A Beginner’s Guide to Burnishing

A Beginner’s Guide to Burnishing

Today’s post is a beginner’s guide to burnishing, and it’s a response to a recent reader question.

…you’re going to think me stupid when I ask how you burnish as I find all the videos online confusing when you are so clear. Hope you do not mind my question. Kind regards, Joy

Thank you for the question, Joy. Let me assure you that the only “stupid question” is the one you don’t ask! I spent too many years trying to figure out how to do things myself to think any question is stupid!

Now, to answer your question.

A Beginner’s Guide to Burnishing

What Is Burnishing?

Burnishing is drawing with very heavy pressure. When you burnish, you push the pencil against the paper as hard as you can.

The purpose is to put so much pressure on the color layers already on the paper that you “grind” them together and also grind them into the tooth of the paper. That blends them and fills in the tooth of the paper so there are no paper holes remaining (or very few). The resulting color is brighter and richer.

Burnishing is one of the basic blending methods for colored pencil drawings.

What Tools Do You Need?

Colorless Blenders

The most commonly used burnishing tool is something called a colorless blender. A colorless blender is basically a colored pencil without color.

Prismacolor colorless blenders (shown below) work with any wax-based colored pencil. Other brands with colorless blenders are Blick Studio and Lyra (oil-based.) Check your favorite brand to see if they make a colorless blender specifically for that brand. Otherwise, any of the other blenders are likely to work.

beginner's guide to burnishing

Use colorless blenders just like you use a regular, pigmented colored pencil, but press very hard on the paper. The material in the colorless blender helps move the color around on the paper, filling in the tooth of the paper and blending the colors without adding any additional color.

Regular Colored Pencils

You can also use a colored pencil for burnishing.

If you use a lighter color to burnish darker colors, the lighter color will make the other colors lighter and tint them with whatever color you use. If you burnish dark blues or greens with a light yellow, for example, you’ll blend the dark colors together, but will also give them a yellow tint.

The same thing happens if you burnish light colors with a darker color, though the result is usually much more dramatic. The resulting color is usually quite a bit darker.

You can, of course, blend with the same color you’ve already used or with one of the colors you’ve used if you’ve layered more than one color. This won’t change the final color as much. If you burnish red with red, the color won’t change at all other than to appear brighter.

When to Burnish

For the best results, burnish after putting several layers of color on the paper. Preferably when you’re nearly finished. You can add more color after you’ve burnished, but it will be increasingly difficult. Why?

Because when you use very heavy pressure, you not only add color, you press down the tooth of the paper. That makes the paper smoother. The smoother the paper, the harder it is to add more color.

It’s also more difficult to remove color that’s been burnished. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to remove burnished color without risking damage to the paper or the drawing.

If you burnish before you have enough color on the paper, you press down the tooth of the paper—making it smoother and more difficult to draw on—without doing much blending.

So save burnishing until near the end of the drawing process.

An Example of Burnishing

In the following illustration, I’ve drawn six boxes with a medium value red, Scarlet Lake.

I didn’t do anything with the first box. It’s just red.

I burnished the second box with a colorless blender.

The third box is burnished with yellow and the fourth box with a blue that’s darker than the shade of red I used. For the fifth box, I used white and burnished the final box with the same red.

beginner's guide to burnishing

You can see how the color with which you chose to burnish can change the appearance of the colors you’re blending.

It’s a good idea to test new methods before using them on a drawing. Make a test strip like the one above to see what happens when you burnish with different colors.

Also try layering two or more colors, then burnishing them with a colorless blender, a lighter color, a darker color, white, and one of the original colors. The results will give you a good idea what to expect on a drawing.

How Burnishing Looks in Practice

Here’s a sample from an old drawing. There are several layers of color on the paper at this point. Color is fairly saturated—there isn’t much paper showing through the background.

I burnished a small part of the background (see red arrow.) You can tell exactly where I burnished and where I stopped. The color is darker and more saturated after burnishing than before.

beginner's guide to burnishing

I burnished with a cream colored pencil, so it not only blended but tinted, as well. I could just as easily have used a colorless blender to blend the colors without changing them, or used different colors to burnish different areas and create subtle gradations of color.


And that’s my beginner’s guide to burnishing.

Burnishing is a very useful tool if used at the right time, especially if you prefer not to blend with solvents. Try it and let us know how it worked for you.

For more on blending, read Layering and Blending Colored Pencils.


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