How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors

This week’s reader question is from Gina, who wants to know how to layer color and get soft colors. Here’s her question.

Hi Carrie,

On most of my drawings, the subject calls for color that has been layered with pretty hard pressure. The result is a solid color with depth. Landscape and horses and things are examples.

I would like to know how to still incorporate all the layers and yet end up with a soft look, such as in some portraits that I have seen. My portraits usually have an aged look about the persons, especially the children. I think it comes from too much pressure. Is it just practice, practice, practice?



Thank you for your question, Gina. You’ve addressed an issue that a lot of colored pencil artists wrestle with.

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors with Colored Pencil

There are a lot of ways to get good color with a soft look, including blending solvents and special tools. I’ll include links to some of the articles I’ve written on those subject below.

But I want to answer this question from the point-of-view of someone who doesn’t want to or is not able to use solvents or doesn’t have some of those special tools, by providing tips and suggestions that work with just pencils and paper.

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors

Lots of Layers

You can get depth of color and good color saturation with lots of layers. The fact is, combining layers of different colors is the best way to get color saturation with colored pencil.

Every layer of color you put on the paper fills in the tooth of the paper a little. Put just a few layers on, and you fill up only a small portion of the tooth. There are still a lot of paper holes showing through.

Put down a lot of layers, and you eventually fill in every bit of tooth. No more paper holes showing!

The fewer paper holes show through, the more saturated your final color.

Light Pressure

Getting good color saturation doesn’t require heavy pressure.

Begin with the lightest possible pressure you can—I often refer to it as “whisper soft” pressure—and continue to keep the pressure light throughout as much of the drawing as you can.

If you have difficulty getting light pressure, try changing the way you hold the pencil. Most of us hold a drawing pencil the same way we hold a writing pen. This kind of grip gives us good control of the pencil, but may make it difficult to draw with very light pressure.

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors - Normal Grip

So try holding the pencil at the back, and in a more horizontal position, so you draw more with the side of the exposed pigment core than with the tip. You have less control of the pencil, but you’re also able to exert less pressure on the pencil.

Sometimes, I use this grip with the pencil held loosely in my fingers and let the weight of the pencil apply the pressure to the paper.

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors - Horizontal Grip

You will not be able to draw details or shade small areas with a horizontal grip, so practice developing a lighter hand with simple drawing exercises. Try writing your name repeatedly, using less pressure each time until you can barely see what you’ve written.

You can also shade a mark starting with regular pressure, then decrease the pressure you draw until the mark “disappears.”

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors - Value Bar

Sharp Pencils

Sharpen your pencils often. Getting good color saturation with many layers and light pressure requires very sharp pencils, because the sharper the pencil, the more easily you can get color into the deeper tooth of the paper.

How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors with Colored Pencil - Sharp Pencils

Selective Strokes

Use a stroke that helps you draw even color layers by either mimicking the surface texture of whatever you’re drawing or by leaving no visible stroke at all. Most artists recommend a tight, circular stroke such as is shown below. This type of stroke doesn’t create edges where the stroke stops or changes direction, and it allows you to move over larger areas of color without creating “edges” where you don’t want them.

But it’s also acceptable to use other strokes if they help you draw whatever you’re trying to draw.

Read Let Your Pencils Do More of the Work, With These 3 Advanced Pencil Strokes on EmptyEasel.

Proper Paper

I’ve saved this tip for last because although your choice of paper will affect the final look of your art, it will have a little bit less influence than any of the previous tips. In other words, the previous tips will work on almost any type of paper to some degree.

But it is still important to choose the right paper for the drawing methods you use.

More Tooth, More Layers

The more tooth the paper has, the more layers you can put on it. The more layers, the better the color saturation, and the more opportunity you have to blend by combining layers of different colors.

The ideal paper is one that’s heavy enough to take a lot of color, smooth enough to allow you to draw detail, but also has enough tooth to accept a lot of layers.

Your choices may vary, but I suggest papers like Stonehenge, Strathmore Artagain, or Canson Mi-Tientes. Those are the papers I use most often, so if you want results similar to mine, try those three papers.

I used to use Bristol 145lb board for most of my work because I could buy it locally and it has a beautiful, smooth surface.

But it has very little tooth, so layering becomes difficult after a few layers. I’m finishing what will probably be my last project on this paper as I write this post. I recommend it only if you usually work with half a dozen layers or less.

Old Looking Portraits

You also mentioned your portraits looking older than they should, and you wondered if that’s the result of applying too much pressure during drawing. It could be, but it’s more likely that color choice and the way you’re drawing values has more to do with the end result.

One thing I can suggest is that you keep the gradations between values very soft when drawing children. They generally have smoother skin and a lot less wrinkles than older people. I’m putting together a tutorial on this subject, so stay tuned.

Additional Reading

The Only Methods You’ll Even Need for Blending Colored Pencil

Blending Colored Pencil with Painting Solvents

Blending Colored Pencil with Rubbing Alcohol

Unusual Blending Methods for Colored Pencil

2 Colored Pencil Questions and 1 Tech Question

Q&A Month continues with 2 colored pencil questions and 1 tech question. Let’s get straight to the questions.

2 Colored Pencil Questions and 1 Tech Question

Making the Transition from Graphite to Colored Pencils

I am a beginner to sketching and creating art. So far I have been practicing sketching with pencils and some charcoal. I can see improvement in my sketches however, I really want to try coloured pencils and thus far, it has been frustrating with little success. Somehow what I have learned in graphite does not transfer to the coloured pencil medium. Any suggestions?

Although both come in pencil form, there aren’t many similarities between drawing with graphite or charcoal and colored pencils. The biggest reason is that they use different types of binders.

Graphite pencils are made by mixing dry graphite with a clay binder that makes it possible to form the graphite into a lead core, then draw or write with it. The clay binder is easily erased and blended.

Colored pencils also contain clay in the binder, but the clay is mixed with wax and, in some cases, oil. The binder allows the pigment to be molded into pencil form, and allows it to be transferred to paper and blended during drawing, just like the binder in graphite pencils.

But graphite doesn’t work well under pencil because the wax binder picks the graphite up and smears it into the color. Remember I said the clay binder can be easily blended or erased? That means it can also be easily picked up by colored pencil.

Graphite cannot be layered over colored pencil because it will not stick to the waxy surface that colored pencils leave on the paper.

So most of the methods you use with graphite are not very helpful with colored pencil.

One Thing That Does Transition from Graphite to Colored Pencil

But one thing that does transfer is knowing how to use values in drawing. A good graphite artist knows all about using value to create from in their drawings, so once you’ve mastered that, you know the most important thing you need to know about making good colored pencil drawings.

Start learning colored pencil by working with just one or two colors. Get a feel for how they layer and blend, and see what you can draw. Once you get comfortable with that, trying drawing an under drawing, then practice glazing color over that. I explain how I use an umber under drawing in this tutorial.

Gradually add more colors to your palette and you’ll become as good with colored pencils as you were with graphite.

How To Get a Shine on Colored Pencil Drawings

Could you please help … me to get a shine to my coloured pencil drawings? I still have a lot to learn so would appreciate your advice. Many thanks

The best way to get a shine on your drawings is by using wax-based pencils and heavy pressure in the final layers. No matter what method of drawing you use, using heavy pressure with a wax-based pencil will create a shine, as well as blending colors together, and filling in paper holes.

The reason is that the heavier pressure you put on your pencil, the more wax binder you also put on the paper. Wax creates a smooth surface that gets very slick, and that will make your drawing look shiny.

You will want to protect the drawing from wax bloom, though, because the more wax on the paper, the more wax bloom you’ll have. Use a good final finish to spray the drawing when it’s finished to help prevent wax bloom.

Can I Get Lessons on Portable Devices?

I love this site, however, I am an older woman and only have the use of the library computers once a week. Is there anyway to copy the lessons to a portable source such as a jump drive so I can view them at home on my computer (I cannot afford internet, that’s why I have to go to the library) Thank you.

An excellent question, and one I hadn’t considered before you asked!

There are several ways to deliver content that do not involve the internet. Lessons and ebooks can easily be made available on CD, flash or jump drives.

Is anyone else interested in being able to get lessons or tutorials on either CD or flash drives? Let me know. The more CDs and flash drives I buy in bulk, and the less expensive they are.

If this is something you want, now’s the time to tell me. Leave a comment below or using the contact form at the bottom of the page to send me an email.

Thank You!

Thank you to everyone who asked a question for Q&A Month. The questions have all been good questions. I promise I’ll get to every question, but if you don’t see your question answered this month, let me know. It may have gotten lost in the shuffle.

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencil Methods

Some time ago, I asked and answered a selection of questions frequently asked by readers and students about colored pencils. Since this is Q&A Month, I’d like to tackle another set of reader questions: questions about colored pencil methods.

Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencil Methods

1. What Are Your Favorite Colored Pencil Methods?

For most of my drawings, I draw an umber under drawing first, then layer color over that. This is what I call the umber under drawing method, and it allows me to develop details and values without having to make color choices.

Colored Pencil Methods - Umber Under Drawing for a Landscape

The complementary method is similar, but instead of using an earth tone for the under drawing, the under drawing is drawn with the complementary colors of the finishing drawing. An orange under drawing for a blue object, for example.

Colored Pencil Methods - Complementary Under Drawing for a Landscape

I also use a direct method in which I begin with color and simply build color layer by layer. This illustration shows the initial color lay in with the direct method.

Colored Pencil Methods - Direct Drawing Under Drawing for a Landscape

As with choosing pencils, finding the method that works best for you is a matter of experimentation. You may find you like to vary the method from one drawing to the next. It’s just as likely your favorite method will end up being a combination of methods used by other artists.

In other words, there is no Right Way to Draw.

Read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.

2. What Are the Best Ways to Blend Colored Pencils?

How you blend depends on whether or not you want to use solvents.

For most of my work, I blend by layering one color over another and letting the colors blend visually. I also burnish (drawing with very heavy pressure) with either a colorless blender (a colored pencil without color) or a light color of pencil.

When I want to use a solvent, I use rubbing alcohol for a light blend, or rubber cement thinner or turpentine for a deeper, more complete blend.


I really prefer staying away from solvents, though. I like the look of colored pencil without solvent blending better in most cases.

3. Is layering the colors from light to dark generally better or does it depend on the look you want to achieve?

For most colored pencils, working from light to dark is the best way. The reason is that most colored pencils are translucent to some extent, so you can’t completely cover up colors with other colors. You can, of course, tint a darker color with a lighter color, but it’s impossible to cover it completely.

That’s also why I work around highlights at the beginning of a drawing instead of drawing over them. The only highlights drawn in this drawing are the reflected lights along the horse’s back.

Colored Pencil Methods - I worked around the highlights.

Caran d’Ache Luminance colors are opaque, however. You can draw with white over darker colors and it shows up pretty much like painting white oil over darker oils shows up.

Many artists begin by drawing the darkest dark areas first, then working around them. There is nothing wrong with that method of working, so long as you remember to preserve the highlights.

4. Can Regular Colored Pencils be Mixed with Wet Media?

Yes. You can combine regular colored pencils with a variety of water media from water soluble colored pencils to watercolor, acrylics, and ink.

The only thing you need to remember is that the water soluble media should be used first. Colored pencils will work very nicely over watercolor, water soluble colored pencils, thin applications of acrylic paint or any other water soluble media. I’ve even used them over ink. I used brown India ink for this project, but any color would work.

Colored Pencil Methods - Ink Under Painting

Read Drawing with Colored Pencil over India Ink on EmptyEasel.

Colored Pencil Methods - Colored Pencil Over Drawing

Read Using Prismacolor Pencils over India Ink on EmptyEasel.

The best way to discover what works for you is to try it. There is no rule that says every piece of art you draw has to succeed or has to be for sale. You can experiment and have fun!

So have fun!

Where to Start with Colored Pencils

Today’s question for Q&A Month appears in my inbox in various forms on a regular basis. In short, the question is this: I don’t know where to start with colored pencils, but I want to learn.

Here’s the latest incarnation.


Hello. My problem is “I am a want to be”. I want to draw, paint and be creative. But it just isn’t in my head to get started. I love [colored] pencil works of others..and painting on rocks..even dotting.

But where do I start? I take good photos..even entered them in fairs…

I am sure you must have hundreds of “want to bes ” out there..

Thank you

Margaret ( age 70yo). lol

Where to Start With Colored Pencils

Margaret, that’s a fantastic question and I’m thrilled you asked it! Too many people reach a certain age and think it’s too late to learn something new. I have news for you and everyone else: It’s never too late!

Some of things you’ve said you already do—including photography—indicate you’re already creative.

But you want to know where to start specifically with colored pencils.

Where to Start With Colored Pencils

The easiest answer is to start where you are. I’m not being flippant, by any means, but I always thought I needed to “be at a certain level” or “needed to know” certain things before I could start something new. That’s simply not true.

Case in point. I taught myself how to oil paint by painting every paint-by-number set I could get my hands on. I got them for Christmas, and bought them myself. Most of them were horses, but I also did a few landscapes, and then tried a paint-by-number on velvet, and an acrylic paint-by-number.

When I’d done every horse painting I could find, I started doing them over, but with changes. I experimented with backgrounds, changing the colors of the horses, and even changing leg positions.

That soon got old. One day when I bemoaned the lack of new sets, my mother said, “Why don’t you draw your own drawing and paint it?”

Talk about a light bulb moment.

Where to Start With Colored Pencils Light Bulb Moment

What That Has to Do With Margaret’s Question

I started learning how to paint by painting something someone else designed.

You can do the same thing with adult coloring books.

The beauty of adult coloring books is that you don’t have to worry about the drawing part for now. You can concentrate on how the pencils feel, and how to blend color, and layer and all the rest. It’s sort of like enjoying the icing without having to eat the cake (if you like icing as much as I do, that’s a big deal! Especially the home-made kind!)

If I were in your shoes, I’d look for a coloring book in a subject I liked. Horses, other animals, or landscapes for me. Keep the designs simple to begin with. Those complex designs are gorgeous to look at after someone else has finished them, but they’re not a good learning tool, if you’re just getting started.

You can find coloring books almost anywhere these days. Wal-Mart is as good a place to start, as is Amazon. The point is to find something you want to color, then practice coloring.

What You Can Learn

After you’ve colored a page or two just for fun, start practicing some of the basic drawing skills.

Create new colors by layering two colors together, one over another.

Practice drawing values by drawing shadows. See how three-dimensional you can make that page look.

If at all possible, try different brands of pencils. Prismacolor is a good place to start, but it’s not the only artist grade colored pencil out there. Try whatever brands catch your eye.

After The Coloring Books

After you’ve done a few pages (or a few books), try drawing something around you. A ball, a box or bowl, an egg or apple. You’ll already have a general idea of how to shade and layer; now’s the time to practice drawing or sketching.

It’s also a good idea to spend time looking at what other artists are doing, particularly those whose work you admire. If they have books or videos, read or watch. Learn how they do things and then try those methods yourself. If they work for you, great! You have a new tool to put into your artist’s toolbox.

If they don’t work for you, no harm done. Try the next thing.

And if they sort of work, adjust them so they do work.

Another Place to Start

You can also begin by drawing things that interest you. That’s what I did once I left the paint-by-number sets behind. I drew horses all the time and learned how to paint them by painting them!

Sketch with colored pencils. Shade your sketches. Practice layering color and blending. Quite honestly, the more you draw, the more quickly you’re drawing skills improve.

Those are my tips for getting started, but I’m not the only colored pencil artist with advice to offer. Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art recently released a video on this topic, and has some excellent additional tips.

A Few Additional Tips

So now you have some ideas about where to start with colored pencils. Here are a few additional tips to get you going.

Don’t think you have to have all the tools and every color in the rainbow before you begin. You can actually begin learning colored pencil with a good drawing pad such as the Strathmore 400 Series and a couple of colored pencils.

Buy the best you can afford. Believe it or not, it’s far better to have a few colors of a top-of-the-line pencil than a full set of a student or scholastic grade pencils. The better pencils contain more pigment and perform better than their less expensive counterparts. Those pencils that didn’t cost very much may be so difficult to use that you give up on the medium as a whole, and that would be a shame.

Learn the basics first, beginning with value. Drawing dark darks and light lights is more important than getting color right, so practice shading and layering techniques that help you develop values. You can do this with two or three pencils—or even just one.

Find an artist whose work you admire, whose teaching technique works with your personality, and learn everything they can teach you. You can teach yourself, but you have to make a lot of mistakes on your own. Finding the right teacher is a good way to avoid a lot of those mistakes!

Give yourself permission to draw ugly drawings! Aspire to make great art, but understand it’s going to take time to get there. In the meantime, try different things, draw as much as you can, and have fun with it.

Additional Reading

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils

Getting Started with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil

Learning how to draw vibrant color with colored pencil can be one of the most difficult things for any artist new to colored pencil to learn. Especially for an artist accustomed to painting or using pastels. In today’s post, I share a few reasons why you might be getting pale color, and tips for getting richly saturated color.

How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil

I am hoping that this will help me get vibrant results with my colour pencil art. I love them but always seems wishy washy. I am excited about your site and can’t wait to do it.

Thank you for the question!

I could better answer this question after seeing samples of work, since the “wishy-washiness” could be the result of a several factors, including method, paper, and the quality of the pencils you’re using. But I can share a couple of basic suggestions that should help no matter what method you’re using.

How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil

Not Enough Layers

One common reason for wishy-washy color is that there are not enough layers of color on the paper. Most artists, particularly those new to colored pencil, stop when their drawing starts to look finished. Unfortunately, they stop too soon. Here’s an example.

How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil - Wishy Washy Color

This is Afternoon Graze the first time I “finished” it.

How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil - Saturated Color

And this is what it looked like after a few more layers.

The biggest difference was made on the horses, but the benefit of a few additional layers to the drawing are clear throughout the composition.

So if your colors seem wishy-washy when you finish, it’s possible that you just aren’t finished yet. Try a few more layers and see what happens.

The Wrong Type of Paper

It’s also possible you’re using the wrong paper for your methods. If you like to do lots of layers and are using a smooth paper, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You can get rich saturated colors with a paper like Bristol vellum (the drawing above is on Bristol vellum), but it’s a lot more difficult. Toothier papers like Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Tientes, and Strathmore Artagain are much better for doing lots of layers.

Get a few sheets of different types of paper and try each one. You can either just do test swatches of color, or do a complete drawing.

You can buy paper online, but for something like this, it’s probably better to buy paper in person, where you can see and touch the paper before you buy. This is also a good idea because you can buy a single sheet, and many online art suppliers require a minimum purchase of paper and do not usually allow mixing between brands and types.

What papers do I recommend? The papers I use most often are:

  • Stonehenge
  • Canson Mi-Tientes
  • Strathmore ArtAgain

Canson and ArtAgain are available through Hobby Lobby. Stonehenge may also be available in some locations. Don’t forget that 40% off coupon!

Don’t be afraid to try other kinds of paper, though. Something that works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.

The Wrong Color of Paper

I’m assuming you’re using white paper and getting faded colors, but that may not be true. You may be using a colored paper.

If you are—and especially if you’re drawing on a dark paper—it will be very difficult to get the same vibrant colors that are possible on white paper. Why?

Colored pencils are translucent to some degree. You can see through the layers of color. Every color you put down affects every other color you put down.

The color of the paper also affects the way the colors look. White paper is the least noticeable, but try drawing some on colored paper and you’ll see a difference. Even with lighter colors.

Dark papers seem to absorb the colors you put on them. It doesn’t matter how many layers you put down or how hard you press on the pencil, the color of the paper will make the colors appear somewhat dull in comparison to the way they look on white paper.

It is possible to get bright colors on dark backgrounds, but most of the artists who are doing this are working on white paper and coloring the backgrounds. Cecile Baird is one who works this way. Most of her work—if not all—is drawn on white paper, so when you see one of her colored pencil drawings with a black background, you know she drew those dark darks.

Read How to Choose the Right Color of Paper for Your Next Drawing.

The Wrong Pencils

Another possible problem is the quality of pencils. Inexpensive pencils do not perform the same as higher quality pencils. They are not as heavily pigmented, and do not layer the same. In many cases, it’s quite simply impossible to get vibrant color with low-quality pencils.

You may be able to do a lot of layers with them, but the percentage of pigment to binder is usually lower with inexpensive pencils than with better pencils, so you’re putting more wax binder than pigment on the paper. That makes the colors look wishy-washy.

If the pencils you’re using are either “scholastic” or “student,” you could benefit from better pencils. Buy a few higher quality pencils and try them to see which ones will work best with your paper and methods.

Read What Are the Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art.

Wax Bloom

Finally, your problem may be wax bloom. If the drawing looks okay for a day or two, then begins to “fade”, that’s because of wax bloom.

Wax bloom happens when the wax binder rises to the surface of the pigment layers. It’s a natural process and won’t hurt the drawing, but you need to control it or prevent it to keep the drawing looking vibrant.

The best way to prevent wax bloom is to use oil-based colored pencils, or wax-based colored pencils that aren’t quite as waxy. Prismacolor pencils are well-known for their smoothness, but they are that way because of the type of wax they contain. That wax makes them prone to wax bloom. Try a different type of wax-based pencil or an oil-based pencil and see what happens.

Also use light pressure and several layers to build color. That will reduce the wax bloom.

You can also spray your drawings with a final fixative to prevent wax bloom. Just make sure to use one designed for colored pencil work. If your drawing is already showing wax bloom, use a clean paper towel to lightly wipe the drawing. That will remove the bloom, and you can then apply the final fixative. Make sure to follow the instructions carefully.

Read So You Want to Varnish Colored Pencil Art. What Should You Use.

For more answers to frequently asked colored pencil questions, read My Answers to 3 Very Common Colored Pencil Questions on EmptyEasel.

How to Draw Carpet with Colored Pencil

I have learned so much from you in my learning of art work with colored pencils over the past few months, and I thank you for that. I’ve been searching for something lately and not really finding good answers. I need to figure out how to draw/color carpet with colored pencil for a portrait of a cat lying on carpet.

Thanks again, Carrie. I, and many other beginning artists, are benefiting greatly from your tutorials.


Thank you for your very kind words, Vickie. Thank you also for such a great question. The best way to answer your question is to show you how I’d draw carpet.

But first, a few guidelines that apply to almost every kind of colored pencil drawing.

Colored Pencil Guidelines

Use light pressure as long as possible. Using heavy pressure not only fills the tooth of the paper more quickly; it also presses it down. Both make it more difficult to add layers. In most cases, it’s better to work with light to medium pressure until the very end.

Don’t worry about getting everything exact. For those of us who love detail, it’s a constant struggle to avoid fixating on the details. I know I want everything perfect, but that’s a sure road to frustration. Instead, focus on capturing the character of the background. Color is a primary factor, but so is value. You can also add a few accents that hint at the details without emphasizing them.

Keep the background in the background. This is important. The background must stay in the background, or the drawing becomes too busy. Ways to do this are softening edges, muting colors, and minimizing details. It will matter less in a drawing such as this, where the background is limited to the pattern, color, and texture of the carpet, but it is still important.

Go slow. Every part of the drawing deserves your best work. It’s counter productive to rush through the background, because it is the background. Yes, it needs to be less important than the subject, but that doesn’t mean you skimp on time or effort. The subject and the background should work together. They should look like parts of the same drawing, rather than having a well drawn subject with a slapped together background. I did that in my younger days and it wasn’t helpful!

Let the paper work for you. There are times when the texture of the paper you’re using can help you draw your subject. I discovered that using light pressure with Stonehenge paper allows the texture of the paper to assist in creating the look of carpet. I hadn’t expected that.

Now you have a few basic guidelines for drawing this sort of background. Lets get to the tutorial.

How to Draw Carpet

Here’s a detail of the reference photo Vickie supplied. As you can see, it’s mostly blue, but there are different blues as well as a few bits of oranges and reds.

How to Draw Carpet - Reference Photo

Vickie is working on tan suede mat board. I’m doing the following tutorial on Fawn Stonehenge. The steps will work with any good drawing paper, though the results will vary depending on the tooth and color of paper you draw on.

By the way, I’m using Prismacolor pencils, but am using only colors with the best lightfast rating, so you don’t have to worry about fading if you use the same colors.

Step 1: Establish the Basic Color

Chose a good, middle value color for the carpet you’re drawing. With this dark blue carpet, I chose Mediterranean Blue, which I layered over the carpet with circular strokes and light pressure.

In this illustration, I drew horizontal strips across the sample, then worked my way back across the sample. The area on the left shows a couple of layers, while the area on the right shows one layer.

I also worked in columns, as shown in the lower left corner.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 1

Do three or four layers, and stagger the layers so you don’t cover the entire area with any one layer. The resulting variation in values will begin establishing the look of a fabric. You can follow the pattern of light and dark in your reference photo, or let the layers overlap in a totally random manner.

The following illustration shows my sample after two or three additional layers.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 1b

TIP: If you want to create the look of carpet without adding additional colors, you can work entirely with one or two colors, and continue layering until you have the color saturation you want. You could even do it with just one color, but I strongly recommend against that, since using a single color could result in a flat looking area of color.

Step 2: Add a Second Color to Create Color Depth

Layer a second shade of the blue to the carpet. Use the same layering method. I chose Indigo Blue, which I applied with light pressure in a random pattern. I didn’t want to totally cover up the Mediterranean Blue, but did want darker variations in the carpet.

This illustration shows two or three layers of Indigo Blue. Again, I overlapped layers so that some areas are darker than others.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 2

Step 3: Darken the Values

Next, I darkened the overall values with two layers of Black. The first layer was applied over all of the blue with light pressure and circular strokes. The second layer was applied only in the darker areas, and mostly at the bottom.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 3

Step 4: Add a Complement

To keep the blues from looking too flat or vibrant, I layered Henna over all of the area twice. I used light pressure and circular strokes for both layers.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 4

Step 5: Repeat

If the carpet were a solid, slate gray or blue-gray color, this would be a sufficient treatment for background purposes.

But the carpet in the reference is quite a bit darker, so I’ve added more layers of Indigo Blue, Black, and Mediterranean Blue to darken the overall color.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 5

I also drew a cast shadow in the upper right corner, and began establishing the diagonal pattern in the carpet’s weave.

TIP: The carpet in the reference photo shows the weave on the diagonal. If that works all right with the coverall composition, it’s okay to draw the weave on the diagonal. I couldn’t help feeling my sample looked a little off balance with the diagonal detailing. I kept wanting to make it horizontal, but my sample is taken out of context. Do whatever works best with your composition and subject.

SUGGESTION: Save the next two steps until after the drawing is completely finished, then do only as much of each step as you need.

Step 6: Add a Few Details

Finally, add a few details to suggest the surface color and texture. I used Powder Blue, Mineral Orange, and Beige to burnish small circular spots over the blue of the carpet.

You don’t need a lot of these. Cluster them in a random pattern near the cat. As you move away from the cat, reduce the number of accents, and also make their edges softer and more blurry.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 6

Step 7: Add Highlights

This step is optional. If you like the way the carpet looks after step 6, you’re good. If you don’t then consider adding a few overall highlights. Chose a color that’s lighter than the main colors to burnish a few highlights. You can also use a colorless blender if you have one. This will blend the areas you burnish without changing the color.

If you chose to burnish highlights, wait until the drawing is completely finished. It’s quite possible you’ll discover you don’t need to do Step 4 after the rest of the drawing is finished.

DEFINITION: Burnishing is pressing very hard on the paper with your pencil, to “grind” colors together. It works best after you’ve applied all the other colors, usually late in the drawing, or just before you finish an area. Burnishing does press down the paper tooth, and also lays down a lot of wax, so it can be difficult to add more color over an area you’ve burnished.

I went ahead and burnished my sample just so you could see the difference. On the left, I used a colorless blender, the center is unburnished, and on the right, I used Powder Blue. In both cases, I used circular strokes drawn either on the diagonal or horizontally and large enough so that not every inch of the sample was covered.

How to Draw Carpet - Step 7

I’m not sure which option I like best. It really depends on the overall drawing.


And that’s how I’d draw carpet.

If you’ve ever drawn carpet, how what method did you use?

Is Tracing Cheating? My Opinion

I love getting questions from readers (what blogger doesn’t?) The readers who ask questions also love getting answers. It’s long been my practice to answer each question as I receive it, personally and directly.

But some of the questions are so good, I know other readers are wondering the same thing. Those types of questions deserve a public answer.

Hi Carrie

When drawing a portrait in coloured pencil, be it animal or human, do you start with a tracing or freestyle? What is commonly preferred?


That’s a great question, Jo!

The short answer to the question is “yes.”

Most of the time, I begin portraits by creating a detailed line drawing using the grid method for drawing, a method I’ve used for almost as long as I can remember. For simpler compositions and most landscapes, I freehand a line drawing without using a grid.

And sometimes I start by making a tracing directly from the reference photo.

So, as I said, the answer is yes.

But the question leads naturally into another question that is almost always guaranteed to generate vigorous debate.

Is Tracing Cheating

I used to believe tracing was cheating. I truly did. Since I was charging good money for portraits of horses, I felt duty-bound (not to mention honor bound) to make every pencil and brush mark with my own hand, unguided by anything but what I could see in a reference photo. Somehow, I’d be cheating clients if I drew the line drawing by tracing.

Interestingly enough, I had no qualms about tracing my line drawing onto the canvas or drawing paper. Somehow, that didn’t seem like the same thing. Maybe it was because I was tracing my own work.

So Is Tracing Cheating?

I no longer think of tracing as cheating, and here are a few reasons why.

Tracing Isn’t Easy

Most people think that making a drawing by tracing is easy. A snap. A trained monkey could do it, because it involves no skill whatsoever.


I confess that I used to think this way. But I’ve traced enough different things enough times to know that if I hurry through the process or am careless, the traced line drawing is no better than a carelessly drawn freehand drawing.

Hand control and pencil control are no less important when tracing a drawing than when drawing with the grid method. Either way, I need to be able to get the pencil to do exactly what I want it to do.

Sometimes, I think it takes more skill to accurately follow a pattern than to draw freehand (maybe that’s why I never picked up the sewing habit.)

Tracing is Not a Silver Bullet

Tracing your subject to create a line drawing doesn’t guarantee a successful piece of art.

You still have to layer and glaze color, you still have to know enough about color theory to know which colors to use, and you still need to know how to shade in order to make that line drawing look realistic. In other words, you still need to know how to draw.

Tracing is a Good Way to Improve Drawing Skills

Tracing something repeatedly—horses or cats for example—is a good way to teach yourself to draw so long as you’re using good photographs. Photos that don’t have a lot of distortion in them. Especially if you’re learning how to draw a new subject, you can benefit by tracing the subject several times, then drawing it freehand.

I’ve always been an equine portrait artist. Horse people paid me for portraits of their horses.

But horse portraits don’t always mean just horses are in the portrait. Sometimes tack is involved, and sometimes mechanical equipment is also involved.

For this oil portrait, I drew everything by hand using the grid method. Everything.

But the racing bike never satisfied me, and I had special problems getting the wheels right. So after several attempts to get the curves right freehand, I made a couple of tracings of that part of the reference photo.

Is Tracing Cheating - Learning to Draw Something New

You can see the wheels still aren’t as rounded and balanced as they should be in the finished painting, but tracing them a few times did improve my ability to draw the curves with a brush when it came time to paint them.

Tracing is a Good Way to Get Accurate Drawings

If you’re doing portrait work in which the subject you draw must look like the subject you’re drawing, tracing can be a life-saver.

Take this line drawing, for example. I can draw a horse in almost any imaginable position or posture, but technical drawing of any kind is a major struggle. So I drew the horse in both views, the bridles and equipment on the head study, and the landscape elements. Then I traced the racing bike and the driver to make sure they were accurate.

I’d learned my lesson from the oil portrait, you see!

hbIs Tracing Cheating - Line Drawing

So what I recommend now is to trace something a couple of times to get a feel for the shapes, then try drawing it freehand.

If that doesn’t work, there’s nothing wrong with tracing that part of the composition as part of the line drawing.

Tracing a Reference Photo Simplifies It

Let’s face it. Sometimes, a reference photo shows too many things.

Or maybe the edges get lost because colors or values are too similar.

You can clean up the composition by making a careful tracing first. You can, of course, use that tracing as your final line drawing, or you can use it as a reference from which to make a line drawing.

Even if you chose to create your line drawing directly from the reference photo, a carefully drawn tracing can be a good benchmark against which to compare your final drawing. I have used tracings in this way on quite a few more complex compositions.

Tracing is a Time Saver

I spent two or three weeks on each of the line drawings for the portraits above. Tracing the original line drawing could have saved a considerable amount of time on both, not to mention personal frustration, and having to rush things at the end of the process to meet deadlines.

So is tracing cheating?

Not in my book. At least no longer.

But I also understand that it’s as much a personal preference as anything. If tracing violates your conscience, don’t do it.

Otherwise, make use of it just as you would any other tool in your artists’ toolbox.

What Are the Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art?

the Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art

i want to learn the techniques used in color pencil art and want to know what are the best colored pencils for fine art

This post begins Q&A month, and I couldn’t think of a better question to begin with, so thank you for asking!

It doesn’t matter what style you work in, what method you use, or what level of artist you are, you want the best tools available. That begins with colored pencils.

But there are a lot of different types and brands of colored pencils out there. How do you decide which one (or ones) are the best for fine art?

What Are the Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art

There is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer for this question, since much depends on the methods you use and the type of art you want to draw.

Much also depends on where in the world you are. Different brands are available in different parts of the world. What’s easy to find here in the US may not be available at all in Europe or Down Under.

But we can begin the discussion with a few basics that apply across the board.

Basic Tips for Choosing Colored Pencils

Buy open stock. Sets are great for getting started if you already know what type of pencil you want to use. Before that, get three or four pencils from a variety of manufacturers. Test them. See which you like best, then consider buying a set.

Buy the best pencils you can afford. It’s far better to buy a few high-quality pencils and learn to use them well, than to buy a lot of pencils that are lower in quality. It’s much easier to make an informed decision about the medium when you test it at its best.

Read Do I Need a Full Set of Colored Pencils.

Sample different brands. Draw your favorite subjects on your favorite papers with a number of different kinds of pencils to get a true feel for which pencils are best suited to you. (Another great reason to buy a few pencils in open stock.)

When looking for recommendations from other artists, look for artists who are producing the type of art you want to draw. Study their methods and the tools they use. If they offer product reviews, watch or read those. The honest opinions of people who have used or are using a pencil you want to try is always a good place to start.

And that brings me to the point of this post.

The Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art

This article is not meant to be an in-depth review of every brand of pencil on the market. There are just too many pencils to make that possible in a single post.

So I’m going to briefly review the pencils that work well for my methods and the papers I use. Your experiences may be different, but I hope this list gives you a place to begin your search for the best colored pencils for your art.

The list is arranged alphabetically, rather than in order of preference.

Faber-Castell Polychromos

Faber-Castell Polychromos are an excellent pencil for most methods of drawing. They sharpen well, lay down color very nicely, and produce exquisite detail. Artists who use them include Lisa Clough and Wendy Layne.

Polychromos pencils are oil-based with a harder pigment core than most wax-based pencils, so they handle differently. In my admittedly limited experience, I can feel more resistance between pencil and paper. But I can do more coloring with them than with Prismacolor, even on rougher papers like Canson Mi-Teintes.

The two brands work well together, though I suggest putting down Prismacolor pencils for the initial layers, then coming back with Polychromos for detail work.

The initial cost is higher per pencil for Polychromos than Prismacolor, but you get higher quality, more lightfast colors, and pencils that go further than the softer Prismacolor pencils.

The range of earth tones is also a treat for an artist like me, who prefers drawing horses and landscapes.

Prismacolor Premier & Verithin

I still use Prismacolor Premier and Verithin pencils for the bulk of my work, because they’re what I have.

Both pencils are wax-based. Prismacolor Premier (aka Soft Core), is a softer pencil with a thicker pigment core. You can lay down rich color more easily with these than with the Verithin pencils, but you will also find yourself sharpening more often, and filling up paper tooth more quickly.

The Verithin pencils have a smaller pigment core that holds a point much longer and is ideal for first color layers and drawing details. It’s not impossible to get deep, rich color with them, but it is quite a bit more difficult. Thirty-six colors are available.

Both lay down color very well, and you can get a high degree of detail on a variety of papers, but quality issues makes buying them a risk most of the time. Purchase open stock in person, and check each pencil for centered pigment cores, and straightness.

Read Four Ways to Know You’re Buying High Quality Colored Pencils on EmptyEasel.

Artists who use Prismacolor include myself, Morgan Davidson, and Cecile Baird.

A Few Words of Caution

When I first began using colored pencils, Prismacolor pencils were state-of-the-art. But the company has changed hands several times and is no longer an industry standard, in my opinion.

I do still recommend Prismacolor pencils, but with caveats. If you get a good batch of pencils, they are a delight to use. Otherwise, be prepared for the inconveniences of broken pigment cores, split wood casings, and possible grit. My experiences have been mostly positive, but I do still have a large number of older Prismas in my collection.

Prismacolor pencils are not all lightfast, so if you’re concerned about producing artwork that will last a long time without fading, you need to be selective in the colors you buy. I no longer use colors rated III, IV, or  V. That’s roughly half the colors in a full set, so it’s best to buy open stock and buy only colors rated I or II.

Crafters can be comfortable using all the colors without worry.

For all you fine artists, chose colors with discretion, or advise art buyers to use conservation glazing.

Colored Pencils On My Wish List

The following pencils are not pencils with which I have personal experience, but I want to try them. The reasons vary from simple curiosity to favorable reviews from artists whose work I admire and whose opinions I respect.

Again, the list is in alphabetical order, not necessarily the order in which I rate each brand.

Blick Studio Artist’s Colored Pencils intrigue me because they are a high quality product at a good price. Dick Blick negotiated an agreement with the makers of Utrecht Premium Colored Pencils to produce the pencil under the Blick Studio brand for sale in the US. Utrecht Premium Colored Pencils in a Dick Blick wrapper. What’s not to like?

Caran d’Ache Luminance wax-based colored pencils. Very expensive, but also opaque, so you can draw light over dark.

Caran d’Ache Pablo Pencils are to Luminance what Verithin pencils are to Prismacolor Soft Core. I like the combination of hard and soft with Prsimacolor products, so why not with Caran d’Ache.

Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor Oil-Based Colored Pencils are on my Wish List for the very simple reason that I once had a Lyra Rembrandt Splendor Blender and lovedit.

The Best Colored Pencils for Fine Art in My Opinion

There you have it. My recommendations as to the best colored pencils for fine art. As I said, it’s nowhere near an exhaustive list. But hopefully it gives you a place to begin your own search for the ideal colored pencil.

Before you buy any pencil, do a little research. Look for honest and open reviews either on the product pages where you normally buy art supplies, or video reviews.

Then make your selections based on that information.

Want to know what I’d buy if I were just starting out? Dream Colored Pencil Shopping List.



How Can I Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting?

What are the best ways to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting?

Whenever anyone asks me this question, it’s almost certain they want to know about color application, method, and so on. That is, after all, what we usually think about when it comes to colored pencil: Method.

There are a couple of ways to get an oil painting-like result with colored pencils that involve method, but that’s not where the process begins if you truly want your colored pencil drawing to look like an oil painting.

How to Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting

Choosing a Support

The process begins at the beginning, with the support you use. You can, of course, use the paper you usually use and the methods I’ll describe in a moment will work. But you’ll still have to frame the drawing under glass. No matter how painterly your drawing, it will still clearly be a drawing.

So the first thing you need to consider is drawing on a rigid support. Something like Pastelbord, or a gessoed panel that doesn’t need to be framed under glass.

There are plenty of options from which to choose, so pick one or two (or three or four), and try them. Find one that works well with your drawing methods and suits your needs, and you’re ready!

Choosing a Method

Almost any method of drawing is capable of producing “painterly” colored pencil work. Why? Because styles of painting range from very loose and minimal to very detailed and complex. I usually think of realistic styles when I want to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting, but that’s not your only option.

Two Options for Saturated Color

I’m going to make a huge assumption here, and say that most of the readers who ask how to make their colored pencil drawings look like oil paintings want to know how to draw rich, saturated color, with no paper holes. I have two suggestions for you!

(If you want to make your drawings look like oil paintings, but not with saturated color, let me know!)

Option 1: Layer, Layer, Layer

The method I prefer is multiple layering. Not five or six layers or even a dozen, but twenty or thirty.

Start with light pressure and careful color application, then gradually increase the pressure with successive layers. Burnish toward the end and alternate burnishing with additional layers of color.

My preferred paper for this kind of work is Stonehenge. It’s a relatively soft paper, but it can take a lot of color. If you use a heavier weight such as 120 lb. (320 gsm), it can also take some abuse. It is a printmaking paper, though, so it is rather susceptible to impression. You can very easily make a mark in it accidentally.

NOTE: Using this method on Stonehenge will produce wonderful color saturation and no paper holes—just like an oil painting—but you will still need to frame it under glass to protect the paper.

Option 2: Solvents

The second method—which I have used but don’t prefer—is the use of solvents.

Turpentine or rubber cement thinner are what I usually use, but only sparingly. You can usually get a couple of good blends with either. I used rubber cement thinner to blend the background on this drawing.

Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting - Background

I choose this sample, because the blended background looks like a background painted with oils, but the unblended horse is clearly colored pencil. You can clearly see the difference a solvent blend makes in color saturation. In order to make this drawing really look like an oil painting, I’d need to add more layers on the horse, and then possibly blend with solvent.

Other artists use odorless paint thinner or a powder blender, but I don’t personally recommend those, since I have no experience with either.

Tips for Using Solvent to Blend

If you use a solvent to blend, you need to have a lot of color on the paper first, so multiple layers are still important.

You also need a heavier paper. Paper mounted to a rigid support is best, because it will stand up to the fluid solvent better.

Keep gradations in value and color smooth and subtle. Consider the way you put color on the paper, too. Careful strokes, usually following the contours of the subject, but also using other strokes to cover the paper.

NOTE: Using this method on a rigid support will allow you to frame the finished work without glass, which will enhance the similarity to an oil painting.


Those are the best suggestions I can make. It is possible to do a portrait in colored pencil that looks like an oil painting. Though my portraits are usually horses or dogs, I have been able to do some that are difficult to distinguish from an oil painting, even when hanging next to an oil painting.

Except for the glass, of course. The glass is a dead giveaway. Most artists just don’t frame oils under glass!

Mixing Watercolor Pencils and Colored Pencils

What is the best way of mixing watercolor pencils and colored pencils?

I don’t use watercolors and colored pencils very often, but I have used water soluble colored pencils. When I do, I use a couple of different methods, depending on the requirements of each drawing.

One of those methods also works with watercolor, so in this post, I’ll describe two ways to use water soluble colored pencils in your drawings and followup with a suggestion for using watercolor with regular colored pencils.

Mixing Watercolor Pencils and Regular Colored Pencils

Mixing Watercolor Pencils and Colored Pencils

There are two basic ways for mixing watercolor pencils and colored pencils. (Actually, there are three, but one of them involves drawing with them just like traditional colored pencils and not using water. That’s what I did for my plein air challenge drawing from week seven.)

Mixing Watercolor Pencils and Regular Colored Pencils

It’s perfectly fine to use water soluble pencils this way, so don’t think you have to add water in order to draw with water soluble colored pencils.

But since this article is all about adding water, here are the other two ways you can use water soluble colored pencils.

Draw First, Then Add Water

Most of the time, I draw with them just like I do with traditional colored pencils, then use a damp brush to activate the color. When the color dries, it can be drawn over again.

This is usually best done at the beginning of the drawing process. This method as a great way to do a quick under drawing or to create even areas of color for skies or similar areas.

Below is a sample. I drew with water soluble colored pencil first, then brushed part of it with a wet brush.


Of course, you may continue drawing with water soluble colored pencils and you can also continue activating them with water, layer after layer. Every time you dampen the paper, however, you will blend all of the colors; not just the ones you added most recently. If you do more than one wash with water, keep in mind how the different colors will affect each other (if you used more than one color).

You can also go over water soluble colored pencils with traditional pencils.

Add Water First, Then Draw

Another way of mixing water color colored pencils with regular colored pencils is by dampening the pencil point, then drawing. This is very easy. Simply dip the tip of a water soluble colored pencil in clear water, then draw with it. You will get a very bold mark that way, but you’ll have to dip the pencil frequently.

In this illustration, I dipped a pencil in clean water, then began drawing. The first marks (on the left) are nice and dark with no paper showing through. As I continued to draw, the pencil dried and the marks became lighter and less sharp. The marks on the right are with the dry pencil. I didn’t lift the pencil at all in drawing from left to right.


This is especially good for adding accents where you want vibrant or dark color. It works best in very small areas or for details. It’s not very efficient for drawing large areas of color.

Again, mixing water color colored pencils and regular colored pencils with this method is possible. Just make sure to test any new method on a piece of scrap paper first.

Watercolor And Colored Pencils

Watercolors and colored pencils do mix, but you’re likely to find the watercolor a little more limited in usefulness. Water soluble colored pencils are made to work with traditional colored pencils. Watercolor is not.

Even so, you have one proven method and one method that may or may not work.

Watercolor Under Painting

The best way to use watercolors with colored pencils is to tone papers with washes of color first. If you’re going to draw a landscape, for example, use watercolor to block in the major elements. Sky. Grass. Buildings. You’re not looking for a lot of detail here. Indeed, you probably won’t be looking for any detail at all.

If you’re using a standard drawing paper (one not made for watercolor), you will have to be careful not to get the paper or board too wet or it may buckle or warp.

Mixing Watercolor Pencils and Regular Colored Pencils

You can use watercolor papers, but you will have a more difficult time drawing detail with colored pencil due to the tooth of the paper. The drawing shown here was drawn on watercolor paper. The watercolor under painting is shown above. Below is the finished drawing.

Watercolor as Under Painting for Colored Pencil Finished

Once the under painting was dry, I used normal drawing methods to build color and value, add details, and finish the drawing. For this drawing, the watercolor under painting saved a lot of time and filled the tooth of the paper better than I could have done using colored pencils alone.

Watercolor Over Colored Pencil

I have used watercolor over wax pencil, but with mixed results. The watercolor did stick to the layers of colored pencils (a big surprise!), but I couldn’t add more colored pencil over the watercolor.

The following drawing made use of watercolor over colored pencil and while the drawing itself turned out fairly well, I don’t recommend this method without a trial run. Test it first for yourself, then decide whether it suits you or not.

Read Can You Add Watercolor Over Wax-Based Colored Pencil?

Green Lanscape 33

One Disclaimer

All of the methods I’ve described here involve using wax-based colored pencils. I have no reason to think oil-based colored pencils would respond any differently, but I don’t know for sure. So if you want to use oil-based pencils with these methods, do a small test drawing first.

If you use oil-based colored pencils with water soluble colored pencils or watercolors, let us know what has worked for you.

Additional Reading

Want more information on mixing water media and colored pencils? I’ve written some articles for EmptyEasel that might be helpful.

How to Draw a Sunrise Landscape with Water Soluble Colored Pencils – Part 1

Drawing a Sunrise with Water Soluble Colored Pencils – Part 2

How to Start a Drawing with Water Soluble Colored Pencils

Using Dry Colored Pencils over a Water-Soluble Colored Pencil Drawing