Correcting an Uneven Color Layer

A reader recently asked for suggestions on correcting an uneven color layer. Since I know from personal experience that drawing smooth color is both important and difficult, I wanted to share a few tips with you.

Here’s the reader’s question summarized:

If the color that you layered isn’t even can one correct it and if so how?

Tips for Correcting an Uneven Color Layer

Learning from My Mistakes

I can speak of uneven color layers from personal experience.

I made mistakes with Afternoon Graze early in drawing the meadow in the background, and I know exactly how they happened.

Getting careless in finishing the first layer in the middle distance was my downfall. This detail reveals my careless drawing. You can see “streaks” of slightly darker color to the right and left of the horses.

Here’s a closer look at the area on the left.

I was drawing on Bristol, a very smooth paper that’s made for smooth color. Imagine how uneven this layer of color would have been on Stonehenge or Canson Mi-Teintes!

Even on Bristol, it took a lot of work to cover the unevenness. However, if you look at that piece now, you can’t see those uneven patches. You’d never know they were there, under all that color, if I didn’t tell you.

Afternoon Graze after Correcting an Uneven Color Layer

The moral to that story is that there is hope for correcting uneven color layers, or at least covering them up. If I can do it, you can too.

Tips for Correcting an Uneven Color Layer

Covering up uneven color will take a little time and effort, as my example proves. But you probably already have all the tools you’ll need to smooth out the color. The six tips that follow require no special skills or purchases. You can implement them right now!

Continue layering color over the uneven color.

Make each additional layer as smooth and even as you can. It will take a lot of layers, but you will eventually cover the uneven areas. Careful stroking is the key.

Read Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils for two more tips on layering.

Keep your pencils sharp.

The sharper your pencils are, the more easily the tip goes into the tooth of the paper. The more color you get into the tooth of the paper, the more even the resulting color layer. So sharpen often.

Try holding your pencil in a more vertical position.

Holding the pencil in a more vertical position makes it easier to get the tip of the pencil into the tooth of the paper without damaging the tooth. Especially if your pencil is as sharp as you can make it.

Try a stippling (tapping) stroke with this grip for even better results.

Mix strokes from one layer to the next.

Using different types of strokes helps fill in the uneven color a little more quickly. You might use circular strokes for one layer, then cross hatch for the next, and use directional strokes for the following layer.

If you do mix strokes, keep them all close together and use light pressure so you don’t accidentally make the problem worse. Or create a new one!

Work slowly and carefully.

Perhaps most important of all is to work slowly and carefully. I created my problem by rushing through the work. Had I been more careful in putting color on the paper, I would have avoided the uneven color in the first place.

And I didn’t help myself by trying to hurry through making corrections, either!

So whenever you find yourself hurrying or getting careless in how you draw, take a break! You’ll save time in the long run.

Trust me!

Blending with odorless mineral spirits may help.

Solvents blend color by breaking down the binder and allowing the pigment to flow together. The more fluid the pigments become, the better they sink into the tooth of the paper.

You do need a sufficient amount of pigment on the paper for solvent to work, though. In the case of Afternoon Graze, solvent would not have helped me because there was so little color on the paper.

If your uneven color layer happens after you have a lot of color on the paper, you might try carefully blending that area with solvent before trying any of the previous tips.

However, blending will change the appearance of the color, even if just a little bit. That’s why I mention it last, and why I usually use it as a last resort.

Conclusion

So the next time you discover you’ve drawn an uneven color layer, don’t panic. Take your time. Keep your pencils as sharp as you can, and keep every new layer as smooth as you can.

It will all work out!

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Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper

After last week’s article published, I got a thank you and a question (or two) from a regular reader. She liked the tips on putting spots of color on black paper, but wanted to know how metallic pencils worked on black paper.

You know what? I didn’t know, so I told her I’d do some experimenting and let her know.

Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper

Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper

Three Experiments

The reader wanted to know the following:

Do metallic colored pencils look better on black paper than on white?

What happens if you layer them over watercolor?

I cut a few four by five inch pieces of Canson Mi-Teintes black and started drawing (and painting.) Here are my answers.

Do metallic colored pencils look better on black paper?

Yes, in my opinion. They show up better on black than they do on white. They don’t look any more metallic, but the color is good.

I used Prismacolor Soft Core Silver, Gold, and Copper to draw the following tree study. The center tree is silver, the tree on the left is gold, and the tree on the right is copper. I used the paper color for shadows, and drew highlights with medium or heavier pressure and multiple layers. The middle values are the result of lighter pressure and fewer layers.

Just so you could see what white looks like applied the same way, I added some snowflakes. (You can’t blame me. We had snow this past week, and it was lovely!)

Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper 1

You probably can’t tell the colors are metallic, but if I hold the drawing a certain way against the light, there is a sparkle. That’s kind of neat.

What happens when you use metallic colored pencils over watercolor pencil.

Since I don’t have artist-grade watercolors and since the watercolors I have dry slick, I tried Faber-Castell watercolor pencils. The set I have includes white, so I drew the trees with that, then used a damp brush to activate it.

I didn’t have to pick up a metallic colored pencil to know this wasn’t going to work. As soon as the color got wet, it disappeared into the paper. Canson Mi-Teintes is pretty absorbent, so I should have anticipated this. I let the paper dry, then went over it again. The results were only slightly better.

When the paper dried, I added metallic silver, gold and copper to the trees. That turned out okay, but the color looked a lot better (in my opinion) when put straight on the black paper. However, the white added a little bit more to the drawing as a light value and that made the trees look more solid.

Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper 2

Again with the snowflakes. This time I used the three metallic colors along with white to put in the snow. Even those little dots show up better than the metallic colors on white watercolor pencil.

What happens when you use metallic colored pencils over watercolor.

Since I’m a glutton for punishment and was having fun, I got out those cheap watercolors and painted another tree. When the paper was thoroughly dry, I tried to put metallic color over it. As expected, I couldn’t get much colored pencil to stick to the watercolor.

However, I could lay down colored pencil next to some of the painted shapes, and I also added some twigs with colored pencil. The result was surprisingly pleasing!

Metallic Colored Pencils on Black Paper 3

The final touch was more snowflakes with all three metallic colors and white.

Conclusion

In my experiments, metallic colored pencils performed quite well on black paper. At this point, I suggest using them without a white under drawing or painting, but better quality watercolor paint might produced better results.

It’s worth a try, anyway.

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Add Spots of Color to Black Paper with This Neat Trick

Here’s a neat trick to add spots of color to black paper or paper of any dark color. It’s fast and easy, too. What could possibly be better?

What’s more, you can add bright color to dark paper using this method.

Try This Neat Trick to Add Spots of Color to Black Paper

I really enjoy drawing on dark papers. Black is a favorite color, but greens, blues, and browns also attract my attention. There’s just something about putting color on a darker paper that no lighter paper can match.

But lets face it. It can be so difficult to get decent color on dark papers. Colored pencil seems to seep into the paper and disappear!

But my holiday doodles and plein air sketches led to a neat way to add spots of color to black paper. Or any other dark-colored paper.

Best of all, it’s easy!

How to Add Spots of Color to Black Paper

Hold your pencil vertical to the paper, with the tip of the pencil on the paper. This part is important. If you hold the pencil any other way, you will not get spots. At least not round spots.

Turn the pencil a half turn or more without lifting it. The more you turn the pencil, the brighter the resulting spot of color will be. You may need to support the pencil with your free hand to keep it steady on the paper.

Use medium pressure.  Light pressure isn’t enough to get bright color. Heavy pressure may result in puncturing the paper or breaking the pigment core. I shattered several pigment cores while doing the drawing below. The good news is that they didn’t damage the paper.

A soft pencil such as Prismacolor Soft Core or Caran d’Ache Luminance works best with this technique, but I’ve also had success with Faber-Castell Polychromos.

You’ll also get better results is you use a soft paper like Stonehenge or Canson Mi-Teintes.

I used this “trick of the trade” to draw this lighted Christmas tree and stars on black Canson Mi-Teintes, but it would work great on any other dark colored paper. I’m eager to find dark green, dark blue, and even dark red paper.

Add Spots of Color to Black Paper - Christmas Tree and Stars

It’s also an ideal way to add spots of color and accents to any drawing on any color paper.

Other Tips and Suggestions

This method impresses the marks into the paper, so you could use it on light colored paper to add spots of color, then shade other, darker colors on top.

The size and brightness of the spots you add vary depending on the softness of the pencil and paper you use.

You can add small details to any type of drawing with this method.

One Final Comment….

This discovery proves how important it is to draw regularly, even if you’re just doodling or playing with color. I would probably not have learned how to add spots of color to black paper this way if I hadn’t been doodling.

So do some doodling. You just never know where it might lead!

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How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

Today, I want to show you how to draw gold.

My subject is the gold cap on a Christmas ornament, but you can draw any type of reflective gold object using this method.

In fact, you can draw any reflective object using this method.

How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

The method is a three-step method starting with an under drawing and finishing up with detailing.

I used Bristol vellum paper because of its smoothness and ability to take color. This three-step method is also suitable for other papers, but the more tooth in the paper, the more layers you need to get full, rich color.

One other note on materials. I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils for the first two steps, then switched to Prismacolor Soft Core for the final step.

Polychromos pencils are oil-based, so they’re harder than Prismacolor. They do lay down smooth color on Bristol, but you have to work slowly and carefully.

Prismacolor are wax-based and are much softer. That makes them ideal for the final layers, for burnishing, and for filling in the last paper holes.

NOTE: You can get the same results with any artist grade colored pencils.

Now, for the tutorial.

Step 1: The Under Drawing

The under drawing is not the local color of the gold cap. It’s not gold or even yellow; it’s all the colors reflected in the gold. You have to look deep to see the other colors in each area. Those are the colors for the under drawing.

Use a very sharp Burnt Sienna pencil and light pressure to shade the darker reflections.

Since reflections are usually hard-edged, it’s a good idea to outline each shape then shade it. Since there’s a lot of detail in this area, it’s also a good idea to work slowly. Spend more time studying the reference photo than drawing.

Smooth color is key, so use whatever stroke works best in allowing you to draw smooth color. Add layers to get darker shadows and use only one or two layers in the lighter shadows. Fade Burnt Sienna into the white of the paper where the edges are softer.

The shadows around the bottom of the gold cap should also be under drawn with Burnt Sienna.

The next color is Scarlet red. Layer red in two or more light layers on the left side of the gold cap. Lightly outline the shapes, then lightly fill them in. Use more layers to increase the value and saturation.

Finally, light layer Cream over the remaining parts of the gold cap. Work around the white highlights! Once again, draw the smoothest possible color.

Step 2: Glazing Color

Darken the shadows with Walnut Brown. Use medium or medium-heavy pressure with a very sharp pencil to draw smooth color.

Add gold reflections with Cream and the red reflections with Scarlet Red. Blunt pencils are ideal for this. Use heavy pressure, but don’t burnish.

Then glaze Scarlet Red over the parts of the gold cap that reflect red. Layer Cream over the rest. Work around the bright white highlight.

Step 3: Detailing

Burnish the gold cap with Poppy Red in the areas that reflect red, and with Dark Umber in the areas that reflect a brownish color.

Then burnish both red and brownish reflections with Yellow Ochre.

Also burnish the yellow parts of the gold cap with Yellow Ochre, working around the bright highlights.

How to Rework a Background

Can I rework a background? I’ve tried erasing at least a little bit without much success…Thank you so much. Have a beautiful holiday season. Mirian Bertaska

Mirian asks a great question. I’ve wrestled with this very thing many times, so let’s take a look at a few possible answers to Mirian’s question.

How to Rework a Background

Mirian very kindly included her drawing and gave me permission to share it with you, so you could “see” what we’re talking about.

Mirian has good color saturation in her drawing. Her color choices make the bird stand out from the background.

But she is right about the background. It doesn’t convey enough distance. It looks like the bird and the background are all at the same distance.

Kudos to Mirian for seeing that. Knowing what’s not working in your art is key to improving.

Suggestions about How to Rework a Background

Whether or not you can rework a background depends on how much color you already have on the paper, what type of paper you’re using, and whether or not you’ve burnished or blended with solvent.

Mirian’s drawing is on Bristol. Bristol is excellent for colored pencils, but it is limited on the number of layers you can put down. However, it’s also very good for lifting color if the color has been applied in layers with light pressure.

Try lifting color to push the background into the distance.

Scotch tape is probably the best way to lift a little color. Lightly press a small piece of tape to the drawing, then carefully pull it up again.

Mounting putty is another good way to lift color, especially if you want a blurry look.

For small areas or detailing, an eraser may also help lift color. The ideal place for eraser work is around the bird.

Read Two Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings at EmptyEasel.com.

Add lighter colors to lighten the background.

Softening the colors with a light blue or cool gray is a good way to push the background further into the distance. Color can either be added over the existing background, or after the background has been lightened by lifting color, as described above.

Use sharp pencils and light pressure to layer lighter colors. Choose colors that are not only lighter, but cooler (tending toward blues and greens, rather than reds and yellows.) Try combining a couple of colors, too, so the background doesn’t become too uniform in value or color.

Add color one layer at a time, then review the drawing. Keep adding layers until the drawing looks the way you want it to look.

Try a soft blend to dissolve wax binder and “sink” color into the tooth of the paper.

If you’re willing to experiment a little, try a soft blend with odorless mineral spirits. Use a soft brush and blot the brush after you dip it in odorless mineral spirits. You don’t need a lot of solvent for this type of blend.

If you don’t want to try odorless mineral spirits, or don’t have any, but you want to try blending, try rubbing alcohol. Dampen a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol, then rub it on a corner of the piece. That should give you a nice, soft blend that pushes the background further into the background.

Even if that doesn’t work, the rubbing alcohol could break down the binder in the pencils enough to allow you to add a little bit more color.

Don’t get your paper too wet or it could buckle.

TIP: Layer color onto a scrap piece of Bristol until you have a similar look, then try blending that first. If it works, great! You can blend your drawing. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t damaged the drawing.

How that Worked for Mirian

I asked Mirian if she would let me know how her experiments turned out. Here’s what she had to say.

Hi Carrie,

The painting wasn’t accepting more color, so I … layered violet blue on a little piece of each, and the alcohol one looks better in my opinion.

Mirian layered Violet Blue on the left side of the illustration below. The rubbing alcohol blend is on the right side.

The portion above the line is the original drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Rubbing Alcohol

Neither solution is ideal, but Mirian was satisfied with the rubbing alcohol blend.

Leave the background alone and work on the bird to bring it forward.

The final possible solution is to leave the background as it is, and increase the values on the bird. Make the highlights brighter and darken the darks.

One of the things that gives a picture “depth” is the value range. The greater the contrast between the lightest lights and the darkest darks, the closer the object looks.

Here’s Mirian’s drawing in black-and-white.

How to Rework a Background - Original Drawing in Gray Scale

As you can see, the value range is fairly close. When the background and the subject have pretty much the same values, the result is a background that’s not in the background.

I used GIMP (free photo editing software) to select the bird, then increased the contrast. The bird now “leaps” forward in the drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Gray Scale with Contrast

This tip doesn’t apply to reworking a background, but sometimes the solution involves the subject, not the background!

Thank you to Mirian, who was willing to share not only her question, but her artwork.

Thanks, Mirian!

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How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Knowing how to draw vibrant shadows is key to realistic art. It doesn’t matter what medium you prefer, if your shadows are weak, contrast is weak.

Weak contrast makes for flat artwork, and we all know flat artwork doesn’t usually look very realistic.

So how to do you get strong contrast? Push those dark values as far as you can with strong, vibrant shadows!

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Value is the most important thing to get right in your art.  You need to have strong highlights and strong shadows.

But shadows can be so difficult to get right, as a recent reader question proved. There are so many different ways to draw shadows, the reader wanted to know the best way.

There really isn’t a “best way” that works with every drawing. You style of work, your subjects, and the colors you have available all play a role in how you draw shadows.

Five Ways to Draw Vibrant Shadows

There are as many different ways to draw shadows as there are artists. Sooner or later, every artist develops their own way of doing things.

Lets start with five red balls. I’ve drawn them all with the same color (Scarlet Lake) and to the same degree. There’s a decent range of values, but nothing stunning.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - 1

Use darker values of the same colors to draw shadows.

I “finished” the first ball with the same color simply by adding more layers of Scarlet Lake. The darker the values, the more layers.

The darkest values are burnished with Scarlet Lake to fill in the paper tooth and make the shadow darker.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Local Color

Use darker versions of the local colors to draw shadows.

From this point on, there are two important things to remember.

First, don’t add the new colors only to the shadows. Shade them over most of the middle values, too. Fade them out just like you fade the base (local) color, or you may end up with a shadow that looks “stuck on.”

Second, alternate layers of the new color and the local color. You should almost always finish with a layer of local color, too. That gives the shadow the look of being a darker version of the local color, rather than an entirely different color.

The shadow and darker middle values in the second ball are Crimson Lake. Crimson Lake is a darker red with a hint of blue. The resulting shadow is darker than the rest of the red, but still not very vibrant.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Darker Local Color

Add Black to dark versions of the local colors.

Black was layered over the shadow in the third ball. You might think this is the logical choice for darkening shadows, but as you can see, it didn’t really make the shadow very vibrant. Instead, the shadow looks more gray. That may work for some drawings.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Black

Add a complementary color to draw shadows.

I layered Grass Green into the shadow on the fourth ball. Green is the complement of red, so you could add red to the shadow of a green ball. Any complement naturally darkens and tones down the color it’s added to.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Complementary Color

Mix a dark brown and dark blue to draw shadows.

The best way to draw shadows is by mixing other colors. My favorite colors for shadows are dark brown and dark blue. Combined in alternating layers, they create lively dark values that rival black. That combination works with most medium to dark-colored objects and I’ve used them with great success on horses and landscapes.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Indigo and Dark Brown

For lighter colored objects, you’ll want to replace these colors with lighter shades.

Those are five ways to draw vibrant shadows.

There are other ways, too, so the best advice is to experiment. Do like I did with a series of balls or any other shape. The drawings don’t need to be polished pieces of fine art to help you find the best way to draw vibrant shadows in your own work.

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When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

It’s a well-known and oft-repeated “rule” that you should always keep your colored pencils sharp. But is that true? Following are a few guidelines to help you know when to use blunt colored pencils.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

Like most art “rules,” these are not written in stone. You can follow them or ignore them as you wish.

How Blunt is “Blunt?”

Before we get to my tips, though, let’s talk about the different degrees of bluntness. Believe it or not, I’ve identified three.

Dull

In my book, a pencil is dull when the sharp point has been worn down a little, but there’s still a lot of pigment core showing. The tip is rounded, but not flat.

You gt a dull pencil with regular drawing, especially if you turn your pencil as you work. All sides of the tip touch the paper, so the pencil wears evenly.

If you need a sharp pencil, it’s time to sharpen this one.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Dull

Blunt

The rounded point has been worn down to an angle. The flat edge is not clearly pronounced. There’s no chance of mistaking this pencil for a sharpened pencil.

A pencil becomes blunt when you draw on one side of the pigment core only. That side wears down, but the other sides don’t.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Blunt

Very Blunt

This is a pencil that’s worn totally flat on one side. It has a sharp, very distinct and very flat edge. The pigment core tip is very definitely wedge-shaped. You get a wedge like this either by being very careful not to turn your pencil as you draw or by using heavy pressure on a scrap paper.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Very Blunt

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

Following are four ways I use blunt pencils. These aren’t the only times to use blunt pencils, nor are blunt pencils the only ways to get these effects.

Soft Detail or Drawing Distance

Soft detail requires soft, sometimes blurred edges. The perfect use for blunt pencils. Before you sharpen again, look for background areas that could benefit from a blunt pencil.

Smooth Layers of Broken Color

Lay down smooth color layers with blunt colored pencils. The smoother the paper, the smoother the color, but you can get excellent “broken” color that’s a consistent value by using blunt pencils on sanded or toothier papers.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Even Color

Sanded Art Papers

Speaking of which, blunt pencils are your absolute best bet when you draw on sanded art papers of any kind. That grit wears down sharp points quickly, so skip the sharpening and start with a blunt pencil!

Burnishing

Burnishing is another time for blunt pencils. When you burnish, you use heavy pressure to “grind” layers of color together. That’s no time for a really sharp point. You want a slightly blunted pencil.

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Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

I know what you’re thinking: Who cares about drawing realistic dirt? What possible difference does it make?

For many artists, dirt is. . . well, just dirt, and not nearly as interesting as water or as monumental as mountains. A few swipes of color and a little bit of shading is all you really need. Right?

For most subjects, that’s probably true. But if you enjoy making landscapes or other outdoor scenes, it’s important to know how to draw dirt in a manner that fits your subject and style.

That’s I’m sharing a few basic tips for drawing realistic dirt.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

Maybe you’ve never thought about how you draw dirt before! If so, that’s OK. It’s not the most glamorous subject and the most notice it gets is either in the form of rocks, or as an unimportant part of the overall composition.

That’s a shame.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

It isn’t that difficult to draw almost any kind of soil so it looks believable and fits into the overall composition as though it’s meant to be there, rather than an afterthought.

Let’s look at a few of them.

A Few of My Favorite Methods

Watercolor Pencils

Here’s a portrait I drew sometime ago. I used watercolor pencils with watercolor paper to lay down the foundation, then finished with regular colored pencils.

The setting was a specific racetrack with a distinctive color of sand. There were also specific types of soil and cover on the winner’s circle, which is visible in the middle ground on the left. Since this was a “moment in time” portrait, all those things had to be correct.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Water Soluble Colored Pencils

Here’s a detail of the track and winner’s circle. As you can see, there isn’t much detail. The portrait was just too small for that (only 8 x 10.)

But there is still a distinct difference between the sand on the track and the ground in the winner’s circle.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Water Soluble Colored Pencils Detail

How I Did It

I laid down washes of color in several layers, letting each wash dry completely before adding the next.

The initial wash was a red-gold base color that covered everything. Next came layers of darker, cooler browns in the shadows and to add details. Final details were added with traditional pencils.

I worked on four versions of this portrait before getting it right. One of them was entirely traditional colored pencils, and I documented that process for an EmptyEasel article. Read How to Draw Realistic Dirt, Ground, & Soil with Colored Pencil on EmptyEasel for more tips.

Traditional Colored Pencils

The Sentinel, shown below, was drawn entirely with traditional colored pencils.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Traditional Colored Pencil

How I Did It

This path is a little outside the ordinary because it didn’t appear in the original composition. I finished the entire piece, then decided it needed something to more clearly direct the eye to the trees. What could be better than a path?

So I had to first lift as much color as possible with an eraser. Next, I added the path by layering fresh color over the areas that had been erased. The end result was much more satisfactory.

The same method—without the erasing of course—can be used for any drawing. For step-by-step instructions, read How to Correct Mistakes or Rework a Finished Colored Pencil Drawing on EmptyEasel.

Interesting Drawing Surfaces

Sometimes all you need to do is find the right support. A colored paper or unique surface texture, and you’re halfway there.

That was the case with this miniature drawing. I used a piece of cured Silver Maple for the support. The drawing was an experiment. I wanted to see how well colored pencil worked on wood (it works beautifully).

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Support

How I Did It

Ironically, this one was the easiest of all. I simply used the wood grain for the exposed soil along the bottom of the composition. A few accents and details made the wood look like dirt for this miniature drawing.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that it isn’t that difficult to make any patch of ground in your composition look like it belongs there. Any one of these tips will help you do it, or you can think outside the box and find your own ideas!

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils

Whenever new students begin a colored pencil course, whether it’s an online colored pencil course or a basic drawing lesson, there are questions. In this article, I want to address four frequently asked questions about colored pencils from my students.

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils

Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencils

1. What are the best/top brands for colored pencils?

There really isn’t an easy answer to this question. There are just too many brands of pencils on the market and so many ways to use them. The brands most often named by artists who make at least part of their living from art are:

  • Caran d’Ache Luminance
  • Derwent (a number of different lines in the Derwent collection)
  • Faber-Castell Polychromos
  • Prismacolor

Before you chose a brand, though, there is a more important question to ask and I can answer that question specifically.

Colored Pencil Grades

The grade of the pencils you use is, in most cases, more important than the brand you prefer. Grade refers to the quality of the pencil. The higher grade, the better the quality.

Colored pencils come in three basic grades.

  • Scholastic
  • Student
  • Artist/Professional

Most elementary school students use scholastic pencils. They’re the type of pencil you’re most likely to find at discount stores.

Student grade pencils are middle grade pencils. They’re higher quality than scholastic pencils, but not as good as professional grade pencils. A lot of people who are trying colored pencils or just getting started with them use student grade pencils because they can be significantly less expensive than the best pencils, but are better than scholastic pencils.

The top-of-the-line pencils are artist or professional grade pencils. They handle better and, in most cases, lay down better color and last longer, but they’re also more expensive.

The same manufacturing processes and pigments are used to make all the pencils in all of these grades. The difference is in the ratio of pigment to filler. In the scholastic pencils, there’s less pigment and more filler. In artist grade or professional pencils, there’s very little filler, and more pigment. The student grade pencils are between those two extremes.

Buy the best pencils you can afford. The higher the grade, the better the drawing results. I used cheaper pencils first because of the cost and almost gave up on the medium before upgrading my pencils.

TIP: Learning colored pencil is difficult enough; don’t make it more difficult by using low-quality materials.

2. What is the Difference Between Wax-Based and Oil-Based Pencils?

Wax-based pencils are manufactured with a wax binder that holds the pigment together and allows it to be formed into the pigment core (commonly known as the “lead” of the pencil.) Oil-based pencils use a binder of vegetable oil or some similar form of oil.

Wax-based pencils are generally softer and go onto the paper more smoothly. Oil-based pencils are harder and dryer.

Wax-based pencils can produce something called wax bloom. This happens with all wax-based colored pencils if you apply enough color, but it’s most obvious with dark colors. Wax bloom causes a drawing to look cloudy. It’s easy to remove by lightly wiping the drawing with paper towel. Oil-based pencils do not contain enough wax to cause wax bloom.

You can mix wax-based and oil-based pencils in a single drawing and many artists use both types in most of their work.

3. Does it matter how I hold my pencil?

Yes. Here’s how.

The closer to the tip you hold the pencil, the more pressure you can exert on the paper. Usually, you’re holding the pencil upright, so the tip is the only part of the pigment core that touches the paper, as shown below. You can fill in the paper better this way, you have more control over the amount of pressure you use, and you can draw finer detail holding the pencil this way.

Adding Jade Green to the Distant Trees

When you hold a pencil at the middle or closer to the end, it’s more difficult to exert a lot of pressure on the paper, because you hold the pencil in a more horizontal position.

If the pencil is well-sharpened, you can add color with the side of the exposed pigment core. You can still vary the amount of pressure you use, but not to the same extent. It’s also more difficult to work on detail holding the pencil like this.

Adding Dark Green Colored Pencil to a Green Under Drawing

When you hold a pencil at the very end, you have very little control over the amount of pressure you can use. You’re also drawing with the side of the exposed pigment core, so you can’t draw a lot of detail.

Holding the pencil by the end is best for laying down layers of color over larger areas. If you want to draw with very light pressure but have a naturally heavy hand, try holding the pencil very lightly and near the end of the pencil.

4. How many pencils do I need to get started?

Most artists like to have as many pencils as they can get their hands on. For one thing, there are all those lovely, luscious colors!

A lot of us also like to keep different brands around because even though all the manufacturers use basically the same pigments, no two use the same blend of pigments. So there is a range of colors available to the artist who is able to buy some of every brand that’s not available to the artist who wants to stick with one brand.

But how many pencils do you need to start?

The simple answer is that you don’t really need very many.

I recently purchased a set of Koh-I-Nor woodless pencils that contains 24 colors. That’s the largest set they offer, but many other colors are available as open stock.

Those 24 colors are more than enough to draw almost anything I want to draw. Yes, it takes more layering and mixing of colors to get the colors and values I need for some drawings, but it is possible.

Learning how to mix and blend colors is an important part of learning colored pencil, so rather than buy the largest set you can afford, I recommend you buy a middle-sized set. With wood-encased pencils, that’s usually somewhere between 24 and 48 pencils (numbers vary by manufacturer). Once you’ve mastered blending and mixing colors, then you can add colors—or brands—to your collection.

If you really want to test yourself, try the smallest set available!

Ask Carrie a Question

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper

If you’re been following this blog for any length of time, you know I frequently post tutorials. The subjects differ, but the focus of all those tutorials is showing you how to do something. This week, I want to share some things not to do when using watercolor paper!

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper

This may seem like an odd topic for a how-to blog, but I can’t tell you how many things I’ve tried that were disasters. Nor can I tell you how many times I’ve wished someone would have warned me before I tried those things.

So I decided to share some experiences with the hope of saving you a few ruined pieces of paper or nearly finished drawings. Are you ready?

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper

Don’t Forget to Tape Your Paper!

Unless you’re working very small or using a rigid support, you MUST tape watercolor paper to a back board of some kind. If you don’t, the paper will buckle if you use too much water.

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper - Don't Forget the Masking Tape

If you happen to be using a paper like Stonehenge or Canson Mi-Teintes (both of which can handle modest amounts of water or solvent,) you have to tape them to a back board. That’s the only way they’ll dry flat.

(I have tried working on small pieces of Stonehenge without taping it first. It does dry. It does NOT dry flat.)

Don’t use a misting bottle to blend color

I’m all for saving time whenever possible. Once while working on a small watercolor pencil piece, I tried wetting a piece of paper with a misting bottle. I wanted to drop color onto a wet surface and what could possibly be easier or faster than spritzing the paper a couple of times?

Big mistake!

Even at the finest setting, way too much water ended up on the paper.

So much that it pooled on the paper, and ran off the edges. I let the paper dry on a piece of paper towel, but it didn’t dry completely flat.

The place where the water (and color) pooled also left marks I was not able to cover over despite adding several more layers of wet and dry color on top of it. Fortunately, those marks lent themselves to the drawing I ended up doing, but I do not recommend a misting bottle.

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper - No Misting Bottles!

Don’t keep blending

As an oil painter, my philosophy was that if one stroke was good, two were better, and there was no harm in three.

The problem is that there can be harm in two or three strokes. It’s called over blending in oil painting.

With watercolor pencils, it’s called destructive.

Once the color is wet, it’s very easy to move around. The best thing you can do is stroke the paper once to blend the color, then leave it alone.

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper - One Stroke and Leave It

If you happen to be adding color with a brush, you have a little more room for multiple strokes. But in almost all cases, the fewer brush strokes, the better!

Don’t always use little brushes

The best way to minimize the number of strokes you need is to use the largest brush possible for each area.

Small brushes are great for blending small areas or adding details. But small brushes require a lot of strokes for larger areas. The more strokes, the more chances for unwanted edges where strokes overlap.

Things Not to Do When Using Watercolor Paper - Largest Brushes

Also use a soft brush. If you have a naturally light touch, you can probably get away with using a bristle brush, but only if that’s all you have.

And forget a sponge brush! That sounds like the logical choice, but it isn’t. Sponges soak up water. When you’re using water soluble colored pencils, that means a sponge brush will also soak up color. So unless you need to lighten a color, avoid the sponge brushes!

Don’t draw with a dry pencil on wet paper

This is the most important advice I can offer. Why? Because it applies not only to watercolor pencils on watercolor paper. It also applies to paper that’s still wet from a solvent blend.

Absolutely, positively do NOT use a dry pencil on wet paper! Paper is especially delicate when wet. Drawing on it with a dry pencil—especially a well-sharpened dry pencil—can put a hole in the paper.

At the very least, you risk scuffing the surface of the paper.

Yes, you may be able to get some neat affects with this method, but do you really want to risk ruining a drawing? I sure don’t.

Conclusion

Those are five things not to do when using watercolor paper with colored pencils. Those aren’t the only things you should avoid, so if you’ve tried something that ended up disastrously, leave a comment below!