Welcome back to our year-end question and answer month. Today’s question comes from Penny, who wants to know how to draw crisp edges with colored pencil.
I find keeping a really crisp edge, tricky. I do use a well sharpened pencil but find shading spoils the line of the edge.
A great question, Penny. Crisp edges can be difficult to draw and maintain through the drawing process. But there are solutions!
It doesn’t seem like drawing crisp edges should be a concern for the colored pencil artist. I mean, pencils are made for drawing lines, right?
But it takes so many layers of color to create deep, smooth color for most methods, that it can be frightfully easy to blur lines or lose them altogether.
A Word about Crisp Edges
Before I share tips for drawing crisp edges, let me say a word about when and how they should be used.
In most cases, you don’t want absolutely sharp edges on every part of your composition. That’s especially true if you draw in a realistic style, draw animals, or draw landscapes, but it also applies to other styles and subjects.
Crisp edges throughout a drawing make it look flat. Nothing looks further away than anything else.
In this drawing, the trees in the foreground have much crisper edges than the trees in the background. This helps them stand out in the composition.
Crisp edges also help emphasize the center of interest in your drawing. Notice in this drawing how much sharper the edges are on the large group of trees, than on the smaller trees in the background.
So use the crispest edges on or around the center of interest and/or in the foreground.
You also want to avoid drawing crisp edges with some kinds of art. For example, drawings depicting rainy, snowy, or misty scenes work best with very few crisp edges. Take a look at this foggy morning scene.
The crispest edges are on the grass in the foreground, and those edges aren’t as sharp as they could be.
Read How to Draw a Foggy Morning.
But when you need to draw crisp edges, there are a few things you can do to draw them as crisply and clearly as possible.
How to Draw Crisp Edges with Colored Pencils
Consider Using a Smoother Paper if You Need to Draw Really Crisp Lines
The smoother the paper, the more easily you can draw crisp lines and keep them crisp. The color fills the tooth of the paper more easily and quickly, and that produces crisper color.
Bristol papers are the smoothest papers I recommend. They’re great for drawing detail, and allow you to draw very crisp edges.
But they don’t take a lot of layers, so you may want to consider something like Stonehenge. Stonehenge paper also produces crisp lines, and can take a lot of layers. It also accepts a certain amount of water if you use water soluble colored pencils.
You can draw crisp edges on rougher paper, but it takes more effort. This drawing is on the smooth side (aka the back) of Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper. There are some very sharp edges, as well as softer edges.
Mark the Edge by Outlining Before You Start Shading
Before you begin shading, lightly outline the edges of the shape with the same color. Use a very sharp pencil and light pressure. Carefully draw around the shapes you want to shade, then shade within those shapes. Work slowly and carefully so you don’t shade over the outline.
If it helps you preserve the sharpness of the edge, draw a light outline with every color you use on that area.
In this example, I outlined all of the horse, but I also outlined some of the brightest highlights and darkest shadows. The shadows are shaded, but you can still see the outlines of the highlights on the shoulder.
Outlining is a great way to preserve highlights and lighter values as well as drawing crisp edges.
Careful Stroking on Each Side of the Edge is Important in Drawing Crisp Edges
Nothing blurs an edge faster than shading over it. Whether you outline or not, shade carefully along the edges. I frequently create a “buffer-zone” along an edge I want to remain crisp by adding a narrow band of color against the edge before I shade the entire shape. Mot of the time, I stroke along the edge so I don’t stroke over it, but use whatever stroke works best for you.
Whatever stroke you use, work slowly and with caution. Nothing softens an edge faster than reckless drawing and going over the edge.
Keep Your Pencils Sharp to Draw Crisper Lines and More Even Color Layers
Keep your pencils absolutely, positively as sharp as you can.
Sharp pencils fill the tooth of the paper better, and edges are sharper with less paper showing through.
In most cases, you should always use sharp pencils because they produce the most even, best saturated color layers. But they are a must when drawing edges.
Penny draws with sharp pencils, as do I, but we’re all capable of getting so lost in the drawing process that we forgot to sharpen. Train yourself to sharpen every minute or so when drawing sharp edges is important.
TIP: Turn your pencil in your fingers as you draw. This keeps the tip from getting blunt, and allows you draw longer between sharpenings.
Pencils with Harder Pigment Cores Naturally Create Sharper Edges than Soft Pencils
Soft pencils are great for laying down a lot of color fast. If you look at colored pencil reviews, words you see a lot are “creamy,” “buttery,” and “smooth.” Those terms mean the pencils put color on the paper very easily.
Those pencils also dull quickly and are usually also not suited for drawing fine detail.
Harder pencils generally have thinner pigment cores and hold a point longer. That makes them ideal for drawing edges, as well as details.
I used Prismacolor Verithin pencils on this umber under drawing, and was able to draw crisp edges on and within the horse.
Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils are similar to Prismacolor Verithin pencils, and most oil-based pencils are harder than most wax-based pencils. If you need to draw fine detail or want really fine, crisp lines, try oil-based pencils.
Try Using a Straight Edge or Template to Protect Edges
For fine-tuning or drawing difficult edges, there’s nothing wrong with using drafting templates. I know I’m no good at technical drawings, so I use templates such as these to draw circles, ovals, and other shapes. French curves, and straight edges are also acceptable ways to create crisp edges.
Lay the appropriate template along the edge, draw carefully along it, then remove the template and shade the rest of the shape. This is definitely the time to check position two or three times, then draw! Otherwise, you may end up with a very sharp edge in the wrong place.
If you don’t have any of these drafting tools available and need to draw a straight edge, lay a piece of card stock on you drawing and use that as a straight edge. Masking tape works well, too, as long as you use it before putting color in the place where the tape needs to go, and you don’t use extremely sticky tape. Your best bet is painter’s tape or artist’s masking tape.
There’s Nothing Wrong with Touching Up Edges After Finishing the Drawing
If you’ve tried everything else and you’re still unhappy with edges after the drawing is finished, go over some of those edges again. Use the same colors you used to draw the edges to sharpen them if necessary.
In fact, a good time to use a template is often after a drawing is finished or nearly finished.
Thank you very much, Carrie, for this excellent advice. I hope to be drawing more crisp edges, in future.
What kind of pencil sharpeners do you use? I have tried many & they all seem to only last a short time before they quit working very well. Seems like my Prismacolors break off quite regularly and it gets frustrating. Sometime I use a sanding block to sharpen tips between regular sharpenings. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!
I use an old Apsco Premier Standard hand crank sharpener. The kind that used to be in every classroom in school. The only thing I’d change about it is that I’d get one with multiple holes for pencils of different sizes.
You can still get Apsco sharpeners on eBay and other places.
The breakage problem may actually have more to do with your pencils than your sharpener, but you might try an inexpensive handheld sharpener. But, instead of holding the sharpener steady and turning the pencil, try holding the pencil steady, and turning the sharpener.
Hope that helps.
Thank you for your question.
Thanks, Carrie! I’ll try the method you mentioned & I’ll also look into getting an Apsco sharpener to mount to my desk. Enjoy reading your blogs. Keep up the good work!
You’re quite welcome!
I’ve just started using a battery operated sharpener. It has two different sized holes. The hand-cranked one I bought didn’t perform well and broke. I will look at the one you suggest, Carrie.
I’ve had a few different battery operated ones & they work fine at first but the razor like blades seem to dull after a short while & I ended up with many broken tips on my pencils. If you find one that lasts a long time, please post what kind it is. Thanks!
No matter what type of sharpener you get, the blades will dull after a while. Blades can be replaced with most of the better sharpeners.
One thing you can do to keep blades sharp longer (and cleaner) is to sharpen a regular lead pencil periodically. The graphite cleans the blades and helps them perform better for a longer period of time. All you need to do is sharpen a graphite pencil once every day or two or once a week (depending on how often you sharpen wax pencils.)
Something else you might try to preserve sharpener blades is to use an emery board to restore the point on a pencil. If there’s still plenty of pigment core exposed, but it’s gotten blunt, “file” it with an ordinary emery board. A few strokes on each side of the pigment core is usually all you need. Or you can roll the pencil along the emery board, stroking slightly as you roll the pencil.
Of course you can also turn the pencil as you draw to keep a sharper point. This is a habit I got into early one because it seemed to keep my fingers from tiring as quickly. But it also keeps a pencil from going flat on one side, and that reduces the amount of sharpening you need to do.
Hi, artists! i grab pencil sharpeners like candy in the store. And i do sharpen graphite pencils occasionally, and replace the sharpener blades as needed.
But honestly, the best thing i ever did for sharp points was stop using Prismacolors. There’s several brands in my kit, but between 3/4 and 90% of them are Faber Castell Polycromos. i still sharpen maybe every minute or so, but they take less sharpening time and remove less pencil to get a very sharp point.
Yes, Carrie, I will let you know how long it lasts.
I have been teaching myself to draw with graphite pencils. We travel by car quite a bit and it has been a great way to pass the time. I’m not driving of course!
I tried painting and hate mixing colors and the cleanup. Too much trouble and planning. So I have purchased a set of Prismacolor pencils. My tendency is to just go at it and I quickly realized there is quite a technique to blending. During my first attempt I burnished the colors too quickly and came to a dead end.
Your info is quite helpful to me. I look forward to learning more. Thanks!
You’re welcome, Alicyn. Welcome to colored pencils!
You might try Amy Linderberger’s book on color mixing. It’s chock full of great information AND drawing exercises that will help you learn blending! You’re just getting started so it’s a perfect time.
I wrote a review of Amy’s book here, so check that out first. I bought the book and am working my way through the exercises. I’ve been an artist all my life, but am learning a lot. You will too, I’m sure!