Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

If you’ve ever been stumped in choosing reference photos, I know you’d love a few tips from another artist.

John Ursillo has been painting and drawing for many years, so he’s the ideal person to help us all choose better reference photos.

Please welcome John Ursillo back to the blog.

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

Tips for Choosing Reference Photos

by John Ursillo, CPSA

I am a strong advocate for any artist who decides to take on a realist piece to:

First, become familiar with why the objects and overall “look” of an attracting reference looks as it does; and,

Second, acquire knowledge about the subject, the light it was taken under, and surrounding surfaces that can contribute to reflected light shining into shadows, etc.

True, an adept artist may get by with directly copying a reference without this knowledge, but IMHO it will show.  Snapshot photographs are notorious for deceiving the eye. Shadows are often too dark and light areas overexposed, or the reverse. Calendar photos with blown out supersaturated sunsets  are the worst examples to follow.

That’s also why copies of portraits of people or pets taken with an indoor flash or outdoor, bright frontal sunlit photos often just do not look “right”. Viewers of the finished piece can see when something is “not quite right,” even if they cannot put their finger on just what the cause is.

A Compulsive Realist and Photographer

Enough philosophy! I confess to being a compulsive “Realist”. That was my training and still gives me and my clients satisfaction with my work. Thus, good reference material is essential to my creative process. After all, I was an engineer professionally and thus strongly “left” brained. I seldom use subjects drawn solely from my imagination. IDEAS, yes, of course, but always followed by real world reference materials that give substance to these “bolts of inspiration.”

I am also a compulsive photographer when I travel (even about the yard). That tendency adds body to my store of references which dates back into the 1980’s – the days of something we actually called “film”.

In my art I use only images I capture myself – never the work of anyone else without permission, giving attribution to the giver. And that rarely.

Digital photography has been a boon to me, especially the cameras now built into our cell phones. These have opened documentation of worlds of subjects in numbers (regarding storage, retrieval, quality and internal image manipulation) that were far less practical before.

Keys for Choosing which Reference to Use:


A “good” idea – something that grabs my attention and will not let go until fed. I do not access images on the internet as a source of ideas – public domain notwithstanding. Those are someone else’s ideas, not mine.

Realist, detailed, with a strong potential focal point and lines, value forms, etc. that contribute, with some effort, to making a good composition.

Close to the Originating Idea

Must come close to what my mental concept is. An exact match is often not possible but close enough is good. Sometimes this may take several references if specific details are missing or other subject elements are required. The rest is supplied by imagination.


If I need a specific atmospheric effect I don’t have a reference for: e.g. a fog bank or cloud effect.

I never use copyright protected material – ever!

I may, rarely, need to use the internet or my non-digital (paper) library to find exact information for a subject to flesh out the subject from an environmental or historical context. For example, when drawing a historical scene, I may need to see exactly the way a particular ship is rigged, constructed, etc.

The reference for my tutorial in Carrie’s magazine is a close-up from a digital photo of the movie ship “SS Venture”.

This is the original photo, taken in New Zealand.

This is the composition I cropped from the original photo.

As with many references captured during a trip, the snapshot collecting is quick but the resulting photographs often throw the balance between light and dark off kilter. Should one follow this image literally the shadows would be too dark, losing most of the detail within, and the highlights too light, ditto.

If you have access to a computer you can push the values so that the shadows become full of detail and the highlights likewise. That’s what I usually do, (either digitally or by careful observation) because it’s necessary

Now You Know John’s Method for Choosing Reference Photos

Are you more confident is choosing the reference for your next piece? I hope so!

My thanks to John for sharing his experiences with using canvas with colored pencils.

John is the featured artist in the May issue of CP Magic. Get your copy here and read more about his unique technique and his artistic journey.

The Best Black Paper for Colored Pencil Art

Today I’d like to talk about black paper; specifically, the best black paper for colored pencil art.

The post comes in response to a reader question. Here’s the question.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to ask for information. As a very senior citizen, one of my joys is and has been doing colored pencil work. I would like to try doing colored pencil work on a black surface. I love doing wildlife and so I thought the process would be dramatic.

Can you please suggest the proper black surface on which to do colored pencil work and what type of colored pencil [oil or wax? brand?] that would be most effective.

The Best Black Paper for Colored Pencil Art

First of all, thank you to the reader for the question. I’m always happy to make recommendations and suggestions based on personal experience and observation.

The Best Black Paper for Colored Pencil Art

The reader is right. Black paper can make for very dramatic drawings. I’ve used it several times with wonderful results.

And I’ve used a few different types of paper, so can offer suggestions for that, as well.

But there are other questions, too, so let’s tackle each one of them.

Pencils to Use on Black Paper

Both wax- and oil-based pencils work well with black paper. I’ve used Prismacolor Premier and Faber-Castell pencils on colored paper. Both are suitable either by themselves or in combination.

Caran d’Ache Luminance are reported to be more opaque than most other colored pencils. If that is true (I haven’t used them so can’t say one way or another,) then they would be a good pencil for use on darker and black paper.

In short, the best thing to do is test the pencils you have on small pieces of paper first. If you’re dissatisfied with those, try other pencils. Buy two or three pencils at a time to see which work best for you. Then buy as many colors as you need (or a full set) of that brand.

A good way to try more expensive pencils is to buy just a few open stock to try. I bought these two Derwent Lightfast pencils when ordering other supplies. Choose your favorite colors in each brand for th best comparisons.

My Favorite Black Paper

As for the best paper, the papers that suit my drawing style (I do lots of layering) best are Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Tientes. Both come in black.

Stonehenge is a 90-pound paper with a smooth, velvety texture. It stands up well under layering and can take a lot of color. If you mount it to a rigid support, it also performs well with moderate solvent blending and dries flat.

Canson Mi-Teintes is pastel paper, so it’s quite rough on the front. The back is ideal for colored pencil, but it is still rougher than Stonehenge. It’s a little bit heavier than Stonehenge—98-pounds—so is my personal preference. It’s good with moderate amounts of solvent and holds up well under layering.

Canson Mi-Teintes is among the best black papers for colored pencil art.
Christmas Tree-O was drawn on dark, blue-black or black Canson Mi-Teintes. The brighter colors required a lot of layering, but I used no solvent blending on this piece.

Other Black Papers I’ve Used

Strathmore Artagain art paper is another black paper I’ve used and liked. Artagain is a 60-pound paper made from 30% post consumer paper. It feels almost like Bristol, but with a bit more tooth.

I used Strathmore Artagain paper for this more stylized portrait. Artagain is a nice, Bristol-like paper, but it isn’t quite a black as some of the other papers. You can see the dark shading I did with Black around the dog.

You might also try mat board. Mat board comes in a variety of types and textures. For the best results, use a museum quality mat board such as Crescent so your artwork lasts for years.

Mat board is a rigid support. Don’t blend with solvent or use wet media. Do layer color to your heart’s content!

I always liked mat board because I could get large sheets for bigger projects. And matting a piece with the same mat board it’s drawn on gives it a bit more sparkle (in my opinion.)

White Legs Running is a very old piece that I THINK was drawn on a rough-surface mat board. Mat board is great because it comes in so many surface textures, as well as colors.

The Most Important Thing to Remember About Using Black Paper of Any Kind

The most important thing to remember about using black paper is that the colors you put on it look different than they look on white paper. Sometimes, the black paper seems to “absorb” the color, so you have to put more layers of the light colors on the paper to make them look bright.

A white under drawing is also a good way to start a drawing on black paper. Peggy Osborne recently drew a rooster on black paper and you can read her tutorial here.

Whatever paper you draw on and whatever pencils you use, have fun and experiment a little before doing a serious piece. That’s the absolute best way to find best black paper for colored pencil for your art.

Ask Carrie a Question

How to Draw See Through Things

I’ve received questions from readers who want to know how to draw see-through things. Veils. Smoke. Mist. That sort of thing.

Some time ago, I published a post on drawing a foggy morning, but enough readers are asking related questions to delve into this subject a little more completely.

This is not a tutorial. Instead, I want to share three general principles that apply to all see-through subjects, and that you can start using today.

How to Draw See-Through Things

The secret to drawing translucent or transparent subjects of any type is to stop thinking of your subject as your subject. For a lot of us, we look at the subject as a whole and are stumped. Immediately, our mind is trying to figure out how to draw that bridal veil, sheer curtain, ocean spray or water droplet. The prospect looks so scary, it shuts down all creativity!

Or, our mind tells us “I know what that looks like” and we draw what we think we see instead of what’s really there.

That principle works with every subject, of course. But when it comes to transparent or translucent subjects, it can be especially troublesome.

So lets look at a few ways to get past the hurdles of drawing see-through things.

Think of your subject as an abstract design.

Instead of trying to draw the whole thing, draw the shapes, values and colors you see within your subject. Do that well and the transparent or translucent subject will “appear” in the finished work.

It often helps to think of your composition as an abstract design. That tricks your mind into seeing the abstract shapes and that frees you up to draw those shapes shape-by-shape.

One way to accomplish this is turning your artwork (and reference photo) upside down while you work on it. Or sideways, for that matter.

I routinely turn my work as I draw. Usually to more easily work on one area or another. But that does keep a composition fresh in my mind’s eye and gives me a different perspective.

Look at the difference between this water droplet viewed right side up and upside down.

How to Draw See-Through Things Tip #1: Think of Your Subject as an Abstract Design

The more complex your subject, the more this fresh perspective helps.

Zoom In on Your Subject

Another way to draw see-through items is to zoom in on them so you’re not working on the entire thing at the same time.

How much more easily could you draw this…

How to Draw See-Through Things Tip #2: Zoom in on Your Subject

…than this?

With high resolution digital images, you can enlarge the image enough to focus on a very small part of the photo without losing definition. All you need to do then is mask your drawing to focus on the same spot.

But how do I mask a drawing?

I’m glad you asked!

Cut a small opening in a piece of clean paper. Printer paper will do. Make the opening any size you want, but preferably smaller than a quarter the size of the entire drawing for small pieces.

Lay this piece of paper over your drawing with the opening over the same part of the drawing as the enlarged portion of your reference photo.

You can work on that part of your drawing without being distracted by the rest of the drawing. When you finish, move the mask to the next area. Move the reference photo to the same relative area, too.

When you finish, remove the mask.

Pay Attention to the Edges, Values, and Colors

The appearance of edges, values, and colors differ depending on whatever is in front of them.

With this sheer curtain, for example, everything is subdued. The edges are soft. The values are muted, and the colors are dulled down.

How to Draw See-Through Things Tip #3: Pay Attention to Edges, Colors, and Values

With this water drop, however, the edges are crisp and the colors and values are just as vibrant looking at them through the drop of water as looking at them directly.

Those Three Principles will Help you Draw See-Through Things

And almost everything else you want to draw.

Break your subject down into manageable sections and you’ll be able to draw anything!

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April 2020 CP Magic Magazine

Now available: the April 2020 CP Magic magazine, jam-packed with good information.

CP Magic featured artist is Colorado artist Dan Miller. I’m also delighted to introduce a new, monthly column and a reader gallery this month.

April 2020 CP Magic Magazine

What’s in April 2020 CP Magic

First the artist interview. Featured artist Dan Miller is also an excellent writer, so he tells in his own words about his life as an artist, including how he discovered his favorite subject, and unique style.

After that, Dan walks you step-by-step through a brand new tutorial. He explains how he chooses subjects and creates sparkling landscapes, so you don’t want to miss it.

The tutorial includes full-color illustrations, and clear, easy-to-follow descriptions. Dan also shares tips on how to choose and simplify your subject.

Plus a new column beginning this month. Artist and art coach Carol Bond provides monthly help and encouragement to all of those who need it. I’m certainly looking forward to her words of wisdom.

Dan Miller writes about his life as an artist, how he got where he is is today, and what enlivens his art.
See how Dan creates sparkling, stylized landscapes that maintain the character of his subjects.
Artist & art coach Carol Bond debuts with tips for achieving creative confidence.

The Reader’s Gallery makes it’s debut, and the featured photo for you to download and draw for yourself.

And don’t forget the Before-and-After Clinic and Making it Better reader art crit columns.

About CP Magic

CP Magic is a monthly digital publication written by a colored pencil artist—yours truly—for colored pencil artists at all levels. That’s you!

Each month features an artist interview and a tutorial so you can meet the artist and then see how they work. Other columns are the Before-and-After Clinic and the featured photo.

Back issues are always available.

Get your copy of April 2020 CP Magic magazine here.

Can You Dry Blend on Regular Paper?

Back in December, when we were in the middle of question-and-answer month, a reader asked if it was possible to dry blend on regular paper. I don’t remember the specific question. Nor do I remember my specific answer, but I’m fairly certain I told the reader it wasn’t.

I answered that way because I dry blend on sanded art papers, which produce enough pigment dust to make dry blending effective. Quite frankly, I’d never tried it on traditional paper.

Can You Dry Blend on Regular Paper?

I’m training myself to draw for at least half an hour at the beginning of every day and I’m currently working on a landscape on Canson Mi-Teintes. It’s for myself and is a bit of an experiment, so I’m trying things on this drawing to learn what works (and doesn’t work) on the next drawing on the same paper.

During one morning’s drawing session, I remembered the reader question and thought, What the heck? Lets see if it’s possible to dry blend on regular drawing paper.

I’ll show you the results in a minute, but first, let me explain dry blending.

What is Dry Blending?

Dry blending is a method in which you use a tool other than a pencil to blend. Technically speaking, layering is also dry blending because you’re not using solvent to blend, but when I speak of dry blending, I’m talking about something else.

I use a bristle brush, but you can also dry blend with paper towel, bath tissue, facial tissue (without lotion!) or clean, soft cloth.

After you’ve layered the color, use a bristle brush (as shown below) to rub the color around. I use an old, worn out bristle brush because it was handy and I have more control. The short bristles also allow me to put a lot of pressure on the paper if neceesary.

Dry blending on sanded art paper pushes pigment dust down into the paper. It’s a great way to fill in the tooth of paper and use that dust instead of throwing it away. Win-win!

Use a stiff bristle brush to dry blend on regular paper
Use a stiff bristle brush to dry blend. You can blend with the corner of the brush as shown here, or with the flat.

Dry blending on sanded art paper makes a major difference in color saturation. If you don’t want to use solvents, this is a wonderful alternative.

You don’t need a lot of layers of color to dry blend on sanded art paper.

I used a very well worn #5 bristle brush for blending. I dry blended after just a few layers, and after a lot of layers. For each test, I dry blended between colors, then drew over the dry blend.

Can You Dry Blend on Regular Paper?

Now you know what dry blending is and how I use it on sanded papers like Clairefontaine Pastelmat, Fisher 400, and Uart Sanded Pastel paper.

On to the original question about dry blending on regular paper. I used Prismacolor pencils and blended with the bristle brush as described above.

Here’s what I learned.

Artagain Drawing Paper

Artagain is an archival drawing paper made from recycled paper and produced by Strathmore. It’s smooth like Bristol, but has a bit more velvety feel. I don’t use it very much, but it’s a good paper for drawing detail.

I didn’t know what to expect from dry blending on a paper like this. As you can see from the unblended half on the left below, it’s easy enough to blend by layering.

But I tried dry blending with my trusty brush. It seemed like that removed as much color as it blended, but there was still a noticeable difference.

However, I had to use medium to medium-heavy pressure to get this result. I could have achieved nearly the same results by layering.


Bristol is a very smooth illustration and drawing paper available in two finishes: regular and vellum. Both feel “slick” to me but I keep Bristol vellum in stock because I can’t beat it for some subjects.

After the results with Artagain, I almost didn’t test dry blending on Bristol. It didn’t seem useful and I expected much the same results.

You can dry blend on regular paper like Bristol.

As with the Artagain paper, it is possible to dry blend color, but it requires quite a bit of pressure. It may be easier to dry blend on smoother papers with tissue or a cloth.

Canson Mi-Teintes

Canson Mi-Teintes paper is made for pastels, so it has a lot of tooth, even on the smoother backside. It stands up well to layering, erasing, and solvent blending.

As it happens, it also stands up well under dry blending.

It produces very little pigment dust during drawing, but take a brush to it and you’ll have enough pigment dust to fill the tooth nicely. And quickly.

I tried the front and back, since I’ve used both sides for colored pencil work.

I had to use different strokes and quite a bit of pressure to blend this well. The more color on the paper when you blend, the more effective dry blending might be on the front of the paper.

And here’s what dry blending looks like on the back.

Although Canson Mi-Teintes doesn’t produce pigment dust while you draw, it does produce enough while dry blending to make dry blending effective. It is fairly easy to dry blend; easier than the smoother papers, but experience so far suggests dry blending works best for softening color, value, and edges rather than creating smooth color.

You Can Dry Blend on Regular Paper

I’ve discovered that the more tooth, the better the results. I still get the best results on sanded papers.

But if this method interests you, then by all means give it a try. Just because it doesn’t work for me doesn’t mean you won’t get stunning results.

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How to Draw Rich Black Colors

Lets talk about one way to draw rich black colors.

I recently wrote a post about drawing dark backgrounds and some of that information will help you draw rich black colors, too. But there are times when you need nice, saturated black colors and don’t want use heavy pressure to create them.

How to Draw Rich Black Colors

There are many ways to make a nice, vibrant black. Peggy Osborne wrote a post on this subject a few weeks ago, but she uses a slightly different method than I do. I encourage you to read her tutorial as well as this post, and then do a little experimenting on your own.

Peggy and I agree on one thing, though: The best black colors result from mixing different colors. You can use black—I do—but rarely alone.

But I don’t always use the same methods twice. However, here’s a general rule of thumb method that works every time with only a few adjustments.

How to Draw Rich Black Colors

Step 1: Decide What Type of Black You Need to Draw

That may sound like an odd place to begin until you realize that not all black colors are the same. Some blacks are warm, with shades of brown or gold mixed in. Other blacks are cool blacks and tend more toward blue or violet.

The best way to tell the difference is to look at your subject in good, natural light. If the subject is a warm black, you’ll see warm colors mixed in with the brightest highlights. The black may also look a bit brown.

If the subject is a cool black, there will be blues and other cool colors mixed in with the brightest highlights.

You need a very high resolution photograph to see this and even then, it can be a difficult decision to make. That’s why I prefer to see my subjects (usually horses) in person. On a sunny day, you can get a good look at the other colors that appear in the black hair.

One word of caution. On sunny days, there will usually be some blue in the upper highlights—those highlights on the upper surfaces. This could be because the black is cool, but it is always very likely the result of reflected light from the sky. Reflected sky light is always bluish on clear days. Don’t confuse reflected light highlights with other highlights. For the purpose of determining whether or not black is cool or warm, check the highlights other than those on the upper surfaces.

Step 2: Choose the First Color

I usually start a drawing with a light earth tone such as Light Umber Prismacolor or Brown Ochre Polychromos.

Depending on what you’re drawing, you may want to start with another color. I started this drawing with green, believe it or not, then layered many other colors to develop the black. I didn’t use Black until near the end of the drawing. Even then, I added black only to the darkest values.

One way to draw rich black colors is by mixing many different colors with black.

A good rule of thumb is to make the first color warm or cool based on the type of black you need to draw.

What you want to do at this stage is draw the shadows, and begin establishing the middle values. But don’t draw them too dark. Every color you add darkens the values naturally, so draw even the shadows lightly.

Use a sharp pencil with light pressure, and start by carefully outlining the most obvious shadows, then filling in the shapes with the base color.

You may want to do two or three layers with the base color, darkening the shadows each time, but also drawing more middle values with each layer. By the time you complete a few layers, you should have dark values, two or three middle values, and the light values, which have no color at all.

Step 3: Mix Black in With Other Colors

Layer other colors over the black area. Choose those colors based on whether you’re drawing a cool, blue-black, or a warm brown-black. Alternate between the layers as you develop values, colors, and details.

It’s all right to use Black. I use it all the time, but it’s almost always toward the end of a project and I’m using it to darken an area. It can be mixed with the other colors at any stage or the process, however. The decision is based entirely personal preference.

And how much time you have to finish the drawing!

Step 4: Continue Layering Colors

Repeat the colors until you get the black you want, and/or until the paper holes are filled in. Mix Black in with the other colors, but you might also consider adding a complementary color once in a while just to add a little sparkle to whatever you’re drawing.

Step 5: Finishing Layers

You can either do the final layer with Black, or with a dark warm color if the black is warm, or with a dark cool color if the black is cool.

Again, use the colors that give you the result you’re looking for.

Beware Wax Bloom!

Whenever you use wax-based pencils and a lot of dark colors with medium pressure or heavier, you may encounter something called wax bloom. Wax bloom makes a drawing look cloudy or foggy, and it’s especially obvious in dark colors. If you use heavy pressure, wax bloom may appear overnight or even from one session to the next on the same day.

Don’t worry. It’s nothing serious. The wax binder in the pencils is rising to the surface of the color layers. Wipe it off with a clean tissue or cloth and go back to drawing.

When you finish, wipe off the wax bloom, then spray the drawing with a final fixative to keep wax bloom from happening again.

The dark half of this illustration shows the true colors. The “foggy” half shows the affects of wax bloom. Use a clean cloth or paper towel to gently wipe wax bloom off a drawing.

That’s One Way I Draw Rich Black Colors

As I mentioned before, this is just one way to draw rich black colors. There are others.

The best advice I can give you is to recommend you try every method you come across, and see which one works best for you.

And remember that not every method works equally well for every subject. Always look for ways to adjust your favorite methods to get better results.

For more in-depth how-to on this subject, try my Portrait of a Black Horse tutorial.

7 Ways to Draw Whiskers for Colored Pencil Artists

Anyone who draws animals has to draw whiskers sooner or later. They’re such a small part of most animal art, but believe it or not, they can make or break a piece. It’s important to get them correct.

Today’s post is a followup to a reader question from December 2019. You can read that post here. That post was specifically about drawing whiskers over watercolor pencil and it’s a helpful article for anyone who combines watercolor and traditional colored pencils.

But I wanted to share a few more general tips for the rest of you.

7 Ways to Draw Whiskers

There are several ways to draw whiskers, but the correct answer for each artist depends on what they want to do with their artwork. Since my focus is creating archival art, I’ll answer this question with methods that are archival.

But there are several other methods that can be very useful if you’re doing adult coloring books, greeting card art, or craft art. I’ll talk about some of those at the end of this article.

4 Ways to Draw Whiskers for Fine Art

The following four ways of drawing whiskers—or any similar small detail—should work with any brand of colored pencils.

They are all archival and are therefore acceptable for portrait work, and other animal art that you want to sell. They don’t all work for every situation, however, so it’s best to practice with each one before trying them on a piece that’s important.

#1: Impressed Lines

I used to always impress lines into the paper before layering color. I impressed lines to highlight hair, draw whiskers, and add other small details that would be difficult to draw over color.

Then I started using impressed lines after putting down a layer or two of color. That way, the line was whatever color I layered first, instead of the bright white of the paper.

This is currently how I most often use impressed lines—to sign pieces. In this case, I impressed my signature after finishing the base layer, so the signature did not show up bright white and fitted into the artwork more naturally.

Impressing lines still has a role in my work, but I no longer use it as often as I once did. Why? Mostly because I usually tended to go overboard with it. You know the idea. If one impressed line is good, two is better, and you can’t go wrong with three. Or four or five or a dozen.

Except that you can go wrong. Used too much, impressed lines become distracting.

When you use impressed lines, remember two things.

Draw whiskers by impressing lines into the paper.
I impressed lines into the paper before adding any color to the mane of this horse. They showed up quite well after I’d layered the darker colors over them, but it was easy to see I’d used them too much and incorrectly.

Tips for Impressing Lines

First, use your impressing tool the same way you use a pencil. That is, vary the amount of pressure you apply. For drawing whiskers, for example, start with heavier pressure at the base of the whisker and decrease the pressure as you draw toward the end of the whisker. That produces a more natural looking whisker.

Second, try impressing with a very sharp pencil. I sometimes use Prismacolor Verithin pencils for impressing lines. They’re a hard pencil and hold a point very well, so they’re perfect as a stylus. You can also add color at the same time, so you can see where your impressed lines are before you start layering color over them. That is always helpful (especially if you tend to go overboard!)

#2: Use a hard pencil to draw whiskers over color layers

The second method is to add them over layers of color by using one of the harder colored pencils. Prismacolor Verithin pencils are just like the regular Prismacolor pencils, except they contain far less wax. The pigment cores are thinner and harder, so the pencils hold a point longer. That’s what makes them excellent styluses, and it also makes them good for drawing over other colors.

What you do is layer all or most of the color you want in the animal’s face. Then sharpen a Verithin of the right color to a very sharp point, and draw whiskers over the other colors. Because the pencils are so hard, they dig into the color somewhat, but they also leave a little color. The resulting marks will not be very bright, but you can add less obvious whiskers this way.

Colored pencils with thinner, harder cores like Prismacolor Verithin pencils or many oil-based pencils can be used to draw subdued whiskers over other color. You can also use them to “dig into” the color a little, scratching out whisker shapes.

The biggest advantage is that you can add whiskers of different colors, so not all the whiskers look the same.

I’ve used this method in the past, but the results have never been what I was looking for. However, it is worth a try. It may just work for you!

#3: Scratch out whiskers with a knife

Probably the best way to add whiskers is to use a sharp tool like the Slice ceramic blade or an X-acto knife. Use the knife the same way you would a pencil, but scratch out color after you’ve finished the rest of the drawing. You can scratch a few marks into the drawing, then layer more color over it and scratch out a few more lines.

Be very careful, though. It’s frightfully easy to cut into or even through the paper if you tend to have a heavy hand. This method definitely requires practice before you use it on finished or nearly finished art.

#4: Brush & Pencil’s Touch Up Texture and Titanium White

Finally, there is Brush & Pencil’s Touch Up Texture and Titanium White. Titanium White can be painted right over colored pencil, then drawn over with more colored pencil. It was developed specifically for use with colored pencils, so there’s no worry about damaging a drawing or the white flaking off, as may happen with gel pens or acrylic paint.

Use a very small brush to paint the whiskers, then shade them as necessary with color with they come out too white.

Peggy Osborne uses these tools in most of her pet and animal tutorials. Take a look at one of those to see just how effective these tools are.

3 Non-Archival Methods to Draw Whiskers

The following three methods of drawing whiskers will work, but some of them work for very limited periods of time. They’re not suitable for artwork you plan to exhibit or sell, but if you do crafts, greeting cards, or create art from which to make reproductions and you don’t sell the originals, they will work.

Acrylic Paint

When I was first getting started with colored pencils, I could never get bright enough highlights. So I bought a tube of white acrylic paint to add highlights. It looked great at first, but after the paint dried, it seemed to fade into the colored pencil. The result was so displeasing that I used it only a couple of times.

I’m glad that happened, because I’ve since learned that acrylic paint doesn’t stick to colored pencils very well for very long. It’s just like trying to get water to stick to oil. The wax in the pencils keeps the water-based acrylics from sticking.

You can add whiskers and other details to colored pencil artwork, but chances are it will not stick to the colored pencil for very long.

Gel Pens

I’ve never used gel pens with colored pencils, and probably never will because they behave in pretty much the same way acrylic paint. They may last for a while, but sooner or later the bond between the colored pencil and the gel pen will break down and the accents added with gel pen will flake off.

That won’t happen quickly enough to make a difference with greeting cards, adult coloring books, or craft art, but for portrait work and other drawings I want to last decades, it would be a problem.

Gel pans are another popular option for adding colorful details like whiskers to colored pencil work. They look good for a time, but may not stick to the artwork very long.

Oil Paint

I haven’t tried this, either, though I did once try adding details to an oil painting with a colored pencil. That didn’t work very well, and I don’t expect oil paint on colored pencil would, either.

But the biggest potential problem with this combination is not with the colored pencils. It’s with the paper. Oil paints are made with an oil vehicle to make them useful. That oil could soak through the layers of colored pencil and stain the paper beneath. It could even discolor the colored pencil.

The idea is interesting enough to have me thinking about trying it someday, but not interesting enough to try it on a finished drawing. Especially not one I like! If I do try it, I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Those are My Tips for Drawing Whiskers

They’re not the only methods by any means, so if none of these fit your drawing style or give you the look you want, keep looking.

And try new things. You never know which method will be your best solution.

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March 2020 CP Magic Magazine

March 2020 CP Magic is now available and waiting for you.

I am the featured artist this month. The March issue also includes a brand new column in addition to all the regular features.

What’s in March 2020 CP Magic

Featured Artist Interview

Among the topics in this month’s interview, I talk about the motivations of changing from oil painting to colored pencils, and the surprises that came with that change. You’ll also see how I work and organize my supplies to keep everything cat proof. Not usually an easy task.

Featured Artist Tutorial

My step-by-step tutorial is a landscape full of light and drama on Anthracite Clairefontaine Pastelmat. The tutorial includes tips on composing a dramatic landscape from an old reference photo, as well as sketching directly on drawing paper.

CP Magic March 2020 Tutorial
Landscape on Pastelmat Tutorial
Before-and-After Clinic
Making it Better Crit

Other Features

This month’s Before-and-After Clinic shows you how to draw long fur so it looks realistic, without also looking stringy. My thanks to Rhonda Gardener for her first question and for sharing her portrait before and after.

And the March 2020 issue of CP Magic includes a brand new feature: Making it Better. The Making it Better column is a reader crit column, thanks to Gail Jones. This month, I share tips on making a good drawing or water look even better. You don’t want to miss that.

Finally, I’m including a featured reference photo you can download and draw for yourself.

About CP Magic

CP Magic is a monthly digital publication written by a colored pencil artist—yours truly—for colored pencil artists at all levels. That’s you!

Each month features an artist interview and a tutorial so you can meet the artist and then see how they work. Other columns are the Before-and-After Clinic and the featured photo.

Back issues are always available.

Get your copy of CP Magic March 2020.

Would you like to see your favorite artist featured in a future issue, or would you like to submit a clinic or crit drawing? Contact me and let’s talk about it!

How to Make Colors Lighter

Have you ever wanted to make colors lighter on a work-in-progress, but thought it was hopeless?

Let me assure it’s not hopeless, and I’ll show you why.

The following three tips work whether you added too many layers or chose a color that was too dark.

How to Make Colors Lighter

Better yet, they’re simple and use tools you already have! No complex methods or expensive tools today.

Are you ready?

How to Make Colors Lighter


Transparent tape, masking tape, or painter’s tape is probably the easiest method for making colors lighter. I wrote in detail about that here, but I wanted to mention it now because it’s so utterly simple.

Transparent tape and masking tape are both excellent for removing color from a drawing.

Tear off a small piece of tape, lay it carefully along the area you want to lighten, then lift it off the paper. Don’t press the tape down firmly or you could damage the surface of the paper.

Do NOT use packing tape, duct tape, or any other heavy duty tape on a drawing. Once it’s on the paper, there’s no way to remove it without damage. “If a little sticky works, a lot of sticky works better” does not work with art!

Mounting Putty

The next best thing for lifting color is mounting putty.

Mounting putty is that sticky stuff originally designed to stick unframed posters to walls. It’s very handy for that, but it’s also very handy for making colors lighter on colored pencil drawings.

And it’s easy to use.

Just tear off a piece, work it in your hands long enough to warm it up a little, and then press it onto the color you want to lighten. The stickiness picks up some of that color without damaging the paper. One or two repetitions removes just a little bit of color.

More repetitions removes more color.

Press mounting putty onto your drawing, then lift to lighten colors. This example is shown with graphite, but it also works well with colored pencil.

Mounting putty is self cleaning. If you work in it your hands while you use it, it absorbs the color it picked up. That means that color doesn’t end up back on your drawing.

This method doesn’t get you back to clean paper, but it is surprising how much color it will lift.

For more step-by-step demos on using tape and mounting putty, read this article I wrote for EmptyEasel.

Make Colors Lighter by Adding Lighter Colors

Any artist who has tried to change something after putting down a lot of layers, or using heavy pressure knows how difficult it is to add more color. Difficult, but not impossible.

Use the same methods you used to put down the original color. You will have to be more diligent in keeping your pencils sharp because you’ll be working over a “used” surface.

You may also have to use slightly more pressure than you originally used. But work slowly, use several layers of color, and carefully blend old and new.

This method is especially helpful if you want to tint the color already on the paper as well as lighten. Choose a light-colored pencil that’s lighter than the color you want to lighten. Be careful about the colors you choose, though, or you could end up with mud.

And no one wants that!

I wrote a more detailed post about making colors lighter with this method, which you can read here.

Those Are My Favorite Methods for Making Colors Lighter

There are other ways to make colors lighter, but try these first. They’re the easiest and, usually, the most successful and least likely to damage your drawing.

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February 2020 CP Magic Magazine

It’s February already, so you know what that means. February 2020 CP Magic is now available.

February 2020 CP Magic Magazine

What’s in the February Issue

First the artist interview.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing John Middick, creator of Sharpened Artist Podcast. You’ll enjoy hearing about John’s artistic journey, how he became a full-time artist involuntarily, and see how he organizes his studio and tools.

Bonus! You can read part of that interview in Talking Portraits with John Middick right here on the blog.

After that, John’s step-by-step tutorial. He used Inktense and colored pencils on LuxArchival paper. If you’ve never used this new paper, you’ll want to see how John works with it and what he thinks of it.

The tutorial includes full-color illustrations, and clear, easy-to-follow descriptions. John also included a link to the reference photo so you can follow along if you wish.

Interview with John Middick
John’s portrait tutorial
Before-and-After Clinic

This month’s Before-and-After Clinic shows you how much difference an extra hour of work can make on your next (or current!) project.

Finally, I’m including a featured reference photo you can download and draw for yourself.

About CP Magic

CP Magic is a monthly digital publication written by a colored pencil artist—yours truly—for colored pencil artists at all levels. That’s you!

Each month features an artist interview and a tutorial so you can meet the artist and then see how they work. Other columns are the Before-and-After Clinic and the featured photo.

Back issues are always available.

Get your copy of CP Magic February 2020 here.

February 2020 CP Magic Magazine