Creating Broken Color with Colored Pencils

Creating Broken Color with Colored Pencils

I come from a background of oil painting, in which creating broken color is a common painting technique. I’ve been using colored pencils for many years now, and have discovered creating broken color with colored pencils is not only possible, but effective!

So let me begin by first explaining what broken color is in oil painting, and then showing you how to create it with colored pencils.

Defining Broken Color

Broken color is color that is not “even” or “smooth”, allowing previous colors show through.

Artists who use oils or acrylics create broken color by adding dry paint (paint without medium) over previous layers that have dried completely. This is a process called drying brushing. The fresh paint hits only the high parts of the surface texture, creating a layer of paint through which the previous layers show through.

This is an example of dry brushing.

Creating Broken Color with Colored Pencils

In this case, I dry brushed the darker brown paint over a panel that I’d tinted with light brown. I was working on the under painting at this point, but the results are pretty much the same for any stage. I added a layer of paint that allows the previous color to show through.

Creating Broken Color with Colored Pencils

I know what you’re thinking! “That’s all well and good for oil paint, but you can’t dry brush colored pencil.”

You are right about the dry brushing, but you can still create broken color with colored pencils.

My favorite way to draw broken color is by holding my pencil in a horizontal grip, as shown below. That puts more of the exposed pigment core on the paper. The pencil “skims” over the top of the surface texture, leaving color only in those places.

In other words, the new color layer is “broken”.

Here’s an example of what I mean. I’m holding the pencil nearly horizontal. The exposed pigment core touches the paper with its side, instead of the tip. The color on the paper is only on the “hills” of the surface texture. A lot of paper is showing through the green. That’s broken color!

I made the broken color above on paper with quite a bit of tooth, so the brokenness of the color is very obvious. But you can do the same thing on almost any kind of paper, rough or smooth. The results will vary, of course, but creating broken color is still possible.

Below is another example. In this case, on an actual drawing. This sample is on regular surface Bristol, which is a very smooth paper.

I used the same method of applying color: I used the side of the pencil and applied color with light pressure.

I’m working on the most distant treeline here, but you can also see broken color in the next most distant treeline, and in the field in between them.

Another Way to Draw Broken Color

You get the same result by drawing with a dull or blunt pencil, because the duller point doesn’t put color down into the tooth of the paper.

Also remember that the lighter the pressure you use, the less color you leave on the paper. That’s true no matter how sharp your pencil is or how you hold the pencil.


I hope I’ve convinced you that you can draw broken color with colored pencils. Hopefully, you can also see why that’s a good thing. Maybe you even have some ideas about where you can use broken color on your current piece!

If so, great! I’ve accomplished my goal!

As I mentioned above, you can draw broken color on any type of paper. You have to adjust your technique on surfaces like drafting film, but it’s worth the effort.

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  1. Barney Ward

    I have been using broken color for a few years now and never knew it had a name. I tend to use under painting with thin watercolor on a lot of things. I had found that a thin underpainting of the desired color for a base hue and topped with what I now know is broken color makes great slightly rippled water, beach sand and several other surfaces. I am a kindergarten level art mess arounder but have loads of fun.
    You have been a lot of help to me in my “art” learning. Thank you.

    1. Barney,

      Thank you for reading this post and for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m glad to “meet” you!

      And love that phrase, “art mess-arounder”! That’s priceless.

      I’ve had similar experiences, too. I started painting (oils) before the internet and learned a lot of things by trial and error. It was always a nice surprise to discover that other painters were doing the same things, and that those techniques actually had names!

      The idea of using broken color over a watercolor base is a great idea. I’m going to have to give that a try. Thank you for the tip.

      Thank you also for your comment and very kind words.

      Best wishes,


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