now I understand !Thanks will remover your great tips

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