Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

Today’s question is a two-part question from Pat, who wants to know more about layering and blending colored pencils. Here’s the question:

Hello,

You say that you like to keep your pencils very sharp.  Do you do most of the layering with the point or the side of the pencil?

Do you also use mineral spirits on all your pictures?

In advance, thank you for reading my requests. Pat

Thank you for your questions, Pat.

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

You’ve touched on two of the most basic skills necessary to using colored pencils successfully. Master layering and blending, and everything else is icing on the cake!

Layering and Blending with Colored Pencils

Of all the ways to blend colored pencils, the best, most natural, and easiest way is layering. Every time you lay one color over another, you’re blending. The light moves through the different colors and mixes them so your eye sees a new color.

But you can layer with the tip of sharp pencils or with the side. There is a time and place for both.

Layering and Blending with Sharp Pencils

Most of the time, smooth color is vital to smooth blends, and sharp pencils are usually necessary for smooth color. So I use the tip of a well-sharpened pencil most of the time. And because I have a naturally light hand, I use light pressure for all beginning layers and as many others as possible.

But that’s not to say there’s never a time to use the side of a pencil. The side of a pencil is perfect for laying down thin layers of color over larger areas and for glazing. The sharper the pencil (and the longer the exposed pigment core,) the better.

In this illustration, for example, I wanted to draw a meadow seen from a distance. No sharp detail. Not much variation in values. So I used the side of the pencil to layer green, and let the paper show through help suggest the haziness of distance.

Layering and Blending with the side of a pencil
You can layer color with the side of a pencil instead of the point. When you use the side, the pencil can either be dull (as shown here) or well sharpened.

Another time when I’m likely to use the side of the pencil is to glaze one color over other colors.

Layering and Blending with Glazes

Glazing is a term that refers to adding very thin, transparent layers of color over color already on the paper. It’s an oil painting term and you create a glaze in oil painting by thinning paint so it’s very fluid and thin. It tints the colors under it, but doesn’t hide any of the details.

Obviously you can’t do the same thing with a colored pencil, because it’s a dry medium. But you can apply color so lightly that all it does is tint whatever colors are underneath. That’s what I mean by glazing.

I glazed yellow-green over the grass and a combination of greens over the umber under drawing of this portrait. The colors glazed change the color of the under under drawing without covering it completely.

A colored pencil glaze needs to be applied with light pressure. But broken color (when some of what’s underneath shows through) is also good for glazing with colored pencils. The side of a well-sharpened pencil is perfect for this, too.

Layering and Blending with Dull Pencils

There are also times when using a dull pencil is the best choice. I wrote about that a few days ago and you can read that post here. I mention it here because using sharp pencils sometimes isn’t the best—or fastest—way to layer or blend colored pencils.

Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits

Now, about odorless mineral spirits.

Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are a solvent designed to “melt” or liquefy the binder in colored pencils. While the binder is liquefied, the pigment can be moved around on the paper, smoothed out, and if you’re blending more than one color, the different colors can be blended together almost like paint.

There are a number of reasons to use odorless mineral spirits or any other solvent for blending.

Speed

Solvent blending is faster than blending by layering. You do need to have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to work with, but that usually requires only three or four layers.

Saturation

Solvent blending fills the tooth of the paper more completely and more quickly. Pigment soaks into the tooth of the paper better when wet than when dry.

Pain

If you have arthritis in your hands or wrists, or have some other painful condition, solvent blending may very well be the only way you can use colored pencils. Blending with solvent on a brush is a lot easier on your hands than blending by layering, especially in the later layers, when you have to apply more pressure.

So there are good reasons to use solvent blending.

Do I Use Solvent on All of My Work?

No.

Although I have mineral spirits in my colored pencil toolbox, the truth is that I don’t use it very often. When I do use it, it’s usually because I want some kind of special effect that’s attainable only with solvents, or I’m on a short deadline and need to complete something quickly.

There’s nothing wrong with using solvents for blending. I used turpentine and other solvents for years with oil painting.

But I prefer the look of colored pencils blended without solvents. Layering and blending different colors or different shades of the same colors to get the effects I want is more enjoyable than using solvents.

What Matters Most When with Layering and Blending

What really matters most with layering and blending is what works best for you. If solvent blending gives you the look you want for you art, then use it.

If you prefer to blend by layering, that’s what you should do.

Investigating how other artists work is always a good idea. You never know when you’ll learn something that takes your art to the next level.

But don’t feel obligated to use every method you see demonstrated.

Oil Painting Mediums and Colored Pencils

Is it possible to use oil painting mediums with colored pencils? That’s what Lorraine is asking. Here’s her question.

I’ve read of several different solvents that are used with coloured pencils but are worried about the archival quality of some of them on paper.  Which are archival?  Also are different solvents used with oil-based and wax-based pencils?

Oil Painting Mediums and Colored Pencils

There are a lot of oil painting mediums on the market today, and a lot of opinions about their usefulness with colored pencils.

So to keep this discussion on course, I’m tackling each of Lorraine’s questions in turn.

Oil Painting Mediums with Colored Pencils

Let’s break this up into two parts, because there are so many painting mediums available. First, those mediums that do work well with colored pencils, then those you should probably stay away from.

Oil Painting Mediums You can Use with Colored Pencils

The mediums used most by colored pencil artists and oil painters are the basic mediums. Turpentine and odorless mineral spirits.

Most artists opt for odorless mineral spirits whether they use oil paints or colored pencils because turpentine has such a strong odor. It’s simply not advisable for use by people with sensitivities, or if you have to work in small, enclosed spaces. Even with proper ventilation, the smell lingers in the air, and if you’ve used a lot of it to blend colored pencils, the smell can also cling to the paper.

But both turpentine and odorless mineral spirits are as archival with colored pencils as with oil paints. If you use them correctly, you should have no problems with fading color or deteriorating paper.

Don’t use ordinary paint thinner from the lumber yard or hardware store. Yes, it is the same basic solvent as artist quality solvents, but without the additional refining. Cheaper, yes. Archival? No.

Oil Painting Mediums You can’t Use with Colored Pencils

Some of the other oil painting mediums might not transition from oil painting to colored pencil work quite as well.

For example, my favorite oil paints are M. Graham Oils. M. Graham Oils uses walnut oil as the vehicle for their paints instead of linseed oil or safflower oil.

They also produce walnut oil and an alkyd/walnut oil blend for thinning oils. Both would probably blend colored pencil to some degree, but neither is archival because they discolor paper, and perhaps damage it in other ways.

These oil painting mediums and anything similar to them are not suitable for blending colored pencils.

None of the other oils commonly used with oil paints would be suitable, and for the same reasons.

Liquin is another popular oil painting medium. It’s a glazing medium. My guess is that Liquin might blend colored pencils, but also would not be archival for use with colored pencils.

So my advice is to stick with the basics, and forget the more modern, specialty oil painting mediums when you use colored pencils.

Different Mediums with Oil-Based and Wax-Based Pencils

All colored pencils are made with a binder that allows the pigment to be rolled into pencil shapes. All binders contain some wax and some oil.

Wax-based colored pencils contain more wax than oil. They are usually softer, often slightly thicker, and put color onto the paper more easily.

Oil-based colored pencils contain more wax than oil. They are usually harder, often slightly thinner, and put color on the paper a little less easily.

Turpentine and odorless mineral spirits work equally well with both. You may need to adjust the amount of solvent you use with one type of pencil over the other, but you can use the same solvent for both.

Conclusion

I hope that information helps you, Lorraine.

A lot of natural and synthetic mediums are available for oil painters. Since turpentine and odorless mineral spirits are archival with colored pencils, it seems to make sense that all the other mediums are, too.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that if the medium contains any kind of oil or varnish, it’s probably not going to work well either with colored pencils or paper.

And if you decide to try one of them, don’t try it on a drawing. Test it first on scrap paper!

Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

Blending colored pencils with OMS (odorless mineral spirits) is one of my three most frequently used blending methods. In today’s reader question, Patsy asks how to use odorless mineral spirits. Here’s the question:

I would like to know more about using OMS. I seem to make mud. I try using less, smaller brush, maybe not enough layers? Help!

Thank you, Patsy. How-to questions are always good questions. If one person asks, there are usually dozens of others who want to know the same thing, but haven’t asked. Well done!

There’s more than one way to blend with odorless mineral spirits (OMS,) and I’ve already written a tutorial on the subject. You can read that here.

Blending Colored Pencils with Odorless Mineral Spirits

I don’t think the problem is with the size of brush you use, although it is usually a good idea to use the largest brush possible for whatever area you want to blend. The reason is that you can cover the area more quickly, and that’s important because solvents can dry so quickly.

Tips for Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

Let me start with a few general suggestions for blending colored pencils with OMS, and then I’ll address the issue of mud.

Tip #1: Use the Right Paper

Any time you use odorless mineral spirits to blend colored pencil, you need to make sure you’re using a paper that can stand up to the moisture.

That doesn’t have to mean you use watercolor paper, but watercolor papers—and especially hot press watercolor papers—are great for blending colored pencils with odorless mineral spirits.

I often use 140lb hot press watercolor paper such as Canson L’Aquarelle or Stonehenge Aqua when I plan to blend with solvents. Watercolor paper stands up to moisture much better, and both of these papers have a tooth similar to drawing paper, so they’re perfect for colored pencils and solvent blending.

So are sanded art papers, although you need to adjust how to you blend when you use any sanded art paper.

Rigid supports (papers mounted to a rigid support) are also usually okay to use with odorless mineral spirits.

Believe it or not, regular Stonehenge papers perform well with limited amounts of wet blending. I’ve even used watercolor pencils on Stonehenge. Tape it securely to a rigid backboard first and it dries perfectly flat.

Tip #2: Put Enough Pigment on the Paper

Odorless mineral spirits work by breaking down the binder in colored pencil. The binder is what holds the pigment together, so when it’s broken down, the pigments can be blended almost just like mixing paint.

But you must have enough pigment on the paper before you blend. There isn’t a certain number of layers because a lot depends on how heavily you apply the color in the first place. If you use light pressure, you’ll probably need five or six layers before odorless mineral spirits will do any good.

If you tend to draw with heavier pressure, you can blend after fewer layers.

Tip #3: Use Less Odorless Mineral Spirits Each Time You Blend

The standard procedure with solvent blending is to do the first blend with a wet brush, then use a slightly drier brush with each successive blend.

Each subsequent time you blend an area, use less odorless mineral spirits. That way you’re not blending down to the paper each time (which can cause mud.) Keep a paper towel handy and after the second or third blending, blot your brush after picking up OMS and before touching it to paper.

In other words, the more often you blend a particular area, the less odorless mineral spirits you should need.

Now, to the matter of mud!

How to Avoid Mud when Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

All artists who have made art for any length of time have experienced mud. Mud is what happens when your beautiful colors suddenly lose all that vibrancy and turn into some colorless, dull, drab thing. It’s called mud for the very simple reason that the resulting color so often is mud-colored!

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay

How to Make Mud

Mud often happens when complementary colors are mixed together. Complementary colors are those colors that appear opposite one another on the color wheel. Yellow and purple are complements. So are red and green, and blue and orange.

Complementary colors tone down each other. They’re a great way to keep a color from getting too vivid. If you want to tone down greens in a landscape, add a touch of red.

But usually, you need only a little bit of the complement to tone down the color. A little bit of red in a landscape green is good. A lot of red in a landscape green and you end up with mud.

Mud also happens when you mix too many colors together. That happened to me a lot when I was oil painting because it’s so frightfully easy to keep adding different colors on a mixing palette.

But you can do it with colored pencils, too.

How to Avoid Mud

Without knowing specifics about what is happening to with your blending, Patsy, my guess is that you’re blending too many different colors together or that you’re blending complementary colors.

Try layering a few layers of one color, then blending with odorless mineral spirits. After that’s dry, layer the next color, then blend that. Remember to use less solvent with each blend, so you don’t also blend the colors underneath. This should give you more of a glazing effect, and should result in cleaner color so long as you avoid complements or near-complements and layering too many colors.

One other thing to watch for is a dirty brush. Rinse your brush between uses by blotting it on a clean paper towel until it no longer leaves color no the paper towel. Any color on the brush when you blend will dirty the color already on the paper.

And finally, don’t use dirty solvent. You can use solvent if there is sediment on the bottom of the container; just don’t stir it up. If there is sediment at the bottom, it’s better to carefully pour off the clean solvent, then dispose of the remainder.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

One of the biggest challenges for most of us is getting rid of paper holes in our color layers. No matter what the subject, we’re always looking for better ways to get smooth color with colored pencils.

That’s especially important if your subject includes a sky. Unless they’re filled with clouds, most skies move seamlessly from one shade of blue to another, and from light to dark. You simply can’t afford to have edges between those shades. Nor are paper holes acceptable.

“But aren’t solvents or complex techniques necessary for absolutely smooth color?” you ask.

No. Let me share two ways I use to get smooth color, and you already have the tools!

The first sample is on 140lb hot press watercolor paper, which is fairly smooth.

The second sample is on Canson Mi-Teintes, which is not so smooth. These two methods can be used on most papers suitable for colored pencil.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Get smooth color by careful layering.

The best way to get smooth color with colored pencils is by careful layering. It doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, or what pencils or paper you use. Draw each layer so carefully that the color needs little or no blending.

For the smoothest color, use light pressure through several layers. Each layer you add fills in the tooth of the paper more, creating steadily smoother color.

You can use heavy pressure to get smooth color. The darkest stripe in the sample below was drawn with very heavy pressure. The other values are multiple layers of repeating strokes applied with light pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Layering

Layer multiple colors to create new colors or subtle variations, as well as create smooth color.

Keep your pencils sharp, so they reach down into the tooth of the paper. Small strokes are also best for layering smooth color. Many artists also recommend circular strokes because they don’t leave edges. If you’re new to colored pencil and learning how to draw, then it is better to learn circular stroking.

But if you’re an established artist, you may already have developed other strokes that produce the desired results. Continue to use those strokes.

Get smooth color by blending with paper towel.

The second way to get smooth color with colored pencils is to blend it with paper towel. This method works especially well on Canson Mi-Teintes and other toothier papers.

Let me show you how to blend with paper towel.

Fold a piece of paper towel into quarters or smaller, depending on your hand size and the size of the area you want to blend. The paper should be small enough to hold firmly, but large enough to blend effectively. I usually fold a sheet of paper towel three times.

Rub the paper towel against the drawing. It’s next to impossible to cause damage (other than by blending over the edges,) so don’t be afraid to use heavy pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 1

Some color will come off on the paper towel. That’s okay. You can continue to blend with this paper, but be aware that if you begin blending an area of a different color, the first color will come off on the new color, especially if the second color is lighter than the first color.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 2

The illustration below shows blending on the left side, but not on the right. It doesn’t seem like it would do very much, but on Canson Mi-Teintes, it’s very productive.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Blended Sample

I have blended with paper towel on just about every type of paper I use regularly. That includes Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, and 140lb hot press watercolor paper.

If getting smooth color with colored pencils is one one of your big challenges, give these two methods a try.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Today, I want to share some of the colored pencil blending tools I use most often.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you may have read about some of these in different posts. But a recent reader question prompts me now to talk about them in a single post.

That reader asked about my favorite blending tools. Yes, of all the colored pencil blending tools available and all those I’ve used, I do have a few that I reach for repeatedly.

So I’ll tell what they are and why I like them so much.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Colored Pencil Blending Tools

As I describe in The Only Blending Methods You’ll Ever Need for Colored Pencil, there are really only three main categories of blending:

Pencil blending is what you do when you layer one color over another.

Dry blending is any method of blending that happens after you’ve layered color, and that doesn’t involve solvent.

Colorless blenders, blending stumps, and scraps of paper fall into this category.

Solvent blending is any blending method that requires a solvent. The solvent could be odorless mineral spirits, turpentine*, rubbing alcohol*, or rubber cement thinner*. Anything that dissolves the binder in colored pencil can be put into the solvent blending category.

*Links to articles on EmptyEasel.

I’ll list at least one in each of these three categories, and tell you not only why I like it, but how and when I use it.

The Colored Pencil Blending Tools I Reach For Most Often

Colored Pencils

The pencils themselves are my blending tool of choice. I use them every time I draw.

Why?

I love layering color and that’s the easiest—and most easily used—method of blending colored pencils on the market today. You don’t need smelly solvents (or any other kind.) You don’t need special tools or materials. Just pencils and paper.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Colored Pencils

Whenever I draw, I’m blending, whether I’m adding more layers of the same color to make darker values, or adding other colors to make new colors, it’s all blending.

Colored pencils are also great for burnishing, which is a form of blending in which you press down as hard as you can on the paper.

But the best part is that they require no additional storage containers or special treatment!

Bristle Brushes

A good, stiff bristle brush is also an excellent tool for blending colored pencils. Whenever you blend with solvent, you need a brush, and I get the best results with bristle brushes because I can use a little more pressure.

Well-worn bristle brushes are my absolute favorite. These two are just a couple from a jar full of worn out oil painting brushes I’ve kept on a shelf for years.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Bristle Brushes

TIP: If you happen to have old oil painting brushes lying around, don’t throw them away. Wash and rinse them thoroughly, let them dry, then put them in your colored pencil toolbox!

Yes, bristle brushes are perfect for blending with solvent, but that’s not my favorite way of using them.

When you draw sanded pastel paper (which I highly recommend you try at least once,) you create a lot of pigment dust. You can sweep that dust into the trash if you want, but there’s a much better option.

Blend it into the tooth of the paper with a bristle brush. The results can be quite pleasing.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Dry Blending Sample

Granted, this method of blending works best on sanded papers.

Colorless Blenders

For regular drawing paper, my favorite dry blending tool is what’s known as colorless blenders or blending pencils. Prismacolor colorless blenders are shown below, but many other brands also have blending pencils.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Colorless Blenders

Colorless blenders are pencils without the pigment. Prismacolor colorless blenders are a wax-binder core. Lyra’s Splender Blender is an oil-based blending pencil.

But in both cases, you can blend with them without putting additional color on the paper.

You can use any brand of blender on any brand of pencils. Lyra’s Splender Blender is oil-based and I used it on Prismacolor pencils until I used it up. It worked fine.

But in most cases, the blenders do work best on the pencils for which they were designed.

Solvents

I don’t really have a single favorite tool for blending with solvents other than my trusty bristle brush and a sable or two, so let me share my favorite solvent.

As I write this, I have Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits on my drawing table. I also have a small jar of rubbing alcohol. Both blend colored pencils quite well, though the Gamsol does produce a more thorough blend.

My Favorite Blending Tools - Sovlent

It’s difficult to say which I like better, since they’re suited for different types of blending.

Gamsol, for example, works on Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, watercolor paper (but not with watercolor pencils,) and sanded art paper.

Rubbing alcohol doesn’t have much of an impact on sanded art paper, and even on smoother papers, it’s better for smoothing out surface color, then deep blending multiple layers. What I refer to as “gentle blending.”

So those are my favorite colored pencil blending tools.

Do I use other tools to blend colored pencils? Absolutely!

Paper towel and bath tissue are great for soft blends on smooth papers like Bristol or Stonehenge. Sable brushes work quite well with solvents when I can blend an area without exerting a lot of pressure.

Don’t tell anybody, but I even sometimes use a finger tip, which is not recommended because of skin oils.

And there are many blending tools I’ve never tried.

But that, my friend, is an topic of another day!

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Let’s talk about those necessary accessories that help us get the most out of our pencils: colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

There are lots of sharpeners and erasers on the market. I haven’t used all of them, or even most of them, so the best I can do is tell you the which sharpeners and erasers I’ve used and what I thought of them.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Let’s begin with sharpeners.

Colored Pencil Sharpeners

Reader Question:

What is your favorite sharpener for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

Of all the sharpeners I’ve used, I’m not sure I have a favorite. All of them have worked well for some applications, and haven’t worked at all for others. I haven’t found a sharpener that works great for everything.

Hand-Held Sharpeners

The first sharpeners I ever used were hand-held sharpeners. You know the kind. They’re a dollar or less at your favorite super store or grocery store, they come in bright colors, and are made of plastic.

Sometimes they come with a container to hold shavings; sometimes they don’t.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Hand-held Sharpener

My first sharpeners didn’t have a container for shavings, so I had to carry one. Usually a small, empty wide-mouth jar. The sharpeners were usually small enough to fit into the wide-mouth jar.

Back then, they worked extremely well. Prismacolor pencils were still made with a solid wood casing that could withstand sharpening without breaking or cracking. I never once considered a different sharpener, especially since I was doing a lot of work out of the studio. Usually at horse shows.

The bonus was that if I happened lose or break a sharpener, it was no big deal. I just went and bought another!

Mechanical Sharpeners

I currently use an old-fashioned crank sharpener by Apsco. The kind that used to be in every classroom in every public school. I like this sharpener because it’s solid, is designed to take pencils of different sizes, and it sharpens like a dream.

It’s easy to clean, too. Just turn the shaving container a quarter turn, slide it off the blades, and empty it.

To keep the blades sharp and functioning properly, I sharpen lead pencils once in a while to remove wax and other colored pencil debris.

Electric Sharpeners

A few years ago, I had a battery operated, which made it ideal for working away from the studio. I used that Stanley Bostitch Model BPS10 everywhere.  It fit into the laptop carrier I used to tote art supplies, and it was quiet enough to use almost anywhere I wanted to draw.

It used four AA batteries and had a good-sized, easy-to-empty shavings tray.

Amazingly, it is still available for only $10.99 directly from Bostitch.

I also used a Panasonic Auto-Stop KP-310. The power cord was long enough to also make this compact sharpener good for drawing away from home if I was going to be in a place with access to electricity.

It sharpened extremely well, and had an auto-stop function, so it didn’t sharpen pencils beyond an ideal point.

But perhaps the best thing about this sharpener was the suction cup feet on the bottom. They kept the sharpener from moving backward when I used it. No need to steady the sharpener with one hand.

This sharpener is no longer available new, but I did find several listings at Amazon and eBay.  If you’re looking for a good, reliable, and inexpensive electric sharpener, this is a good place to begin.

Colored Pencil Erasers

Reader Question:

What is the best eraser for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

There isn’t a good eraser for colored pencils. Colored pencils are either wax-based or oil-based, so most “normal erasers” tend to smear the color around rather than remove it.

Some companies make colored pencils that can be erased, but these are not recommended for fine art use, or for any art you want to last. However, if you use them for sketching, you can use almost any standard eraser on them.

Here are some erasers I’ve tried…. for better or worse.

Click Erasers

What I refer to as click erasers are similar to mechanical pencils. The eraser is a long, round “tube” and fits into a plastic, pencil-like holder. The eraser is “advanced” by clicking a mechanism at the top of the barrel, hence my name for them.

Here are my click erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Click Erasers

The lighter blue one is a Pentel Clic Eraser ZE22. The darker pencil is a very old Faber-Castell Jet Eraser.

Refills come in various hardnesses. It’s helpful to have more than one eraser, each with a different hardness of eraser refill.

These erasers are stiff enough to sharpen with a blade if you want to make a very fine point. You can also shape them with an emery board or sand paper.

Kneaded Eraser

Kneaded erasers are pliable, which means you can shape them into various forms, roll them into points, or tear off pieces for small work.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Kneaded Eraser

I’ve used kneaded erasers, but they’re better suited to graphite than colored pencil.  They work wonders for graphite, but aren’t very effective for colored pencils.

Electric Erasers

My husband has a couple of old electric erasers that work extremely well with my colored pencils. He worked on one drawing that I thought was hopeless and was able to remove enough color to allow me to finish the drawing.

I’ve used them once or twice myself, but confess that I’m not comfortable with them. There’s just too much risk of scuffing the paper. They could be extremely useful with enough practice, but I work with such a light drawing hand that I see no reason to spend the time to get proficient with an electric eraser.

If you’re more daring with electric tools, you might try an electric eraser, though. A lot of colored pencil artists swear by them.

My Favorite Erasing Tools Aren’t Erasers

When I really want to remove color, I don’t reach for an eraser.

Instead, I use mounting putty (shown below,) or transparent tape.

Mounting putty is a lot like a kneaded eraser, but it’s sticky enough to remove wax- or oil-based colored pencils. You can’t lift all of the color, but you’ll be able to remove enough to work over it.

The real beauty of mounting putty is that you can shape it, clean it by kneading it, and reuse it for a long time.

Transparent tape is very good at lifting color, and it’s very easy to use. Just tear off a piece, press it lightly to the color you want to lighten, and lift carefully.

The only real disadvantages to using tape to erase is that you can tear the paper if you’re not careful, and it can leave the paper feeling a little bit slick. My suggestion is to use it as a last resort, and use it sparingly.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Tape

For tips on using mounting putty and tape, read 2 Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel.

Conclusion

There you have it. My favorite colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

As I said before, these aren’t the only sharpeners and erasers available, but they are the ones with which I have experience. They may be ideal for you, but if not, I at least hope I’ve given you a good place to begin looking!

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 2

In the previous post, I began a tutorial showing you how to draw complex flowers. The subject is a detail of hydrangea flowers and that post described how to draw the basic colors, values, and just a few details.

Today, we’ll finish the tutorial.

SPOILER ALERT: Due to the complexity of the drawing and some behind-the-scenes goings on, I was not able to finish the entire drawing. That wasn’t a surprise. I did finish the flower I started drawing in the previous post.

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 2

This is my reference photo. Thank yous to Loraine for taking the photo, and giving me permission to use it.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference Photo

This is how the drawing looked at the end of the previous post, which concluded with step 6 in the process.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 6

As you can see, the basic values have been drawn. The darkest values have been established and I can use those as a benchmark against which to compare the rest of the values.

I’m continuing the step numbering from the first post, so the first step in this post will be Step 7.

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 2

Step 7: Adding Darker Values Around the Flower

To make the flower show up better, add darker shapes around it. In this illustration, I’ve added the dark wedge shape to the lower right of the main flower. This darker value helps reveal the highlighted edge of the adjacent petals.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 7

I alternated layers of Faber-Castell Polychromos Violet and Purple Violet with Prismacolor Indigo Blue, all applied with medium pressure. I then applied Faber-Castell Pink Madder Lake with heavier pressure, and burnished with Prismacolor Light Blush.

TIP: It’s okay to simplify some of these background shapes to keep the main flower the center of interest. Those darker areas also provide a resting place for the eye.

Step 8: Finishing the Flower Petal-by-Petal

I confess that at this point, I wasn’t sure how best to proceed. It didn’t look like it would take much to finish the flower, but what was the next step? In the end, I took my own advice and began finishing one petal at a time.

To build color saturation, I blended Polychromos Violet, Purple Violet, Light Ultramarine, and Rose Madder Lake, plus Prismacolor Indigo Blue (only in the darkest values), Light Blush, and White. Colors were applied with medium to medium heavy pressure and alternating layers depending on the color and value of each area.

I finished by burnishing with Light Blush over all parts of each petal except the brightest highlights.

Finally, I burnished the brighter areas with White.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 8

The two outside petals have been completed. The darker petal just inside them has new layers of Indigo Blue in the darkest areas, and Violet in all of the shadows.

I also added another part of the background to show off the flower.

TIP: Blend various colors from different brands of pencils to get the most exact color options possible. I’m using wax-based Prismacolor with oil-based Polychromos pencils for this project.

Step 9: Finishing the Rest of the Flower

Continue finishing the flower petal-by-petal.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 9

Step 10: Solvent Blend

While the flower itself was looking pretty good, I wasn’t at all happy with the color. It was much too purple. The deeper shadows gave it a lot of depth, but it was simply not the right color.

In most cases, that’s not going to matter. No one needs to know that your reference photo shows a pinkish-lavender flower, but your drawing is pinkish-purple. After all, there are darker purple hydrangeas.

But I wanted to try a color correction, to see what happened and to show you how to do one.

I blended the flower with turpentine (you can use odorless mineral spirits if you prefer, or you can skip the solvent blend altogether.) I’d burnished my flower so much, the turpentine didn’t do much, so if you think there’s a possibility you might want to do a solvent blend, don’t burnish.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 10

Step 11: Burnishing with Pink

After the paper dried completely, I burnished the entire flower—shadows and all—with Polychromos Dark Flesh.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 11

Dark Flesh might seem like an odd color to choose, but after laying a selection of pencils against my printed reference photo, it proved to be the best choice.

I also  burnished some of the brighter highlights with White, and layered Dark Flesh over a couple of the nearby flowers for context.

Step 11: Time to Review

When you’ve finished the drawing, take a break from it. I like to let my projects sit overnight, then I review them and look for any adjustments that need to be made.

In the case of a project like this, continue finishing the entire drawing flower by flower until it’s completely finished. Then give yourself a day off before you review it.

A Couple of Tips in Closing

Don’t use two reference photos! At least, don’t use two forms of your reference photo.

I worked from a digital form and print form of the reference. The digital form shows the colors in the reference at the beginning of this post. The printed copy was more pink. I matched the colors with the printed reference and got pretty close. But the colors were way off when compared to the digital image. So chose one and stick with it!

Don’t fret over the details. I confess that I got bogged down with details a time or two and got careless in color selection. Don’t let that happen to you.

A Final Word

Overall, I’m pleased with the way the flower turned out but for one thing. I didn’t do a very good job of color matching. Other than that, the results are satisfactory… for a first-time floral drawing!

Will I finish the drawing? Probably not as a finished piece of art, but I will be working on it again as part of a review of Stonehenge Aqua 140lb hot press paper. That means lots of experimenting and learning. Stay tuned for that.

Do I regret the effort?

Not at all. I learn more from mistakes and miscues than from doing everything right. For example, I’ve learned that soft, luminous color requires soft, luminous shadows too. I didn’t do that right this time.

Hopefully, you’ll do better!

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 1

In a previous post, I shared four tips on choosing reference photos for flowers. I promised in that post to show you how to draw complex flowers. That’s what this post is all about.

I originally intended to do a single post for the tutorial, but it quickly became more like an ebook than a blog post, so I’ll be dividing it up into two posts.

How to Draw Complex Flowers Part 1

Loraine, who asked the question that began this series, was also kind enough to provide a selection of photos of hydrangeas from her own garden. Here’s the one I’ll be using for this tutorial.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Reference Photo

I cropped the image to focus on this bunch of blossoms because it limits the amount of flower to draw. The “empty” space at the bottom allows room for a few words if the art is to be used for a card. If not, it provides a resting place for the eye.

Tips for Getting Started

Before I begin the tutorial, let me suggest some ways to speed up the drawing process.

Use Colored Paper

If you have colored paper, that’s a great way to save time on a drawing. For a subject like this, use a light blue or lavender paper. Either of those colors will provide a good base color for both the flower and the leaves, and yet be light enough to provide for eye-catching highlights.

I’m using Stonehenge Aqua 140 hot press watercolor paper in white.

Consider a Wet Medium

If all you have is watercolor paper—or if that’s what you prefer using—consider toning the paper with washes of wet color. You can use either watercolor or water soluble colored pencils (my preference would be water soluble colored pencils.) The advantage to this method is that you can tone each area to suit the drawing. Blue or lavender for the flowers, and green or even an earth tone for the leaves.

Why an earth tone on the leaves? That will provide a complementary under drawing for the greens and keep them from getting too bright. You could also do a complementary under drawing on the flowers, but this color is so soft, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Remember to work around the brightest highlights on the flower if you choose to use a wet medium.

Start Small

No matter what type of composition you choose, there will be a lot of detail to draw. You’ll make faster progress on a small drawing, and will be less likely to become overwhelmed.

Smaller drawings also keep you from getting bogged down in details. If you’re like me, that’s a big plus with a new subject!

How small is small? My drawing is 5×7.

How to Draw Complex Flowers

Step 1: The Line Drawing

A good line drawing is going to be your best tool for drawing a subject like this, so take your time.

It didn’t take me very long to discover that the confusion of shapes led to a confused line drawing, so I drew the outlines of each individual flower with a bold line, then added a few interior details with a lighter line.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Line Drawing

I also refrained from drawing out a lot of the interior details. Trying to mark every edge between values and colors would further confuse the issue, so I left them out.

Not only does this produce a clearer line drawing, it will provide a better guide when you begin adding color.

Step 2: Transferring the Line Drawing

My preferred method of transferring a line drawing is with a light box. I mount the line drawing (which is on tracing paper) to the back of the paper, then lay the paper on a light box and carefully trace the drawing onto the front of the drawing paper. This method allows me to use colored pencils for the transfer process, which eliminates the risk of dirtying the paper with either graphite or other transfer mediums.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Transferred Line Drawing

I used Faber-Castell Polychromos Light Magenta to redraw the flowers, and Olive Green Yellowish to redraw the leaves.

Make sure to use light pressure to redraw the line drawing, or you could impress the lines into the paper. Impressed lines can be filled in again, but why create that extra work for yourself?

TIP: Don’t have a light box? Don’t worry! I don’t either. Instead, I use either a large window or the window in the front door as a light box. It works even on a cloudy day!

Step 3: The First Color Layers

Begin adding color with a medium purple (I used Polychromos Violet). Work in one small area at a time, and carefully outline the shape of each shadow with light pressure. Shade each shape layer by layer, using multiple layers (not increased pressure) to draw the darker values.

If you’re working on white paper, work around the highlights, especially at the edges of each petal. You will be able to lift a little color if you need to, but you won’t be able to get all the way back to white paper. Those bright highlights are what will help make your drawing come to life.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - First Color Violet

TIP: The purples and pinks in the Prismacolor line are notoriously bad for fading. If you’re doing craft work or drawing art for cards or similar uses, you can use these colors without worry. But if you’re doing fine art or want your drawings to last, consider using pencils with higher lightfast rated purples and pinks. Polychromos have more lightfast pinks and purples available. That’s why I’m using them for this drawing.

A Note on Pencil Strokes

Ordinarily, I recommend small, overlapping circular strokes for drawing even color unless you’re drawing something like hair or grass. The texture of these flowers is very soft and delicate, so I started with small, overlapping circular strokes in the areas marked with red arrows.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Pencil Strokes

But I wasn’t satisfied with the way those areas looked after a layer or two, so I tried parallel strokes that follow the contour of each petal. Two such areas are marked with blue arrows.

The result was much more satisfactory on the paper I was using. I don’t know if there would be such a marked difference on regular Stonehenge (remember, I’m using Stonehenge Aqua) or Bristol or any other smooth paper.

If you’re in doubt, experiment on a scrap piece of your drawing paper first.

Step 4: Adding Blue

Next, layer a light blue (I used Light Ultramarine) over all of the purple areas, as shown below. Use light pressure and short, careful strokes.

I worked on only one flower from this point on, and recommend you do the same. It’s easier to see progress working from flower to flower, rather than trying to do each step with all the flowers.

It’s less confusing and frustrating, too!

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 4

Step 5: Adding Pink

Add the pink shades at the centers of the petals with light pressure and careful strokes. Since the pink appears to “radiate” out from the center of the flower, I used directional strokes beginning at the center.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 5

Step 6: Finishing the Base Color

Finally, I used a combination of Sky Blue and Pink Madder Lake to glaze a base color over all of the lighter values in the flower. Those two colors blended to make a close approximation of the actual colors in the reference photo. Not perfect, but close.

If you have a color that matches better, use that. Whatever color or colors you use, continue to use light pressure.

How to Draw Complex Flowers - Step 6

To finish this step, layer a medium purpose over the darkest shadows on the two petals to the left. I’m still using light pressure and careful, directional strokes to lay down color, but you can see how the accumulation of layers is creating darker values.

Also take note of the added details in the bottom petal. Draw these in very lightly. It’s not important that you get them absolutely correct according to the reference photo. Just add a few to give the flower character.

If your drawing is very small or you’re doing a less realistic rendering, you may not need these details at all.

Conclusion

The first part of the tutorial concludes here. I’ll finish this flower in the next post.

If you’re following along with your own drawing and you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can do these steps for some or all of the remaining flowers.

In the meantime, see you on Saturday!

Unusual Blending Methods for Colored Pencil

This is our final post in on the theme of blending colored pencils. We’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, but I hope the posts have been helpful. To close the series, I’d like to talk briefly—and perhaps a little light-heartedly—about some unusual blending methods for colored pencil.

Unusual Blending Methods for Colored Pencil

Most of the items on this list can be found in your home without too much difficulty. In fact, you may see some of them every day of the week, but have just never considered them to be art supplies.

So what are they?

Here’s my list.

Unusual Blending Methods for Colored Pencil

Whenever I talk about unusual blending methods, I begin with my two favorite things: Paper towel and bath tissue.

They’re inexpensive, easy to store, and super easy to use. Just fold a piece of either one into a small square and rub a portion of drawing vigorously to smooth color

Granted, using paper towel or bath tissue is not a very bold blending method, but if all you need is a softening of color, this might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Want to learn more? Read 2 Ways to Use Bath Tissue with Colored Pencil

Other Unusual Blending Tools

I keep a bag handy to throw rags into. The rag-bag is a natural outgrowth of oil painting. There are brushes, painting knives, and palettes to clean, after all. Nothing works better for that than paper towel, but that can get expensive. Since I’ve always been on a budget, I started looking for alternatives. Enter, the rag-bag.

So just what goes into my rag-bag?

  • Old socks
  • cast-off clothing
  • Worn dish towels
  • Scraps of fabric
  • Anything that looks at all useful

Unusual Blending Methods for Colored Pencil Rag Bag

Now I can guess what you’re thinking. Just what in the world does this have to do with colored pencil? Just this….

All of these things can be used to dry-blend colored pencil, and it’s very easy to do. Fold a piece of cloth into a small square, then rub the part of your drawing you want to blend. Make sure to hold the drawing firmly and work small areas, or you can bend or tear the paper.

You can also fold the cloth around your finger or fingers if you need to blend a small area. If the socks are intact, you can even slip your hand inside them and use them that way.

You can use heavy pressure and a fairly vigorous motion if you like, but understand that you’re probably not going to get a “really deep” blend with this method. The coarser the cloth, the more blending capability, but even so, all you’ll be able to do is smooth the color.

One Last Option

If you just can’t find the right blending tool, try a scrap of drawing paper. Did you know that Stonehenge paper is a great way to blend colored pencil on Stonehenge paper? Don’t throw those scraps away!

The Best Part About These “Art Tools”

What’s the best part about all of these “art tools?”

They’re completely non-toxic (well, some of them will be non-toxic after they’re laundered!). No fumes, no hazards, no need to use them in well-ventilated areas.

Anyone can use them! No special skills required and no need to worry about allergens.

Clean up is also pretty straight-forward. Throw the fabrics into the washing machine with the next load, and the papers into the trash, and you’re good!

Most of them are inexpensive. You absolutely, positively will not need to add to your art budget to get them.

The plain and simple fact is that most of us throw most of these things away without giving them a second thought. So why not start your own “rag-bag” collection of art tools and give these things a try?

Who knows? These unusual blending methods for colored pencil might be exactly what you’ve been looking for.

Interested in learning more about blending colored pencils? Check out The Only Methods You’ll Even Need for Blending Colored Pencil.

Blending Colored Pencil with Painting Solvents

Last week’s cornerstone article was a tutorial showing how I blended colors in a background with rubbing alcohol. In that post, I mentioned that the method also worked for other solvents, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about blending colored pencil with painting solvents.

Blending Colored Pencil with Painting Solvents

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I don’t often blend colored pencils with solvents of any kind. I much prefer the look of a drawing when the blending has been accomplished by layering.

Read more about dry blending.

But there are times when blending with a solvent of some kind is the prudent thing to do. Maybe I’m short of time or the effect I want can be accomplished no other way.

Since I began my artistic career as an oil painter, it was natural to try my painting solvents for blending colored pencil work. Do you know what? They really do work!

The Painting Solvents I Use and Why

The two painting solvents I use most often with colored pencil are turpentine and odorless paint thinner. At the moment, I have plenty of turpentine (I used to buy it by the quart when I was painting), so that’s what I use.

I use turpentine because after years of using it with oil painting, I know how it behaves. I know what to expect and am comfortable with it.

It also is capable of producing very richly saturated color if there’s plenty of color on the paper when I blend. Turpentine breaks down the binder so well that colors become almost liquefied and blend together much like paint does.

But you….

Have to have a lot of color on the paper, and…

Let the drawing dry thoroughly before adding more color. I usually let my drawings sit over night.

Odorless mineral spirits are the same as odorless paint thinner. Don’t be fooled, though. Just because a solvent is odorless doesn’t mean its non-toxic. Keep containers closed and sealed when not in use.

In fact, a little painting solvent goes a long way, so consider buying small bottles.

Additional Reading

This is EmptyEasel link article day, so I’ll close with a link to an article I wrote some time ago: How to “Paint” with Colored Pencils and Turpentine.