There are many methods of blending colored pencil, but they can be classified in three basic ways.
Over the course of the years, I’ve touched on each of these methods in various demonstrations and tutorials. I dedicated a few tutorials to nothing but blending colored pencil.
Because this is such an important topic—and one of the most frequently searched topics among all of you—I’d like to share basic information on blending methods in a single post.
Basic Methods of Blending Colored Pencil
This might seem painfully obvious, but the obvious is often the thing that gets overlooked most. One of the only three 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 lighter than the color you’re burnishing. Keep in mind that the color with which you burnish will affect the color you’re burnishing.
TIP: 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.
For 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 tools 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 a colored pencil without pigment and it works great for any colored pencil. 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 brand) to the paper.
I use three basic solvents for blending colored pencil. In order from mildest to most aggressive are rubbing alcohol, odorless mineral spirits, and turpentine. (I have used rubber cement thinner in the past, but only sparingly, since it’s very aggressive in “melting” color. It’s also quite toxic.)
Solvents work by breaking down the binding agent that holds the pigment together in pencil form. Dissolving the binder to any degree allows the pigment to flow together almost like paint.
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 your paper is very smooth or heavily sized, it’s 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.
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 Odorless Mineral Spirits
Odorless mineral spirits 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 odorless mineral spirits.
For an even lighter tint, “melt” a little color in odorless mineral spirits, then wash it over the paper. You need sturdy paper or board for this kind of treatment, but the results can be very painterly and saturated.
Any type of odorless mineral spirits suitable for oil painting can also be used with colored pencils.
Use bristle or soft brushes to blend with odorless mineral spirits. 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 turpentine. It works the same way as odorless mineral spirits, but breaks down wax-binder more completely. My experience has been a maximum of two blends before the solvent begins removing more color than it blends.
Use turpentine the same way you’d use odorless mineral spirits.
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 close 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?
Blending Colored Pencils Without Solvent
I’ve written a tutorial describing how to blend colored pencils without solvents. The tutorial is now available at Colored Pencil Tutorials. It’s ideal for artists who cannot use solvents for health reasons or who simply prefer not to use solvents.