Let’s talk about basic colored pencil terms today.
A lot of readers are new to this blog, or new to colored pencils, or both. Whichever category you fall into, welcome! Welcome to the blog and welcome to colored pencils!
If you haven’t already, you’re going to hear a lot of terms that make no sense. That’s my bad. I’ve been doing colored pencils so long, I tend to forget what it was like when I first got started!
I also know there are a lot of budding artists out there who already love the medium, but are confused by the jargon.
So today, I want to go back to square one and define some of those confusing-but-basic colored pencil terms.
Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained
To make things less confusing, I’ve arranged terms into four separate categories. We’ll begin with the two most basic: Pencils and Paper!
Basic Pencil Terms
The following terms apply to your colored pencils no matter what brand you prefer or the quality of pencils in your pencil box.
All colored pencils are made by grinding pigment, then mixing it with a binder. The binder allows the pigment to be formed into the core of the pencil, holds it together while you use the pencil, and allows the pigment to lay down smoothly on the paper.
Wax-based pencils like Prismacolor and Caran d’Ache Luminance utilize a binder that’s mostly wax.
Wax-based pencils generally lay down more smoothly, and are softer. They also tend to break more easily if you press too hard with them.
They’re great for laying down lots of color quickly, but can be more of a challenge in drawing details.
Wax bloom can also be a problem, especially with dark colors.
Wax-based pencils are the most popular and the most widely available.
Oil-based pencils have a binder that’s mostly oil, often vegetable oil. They do contain some wax, but not usually much. Faber-Castell Polychromos and Rembrandt Lyra are oil-based pencils.
Oil-based pencils are harder and sometimes more brittle feeling than wax-based pencils. That makes them great for detailed work. Smooth layers of color are possible, but aren’t usually as easy to achieve. They hold a point much longer, too.
Wax bloom is not usually a problem with oil-based pencils, even if you tend to use heavier pressure when drawing.
When you draw, you leave color on the paper, but you also leave binder. The harder you press on the paper with the pencil, the more color and binder you leave on the paper.
Wax binder eventually rises to the surface of the color layers, giving them a foggy, misty, or gray appearance. This is normal with all colors, though it’s more obvious on darker colors.
The cloudy right half of this sample is wax bloom. The left side shows the natural color after the wax bloom has been removed.
Wax bloom is easily removed by wiping a drawing with clean tissue and light pressure. It can be prevented by sealing a finished drawing with final finish; preferably one designed for colored pencil work such as Brush & Pencil’s Final Fixative.
Framing under glass will not prevent wax bloom.
Grades of Pencils
Colored pencils are manufactured in three grades: Scholar, Student, and Artist. Scholar-grade pencils the least expensive and poorest quality. Artist-grade pencils are the highest quality, so are usually more expensive.
Artist grade pencils have a higher ratio of pigment to binder, so they produce better color and results with less effort. They’re often more fade resistant.
Scholar grade pencils have more binder and less filler, so the color they produce may be weak or pale.
You can make great art with any grade of pencils, but will generally get the best results with higher quality pencils.
A pencil is lightfast if it doesn’t fade over time.
If a color fades over time, it’s also referred to as fugitive. The color “runs away and hides” if exposed to light. Sometimes it may disappear altogether, and sometimes very quickly.
Pencils are rated differently in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, but all brands are tested in some form, and many companies provide color charts that include lightfast ratings.
Watercolor Pencils/Water Soluble Pencils
These are watercolors in pencil form. Many artists consider them to be colored pencils, others don’t. Since many colored pencil manufacturers also produce watercolor pencils, I tend to think of them as colored pencils that just happen to dissolve in water.
Instead of a wax- or oil-based binder, they use a binder that dissolves in water. You can draw with them dry and mix them with other colored pencils.
You can also draw with them dry, then wet blend them with water, or paint with them by dampening the pigment with water and using a brush.
The following terms apply to drawing papers of all types.
The surface you draw on. For colored pencils, that’s usually paper, but colored pencils can also be used on wood, pastel papers, mylar and other similar films, and mat board, just to name a few.
Some paper manufacturing companies also produces papers mounted to a rigid support. The drawing surface is still paper, but the support itself is rigid. Many sanded art papers are available as sheets and boards, for example.
Tooth refers to the surface texture of papers. The toothier a paper is, the more texture it has. Sand paper has more tooth than inkjet paper.
Tooth is important to the colored pencil artist because of the way colored pencil lays down on different types of paper. In most cases and for most methods of drawing with colored pencils, smoother papers are better.
However, there sanded art papers are one notable exception. The grittiness of sanded art papers would seem to make them unsuitable for colored pencils, but many artists actually prefer them to traditional drawing papers.
The weight of the paper refers to the thickness. A 98lb paper is thinner than a 140lb paper. Paper is measured this way because the “weight” is what a standard ream of a particular paper weighs. A ream is 500 sheets, so a ream of 98lb paper weighs 98 pounds.
The actual process is quite complicated, since the weights assigned to papers are assigned based on the standard size for each type of paper, and the type of paper (bond paper, card stock, etc.)
All you really need to keep in mind is that the higher the pound weight, the thicker the paper is most likely to be.
This is important because you don’t want to use a drawing paper that’s too thin (light weight.)
Most pads of drawing paper include clear labeling on the weight of the paper (see above.) Most full sheets are also labeled, though the information may be more difficult to locate.
Those are our basic colored pencil terms defined for today. There are a lot more terms relating to both pencils and papers, so if you encounter a term you don’t understand, send me an email and ask about it.
Next week, we’ll talk about some basic colored pencil terms concerning drawing methods and techniques.