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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My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils

Yesterday, I received a question from a reader who wanted to know my recommended paper and colored pencils. Since that’s one of the questions I frequently receive, I thought I’d share my answer today.

Here’s the question.

What brands are recommending for paper and pencils? Do you use different types of paper with different techniques?

My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils

I can only specifically recommend the brands I use or have tried for both paper and pencils. However, I am happy to provide information on both.

My Go-To Pencils

My go-to pencils are Faber-Castell Polychromos and Prismacolor (the lightfast colors only.)

I’ve used Prismacolor pencils from the beginning. I started with them because they were pretty much the only colored pencil available when I started back in the 1990s. They have always done what I wanted to do. The only changes I’ve made is in how I buy them (open stock and in-person only) and the colors I use (lightfast only.)

I use Prismacolor pencils on almost every drawing, but limit myself to only the lightfast colors. The top-rated colors are shown here, the I category. I also use category II colors as needed. Read the specific list of colors here.

My husband bought me a full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos a couple of years ago and I use them on every drawing. Usually in combination with Prismacolor. The two brands compliment one another beautifully.

Pencils I’ve Tried and Liked

I have tried and liked Derwent Drawing pencils and Derwent Lightfast pencils, but in a limited fashion, since both pencils are pricy.

I have no fear of recommending either type, but would suggest you buy a few of your favorite colors to try before buying a full set of either.

My Go-To Papers

For paper, I most often use either Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper (the back side) or Stonehenge.

I also like Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper and am learning my way around Clairefontaine Pastelmat.

I also sometimes use Bristol vellum, but it’s not really a go-to paper for me.

Papers I’ve Tried and Liked

I’ve tried a lot of papers over the years and have liked many of them.

One of those is Strathmore’s Artagain Drawing Paper. This paper is made from about 30% post-consumer waste paper and it’s a delight to draw on. It’s almost like a combination of Bristol and Stonehenge. It takes quite a few layers of color like Stonehenge, but is smoother than Stonehenge.

Another paper I’ve tried and liked but haven’t used much is Uart sanded pastel paper. I’ve drawn on grits ranging from 240 grit (coarse) to 800 grit (fine.) It’s a great paper for layering and they now have a dark gray version if you like to work on dark paper.

My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils - Uart 800 Grit Sanded Pastel Paper
This ACEO landscape study was painted with watercolor pencils on Uart 800 grit sanded pastel paper. It took less than an hour to create and the fine grit worked unexpectedly well with watercolor pencils.

Choosing the Right Paper and Pencils

The paper and pencils that work for you depend a lot on your drawing methods and your goals for your artwork.

In general, if you like a more painterly look, papers with more tooth will suit you better. You might want to try Canson Mi-Teintes or a sanded art paper.

Spring II is another ACEO landscape on Uart Sanded Pastel Paper. This time I used Prismacolor pencils on 240 grit. The result is a more painterly look, with a lot of the paper still showing through the layers of color.

If you like drawings with a lot of fine detail, try something smoother like Stonehenge, Artagain, or Bristol

I choose the paper based on the subject more than method. I especially like the Pastelmat for landscapes, but also use both Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes for landscapes.

I’ve not yet tried drawing an animal on Pastelmat, but have had good success on Canson Mi-Teintes, Stonehenge, and Bristol.

So try a few combinations and see what works best for you.

Want more Specific Advice on My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils?

I answered a similar question during December 2019 Q&A month. Read The Best Paper and Pencils for Colored Pencil Art.

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

A colored pencil comparison between wax-based and oil-based pencils is the topic for today’s post. It comes in response to the following reader question.

Hi Carrie,

Which pencils do you consider best, oil or wax based? I have never used any pencils other than Derwents Coloursoft which I believe are wax based. What are the Pros and Cons of each?

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

There can be a lot of confusion about the differences and some artists go so far as to discount the distinctions altogether. So what’s truth and what’s hype?

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

Colored pencils are manufactured much the same as oil paints, watercolors, and other mediums. Powdered pigments are mixed with a substance that helps them perform the way artists want them to perform.

With oil paints, that substance is called a vehicle and is usually linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, although there are other vehicles available. The vehicle makes the pigment brushable and influences how quickly it dries.

Colored pencils use a binder. The binder makes it possible to form powdered pigments into a thin “lead” that can be used in pencil form. It also makes the pigment transfer to paper easily and stick there.

All colored pencils use a combination of some form of wax and oil as the binder. Wax-based pencils have more wax than oil. Oil-based pencils have more oil than wax.

The amount of wax compared to oil affects the way the pencils behave, as does the type of wax used in the binder.

Colored Pencil Comparison: Which is Best?

I don’t really consider one type of pencil better than the other. They’re just different.

Wax-Based Pencils

Wax-based pencils are generally softer than oil-based pencils. They go onto paper more smoothly and blend extremely well by layering, burnishing, or with solvents.

Because they’re softer, they don’t hold a point very long and can be difficult to draw details with. I’ve used Prismacolor Soft Core pencils for decades and have been able to get wonderful detail, but it requires a lot of sharpening.

The pigment cores also are more apt to break if you use heavy pressure or sharpen them to too long a point. In addition, they can be susceptible to breakage if you drop them on a hard surface.

The light blue pencil at the bottom of the image has a nice tip, but is sharpened to too long a point if you tend to draw with heavy pressure. You’re quite likely to end up with something like the red pencil in the center!

Finally, wax-based pencils can produce wax bloom, a misty sort of film that happens when the wax in the pigment rises to the surface of the drawing. It can easily be wiped away, but it can also be a nuisance. Especially if you use a lot of pressure or dark colors.

Oil-Based Pencils

Oil-based pencils are generally harder than wax-based pencils. They hold a point longer and are excellent for drawing details. They’re not as likely to break while you’re drawing or if you drop them.

Oil-based pencils don’t produce wax bloom because they contain less wax.

They also erase or lift more easily if you make a mistake.

But they don’t always layer color as smoothly, so drawing even color requires either heavier pressure or more layers. I recommend more layers.

Using Wax- and Oil-Based Pencils Together

You can use both types together. That’s what I do.

Most of the time, I start with Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils (oil-based) and do as much layering as I can.

Toward the end of the process, I switch to Prismacolors(wax-based) where I need more color saturation.

But you don’t have to do it that way. You can intermix them at any point in a drawing.

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are among the best known oil-based colored pencils.

The Colored Pencil Comparison that Really Matters

The much more important comparison is the grade of the pencil; the quality.

Scholar or student-grade pencils contain more binder (whatever it may be,) less pigment, and sometimes inferior pigment. You can create good art with them and if you’re on a budget, it’s better to start with student-grade pencils than not start at all.

But don’t go cheap. Always buy the highest quality pencils your budget allows. Select wax-based or oil-based pencils based on your personal preferences and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Have a Question? Send me an email!

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Today, I’d like to share a few tips for drawing clouds.

Clouds can be majestic and towering, thin and wispy. Peaceful. Threatening. Calm. Stormy.

They are almost always intimidating to draw, and drawing them accurately takes time and patience. But it is possible to draw any type of cloud realistically if you follow these basic principles.

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencils

The following tips are universal to all clouds, no matter what tools you use, your favorite drawing method, or even your preferred artistic style. Master these four simple principles and you’ll find you can draw any cloud.

And almost anything else you want to draw.

Tip #1: Don’t Let the Scope of the Subject Intimidate You

Of all the tips for drawing clouds that I might offer, this is the most important, because it’s such a problem for so many.

You want to draw a cloud, but you look up in the sky or find a beautiful photo and are scared to death! Clouds are so big and awesome. There are so many details to get right, and all those colors. Especially in the morning or evening.

And for most of us that’s all the further the idea gets. We embrace the desire to draw clouds, but never follow through.

That’s a mistake! Clouds don’t have to be difficult to draw, and I discovered that lesson by trial and error.

Instead of focusing on all those details, focus on the overall shape and character of the cloud. Is it big and towering? Is it short and fat? Does it lean a little bit one direction or another?

Even slow moving clouds change constantly. By the time you do a quick sketch, the cloud you’re drawing will have changed, so let go of the idea that you have to get every detail right.

Adapt the same mindset when drawing from reference photos. The only way to get a 100% accurate drawing is by tracing it. There’s nothing wrong with tracing, but you still have to shade the drawing afterward.

So go for character. Forget all those intimidating details.

At least until you’ve drawn a few clouds.

Tip #2: Look at the Colors

Clouds are not always white. Let me rephrase that.

Clouds are hardly ever white. At least not just white.

In the middle of the day, with the sun on them, they can be full of shadow, half shadow, full light, and reflected light. Depending on where you live (it does make a difference) and what time of year it is, you could see grays, blues, yellows, and mixtures.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Clouds are not always white.

Before you start layering color, take a good look at the cloud you want to draw. Identify the main colors you see, then the secondary colors. You can add other colors as you draw, but having the main colors handy will help you draw more quickly if you’re drawing from life.

And even if you’re not drawing for life, it’s helpful if you don’t have to search through your pencil box every time you need to change colors. Some of us even prefer the “handful of pencils” method in which we keep our pencils firmly gripped in one hand!

Tip #3: Light Pressure, Sharp Pencils, Smooth Color

Smooth color is key to drawing realistic clouds. Even dark, stormy clouds require smooth layers of color and soft, sometimes subtle shading.

The best way to achieve that is by drawing several layers with light pressure and very sharp pencils.

If you’re still learning about pencil strokes, I suggest you make circular strokes your go-to stroke. The reason is that you can overlap layers without creating unwanted edges where strokes begin and end as might happen with back-and-forth strokes.

That’s not to say you can’t draw smooth color with other types of strokes, but it can be easier with circular strokes. If you’ve learned to make other strokes work for you, use them.

It’s important to keep your pencils sharp, too. Sharp pencils get into the nooks and crannies of paper tooth better than blunt pencils. The more you fill in the tooth of the paper, the smoother your color layers will be.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.
Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.

Tip #4: Don’t Quit Too Soon

The biggest mistake most artists (myself included) make with colored pencils is thinking a drawing is finished when there’s color all over the paper. That is so not true!

Most subjects benefit from vibrant color and clouds are certainly no different. Especially those colorful clouds that happen around sunrise or sunset. The best way to get vibrant color is with enough layers of color to fill in the tooth of the paper.

When you think a drawing is done, set it aside for a day or two, then evaluate it honestly. Start by asking the following questions:

What areas can I improve on?

Are the dark values dark enough?

Are the colors rich enough?

Does one area look more finished (or less finished) than the rest of the drawing?

Work on the drawing until you can honestly say it’s as good as you can make it. Even if all you end up doing is one more hour of work, you will be able to see the difference. Especially if you scan or photograph the drawing before and after you make those changes.

Which, by the way, I highly recommend.

These Tips for Drawing Clouds are Great, But is That All?


The reader who asked about drawing clouds actually asked specifically for help drawing the clouds of evening or morning. That sounded a lot like a tutorial to me and that was beyond the scope of a question-and-answer post.

So I’m planning a tutorial post with evening clouds as the subject. Probably a series of posts. So watch for that.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed these tips for drawing clouds and would like to read more, sign up for my free weekly newsletter. Click on the group labeled “Weekly Newsletter” in the “I’m Interested In” section of the sign up form to get the newsletter of new posts.

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Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

Jana wants to know why I switched from oils to colored pencils, and if I’ve noticed one sells better than the other? Here are Jana’s questions.

Hi Carrie, 

These are business related questions instead of technical ones, so if you choose not to use them on your December questions posts, I will understand. 

1. Why did you switch to colored pencil from oils? I ask this because I went the opposite direction.

2. Do your colored pencil pieces sell as well as your oils did? 

Your blog with all its tips and helps is so interesting to me because you reinforce much of what I tell my drawing students. Since I teach primarily how to draw with pencil, it is only my more advanced students who go to colored pencil, so I read your blog to be sure I am not leading anyone astray. (It has been about 15 years since I was active in the CPSA or used colored pencils other than as accents to my graphite.)

Thank you for your thoroughness and clarity. 

Blessings, Jana

Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.

Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

I’ve addressed this subject more than once in the past, including a similar question earlier this month. But I wanted to answer this question because it also includes a question about sales.

And every artist trying to turn their artwork into money wants to know about sales!

I switched from oil painting to colored pencils for two main reasons, with about twenty years between the the first reason and the second.

Chapter 1: Convenience

For over forty years, I painted portraits of horses. I was an oil painter because that’s the medium I learned as a preteen and teen. By the time I sold my first portrait at 17-years-old, I’d already been painting for several years. Continuing to oil paint was never a question. I often told people I’d retire when I fell face down in my palette!

Image by Katya36 from Pixabay

Part of my marketing strategy (if you care to use such lofty terms) was attending horse shows and trade shows. Michigan hosted two big shows every year. The Lansing Stallion Expo in March and the North American Horse Spectacular in Novi every November. For many years, I attended both with a collection of paintings and drawings, but my primary goal was lining up portrait work.

I saw artists working at those shows and thought it would be cool, but oil paints are such a nuisance to travel with. They pack all right if you don’t take everything in the studio, but working on a painting in public is risky, and getting wet paintings home safely is no picnic either.

So in the 1990s I started looking for another medium that traveled better. I wanted something that could produce oil painting-like results, high levels of detail, gorgeous color, AND was easy to transport and use on location. Pastels were out because I’d already tried those and disliked them, so colored pencils were the only choice.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

I intended to continue oil painting. Colored pencils gave me a second medium to offer clients, but I really preferred to work in oils.

Most clients chose oils, but some preferred colored pencils. One couple even opted for watercolor colored pencils. Talk about a step outside my comfort zone!

Chapter 2: Changing Focus

Eventually, portrait work tailed off. I think the move to Kansas had a lot to do with that. Most of my clients were from Michigan and I had been active with the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association since the second year it hosted a benefit art auction. Many clients purchased their first portraits there and some of them became repeat customers.

Kansas isn’t that far away from Michigan, but it was too far to make the trip to the MHHA auction every January. I continued participating, but by long distance. Then they canceled the auction.

After that, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, I couldn’t sell a portrait to save my life. The last portrait was completed in 2016. An oil portrait for which there’s a moving story. But still the last portrait.

Back then, colored pencils were just starting to catch on, thanks to adult coloring books. I enjoyed them. They were a lot easier to manage in my studio (which is one corner of what should be the dining room,) and they were still portable. My husband played in the Wichita Community Band and I could take pieces to work on during weekly practices.

So colored pencils became my primary medium.

Long Story Short

(I know. Too late for that, isn’t it?)

A decision that began as a matter of convenience became a matter of finding a marketing niche twenty years later. Simple as that.

I haven’t completely given up on oil painting. I still love the process, the colors, the results, and even the smells. But let’s be honest. With cats and kittens in the house, it just doesn’t make sense to try oil painting!

Maybe some day I’ll get back to it.

That’s why I switched from oils to colored pencils. Now about selling original art….

Oil Painting Versus Colored Pencils in Art Sales

The other part of Jana’s question is about sales. Have I noticed one medium outselling the other?

The cold hard truth is that my originals aren’t selling. At all. Any of them.

It’s been a couple of years since I sold original work and those were mostly ACEOs through eBay. Most of those were oil paintings, but mostly because that’s what most of my ACEOs were.

Why I switched from oils to colored pencils.
Even though my primary focus is now teaching colored pencils, I do have a website dedicated to marketing original artwork and promoting portrait work. In both oils and colored pencils.

Now, before you begin feeling sad for me, let me add that my work doesn’t sell because, quite frankly, I don’t market it!

Yes, I have a website dedicated to my original art, but the main focus of my studio business is teaching and that’s the bulk of marketing energies go.

If I spent just half the time marketing original art that I do marketing this blog, I’d probably have sales.

And then I could answer your question more positively!

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How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

Toni wants to know how to keep track of colors and order of application.

Hi Carrie,

Just read your post about getting out of your comfort zone/challenges.  Read minds much? I’m bored with myself.  But I may have bitten off way more than I can do.

I’m working on a red/yellow pix of an African Bush Viper snake.  I am trying to do one scale at a time and it’s sorta working.  It’s VERY confusing trying to make sure that I’m on the right scale in the right row etc.  I’ve crossed out the scales as I go but …. good thing no one knows the snake personally!

How do you keep track of the colors you’re using, in what order you lay them down or blend.  This guy has lots of reds, dark reds, pinks, oranges, lemon yellow, light yellow, cream, and some in between.  The colors repeat (sorta) down a section of the body.  I get so involved trying to get the part I’m working on right that by the time I need to repeat it, I don’t know exactly what I did.

I feel like there is a logical answer but I can’t see it.

Sorry this is so convoluted.  You should see my rant on Flicker about POLKA DOTS😶


LOL Toni!

No, I don’t read minds at all (I don’t always know my own, let alone messing with other people’s!)

I’ve learned after so many years of blogging that if something affects me personally, it affects others. Those sorts of posts resonate.

How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

I know exactly what you mean about repeating patterns. I did one of those a year ago. A red Christmas ornament with a braided cord of yellow, green, and red. Not quite on the scale of what you’re doing, but very close.

How to Keep Track of Colors that Repeat

Here’s the finished drawing.

When it came time to draw the cord, I thought I had it pretty well taped, because I’d drawn everything out carefully. Except I hadn’t been as careful as I thought and I didn’t get more than two or three of those repeating patterns done before I realized I’d made a mistake in the line drawing.

Time for a rethink.

The first order of business? Scrapping the line drawing and just laying down color, blocking in each color from one end of the cord to the other. I don’t remember the order I worked in, but would guess it was probably yellow, then green then red (light to dark.) I put flat color in each area using light or medium pressure and a sharp pencil.

After blocking in the cord, I went back and add shadows and middle values to create highlights.

I used only six colors total. A light or medium value yellow, green and red, a dark value green and red, and a light golden brown. The blocking in was with the lighter colors and I did all of each color in that round. So there was no need to remember the order.

Then I went back and did the same thing with the darker colors. Again, there was no need to really remember the order of each color because I worked the entire area with each color.

When I did the final round and added details, then I worked back and forth between lights and darks and may have even added other colors to get darker values.

For the most part, I either laid the pencils to one side of my working area, or held them in my left hand. A method known fondly as the handful of pencils method.

But that method works best if you’re using only a few pencils on a small drawing (or a small area.) I used six or seven over a small area. The entire drawing was only 8 x 10 inches.

So probably doesn’t help you with your African Bush Viper, since you’ve already done some of the scales.

Two More Ways to Keep Track of Repeating Colors

There are a couple of ways to keep track of colors in complex pieces.

Make Swatches as You Work

The easiest method is to make a mark somewhere along the edge of the drawing or on a piece of scrap paper as you use each pencil. Either before or after you layer that color, do a little swatch or even just a mark or two. You don’t even need to label them, because you can compare pencils to the marks.

Do the same thing with the next color and the next and the next and so on. If you repeat a color, make another mark, so you have every layer documented, as well as every color.

I made these color swatches for the red Christmas ornament project above. This more of a color selection tool than anything, but it gives you an idea of color swatching. I have made marks along the margins of drawings before and found that useful. It may also work for you.

This will be easier if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the rest of your pencils. Hold them in your hand if they’re just a few, or put them in a cup or jar, or just lay them to one side. Quite often, I take them out of the box and then keep the box a little bit apart from where I’m working. Handy, but not so handy I’m likely to put a pencil back into it without thinking.

Mind, the difficult part is going to be remembering to make that mark. If you draw anything like I do, you get so involved in the process that everything else ceases to exist. You’ll have to train yourself to make this part of the process, so it becomes automatic.

Try a Color Recipe Sheet

The second way I’ll describe is to make a “recipe sheet” before you start. Use the same type of paper you plan to do the drawing on, and make a small study. In the case of your African Bush Viper, you might draw a few scales in full, glorious color. After you’ve seen which combination of colors works the best, make either a swatch or a written list of the colors you’ve used and the order in which you used them.

Keep that sheet handy as you work through your drawing.

Of course this method also works best if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the others.

One Thing to Keep in Mind

Even on an African Bush Viper, the scales that are the same colors and have the same patterns will look different depending on where they are along the body, and whether they’re in light and shadow.

It may be frustrating—maybe very frustrating—not to know the exact order of color application, but it probably won’t make that much difference in the finished piece.

I’ve never drawn a snake before, and I don’t know if I will. But I venture to guess those subtle variations that happen when the same colors are applied in different order might produce a more realistic and natural drawing. Get the light values light enough and the dark values dark enough.

Thanks for the question, though. It brought a smile to my face and that’s always a good thing!

PS: I’d love to see your African Bush Viper when it’s finished, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one (reading minds, again!)

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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:


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Every portrait artist wants to draw more realistic portraits no matter their chosen subject. Dee is interested in learning how to draw more accurate human portraits. Here’s her question:


Still having issues with drawing faces. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with generic proportions, it’s more a question of how to modify the generic male/female proportions to more closely replicate a particular subject’s face and then, colored pencil color combos to better reflect various skin tones, including shadows.

Thanks, Carrie for your advice.


Thank you for your question, Dee. I can help you.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Dee has actually asked two questions, both of which would make complete posts on their own.

I also don’t do very many portraits these days and didn’t do very many people when I was doing a lot of portrait work. My subjects were usually equine in nature.

But the same principles that apply to drawing horse portraits also apply when you want to draw more realistic portraits of people.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Drawing Faces to Look Like Specific People

Drawing generic faces is good practice, but when you start drawing specific people, it’s probably best not to start with a generic face.

Those generic drawings and an understanding of the basic proportions of any subject is good practice and time well spent. It’s helpful, for example, to know that the space between most people’s eyes is equal to the width of the eye itself.

But when you start drawing a specific person (or horse or dog or whatever,) it’s best to keep those basic proportions in mind, but to pay more attention to the individual subject.

Look at the person you’re drawing and draw them from the start.

The reason is that there’s endless variety in the human face. Yes, most people have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but a mouth can be small or large with thin lips or full. The eyes can be large or small and close together or far apart. And noses can be long or short, wide or narrow, dished, hooked, or perky.

And then there’s all the possible expressions.

So rather than start with a generic shape and try to make it look like a specific person, start by drawing the specific person.

How to Draw a Specific Person

I have drawn a couple of human portraits in my portrait career. The most recent one was a large oil portrait of a horse owner without the horse. She was the subject. Since the portrait was pretty large (24 x 36 inches,) my model was also going to be quite large. There was no room for error either in drawing or in painting.

So I drew a series of studies of her eyes, her mouth and her hands (the portrait was full body.) I even sketched her handbag and some of the other props in the portrait.

Draw more realistic portraits by drawing studies of individual features.

Then I drew her. When I had the drawing as good as I thought I could make it, I made a tracing directly from the reference photo then compared the two line drawings by laying one over the other. That was a great way to see where my drawing needed improvement.

I continued refining the drawing and comparing to the tracing until it was as good as I could make it.

Because the final portrait in my example was in oils, I continued improving the likeness while I painted. You can’t do that very easily with colored pencils, so take extra time to refine the likeness at the line drawing stage.

Colored Pencil Combinations for Skin Tones

Drawing accurate skins tones is both complex and simple.

It can be complex because there are so very many types of skin color from very dark to very light. Lighting also plays a role in drawing skin tones, so there really isn’t a standard set of colors that can be used for drawing every skin tone in every lighting situation.

This gray and white cat looks gray and white in this photo.

You would expect to use white to draw this cat in this light, and you would be right.

But I’d use different colors to draw him accurately in this photo, taken in the golden light of evening.

The same cat in different lighting. I’d use no white (or very little) to draw this portrait.

The same principle applies to drawing human skin tones.

Yes, those select sets for skin tones are a good place to start, but also use other colors. Using six shades of flesh tones and pinks will produce reasonable skin tones for many portraits, but they honestly can’t produce the vibrant, life-like skin tones you’re probably looking for. Even a portrait of a fair-skinned person in good light benefits from additional colors.

How to Select Additional Skin Tone Colors

First, take time to study the colors in your reference photo, but don’t focus on the actual skin tones at the beginning. The first thing is the lighting. Remember the cat illustration above.

The skin of a fair-skinned person in subdued lighting will require darker colors than the skin of the same person in strong light.

If you can, forget that you’re drawing a person and look at the colors in each area. Enlarge your reference photo to show each area separately or use a color picker. Match a colored pencil color to the color you see in the photo, or shown by a color picker.

I used IrfanView to pick a color in this illustration. The color picker tool is circled in black. I used that tool to click on the place in front of the cat’s eye and the color appeared in the box marked by the arrow.

Using a color picker helps you isolate individual colors, and that helps you match them more accurately.

Repeat the process for each part of the face, then blend those colors in with the skin tones when you layer.

Learning to Draw More Realistic Portraits Takes Practice

The more portraits you draw, the better you’ll get at seeing shapes accurately and accurately drawing what you see.

The same applies to seeing and reproducing colors, too.

So don’t give up. It looks daunting at the beginning. I know. I remember the first horse portraits I painted. Wanting to get them right but lacking the skill and know-how was agonizing!

But I did enough portraits to learn what worked and what didn’t.

You will too!

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How to Make Trees Look Real

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know how to make trees look real. Here’s the question:

When doing trees and bushes, do you round them similarly to rounding wine glasses and bottles.  I tried to round bushes and it does not appear real. What do you do to get the 3D for them?

Thank you for your question.

How to Make Trees Look Real

Making trees—or anything—look more real looks complicated, but it really isn’t if you keep three simple principles in mind.




Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

How to Make Trees Look Real

You can make trees look real by using the same shading principles you might use with a wine glass or a vase. Shading is shading, after all, no matter what you’re drawing.

The difficulty is that a wine glass or a vase is a simple shape and most trees are not. They are a collection of smaller shapes within the larger shape, so for your wine glass shading to work, you have to shade each of the smaller shapes, too.

To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.
To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.


Everything in the world can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes. Circles, squares, and triangles. Circles can be squeezed into ovals, and squares can be stretched into rectangles or twisted into other four-sided shapes. Triangles are pretty much always triangles, but they can take a number of different configurations.

Trees are no different than any other subject.

The trunks are usually some form of rectangle, with smaller rectangles as branches. The canopy of the tree (the leafy part) is usually some type of circle or oval at it’s most basic, but it can be broken down a collections of shapes as shown here.

Start with the biggest shapes first, then add the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Drawing trees that look real begins with the very first marks you put on the paper, with the big shapes. Get those big shapes correct, and you’re off to a good start.


The thing that makes a shape (circle, square or triangle) into form (something that takes up space) is values. Shadows. Light areas and dark areas.

These light and dark areas reveal how light falls on the shape. The parts of the shape facing the light are getting direct light. The parts of the shape facing away from the light are getting very little light. In between is a variety of lighter or darker values known as middle values.

Values are just as important with trees as with anything else you might want to draw.

What makes trees look so complex is that they have so many different, smaller shapes within the larger shape. At first glance, they can look too complicated to draw, but use the same principle of values with each of the smaller shapes as with a larger shape and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to make trees look real.

Even with very crude shading as shown below, this sketch begins to look more like a real tree.

Shade around the largest shapes, but also around the smaller shapes. Treat each shape like an individual subject. Draw each one before moving to the next and the tree won’t be quite so overwhelming.


No two trees are ever identical. Not even two trees of the same species are identical. So vary the sizes and shapes of the trees you draw.

One of the best ways to do this is to draw from life. Keep to basic sketches and big forms, but take note of how one tree differs from the next.

The more you practice sketching trees so they look like individual trees instead of cookie cutter trees, the more realistically you’ll be able to draw trees with colored pencils.

I Hope that Helps You Make Your Trees Look Real

Like any other subject, trees look complicated when you first start drawing them. Take the time to practice first by learning the basic principles of drawing. Then sketch trees from life or photos until seeing the shapes and characteristics of each one becomes second nature.

Than you’ll be able to make your trees look real!