4 Colored Pencil Mistakes I’ve Made

4 Colored Pencil Mistakes I’ve Made

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!


    1. Patricia,

      Thank you so much for reading and for the encouragement. It just goes to show that nothing truly goes to waste. If my mistakes and the lessons I’ve learned from them can help you or anyone else avoid the same mistakes, then it’s all to the good!


  1. Bev Symonds

    Hi Carrie and a huge thank you for all you give of your self and your talent!
    I have learned more from you, both on EE and here on your site, than I have from all the other art sites combined!

    My biggest mistake and one I make every time, is to “over think” the drawing/painting. It’s gotta be perfect. . . OCD? who? not me 😉 haha! If I could only learn to stop fiddling.

    Thanks again, Carrie, I really love your horses!!

    1. Bev,

      I have to chuckle at your comment about over thinking your art. I am exactly the same way!

      Part of that is my desire to make every painting or drawing the absolute best it can be. Another part is that most of my work is portrait work and it’s important that the portrait of a client’s animal look like their animal.

      But the biggest contributor is that fact that we’re often our own worst critics. No matter how good a painting turns out, I tend to focus on the things I could have done better.

      I’ll bet you have the same problem.

      The secret is learning to keep that information to ourselves!

      Thank you for your very kind comments. I’m thrilled I’ve been able to help you improve your artwork.

      Best wishes and happy drawing,


      PS: Maybe we should start a support group. Fiddlers Anonymous. And no, it’s not a musical organization!

  2. Ann Reeve Sharpe

    I read your article, thanks, I have used pencil for many years, of course we all have our go to pencil, I truly love Crayola brand. I always start out light, and then go dark. It was a techniek my father used when he did his art, water color, go light then add dark around it.
    I never say art is ugly, it just needs more work. My art can take from a week or two to finish, I never hurry it.
    We all draw different, see different and think different.
    Thanks for the words of encouragement.

      1. jill Peer

        i so agree with your comments especially the ‘dont give up’ stuff.

        Water colour style of getting darker from light is excellent and i never give up till and if i am absolutely sure to do so. Rare. or when a piece is not sold and looking weak or dull. then i repaint it. ( canvas) but this applies to my hat , felt and bag making too.

  3. Stevie MacDiarmid

    One thing I have found with art is that no matter what the style of work or material used is that there is method in everything. So, thank you for making this area simpler less the frustration.

  4. Lorie

    Well, as I am most of the time a marker artist, this makes a lot of sense to me… Marker are impossible to highlight after and need a lot of patience… Including the possibly of ink missing… And goes way to often trough an ugly phase.

    1. Lorie,

      Thanks! I’m glad to have been of help to you.

      I’ve done very little marker work and it’s been a long time since then, but you are right about not being able to add highlights. I hadn’t thought of that.

      Fortunately, the principles that work for colored pencil also work for marker. Work around those highlights!

      Thanks for reading this post and for joining the conversation.


      1. Melvina R. Short

        I was about ready to give up on my dream of becoming a color artist. I could never seem to blend so it looked natural. Now I’m ready to jump in again with your very helpful tips. Thank you

        1. Melvina,

          Don’t give up. That’s the only way to make sure you never reach your goal.

          Remember that most of the artists you may admire have been drawing for years. I’ve been an artist for over 40 years. It takes time to gain skills, but every drawing you make is a step in the right direction. Even when things don’t turn out, you’re still improving your skills and learning things!

          So don’t give up!

  5. Jan

    Thanks for sharing! I was once in a watercolor class, and I asked the teacher what I could do to improve it. She said to “throw it out and start over”!
    I took it home and played with it for 2 days. I entered it into a local art show a while later, and I won “First place”!

  6. Nikki

    I enjoyed this article! I mostly fall victim to #4 – just getting plain tired of a piece because it’s taking too long. I don’t like having too many pieces in progress at the same time though because sometimes it makes me feel overwhelmed. It might be my small art space though. If I had a big studio or room, I might would have a bunch going at a time. But when I get bored, I have to either push through it or just walk away for a day or two. I did the latter recently. I couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to continue on a colored pencil drawing I was doing because I was tired of it even though it’s going well. (I’ve been working on it for months because it has lots of detail). So I just left it for a couple of days. By the third day away from it, I came back to it much more charged up because I felt kind of empty not working on it! I missed it and had much more enthusiasm adding to it. That doesn’t always happen but it’s nice when it does.

  7. Ellen Kudlicki

    One of the biggest mistakes you can make with colored pencil is not to use the right surface. Watercolor paper, cold press illustration board and even coarse drawing paper is preferable to bristol or slick surfaces. One of my favorite surfaces is black illustration board. I map out the entire drawing with a wash of white, come in with shadows in blue violet and then layer the colors using associated colors to develop the depth. I’ve also begun using workable fixative when the tooth of the paper or board starts to fill up.

    1. Ellen,

      You’re right about choosing the right surface. Knowing what you want to draw and how you want to draw it is key in knowing what type or weight of paper to use. Especially if you use water soluble colored pencils or a lot of solvent to blend colors.

      Your method for black illustration board is intriguing.

      Thank you for reading and for joining the conversation.


  8. Bev Symonds

    Hi Ellen,
    Thanks for the tip about the “blue violet” for shadows. I just started working on black so I’ll have a chance to try your suggestion!
    Also, how many times do you use the fixative on one CP painting? I mean how many times can you spray and work some more and, what is your preferred workable fixative?
    Thanks, Bev
    To Carrie. . . . .
    “Fiddlers Anonymous” . . . LOL!! . . . I’d be a charter member, for sure!

  9. Annie

    Hi Carrie, thanks for sharing. A simple question, what paper do you recommend. I have only just found your site and am a watercolor novice. I feel I need to practice/learn more about sketching and feel watercolor pencils may be an interesting way too start. Thanks again. Annie

    1. Annie,

      Watercolor pencils (or water soluble pencils) would be a wonderful way to sketch. You can draw with them dry, then make washes by brushing water over them or you can dampen them and draw with them that way.

      I am not a watercolor artist per se, but I can tell you which papers I used for the demonstrations in the articles above.

      The sunrise demo was on Rising Stonehenge paper. I do not recommend this for watercolor. It’s strictly a drawing paper but it can take a little water. I used water soluble pencils for the background only and it held up well for that use.

      The painting with two images of the same horse was drawn/painted on a Strathmore watercolor paper. I don’t recall the weight, but it was pretty solid. It was also very “pebbly” in surface texture, so was most likely a cold-press paper.

      The small headstudy was on an unidentified scrap of watercolor paper, probably the same type.

      Perhaps some of your fellow readers who also do watercolor can make some suggestions and good papers to try.


  10. Johanna Gallon

    You mentioned in your article that you learned by the mistake of not leaving highlights with colour pencils. I have had that problem too, so now I use a touch of gouache white for highlights in the eyes or other small areas. I know it is cheating but found that very effective.

    1. Johanna,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for leaving the comment.

      I’ve heard other artists talk about using gouache to add highlights. I’ve never done that, but have tried white acrylic. That looked good until the paint dried, then the brightness seemed to fade away. I realize now that it may have flaked off the drawing because wax and water don’t mix.

      Does gouache remain bright after it dries?

  11. Bev Symonds

    Hello again Carrie and everyone. . . . . .
    Don’t know if it was you, Carrie, or if I read it somewhere, but I have been using my bright white pencil (Polychromos or Prismacolor or Luminance) to outline the highlight area and then fill the whole area in with a good coat of white. This seem to help me stay away from my “whites” but if I need to shade into the white area it’s no problem. I use a fairly light hand on the outline, and I don’t burnish the white in the highlight area until the painting is almost finished.
    Hope this helps. . . it’s made a huge difference to me!

  12. Rowan

    Hi Carrie!

    So you mentioned in this article about how you used to use oil paints, but then started colour pencil. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start oil painting/watercolour?
    I always see on Pinterest these amazing, beautiful pieces of art that are in oil paint or watercolour, and I particularly like that style, but i’m complete crap at it!

    I’m quite the perfectionist you could say, but I love that style of art that seems almost “careless” I guess you could say, but whenever I attempt to do that “careless” style, I end up overcomplicating everything because I worry that I’ll mess it up. I’m a young (don’t want to reveal my age on the internet) artist and I only recently started drawing again after


    1. Rowan,

      I still oil paint. I’m working a portrait these days, as a matter-of-fact.

      The best advice I can give you is to keep trying. Nothing worth doing comes easily. I’ve been painting portraits for nearly 40 years and know first hand how long it takes to perfect a technique. I’m still trying!

      I’ve tried painting in a looser style and have never been satisfied because nothing ever looked unfinished. Some time ago, I decided to concentrate on what I did best and to become the best I could with those mediums and methods.

      If you want to give painting a try but don’t want to go it alone, look for a local artist who does classes or gives lessons. Contact the local gallery (if there’s one nearby). They quite often host classes.

      Above all, have fun. Finger paint if you have to!


  13. Callie G

    Try not to use a colour for a single item in a picture, unless you want the object to stand out from the rest of the picture, if the same colour is not used on more than one part of a picture,it looks odd and out of place .
    I use dark Indigo rather than black on deep shadows especially in foliage, it looks more natural, in fact I rarely use black, if you use dark indigo over a dark warm brown (van dyke) or darker for eye pupils it looks more “alive” than black.

      1. jan pendergast

        It’s always tempting to start something new , because we’ve always got ideas buzzing about in our heads ?
        I like to do pen drawings ( doodles) , and graphite , as well , so usually vary it this way . Just having a couple of prijects at the same time . Happy drawing , everyone

  14. Betty Zlatich

    I am new to color pencil! Like others, I too mess up getting the lighter areas to dark.
    I have used oil paints for many years. Love doing portraits. Due to health problems, I can’t stay at a project for very long, so lots of breaks are necessary. I feel doing this helps me be a better artist. When I come back to the project, I see when more work needs to be done, and mistakes that needs help.
    Happy creating!

    1. Betty,

      Thanks for the comment.

      You’re right about taking frequent breaks. It’s a good idea whether you have a health problem or not. Being able to look at a painting or drawing with a fresh eye is a great way to spot problems you might not have otherwise seen.


  15. Cynthia Carter

    I agree with you 100%. I am my own worst critic. I have found pin & ink drawings that are almost finished but I stopped and put them away because of a mistake that I could not “fix” at the time. Later (a month or 2 or 3 I go through my box of mistakes and on 99% of them I can’t find the mistake anymore. So if I don’t see it who will?

    1. Bev Symonds

      Hi Cynthia, Carrie and everyone!
      Cynthia you made me smile. . . . . . I did a watercolour of 3 pears about a year ago and decided it was just crap – to put it bluntly. I shoved it into my “looser box” and got on with things. The other day I found a painting worth framing. . . . the “Three Pears” is quite a nice piece and is now hanging on the wall!! I have no idea why I thought it was so bad.
      I have now stopped throwing things into the fireplace just because I don’t like them. They go into the “looser box” for later examination.

  16. Janell taylor

    I work that art till there is no paper left to work. I try to fix everything to perfection. Knowing when to leave it alone is something I wish were in my thinking process.
    I by no means think I am an artist but love to try and just keep trying. Old age has not brought wisdom . I want perfect and only God does that.
    Just love talented people who can create beautiful things.
    You are a winner. Just know what i like.

    1. Janell,

      Yes. To all perfection there is a limit!

      We’re a lot alike in that respect. I’m not a perfectionist in most things, but about art and writing, I am definitely a Perfectionist with a capital P.

      What I’ve discovered over countless years of trying is that nothing I do will ever be perfect. When I reach the point at which I don’t know what else to do with a drawing, I consider the drawing done (even if it looks unfinished) and move on to the next one.

      Second, I’ve also discovered that when I look at drawings I used to hate, they no longer look so bad. It would seem the intensity of the drawing process creates the sense that nothing’s right and everything’s trash. It takes time and distance from a project to be able to judge it on it’s merits.

      Do you find that’s true?

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!


  17. Don Sutherland

    Just found this on Pinterest and read the whole thing since the start. I haven’t used coloured pencil in years. Using pastels is something I’ve enjoyed forever. Recently I have tried drawing a very pale beige and white former pet cat, very limited success unfortunately. I believe I’ll see what happens with pencil.
    This has been an enjoyable read, thanks so much.

  18. Emma

    I was wondering why my white pencils never work? In tutorials and things I often see people adding the highlights with their white pencil but mine won’t even show up on a blank page!? Is this because my pencils are bad quality? I’ve started out with children’s pencils.

    1. Emma,

      Thank you for your questions!

      With wax-based colored pencils, it is next to impossible to layer lighter colors over darker colors and have them make an impact. You can lighten a color by layering white over it, but the white will not be very bright. When drawing something with white or light-colored areas, it’s best to work around those areas with the darker colors.

      The videos that show artists drawing over darker colors with white may be showing you one of two things:

      • The artists are using oil-based colored pencils such as Caran d’Ache Luminance, or
      • The artists are using another medium, such as acrylic paint, a gel pen, or similar

      The grade of pencils you’re using also influences what you can and cannot do.

      Children’s pencils contain more filler and binder and less pigment per pencil than artist grade pencils, so it takes more layers and more work to get the same kind of results with a less expensive pencil than with an artist grade pencil. Because they have less pigment, they also don’t cover as well as an artist grade pencil, so you will have difficulty adding color, especially lighter colors.

      If you’re interested in creating fine art, I’d suggest you buy a few of the better pencils and compare them to the pencils you’re currently using. If you’re able to order supplies online, try the Dick Blick Studio pencils. They’re an excellent artist-grade pencil at very reasonable prices. A set of 12 is only $9.99 plus shipping. You can also buy them open stock.

      If you buy at a store such as Hobby Lobby or Michael’s, you’re only choice may be Prismacolor. They’ll give you a good idea of the difference between artist-grade and student-grade, but may have breakage issues.

      If you do decide to try a different type of pencil, make sure to get artist grade. They will be more expensive to buy, but you will find they’re easier to use and less expensive in the long-run.

      I hope that helps you.

      Best wishes,


  19. Lisa

    Thank you very much! I have been working on a drawing of Venice for my son and daughter-in-law for what seems like forever. I am almost finished…just passed the ugly stage (I love that description by the way)and was saying to my husband it lacks highlights and is a little dark but don’t know how I can add now. Thanks for the tips! I feel so much better about my drawing now and am ready to add some highlights and finish that baby!
    Thank you again!

      1. Lisa Montoya

        It’s about 12X12. It’s really my first attempt of something that intricate. It has been a journey for sure! It’s from a photo my son took while they were there about 3 yrs ago and yes that’s about when I started it! I almost gave up. Now of course I’m glad I persisted.
        It has turned out pretty nice. Not perfect but nice.

  20. Pat Mcnulty

    If only highlights were my worst failing! Oh well. Because my brain just will not allow me to block out the highlights first, I have learned a number of ways to work around this. Electric erasers! Great for edge highlights or when I forget to add the stamens or pistils to a flower. Erasers in general are my best friends. I have found that the ones on the end of a #2 pencil work the best for me. Also, craft knives! I may have a future in scratchboard art because I use a knife so often. Great texture lines, but best to use this technique on heavier watercolor paper.
    Thanks for all your blogs and tutorials. Running an empire has got to be a lot of work, but you should know that we all appreciate it!

    1. LOL on the empire running, Pat! I’ve never thought of it that way. If I had to choose just one title, I’d probably choose Cat Herder. That pretty well describes everything, including the art business.

      A lot of artists rely on erasers of all types just as you do. One type I haven’t tried are ink erasers. I think they’re like those old-fashioned typewriter erasers. Do you remember those? They have bristles on the ends.

      Scotch tape works pretty well, too.

      Thank you for your comment and thank you especially for your cheerful closely paragraph.

  21. Sally

    Thank you, Carrie for all the great tips. I am just beginning with colored pencils and am having to learn it all. Right now I am working on highlighting, and have gone back to old pictures to work on. Not giving up on old pictures is wonderful advice. Thanks again for sharing all your knowledge.

  22. Richard Steffens

    Wow! You really got a lot of comments on this post and it deserved them. I have given up on several of my pieces for quite some time before but some I came back to and “saved” with a little more work. And some I ended up tossing in the trash. You mentioned Prismacolor Verithin pencils being good to use along with Prismacolor Premier pencils. Can you suggest some other cheaper brands that are worth looking into? I have done a lot of research or reading reviews on several brands and there’s always some folks who give negative reviews [lot of the time it’s in the 1-2% that aren’t happy]. I mostly use Prismacolor Premiers but have tried other brands like Arteza, Staedtler, FaberCastell Goldfaber, Blicks, and even CrazyArt ones when I first started. Thanks!

    1. Verithin pencils are probably going to be the most reasonably priced harder lead colored pencil on the market.

      I haven’t tried any of the other brands you suggested so can’t give you personal recommendations on them, but what you need to look for are pencils that are harder in lead than the Prismacolors. That usually means they’re oil based, but not always. For example, Polychromos are oil-based and they feel a lot like Verithins. In fact, I use them pretty much the same way when I combine Polychromos and Prismacolor pencils.

  23. Linda

    Carrie, I’ve just recently began to explore coloured pencil and really find your posts extremely helpful. I would really like to see a small simple drawing with a series of pictures from first sketch to final with every second layer shown – do you blend every layer (oil based pencil in particular) when using solvent or do you wait until the very end to blend?

    1. Linda,

      Thank you and welcome to the blog!

      Let me answer some of your more basic questions first.

      I consider the act of layering one color over another to be a form of blending. So in that respect, I do blend with every layer beginning with the second one. I’m just not using any special tools or techniques. Just one color layered over another.

      When I use solvent, I put enough layers on the paper for the solvent to work. Since I have a naturally light hand, that can mean from four to eight layers. You wouldn’t need as many layers if you have a naturally heavy hand. This is for all colored pencils, by the way, since solvent works the same for wax-based and oil-based pencils.

      I don’t usually blend right at the end of a drawing because I like the look of colored pencils without solvent blending.

      As for step-by-step tutorials, there are already a lot of them published on this blog. Four pages worth! Here’s a link to the category of tutorials. (https://www.carrie-lewis.com/category/step-by-step-tutorials/)

      Here’s a tutorial that includes the line drawing. (https://www.carrie-lewis.com/direct-drawing-tutorial-palomino-horse/)

      I hope I’ve answered your questions. If not, send an email and let’s talk.

      Thank you again for your kind words, and once again welcome to the blog and to colored pencils!

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