Metallic Colored Pencils: My Thoughts

My Thoughts on Metallic Colored Pencils

Lets talk about specialty pencils today; namely those pencils labeled as metallic colored pencils.

E. Mark Gross will get us started with his question:

I sometimes use pencils with the metallic description.  I’ve seen metallic pencils by Prismacolor, Caran d’Ache, General, Stampin Up.

Do you have any favorite types? Do you have particular situations where you find metallic pencils work well or poorly?

Mark has asked two questions, so I’ll answer in two parts.

My Thoughts on Metallic Colored Pencils

My Thoughts on Metallic Colored Pencils

I don’t really have favorite metallic pencils, so I’ll share a list of those I have. The list isn’t very long.

The Pencils I Have

I’ve purchased full sets of three or four different lines of colored pencils, so I have metallic pencils. Since I’ve purchased more than one set of some lines, I have quite a few metallic pencils!

There is a good representation of Prismacolor Metallic Copper, Metallic Gold, and Metallic Silver in my pencil stash. I also have a metallic green Prismacolor. I think I used that color once to draw trees in the far background for a landscape piece. More on that in a moment.

I have a couple of metallic colors of Prismacolor Verithin pencils.

The full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos includes Copper, Gold and Silver.

And I recently purchased a full set of Blick Studio Colored Pencils, so I have Gold and Silver in that line.

Other than the Prismacolor Soft Core and Prismacolor Verithin, I’ve used none of them.

The Ways I Use Them

When I first started using colored pencils, I tried the metallic colors to draw the metallic parts of horse bridles. That makes sense, but it didn’t work. The bits, buckles, and other details looked flat when I drew them with metallic colors. I got better results using non-metallic colors and focusing on values, edges, and transitions to draw metal and/or reflective objects.

A couple of years ago, I used Prismacolor metallic pencils (gold, silver, and copper) on black paper. I was trying a lot of things at the time, and decided to include the metallic colors in my experiments. The drawings in this post were all drawn with metallic Prismacolor colors.

The colors were fun to work with. Color went down very nicely and surprisingly smooth. On the whole, the sketches turned out well. I liked the results.

As I mentioned above, there’s also a vague memory that I tried Prismacolor Metallic Green in a landscape drawing thinking that muted green would be good for drawing distance. It is a nice color and it may have worked in that drawing, but it apparently didn’t work all that well because I’ve not used it again.

The Problems I Have With Metallic Colors

The biggest problem I see with metallic pencils is that the metallic qualities don’t show up in images of the artwork. You have to be looking at the original to see those qualities.

All of the illustrations in this post were drawn with Prismacolor metallic colored pencils. The colors look metallic in real life. They have a nice, subtle sheen.

But there’s nothing special about them (other than interesting colors) when you view images of the original drawings. The sheen disappears in digital images, reproductions and all other non-original forms of that art.

Those are My Thoughts on Metallic Colored Pencils

I don’t have much more to say about metallic colored pencils of any type or brand because I don’t use them.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to draw with or to use as accents.

In the right places and on the right papers.

Got a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

The Drawing Boards I’ve Used

The Drawing Boards I've Used

Today, I’d like to share the drawing boards I’ve used for colored pencil work over the years. They’re so easy (and cheap!) you’ll be amazed you haven’t thought of it yourself.

This post comes in response to a reader question, so let’s take a look at that to get us started.

Hi Carrie,

Could you please tell me what you use under the paper of your colored pencil pieces? My table leaves unwanted marks on the paper.

What a great question! Thank you!

First, I need to explain that I don’t draw at a drawing table very often, and even when I do, I have my drawing mounted to a rigid support for stability. So I don’t have problems with the surface of the table creating unwanted marks in my drawing.

Since I do a lot of work sitting on the couch or standing at a drafting table, I keep works-in-progress mounted on light-weight, portable surfaces.

But you can also use drawing boards this way and they can be very efficient.

The Drawing Boards I’ve Used

I’ve been using colored pencils since the 1990s, and have been using them exclusively since 2017. So I’ve used a lot of different types of drawing boards.

Professional Boards

The first drawing boards were small, 16 x 21 inches. I used them because I had them. As I recall, they were part of the supply list for a correspondence course I took as a teenager. Art Instruction Schools, if anyone is interested. A good course that covers everything. I still have the binders!

Because I bought these boards in the late 70s, they were wood, so they were on the heavy side. But they were very smooth and very well made. It was easy to mount paper to them with ordinary masking tape (I didn’t know any better back then,) and work with them in my lap or propped up on a desk or table. When I wasn’t working, I could lean them against a wall or on an easel and the art was visible, accessible, and out of the way.

I still have one of them, but I no longer use it even though it’s still a good drawing board. The main reason is the weight. It’s just too uncomfortable to sit with it on my lap these days. Age, I guess.

It’s also a bit on the bulky side compared to the types of drawing boards I use now, and it’s nowhere near as portable. So it’s in storage.

This exact drawing board is no longer available, but Dick Blick sells a similar model that’s very lightweight and comes in a variety of sizes.

Richeson Drawing Clip Board

A few years later, I purchased two drawing clip boards, one large and one small. These boards are very light, have very smooth surfaces, and were excellent to draw on. They are fitted with two strong clips on one side, and a grip hole at the top, so you can easily carry them. They also have a strong, wide extra large rubber band to hold paper securely, so you don’t need to tape your paper down if you don’t want to.

I’ve since given the larger one away because it was too big for what I needed. I still use the smaller one, but it’s on my oil painting easel with art clipped onto it. More on that in a moment.

The Drawing Boards I've Used

These are very nice drawing boards, and they’re not that expensive. You can get them from Dick Blick for less than $20 each at the time of this writing.

The reason I no longer use them for drawing is that they just didn’t fit my needs. They may be perfect for you.

Homemade Laptop Drawing Boards

When my main artwork was horse portraits, I went to two big equine trade shows every year, and as many smaller local horse shows as I could manage. I tried to have something to work on at these venues, especially the longer shows. Most drawing boards just didn’t fit into a medium-sized sedan loaded up with artwork, marketing tools, and a complete display system.

So I started looking around for a workable solution.

It didn’t take long to realize I could make my own lightweight, laptop drawing boards for next to no money, and I could make as many as I needed, in whatever size I needed. They worked great! I made them to carry a work-in-progress safely, cleanly, and in a manner that allowed me to work on a piece during lull times at shows, but still display the work on an easel when I wasn’t working.

These are totally hand made, and I describe how I did it in a post titled Build a Lightweight Laptop Drawing Board. If you’re interested, the step-by-step directions will help you build your own.

The great thing about these is that they’re inexpensive, you can create the type of drawing surface you want, and you can display works-in-progress without having to remove it from the drawing board.

My Current Favorite Drawing Boards

Given the shortage of time to draw, I’ve been working small the last several years. The majority of my work is 9×12 or smaller. That size makes it possible to scan pieces if I’m putting together a tutorial. But speed and scanning are not the only benefits.

I buy most papers in 9×12 inch pads. When the pads are empty, I don’t throw them away. I use them for drawing boards for my small pieces if they have rigid backing.

The beauty of using empty drawing pads for drawing boards is that they’re very lightweight. I can take them anywhere, or lean them on a shelf between working sessions. I can also have more than one piece in progress at a time, and each one has it’s own drawing board.

To cover the artwork if necessary, I leave the cover on the pad. And if I want to travel with them, I can easily slide them into a resealable, archival clear plastic envelope, and tuck them into a briefcase, a piece of luggage or a tote bag.

They’re also free. You’ve already paid for the paper and used it up, so the empty pad cover and back is no extra charge. It’s also a great way to reduce the amount of waste that comes with any artistic endeavor.

In other words, they’re perfect!

Subscribers to my newsletter learned how to turn empty drawing pads into nifty, next to no-cost drawing boards. For exclusive how-to articles and other features, subscribe to the newsletter!

Those are the Drawing Boards I’ve Used

Any one of these tools provides a smooth, mark-free drawing surface. Not all of them will suit your drawing preferences or taste, but that’s the beauty of art. There are very few Must Do All The Time answers.

And if you really just need a smooth surface to put between your artwork and your favorite drawing table, get a sheet of good, archival mat board. Cut it to the size you need, then lay it on your table top whenever you want to draw.

Make sure to use the back, because that’s the smoothest side, no matter what type of mat board you use. You can get full sheets at a good frame shop or online, and chances are it will be less expensive than most drawing boards.

Best of all, you can use it on different tables with little or no fuss.

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers

I’ve talked a lot in the past about Stonehenge paper. More recently, I’ve talked about sanded art papers. So today, I’m comparing Stonehenge and sanded art papers.

Here’s the reader question to start the discussion.

Can you discuss the differences in using Stonehenge 90 or 120lb vs sanded paper for colored pencil portraits?

Several years ago I completed a colored pencil portrait of my son’s family dog using sanded paper. They have asked me to do portraits of the two dogs they now have and want to group the portraits together.

I loved the velvety look of the finished project on sanded paper. However [I] found the paper difficult to work with. I’ve also evolved in my style and technique. While I want them to be somewhat similar in style I would prefer a different paper. I use a lot of layers and prefer color saturation. These two dogs are very light in color where the previous portrait I did was a very dark color. I usually keep my backgrounds very simple and prefer a monochrome color palette.

Your thoughts?

Thank you, Sharon

Before I go any further, I want to thank Sharon for her question, and especially for the background on the question. It’s always helpful to know where a reader is coming from.

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers

There is a world of difference between sanded art paper and Stonehenge, no matter what the subject.

The most notable difference is the surface texture. Stonehenge is soft and almost velvety in feel, while sanded art paper is gritty.

Consequently, color goes onto each type of paper differently.

In the illustration below, I used a sharp pencil and light pressure to draw each of the lines. The left half is Stonehenge, and the right half is Fisher 400 sanded pastel paper.

The pencil left marks on both papers, but the marks on Stonehenge are much lighter, while the marks on the Fisher 400 are darker, even with light pressure.

The top two lines were drawn with the tip of the pencil. I held the pencil in a more horizontal grip and used the side of the pencil for the bottom two lines.

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers

It’s easy to develop strong color on sanded papers because the grit of the paper almost seems to “grab” the color from the pencil. This is true with all of the sanded papers and pencils I’ve used.

Pencils layer differently, too.

The samples on top in the illustration below show shading on both papers. The color is not smooth on either paper, but it’s smoother on the Stonehenge than on the Fisher 400.

I shaded the bottom areas with the side of the pencil, then used the tip to draw hair-like strokes. The strokes on the Stonehenge (left) look more like hair than the strokes on the Fisher 400. That’s because the Fisher 400 flattened the tip of the pencil with the first few strokes.

it is possible to layer enough color on both papers to get rich, saturated color. But you can add more layers on sanded art paper than on the Stonehenge.

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers

Sturdiness

Sanded art paper is quite solid and gritty. It takes a lot of layers, but it also takes a lot of punishment. You can use any kind of pressure on it without damaging it.

Stonehenge can take a lot of layers, but it’s a soft, velvety paper, so it’s very easy to damage. I’ve often said that looking at it cross-eyed can leave a mark!

Drawing Methods

Many of the same drawing methods can be used on both papers, but their effectiveness varies.

But as you saw above, even light pressure on sanded art papers produces darker color layers than the same amount of pressure on Stonehenge. The first time I used sanded art paper, that seemed like a negative. I have such a naturally light hand and have gotten used to drawing that way that I was put off by the results of the lightest layering on sanded paper.

But I soon learned that I could add so many more layers to the sanded paper that the pressure I used didn’t matter as much.

One thing you can do easily on sanded art papers that you can’t do on Stonehenge is lift color. In some cases, you can also get back to the color of the paper with mounting putty when you draw on sanded art paper.

This piece is an older piece on Fisher 400. One of the first pieces I did on sanded art paper. When I decided to rework it, I needed to lift color. As you can see, repeated use of mounting putty removed a lot of color. The lightest areas in and around the tree are the paper showing through.

I can also lift color on Stonehenge, but I cannot remove color back to the paper. Lighten it, yes. Remove it, not without risk of damaging the paper.

Highlights

You can layer light colors over dark colors on Stonehenge, but all you’ll accomplish is tinting the darker color. It’s next to impossible to create bright highlights over darker colors on Stonehenge or other traditional paper.

But you can add light highlights over darker colors on most sanded art papers. This illustration is on Clairefontaine Pastelmat. I drew these ears by alternating strokes of dark and light colors. That’s pretty much the same method I’d use on Stonehenge.

When I drew the small portion of visible neck, however, I shaded the area with dark colors, then went back and “flicked in” the lighter marks. I was able to do that because there was still plenty of tooth on the paper when I finished shading the base layers.

Layering

Both types of paper take a lot of layers, as already mentioned.

But you can layer with light, medium or heavy pressure throughout the drawing process when you use sanded art papers.

Stonehenge requires light pressure for as long as possible in order to get the maximum number of layers. Of course you can use heavier pressure, but you will fill up the tooth of the paper. You also run the risk of scuffing the paper.

You have no such worries with sanded art papers. I reworked the background on this piece several times. This illustration shows just three phases. I could have worked the background yet again after finishing the horse if I wanted to because there was still plenty of tooth left on this sheet of Pastelmat.

Comparing Stonehenge and Sanded Art Papers: My recommendation for Sharon (and you!)

Sharon is right. Sanded art papers do produce lovely, velvety textures AND they are difficult to work with. I don’t blame her for wanting to try something different.

I encourage Sharon to try Stonehenge, but I also suggest she do something for herself first. Get a feel for it. Push it to its limits and see what kind of results you get.

That’s the best way to try any new paper. If you like what you see and the paper makes your work easier, then by all means use it. If you don’t like it, no harm done. You haven’t ruined a portrait!

I hope that’s helpful. The problem with paper is that no two artists work exactly the same way, and what works for one artist may not work for another.

If it seems like I prefer sanded art papers, it’s because I do. After years of using Stonehenge, I’ve discovered I can produce better work on sanded art papers, no matter what I draw.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the best paper for everyone else.

How to Draw a Flowering Tree

How to Draw a Flowering Tree

The question for today is how to draw a flowering tree. The question comes from Gail, and here’s what she had to say.

Because it is Spring time, I would love to learn how best to do a flowering tree in colored pencil. It may be all one bright color like a pink Peach Tree or with some blossoms and some greenery; like an orange tree with white blossoms.

I would love to know how you would do something like that. I have some photos of small flowering trees if you want to see them.

First of all, I want to thank Gail for her question. I’ve never drawn a tree in bloom, and my experience drawing flowers is extremely limited, so I had to give this some thought.

It didn’t take long to realize that the best way to answer Gail’s question was with a quick tutorial. So I asked to see some of the photos she mentioned. She sent three. This is the one I chose.

I also asked Gail how she wanted to draw a tree, whether as the main subject or in a landscape. That does make a difference. She told me she wanted to know how to add a flowering tree to a landscape drawing.

So that’s what I’ll focus on in this tutorial.

How to Draw a Flowering Tree in Five Steps

Now, drawing a tree like this might look intimidating, but it isn’t really. All you really need to do is draw the general character of the tree. Remember, this is just one element in a landscape. It probably won’t be the center of interest. It also probably won’t be very big, so you don’t need much detail.

My example is 4 inches by 6 inches on Bristol Vellum, but the same method works at any size and on any papers. Be aware that if you choose to use sanded art paper, you’ll have to adjust your drawing method somewhat, but the basics still apply.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Sketch the “Bare Bones”

I start by sketching out the bare bones of the tree. I begin with a neutral color, usually a medium-light value earth tone like Prismacolor Light Umber or Polychromos Raw Umber, or a medium-light gray. The color is based on the subject. Earth tones for brown branches, grays for gray branches. Whatever color I use, I want a color that blends into the drawing and “disappears.”

That’s not a hard-and-fast rule, though. Sometimes I sketch with whatever color is handy.

Whatever color you choose, keep the lines very soft and light. What you’re creating is a road map and you’ll cover those lines as the drawing progresses.

I’ve darkened this sketch a bit so you could see it. It’s still quite light, but it gives you an idea of what I mean when I say I “lightly sketch” something. The idea is to begin developing the “bare bones” of the subject without using lines so dark or heavy that you can’t cover, change, or erase them.

Remember that you don’t need to draw the tree exactly. Draw the general shapes and character, instead.

Also remember that the smaller the tree is in the landscape, the less detail you need to draw.

Step 2: Sketch the Flowers and Start Shading

Next, I sketched in the flowers. Because this tree is meant to be an accent in a landscape, I blocked in the flowers as general shapes in groups. I used light pressure and circular strokes to sketch overall shapes, along with a few individual flowers. There will be very little detail here, mostly color and value, so it’s not important to get every flower in exactly the right place.

I used a light purplish-pink as the base color, as shown here.

Then I used the same light brown I used to sketch the tree to add shadows. Again, I used circular strokes to rough in the shadows on the trunk and bigger branches. I also added stems to some of the larger individual flowers on the smaller branches and twigs.

Use a light hand with this step. You’re still establishing shapes and placement, so leave room for corrections. It’s also easier to remove color when you use light pressure.

This photo is darkened slightly so it’s easier to see.

Step 3: Continue Adding Color & Value

Once the main shapes are established to your satisfaction, finishing the tree is a matter of layering to develop color and value. As I mentioned before, you don’t need to worry about a lot of detail if your flowering tree is merely an accent in a larger landscape. Getting the main shapes, colors, and values correct will identify the tree.

I went over the trunk and branches with a medium-dark gray to darken the values and tone down the brown. I went over it several times, using light pressure and mostly circular strokes to build color and value. In the smaller branches, I used directional strokes.

Where flowers overlap branches, I worked around the flowers.

The most interesting part of the tree (to me) is the place where three branches twist and overlap near the center, so I put the darkest values and most contrast in that area.

Then I added darker pinks to the flowers. I referred to the reference photo, but only briefly. The number and detail of the flowers can quickly become overwhelming. Unless you’re doing hyper-realism, it’s not necessary. Especially since this little tree is meant for a larger landscape. Too much detail would be distracting.

So I added the darker values on the shadowed sides of the buds, and in random places on the other flowers. Where several flowers overlap, I treated them as a single shape.

Step 4: Finishing the Tree

To finish the branches and trunk, I alternated layers of a medium-dark and light gray, black, and medium brown. I increased the pressure for each layer, then used the light gray as a blending layer.

Then I darkened the shadows with touches of black, applied with medium-heavy pressure.

To keep the focus for this study on the “y” branches, I used the most black there. But I also used the brown in the main parts of the tree, and used only the grays on the smaller branches further from the trunk.

At this point, I wasn’t using the reference photo at all. Instead, I added small details where they seemed necessary to make the tree interesting on its own.

How to Draw a Flowering Tree

Step 5: Finishing a Flowering Tree

The last step was bringing the flowers to the same level of detail as the tree. I used three shades of pinks and purples to add just enough detail to make it clear these were flowers and what color they are.

The final layer was applied with medium heavy pressure to fill in the paper holes and create full color saturation.

I also added more random shapes to suggest more flowers.

To finish this study, I added grass around the tree using two shades of green, and a few strokes of black in the shadow cast by the tree.

How to Draw a Flowering Tree - Finished Study

How to Draw a Flowering Tree

Keep in mind that this little tree is meant for a larger landscape. If I were to draw it as the subject, I’d put a lot more detail into it.

And time, as well.

How you draw a flowering tree depends on how large or small it is in the landscape, and whether or not it’s a main element. The closer to the foreground the tree appears, the more contrast, detail, and color saturation you have to draw.

The more distant it is, the less of each you need to worry about. And if it’s just a small shape, get the vague shapes and colors correct and you’ve nailed it.

The amount of detail you include also depends on your particular style. If you draw in a more detailed style, then every part of your landscape will be more detailed.

And if you prefer a looser style, then you’ll want to draw this flowering tree with less detail than I have.

I hope this tutorial has been helpful, and enjoyable!

Paper Holes showing through Colored Pencil

Are paper holes showing through colored pencil layers a problem area for you? You’re not alone!

Today’s question comes from an artist who asked about that very thing. Here’s her question.

Hi Carrie,

I’m painting a subject in CP that I first planned to paint in WC, and it was drawn on a paper that is very textured. I only realized my error when I started the very dark parts. I’ve tried sharp pencils, burnishing, solvent, but nothing changed. I don’t mind the white showing through, but I don’t know if it’s acceptable.

And thank you for the tips on plants. My photo has lots of grass and I didn’t know how to approach it.

By the way, may I mix watercolor and colored pencils for the grass?

Thank you!

Mirian

Thank you for your question, Mirian. Your project sounds quite intriguing!

Personally, I usually don’t like paper holes showing through colored pencil in my finished art.

However, there have been times when it can be a great tool, especially in landscape drawings. Letting a bit of paper show through the color can help create the illusion of distance in a landscape. It’s also good for drawing fog or mist, or for creating texture.

In the end, it’s an entirely personal choice.

Paper Holes showing through Colored Pencil

Most colored pencil artists seem to prefer full color saturation (no paper showing through,) but it’s perfectly acceptable to have paper showing through the color.

Back when colored pencils first started coming into their own as a fine art medium, a lot of works had that sort of “grainy” look. That seemed to be the standard for colored pencil art.

I don’t know if artists consciously made that decision, or if it was due to the newness of the medium and the tools being used.

This is one of my first colored pencil horse portraits. The color is not at all as saturated as I now prefer it, but it’s what I knew to do (and what I knew HOW to do at the time.)

As I look at this again, I wonder what it would look like if I were to do it over.

You have to admit colored pencils, colored pencil artists, and colored pencil art has come a long way in the last few decades.

So if having a bit of paper showing through the color layers gives you the result you want, then use it.

Otherwise, keep layering and blending until you fill in those paper holes.

How to Fill in Paper Holes

There are several ways to fill in all the paper holes (also known as saturated color.)

Layering

My preferred method is simply adding color until the combination of layers covers the paper completely.

I used light pressure for this test sample, building up value and filling paper holes with several layers of blue. I used heavier pressure in the darkest area, but only after putting down quite a few layers with light pressure.

I did this sample on Bristol, which is a very smooth paper, but I could get similar results on toothier papers or even sanded papers. It just takes more layers.

Paper Holes showing through Colored Pencil

Now, I have a naturally light hand, so I can add dozens of layers if I want to. That helps fill in paper holes. But that’s not the only method out there.

Solvents

Blending periodically with solvent is a great way to blend smooth color and fill in paper holes. Make sure you have enough color on the paper to be blended, then use solvent sparingly. Don’t soak the paper! That could actually remove color.

If necessary, layer more color, then blend with solvent until the paper tooth is filled.

I’m surprised solvent didn’t work on the paper Mirian is using. It must be very toothy. But she should be able to alternate between laying and blending until the tooth is filled.

Burnishing

Burnishing is also a good way to fill paper holes. I burnished the salmon colored leaf in the upper left, and the three purple or pink leaves in the lower right.

Burnish sparingly and toward the end of the drawing process. Once you burnish, it’s difficult to layer more color over the top.

It’s possible that Mirian needs to use all three methods together, alternating between layering followed by solvent blending and layering followed by burnishing. I’ve never burnished and then blended with solvent, but it’s possible that might also help fill in the paper holes on Mirian’s drawing.

Mixing Watercolor and Colored Pencils

Another alternative is starting with water soluble media to lay down base colors, then applying colored pencil over the top.

This works with watercolors and watercolor pencils. Many artists also use inks or Derwent Inktense for base layers.

How to do a Water Soluble Under Drawing for a Landscape shows you one way to use water-based media under colored pencils for a landscape.

Paper Holes showing through Colored Pencil

Just make sure to do all the watercolor work first. Then let the paper dry completely and you can layer colored pencil over that.

You can use the same methods to combine watercolor paint and colored pencils. Watercolors and watercolor pencils are a great way to lay down base colors quickly and fill all the paper holes.

You will probably want to use a paper made for wet media, though. Otherwise you’ll have problems with the paper warping, buckling, and possibly falling apart!

The Bottom Line on Paper Holes and Colored Pencils

Whether or not you allow paper holes to show through layers of colored pencil in your finished work is up to you.

Some artists like that look. Some do not.

If you prefer smooth, saturated color, the tips I’ve shared will help you achieve it.

Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils

Economic Colored Pencil Sharpening

Sharpeners are one of the more frequently discussed topics here, and I continue to get questions about them. Today, let’s take a look at the subject from a different angle: let’s talk about a few economical ways to sharpen colored pencils.

But first, since this is Q&A Wednesday, here’s the reader’s question.

What is the best – and most economical – way to sharpen colored pencils, particularly the softer ones?

I use an electric sharpener for graphite but it seems to “eat” colored pencils quite rapidly. Thank you.

Kathy

I want to thank Kathy for asking this question. Most people want to know the best sharpeners. That’s an impossible question to answer because there are so many factors to consider.

But very few people ask economical ways to sharpen colored pencils. And there is a difference.

Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils

But before we get started, let’s consider sharpeners.

A Few Words About Sharpeners

The purpose of pencil sharpeners is eating pencils. Whenever you sharpen a pencil with a mechanical sharpener, the sharpener has to chew up enough of the lead to make a sharp point.

That’s true for graphite pencils, and it’s true for colored pencils.

But there are ways to sharpen pencils so less of the pigment is wasted.

Kathy’s Sharpener

I also suggest that Kathy find out if her electric sharpener is an auto-stop model. Sharpeners with an auto-stop feature automatically stop sharpening when the pencil is sharp.

Other types of electric sharpeners continue sharpening until you remove the pencil. It’s very easy to sharpen a pencil to a nub quickly if you don’t pay attention to the sharpener while you’re sharpening.

Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils

A Sharp Knife Works Wonders

The absolute best way to sharpen pencils with minimum waste is by sharpening them with a knife.

I use an X-acto knife, but any knife sharp enough to cut through the wood casing is suitable.

Sharpening pencils with an X-acto knife is also a great way to sharpen a pencil that’s prone to breaking. You can whittle away the wood casing with very little pressure on the pigment core itself.

This method requires extreme caution! It’s easy to cut yourself while sharpening pencils, and we most certainly do not want that!

How to Hand Sharpen Colored Pencils

Use a knife with a finely sharpened blade.

Hold the pencil in your non-dominant hand with the exposed pigment core facing away from you.

Hold the knife in your dominant hand, with the blade at a slight angle to the pencil. As you can see in the illustration below, the knife blade is nearly lying on the sharpened wood casing. This keeps you from gouging too much of the wood casing with each stroke.

Push the blade downward along the pencil with your thumb. Use light pressure and make as thin a cut as you can.

Hold the knife at a slight angle to the pencil and stroke away from yourself. Turn the pencil after each cutting stroke.

Always stroke away from yourself.

Turn the pencil between strokes and work around the pencil two or three times or until the sharpened end is as smooth or even as you prefer or until as much pigment core is exposed as you need.

Pointing the Pencil

To get a needle-sharp point, rub the pencil on an emery board. Roll the pencil as you stroke it along the emery board until the point is as sharp as you want it to be.

A sanding block or sand paper (not sanded art paper) also works for fine tuning a newly sharpened pencil.

Economical Ways to Sharpen Pencils

One Word of Caution

Hand sharpening with a knife is a very economical way to sharpen pencils. But it’s not a fast method. For the best results, work slowly and carefully. Always stroke away from yourself, and always keep your knife sharp.

It also requires practice, just like drawing. So be patient. Injuries happen when you rush, so go slow and be careful.

Other Benefits of Hand Sharpening Pencils

Sharpening pencils with a knife allows you to more easily save pigment shavings. You can then soften them with solvent or Brush & Pencil’s Touch-Up Texture and use them like paint.

If you decide to use this sharpening method, get several small containers with screw-on caps to store the pigment. Label each one with the color and brand of pencil (if you use more than one type of pencil.) Then, when you need that color to “paint” with, you can mix a small amount of solvent or Touch-Up Texture and make use of this otherwise wasted pigment.

I found this very helpful article on sharpening pencils with a knife. The demonstration is with a graphite pencil, but the process is the same.

Pay Attention to the Length of the Sharpened Point

The length of the exposed pigment core on a freshly sharpened pencil also makes a difference.

The longer the tip, the more pigment has been left in the pencil sharpener.

Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils
The length of the exposed pigment core makes a difference in how much pigment is wasted in sharpening. As a rule, the longer the point, the more pigment is left in the sharpener.

There are times when you want a longer tip. Glazing with the side of the pencil works best if the exposed pigment is quite long.

But you really don’t need a long pigment core for most work, so look for a sharpener that doesn’t sharpen this way.

Keep Points Sharp While You Draw

One way I keep sharp tips on pencils is by alternating glazing with other types of layering.

I always turn my pencil in my fingers as I draw. I don’t know when or how I developed that habit, but I do it even when writing longhand with a pen. Turning your pencil helps keep the tip from getting flat on one side.

But it doesn’t keep the point sharp.

If, however, you do a little layering with the side of the pencil AND you turn the pencil as you draw, the tip will stay sharper longer.

And that pigment ends up on the paper, not in the sharpener!

Three Economical Ways to Sharpen Colored Pencils

And there you have it. Two suggestions for economical colored pencil sharpening, and a bonus suggestion for maintaining sharper points.

I hope you find them helpful.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know the best paper and pencils for drawing details. Here’s her question.

Can you share a table or grid, anything, that would match the best pencil(s) and best surface combinations for artwork type, e.g. portraits (in hyper realism or whimsical. Landscapes, still life, etc)? I have learned mainly portraits on Stonehenge and I never get the effect I hope for.

Thanks, Romona

Romona,

Thank you for your questions. The short answer is no. I don’t have a list of the best surface and pencil combinations for every subject and every type of drawing. Nor do I know of one.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details

What I do have are a few basic principles from years of using colored pencils on different types of papers and other surfaces.

So let me share those.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details

Paper

As a rule, the more detail you want in your art, the smoother paper you probably need. It’s easier to draw details and create smooth color on smoother papers, because they have less tooth.

But that isn’t the only consideration.

Stonehenge is fairly smooth, but it’s also soft. It takes a lot of layers, but it’s easily scuffed. The last portrait I did failed on Stonehenge because I couldn’t get enough layers without scuffing the paper.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details
This is Stonehenge paper. The blue in the middle is color layered over a piece of Stonehenge. The deckle edge is the type of edge on full sheets.

Bristol is a good, smooth paper with a somewhat harder surface. You can draw a lot of detail on it, but may have problems layering. Because Bristol has so little tooth, it sometimes doesn’t take very many layers.

Canson Mi-Teintes is a pastel paper that can also be used for colored pencil. The front and back are two different textures, so you get two surfaces with each sheet.

When I first tried it, I didn’t think it would be any good for drawing details, even if I used the back. But I soon learned differently and now prefer it to Stonehenge. For me, it’s the best combination of smoothness and strength.

140lb hot press watercolor paper is great for drawing details. It takes moisture very well, so you can use it with water-based media and colored pencils combined. It also handles solvent blending very well.

Stonehenge Aqua feels like regular Stonehenge and can be drawn on much the same, but it’s much sturdier than regular Stonehenge.

I’ve also used Canson’s L’Aquarelle watercolor paper and it performs very well with colored pencils wet or dry.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details

Exceptions to Every Rule

Unfortunately, these principles don’t always apply.

Remember that failed portrait I mentioned above? The one that failed on Stonehenge? I completed it successfully on Clairefontaine Pastelmat, which is a sand paper-like surface. Sanded art papers are fast becoming my go-to papers for portraits and landscapes.

The bottom line on the question of paper is that you need to try several different papers of the type you think will work for you based on the principles above.

But also be prepared to discover that the unexpected surface may be the right one for you.

Pencils

As for the pencils, what I’ve found is that a combination of pencils works best for me.

In the past, I used Prismacolor Verithin pencils for under drawings because they’re thinner and harder than regular Prismacolor pencils. They are not as saturated as regular Prismacolor pencils, but I don’t need saturation for under drawings. I needed a pencil that allowed me to draw values and details without leaving much wax on the paper. Verithin pencils do that.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details
The two pencils at the top are Prismacolor Soft Core pencils. They are what most artists think of when they think of Prismacolor pencils. The two bottom pencils are Prismacolor Verithin pencils. You can see how much thinner they are than the soft core pencils. This makes them great for drawing details.

These days, I use Faber-Castell Polychromos more than Verithin. They’re harder than regular Prismacolors so they give me much the same result as Verithin pencils, but they have a far superior color selection.

Then I layer softer pencils over the under drawing. Usually a mix of Polychromos and Prismacolor regular.

The basic rule of thumb with pencils is that harder pencils are better for drawing detail and softer pencils are better for layering color.

However, artists of all types use one type or the other exclusively to make great art.

In other words, there is no hard-and-fast rule for pencils any more than there is for paper.

The Best Paper and Pencils for Drawing Details

If you have a pencil that you like, then stick with that for now. Try different papers until you find one that works with the pencils you have and that gives you the results you’re looking for.

You might also search for videos of colored pencil artists who use the same pencils you use, and see what paper they’re using. That can be a good place to begin your search, and can save time and money in the long-run.

But I also want to suggest that you keep drawing. The difficulty may not be with the pencils and paper themselves, but with your skill level. Especially if you’re still relatively new to colored pencils.

Skill level is easy to improve.

Just keep drawing.

Learning to Draw with a Light Hand

Learning to Draw with a Light Hand

For most artists, learning to draw with a light hand is an important part of the artistic journey. I’ve heard from many readers who complain of having a heavy hand, so I wasn’t surprised to receive the following appeal.

What can you do if you have not been able to overcome the dreaded heavy-hand?

Thanks,

Romona

Romona’s email conveyed not only her struggle with a heavy hand, but her emotional response. How many of us haven’t struggled with the dreaded heavy hand?

I have the opposite problem. My hand is so light that I have to increase pressure to reach what other artists consider light pressure. If you have a heavier hand, you may see no problem with a light hand, but it’s sometimes frustrating when I have to do several layers of light work just to get the same amount of color saturation other artists get with one or two layers!

The interesting thing is that what works for me in learning to draw with a heavier hand also works for those who want to learn how to draw with a lighter hand.

What is it?

Training!

Tips for Learning to Draw with a Light Hand

Here are a few of the training exercises I use, and that will also help you.

Change the Way You Hold Your Pencil

When you need to draw with a lighter hand, change the way you hold your pencil. Instead of holding it in a normal way, try holding it at the back.

Holding the pencil at the back reduces the amount of pressure you can exert on the pencil.

You will also be holding the pencil in a more horizontal position, which means you’re drawing with the side of the pencil more than with the tip. That means the pencil is skimming across the surface of the paper, hitting the high spots. Less color gets into the tooth of the paper and that produces a lighter value.

It also keeps the tooth of the paper from filling up so quickly, so you can add more layers.

Learning to Draw with  Light Hand

Work at an Easel or Standing Table

Have you ever tried drawing while standing? If not, give it a try.

Working at an easel or drafting table changes the way you approach the paper, especially if the paper is in a vertical or nearly vertical position.

I was an oil painter for over 40 years, and while I usually worked with the painting lying on a drafting table, I did notice a difference on those occasions when I worked with the painting on an easel.

I have done some colored pencil work on an easel and can say that it changes the dynamics between my pencil and my hand, and between the pencil and the paper.

You don’t need a big, fancy easel like this one. A simple table-top model that’s properly anchored so it won’t move as you draw will let you know whether or not this way of drawing helps you.

Give it a couple of weeks, though. It will be uncomfortable at first.

If you try this, you might also want to experiment with working a little further away from your paper. Oil painters often work with the brush held in their extended arm. I don’t see why that wouldn’t work for colored pencils, too.

Keep in mind that you will lose a lot of control, so you’ll have to find the right balance between light-handedness and control.

Drawing Exercises

You might also try some simple drawing exercises, such as those described in Straight Line Drawing Exercises.

Not all of these are designed to help you lighten your hand, but they are all helpful in gaining better control of your pencil. That, in turn, gives you a better ability to control the amount of pressure you use when you draw.

And that WILL help you draw with a lighter hand.

What About a Hand or Wrist Rest?

Typists use rests on their keyboards quite frequently. The rest is only an inch or so thick and you rest your wrist on it. It changes the angle between your hand and your drawing paper, and that might help.

It also takes some of the stress off your hand, and that is always a benefit.

I haven’t tried this myself, but it just might work.

Learning to Draw with Light Hand

Learning to draw with a light hand is a matter of being conscious of how you’re pressing your pencil against the paper all the time. That sounds tedious, I know. It’s so easy to get caught up in the process of creating that we forget how we’re creating.

That’s why I recommend the drawing exercises. You can do those in a drawing pad or on scraps of paper and I believe that if you do them regularly, you will see an improvement in your ability to draw with a lighter hand.

But I’ve used most of these tips myself and they have all helped me control how much pressure I use.

I hope one of them helps you, too!

Overcoming New Artist Fears

Overcoming New Artist Fears

I want to thank the reader who asked the question for today’s post. She wants to know about overcoming new artist fears. Something all of us deal with at one time or another. Here’s her question.

I’m a beginner colored pencil artist stuck in beginner mode mostly due to “beginner fear”. I LOVE horses and landscapes, so I have enjoyed your blog very much.

After many years of owning horses, my body no longer lets me do that kind of activity, so I’ve turned to art. I even purchased your black horse tutorial but I’m terrified to try it. So I practice on things I’m less interested in, if that makes any sense.

I would love to hear from you and learn how to draw horses as well as you. Can you please offer your expertise on learning to draw horses in colored pencil? Did you have this kind of paralyzing fear when you first started? Thanks for any help.

Celeste

Overcoming New Artist Fears

First of all, thank you for your question, Celeste. I understand completely what you’re experiencing. The fact of the matter is that I chuckled out loud when I got to your last question. I STILL sometimes deal with this kind of paralyzing fear!

I actually think this difficulty could more accurately be called “new project fear.” Every artist experiences this moment of doubt or hesitation at least once. Some of us experience more than just once in a while.

Overcoming New Artist Fears

I understand working on “unimportant projects” before doing what I really want to do. Believe it or not, that’s a good way to get started.

You can consider those projects to be basic training if you like. You can also consider them warm-up exercises.

When you do projects like this, you’re getting more familiar with the pencils and paper, you’re learning what layering is all about, and you’re probably even learning what works and what doesn’t work.

After you’ve done a few of these, you’ll find the “real projects” far less scary.

A Personal Example

I recently finished a portrait that took a long time to do. Part of the reason for that was that I was using Pastelmat for the first time for a paid portrait. I didn’t know what to expect.

So I started a second portrait, which was my “test portrait.” Before trying any new technique on the paid portrait, I tried it first on the test portrait. Then, after I gained confidence, I worked on the paid portrait.

When I finished and delivered the paid portrait, I repurposed the test portrait. It will eventually become a landscape.

So keep doing those sorts of projects until you’re comfortable with using colored pencils.

Transitioning to Tutorials

Once you’ve gained confidence with the pencils, transition into that tutorial by practicing parts of it. I like drawing manes and forelocks, so that’s often what I’d practice. But there is no forelock and not much mane on this tutorial, so you might try some other part of the horse. One of the ears, maybe, or the eye.

That blue ribbon under the head would also be a great practice piece.

If you decide to do practice pieces from the tutorial, do them small. 4×6 inches is a great size for studies. You can finish them more quickly than larger pieces. They’re also easier to let go of if they don’t turn out.

And if they do turn out, you’ve gained confidence!

Learning to Draw Horses & Landscapes

As for learning to draw horses and landscapes like I do, that’s no more complicated than making lots of drawings. My art didn’t always look like it looks now. It took lots of drawings, some of which were downright ugly!

Don’t be afraid to make ugly art. Every piece you finish (whether it turns out or not) helps you improve.

Overcoming Those New Artist Fears

Uncertainty is normal whenever you start something new. Making the first mark on a new piece of paper seems intimidating at first. You will get past that.

Start drawing, then keep drawing. Studies, full images, everything.

When you get ready, you can also study with someone whose work you admire, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I give one-to-one classes by email (you can learn more about them here.)

A couple of my favorite horse artists teach on Patreon. Bonny Snowdon and Lisa Ann Watkins are excellent horse artists and both teach on Patreon.

The most important part is making the start and you’ve already done that. So sit back and enjoy the process!

You won’t be sorry.

How to Draw Plants in Colored Pencil

How to Draw Plants in Colored Pencil

Today’s Q&A Wednesday post includes a mini tutorial on how to draw plants. Here’s the reader’s question to get us started.

Hi, Carrie,

I’ve been wanting to draw some bear cubs I saw playing in a meadow with their mom.  I just can’t figure out how to do this meadow, with all the clover and daisy flowers interspersed. I was working on the little bear, and just sort of gave up because I didn’t know how to do a good job with the plants.

Do you have any advice?  I am getting a lot out of the tutorials, but haven’t seen anything that addressed this problem.

Thanks for any help you can give.

Pam

How to Draw Plants in Colored Pencil

I want to thank Pam, who gave me permission to use her reference photo and drawing to illustrate this post. So let’s begin by taking a look at both.

This is the photograph Pam took and is using for a reference.

Here’s Pam’s drawing so far.

Pam has already made a couple of wise decisions.

First, she cropped the reference photo to focus on the bear cub. By doing so, she removed a lot of area at the top and bottom of the composition.

Secondly, she started the process of developing those background greens by layering a base green over everything but the cub and the flowers.

So kudos to Pam for getting off to a good start.

As frustrated as she is, what I think Pam really needs is a little encouragement. She’s done a good job starting the flowers around the bear cub, so she doesn’t really need advice about how to draw plants.

But let me make a couple of suggestions that will help Pam finish this piece.

How to Draw Plants in Colored Pencil

In studying Pam’s photo and drawing, it’s easy to see she’s trying to solve two problems. How should she draw the background, and how should she draw the foreground?

Yes, both areas have the same flowers and grass in them. But in order to make the drawing look right, the two areas need to be drawn differently.

The Background

Drawing the background is fairly easy. There isn’t much detail. Your mind tells you there’s a lot because it knows the same flowers and plants are in the background that are in the foreground. The foreground plants look difficult, so the background has got to be difficult, too. Right?

But look at just the background. There really isn’t very much there. Just shades of green and dots of white.

So begin by putting down a base layer of green with a couple of light-medium-value yellowish greens. Pam can continue with the green she started applying in the drawing.

Layer that as smoothly as possible with light pressure, a reasonably sharp pencil, and whatever strokes give you smooth color. But don’t worry about filling every paper hole.

Next, layer a one or two medium-dark value greens over the same area. Use the same pressure.

When you have enough color on the paper, warm up a piece of mounting putty by rolling it between your hands. Then shape it like this or roll a small piece into a ball.

How to Draw Plants

Press the mounting putty onto the background here and there to lift color and create light spots. Those light spots should look like blurry, light-colored flowers.

If you make too many, fill in some of them again. If they don’t look light enough, add a little bit of very light color to them. Don’t add white. That might make them too bright!

My Test Sample

The left side shows two warm, light greens layered one over the other. The right side shows two additional, slightly darker colors layered over them. Then I added more layers of one of the lighter colors.

After that, I used mounting putty to lift color randomly. This is the result.

I discovered you don’t need much of a point on the mounting putty. Using a small piece rolled into a ball also works.

Another discovery was using a small “edge” of mounting putty to make elliptical shapes. Flowers are seen from different angles in nature, so don’t make them all round in your art.

This test is on Bristol paper and is nowhere near finished, but it gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.

If I were doing this for a “real drawing” instead of a test sample, I’d do a few layers of greens, then lift color, then do a few more layers and lift more color. That would create greater variety in the blurred shapes, and result in a more natural appearance.

The Foreground

Here’s the reference photo cropped to show the foreground. I confess that looking just at this gives me pause, too. I can certainly understand Pam’s difficulties!

How to Draw Plants

But is it really that difficult to draw?

Remember, the focus is on the bear cub. The meadow is the “stage” for the bear cub. Unless hyper-realism is your goal, these parts of the composition should not be as crisp and clear as the bear cub.

And look at that crop above. Even in the photograph, the flowers in the foreground are also blurry in appearance.

What does that mean? Drawing them in sharp focus makes more work than is necessary.

Don’t forget that Pam has already made a very good start in this area. She doesn’t have that much more work to do. (That’s why I think Pam really needs a little encouragement and direction.)

So here’s what I’d do.

First, I’d stroke some highlights into the stems and leaves with a very light yellow, cream, or light, warm gray.

Then I’d layer the lightest green Pam has used so far over all of the middle ground and foreground. Use light pressure and sharp pencils with whatever stroke works best. A lot of artists recommend circular strokes, but I also get good results with carefully applied directional strokes. Work around the flowers and the bear, but glaze green over everything else.

Then continue developing the plants that have already been drawn. Darken the shadows, work on the highlights, and pay attention to the edges. Use light pressure and sharp pencils.

The shadows don’t need to be real dark, so alternate the darker green with one of the lighter greens you already used.

Finally, finish the flowers by working on their shadows and highlights.

A Word of Caution

Don’t get too detailed with these parts of the drawing. They should look real, but they shouldn’t draw attention away from the bear cub.

To make sure they don’t, do most of the detailing described above around the bear cub. As you move away from the bear cub, soften the details and don’t add as many.

If the foreground looks too busy after you’ve finished, glaze one of the base greens over it to soften the edges.

There’s One Way to Draw Plants

There are two keys to remember when it comes to deciding how to draw plants in a composition like this.

First, study the reference photo. How do the plants look? Are they in sharp focus or are they blurred? How much detail to do you really see?

Second, decide how you want to draw the scene, and determine how much of the detail you need to draw to get the look you want. In most cases, draw only as much detail as necessary to create the look you want.

Pam made a good start on this by cropping her reference photo first. That left a lot fewer plants to draw.

Now all she needs to do is layer color and add just enough detailing to finish the scene.