Colored pencil mistakes. If you’ve been drawing for any length of time, you’ve made them.
We’ve all done it. Made a mistake that frustrates us at best and necessitates starting over at worst.
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.
Fortunately, correcting many colored pencil mistakes is easy. All you have to do is identify the problem, then find the solution.
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. Oil paints are perfect for adding opaque highlights last.
Colored pencils, on the other hand, are not.
I started with Prismacolor pencils because that’s what was easily available in the mid-1980s. The internet wasn’t widely available way back then so there was no online shopping or quickly discovering what other pencils might be available.
I used what I had.
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 constantly created colored pencil artwork with few or no bright highlights.
And I hated it!
Here’s an early piece. There are highlights in this drawing, but had I known then what I know now, the drawing would have turned out much better.
Yes, this is part of the learning process and I don’t begrudge the less than ideal drawings in my past. That’s how I learned that I needed to preserve the highlights.
It’s also how I learned to make that preservation work.
How to Avoid It
I 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.
This line drawing shows you how I do that.
The dotted lines on the hoof show where shine appears on the hoof. When I start shading color, I’ll leave the paper white between those two dotted lines. I can then gradually blend the surrounding color into the highlight area for a nice, bright highlight.
I also started outlining shadows, as the drawing above shows. The heaviest lines are the outside edges. I use a medium weight line to define the strongest shadows, along with the dotted lines for highlights. I transfer all those lines, and they provide 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, mounting putty, 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 first started using colored pencils, I didn’t know that and I often drew too many dark values too early in the drawing process.
And often over the highlights (see Mistake #1).
How to Avoid Getting Too Dark Too Soon
Use 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 below 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 or Caran d’Ache Pablo 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.
Oil-based pencils such as Faber-Castell Polychromos are also helpful because they are harder and drier than wax-based pencils.
Mistake #3: Giving Up on Drawings Because They’re Ugly
The first 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 Because it’s “Ugly”
The most important colored pencil lesson I learned 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.
So the best way to avoid giving up on a drawing because it’s ugly is to set it aside for a day or a weekend. Chances are that when you go back to it, it won’t look nearly as ugly!
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, I just got tired of it. Especially large pieces. New drawings start looking real attractive and a lot more exciting. At that point, it’s oh-so-easy to give up on a large or time-consuming drawing.
Don’t give up too soon!
Here’s my favorite example of not stopping too soon.
The image on the left shows Afternoon Graze a day or two before I finished it. If you were to see this image by itself, you’d think it was finished. I did.
Then I worked on it a few more hours. The difference is dramatic.
How many of my other drawings would have improved dramatically with just a few more hours of work?
How to Avoid Giving Up on a Drawing Because It’s Taking Too Long
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, 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 work on 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 colored pencil 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! But that’s a post (or two or three) for another time!
I hope my solutions work for you, too, or that they at least help you find the solutions that do work for you!