What are the best ways to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting?

Whenever anyone asks me this question, it’s almost certain they want to know about color application, method, and so on. That is, after all, what we usually think about when it comes to colored pencil: Method.

There are a couple of ways to get an oil painting-like result with colored pencils that involve method, but that’s not where the process begins if you truly want your colored pencil drawing to look like an oil painting.

How to Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting

Choosing a Support

The process begins at the beginning, with the support you use. You can, of course, use the paper you usually use and the methods I’ll describe in a moment will work. But you’ll still have to frame the drawing under glass. No matter how painterly your drawing, it will still clearly be a drawing.

So the first thing you need to consider is drawing on a rigid support. Something like Pastelbord, or a gessoed panel that doesn’t need to be framed under glass.

There are plenty of options from which to choose, so pick one or two (or three or four), and try them. Find one that works well with your drawing methods and suits your needs, and you’re ready!

Choosing a Method

Almost any method of drawing is capable of producing “painterly” colored pencil work. Why? Because styles of painting range from very loose and minimal to very detailed and complex. I usually think of realistic styles when I want to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting, but that’s not your only option.

Two Options for Saturated Color

I’m going to make a huge assumption here, and say that most of the readers who ask how to make their colored pencil drawings look like oil paintings want to know how to draw rich, saturated color, with no paper holes. I have two suggestions for you!

(If you want to make your drawings look like oil paintings, but not with saturated color, let me know!)

Option 1: Layer, Layer, Layer

The method I prefer is multiple layering. Not five or six layers or even a dozen, but twenty or thirty.

Start with light pressure and careful color application, then gradually increase the pressure with successive layers. Burnish toward the end and alternate burnishing with additional layers of color.

My preferred paper for this kind of work is Stonehenge. It’s a relatively soft paper, but it can take a lot of color. If you use a heavier weight such as 120 lb. (320 gsm), it can also take some abuse. It is a printmaking paper, though, so it is rather susceptible to impression. You can very easily make a mark in it accidentally.

NOTE: Using this method on Stonehenge will produce wonderful color saturation and no paper holes—just like an oil painting—but you will still need to frame it under glass to protect the paper.

Option 2: Solvents

The second method—which I have used but don’t prefer—is the use of solvents.

Turpentine or rubber cement thinner are what I usually use, but only sparingly. You can usually get a couple of good blends with either. I used rubber cement thinner to blend the background on this drawing.

Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting - Background

I choose this sample, because the blended background looks like a background painted with oils, but the unblended horse is clearly colored pencil. You can clearly see the difference a solvent blend makes in color saturation. In order to make this drawing really look like an oil painting, I’d need to add more layers on the horse, and then possibly blend with solvent.

Other artists use odorless paint thinner or a powder blender, but I don’t personally recommend those, since I have no experience with either.

Tips for Using Solvent to Blend

If you use a solvent to blend, you need to have a lot of color on the paper first, so multiple layers are still important.

You also need a heavier paper. Paper mounted to a rigid support is best, because it will stand up to the fluid solvent better.

Keep gradations in value and color smooth and subtle. Consider the way you put color on the paper, too. Careful strokes, usually following the contours of the subject, but also using other strokes to cover the paper.

NOTE: Using this method on a rigid support will allow you to frame the finished work without glass, which will enhance the similarity to an oil painting.

Conclusion

Those are the best suggestions I can make. It is possible to do a portrait in colored pencil that looks like an oil painting. Though my portraits are usually horses or dogs, I have been able to do some that are difficult to distinguish from an oil painting, even when hanging next to an oil painting.

Except for the glass, of course. The glass is a dead giveaway. Most artists just don’t frame oils under glass!