Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil

Colored pencils are expensive. Whether your art budget is large or small, it’s important to know how to get the most out of every colored pencil you buy.

But it doesn’t really matter how much you spend for colored pencils: You still want to get every bit of color out of them that you can. Right?

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil

Following are a few tips I’ve found useful.

Or at least interesting.

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil

Turn the Pencil While You Draw

As you use the pencil, turn it in your fingers. The simple act of rotating the pencil every few strokes keeps the pencil from developing a flat edge. You don’t have to sharpen your pencil quite as often and that keeps valuable pigment out of your sharpener and puts it on your paper.

It may take a little bit of concentration to learn this habit if it doesn’t come naturally, but you can get to the point at which you’re turning the pencil every few strokes. That’s what happened to me. It’s now become such an ingrained habit that I don’t remember a time when I drew without turning the pencil.

Use the Side of the Pencil

Most of us tend to hold a colored pencil the same way we hold a writing tool. That’s called “normal writing position,” and it’s the pencil grip that’s most comfortable.

Most of the time, it’s also the most productive grip.

Try holding the pencil in a more horizontal position. This allows you to use more of the exposed pigment core. If you turn the pencil in your fingers as you draw, you can also keep the pencil sharp.

I use this grip when laying down color in larger areas. Quite often, I sharpen my pencil to draw or shade small shapes, then move to a larger area to shade with a more horizontal grip. When the pencil develops a sharper point, I go back to smaller areas.

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil - Pencil Grip

This doesn’t totally eliminate sharpening your pencil, but it does allow you to sharpen less frequently.

It’s also a good way to give the muscles in your hands and fingers a little break.

One caution: When you draw with the side of the pencil, you get less pigment into the tooth of the paper. This is good if you’re trying to preserve the tooth of the paper, but it also produces a color layer that shows a lot of paper through the color. It’s ideal for drawing distance, or atmospheric effects such as fog.

It’s not so great for saturated color or high detail.

Don’t Sharpen to a Long Point

Different sharpeners sharpen pencils to different degrees. Some sharpeners produce an exposed pigment core that’s long and tapered.

Other sharpeners produce shorter points.

The yellow pencil in this photo was sharpened with my old-fashioned mechanical sharpener. I love the sharpener, but it does create too long a point for most Prismacolor pencils.

If you’re using a brand of pencil known to be brittle or breakable (such as Prismacolor), avoid sharpeners that sharpen pencils to a long, tapered point. The points are more likely to break off. Those broken tips are lost to you and resharpening the pencil results in further waste of the pigment core.

The purple pencil shows the point that Prismacolor pencils come with. It’s a bit blunt for most drawing, but it does illustrate a point that will produce less breakage during drawing.

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil - Sharpening

Test different types of sharpeners to find the one or two that work best for you.

Sand Paper 0r Emery Boards

Use a sanding pad, sand paper, or an emery board to restore the point between sharpenings. You can sand a pencil to a very fine point without further sharpening by simply stroking it on a sanded surface. Turn the pencil as you stroke to get a sharp point.

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil - Sanding

You can also create a sharp, angled edge with this method.

Save Pigment Shavings

Of course, you can always save the pigment shavings, then soften them with solvent for a paint-like color that can be “painted” onto the paper.

How to Get the Most Out of Every Colored Pencil - Pencil Shavings

This might also be one solution for broken Prismacolor pencils (if that’s what you use.)

I don’t recommend this for large areas, since it is time consuming, and you can get pretty much the same results by drawing in the traditional way, then blending with solvent.

But it can make for interesting and unusual touches of color if you like to experiment.

Additional Reading

I explain a few more ways to get the most out of every colored pencil in How to Get the Most Possible Use Out of Every Colored Pencil on EmptyEasel.

How do you get the most out of your colored pencils?

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8 Comments

  1. Jane Swire

    Nice article

  2. Sandy

    Great article, I wish I had seen this before I purchased a full set of prismacolours. I do have the luminance set and some polychromos, which I prefer much better than the prismacolours.

    • Sandy,

      Prismacolor pencils work quite well under Faber-Castell Polychromos. I just got a full set of Polychromos and I’m using both on my first drawing.

      Check out the article, What Are the Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art. At the end of that article is a free download, Dream Colored Pencil Shopping List. Since a lot of people can only get Prismacolor pencils, I’ve included a list of the top rated colors for lightfastness for Prismacolor. Those are the colors I use because they will not fade. I admit it’s a pretty limited list, but at least you’ll be able to use some of the Prismas… If you care to.

      Carrie

      • Sandy

        That is true, I use both of them too, what I meant that the money spent on the fugitive colours in the set, would have been better spent on pencils with a better lightfast rating. I really enjoy my luminance and polychromos, as well as some prismacolours. Your article really points out the financial and artistic benefits of throughly researching a chosen medium, which I should have done before purchasing the largest set of prismacolour pencils.

        • Sandy,

          Don’t beat yourself up too much. You’re not the only one in that particular boat. I’ve known for some time that there are a lot of Prismacolor colors that are fugitive, but I never looked to see which ones they were. I just kept buying my favorite colors and not giving it much thought.

          The end result is that about half of the pencils I bought the last time I bought open stock are no longer useful to me. Most of them haven’t even been sharpened! Like you, I wished I would have done my homework first, and spent my money on better pencils!

          But it’s never too late to learn. That’s for sure!

          Carrie

  3. Patty Woodruff

    Carrie, I too use emery boards to add a point to my pencils instead of constantly using my electric sharpener. When I realized how much this technique extends the life of my colored pencils I started stocking up. Now I buy a package of generic-brand emery boards several times each month. Emery boards are also perfect to use when traveling. This method works…I can attest to it!

    • Patty,

      Excellent! That’s a good way to get low-cost art tools, and we all enjoy those, don’t we?

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Carrie

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