There are a lot of basics to learn with colored pencils. Today, I’d like to get very basic and tell you about (and show you) five of my favorite pencil strokes.
The following strokes are not the only strokes I use, but they are the strokes I use most often. I’ve used some of them for years, while others are fairly new additions to my skillset.
Five of My Favorite Pencil Strokes
The Back-and-Forth Stroke
The back-and-forth stroke is the stroke I use most often. It’s good for almost any application and gives me good, smooth color. It’s also the most natural to me.
In this sample, I used Verithin Tuscan Red (top) and Prismacolor Soft Core True Blue (bottom) on Colourfix paper. I applied both colors with light pressure using the side of the pencil. To draw the darker values, I used more layers.
You can also use the tip of the pencil with this stroke.
I’ve found this stroke to be the best way for me to draw smooth color on most papers. It works on textured papers like Pastelmat and UART, but it also works on smoother papers like Stonehenge. The one paper I’ve struggled with is Bristol, but that’s not surprising. Bristol and I just don’t get along.
One disadvantage with this stroke is the possibility of creating unwanted values at each end of the stroke. As you can see above, that didn’t happen with my sample, but it can happen when you overlap back-and-forth strokes. I avoid this problem by stroking from one end of the area I’m shading to the other. That’s easier with smaller work, but even if you work large, you can still use the back-and-forth stroke to create smooth color.
To use the back-and-forth stroke, put your pencil tip or the side of the pencil on the paper and move it back and forth across the paper without lifting it. The closer you make the strokes, the smoother the color layer. Use more open strokes to add texture to the color layer.
The Directional Stroke
My next most-frequently-used stroke is the directional stroke, which I use in areas that have a lot of texture. Hair and grass are good places for the directional stroke, but I also use them to draw plain or tonal backgrounds. Directional strokes may be long or short, straight or curving.
They can also be used to show the contour of a subject by shaping the stroke the same way the subject is shaped. For example, if you’re drawing a ball, use curving, directional strokes to show the shape of the ball. In this case, the stroke follows the curves or angles of the subject.
In this illustration, I used the tips of the pencils to draw the top two samples. The result is something that resembles grass or short hair.
For the third sample, I used the side of the Prismacolor pencil to make marks. The bottom sample shows how you can use directional strokes to draw contours. Drawing around the contour of a shape is a good way to start creating the form of your subject. It’s especially helpful in landscape drawing, and I’ve used it to shade broad areas of fields, hills and even clouds.
To use directional strokes, place your pencil on the paper and stroke in the direction of the contour or the texture (grass, hair, etc.). Vary the length and shape of the strokes for a more natural look.
The Flicking Stroke
The flicking stroke is ideal for adding details and accents, as well as for certain textures.
This illustration shows a flicking stroke applied with the tip of the pencil to create a grass-like pattern. That is what I use this stroke for most often, although it can also be helpful in drawing shorter hair and even whiskers, as well as other textures.
How do you know when to use a flicking stroke instead of a directional stroke for hair, grass, or another texture? When you need longer strokes, the directional stroke will probably work best. The flicking stroke is great for shorter textures.
Touch the pencil to the paper and “flick” the tip across the paper without moving your hand. I rest my hand on glassine or the edge of the drawing. I usually position the drawing so that I’m flicking the tip of the pencil away from myself, so the pencil tip automatically comes up off the paper as the pencil moves. You can also “flick” the pencil toward yourself if that’s more comfortable.
The Striking Stroke
The main difference between a flicking stroke and striking stroke is the pressure you use. With a flicking stroke, use medium-heavy or lighter pressure.
With a striking stroke, use heavier pressure and “strike” the paper with your pencil. You may also get some unexpected movement of the pencil as it strikes the paper. You can see a little bit of that in the sample of striking strokes below. These strokes are generally short and bold, which makes them great for adding accents as you finish a drawing.
Hold your pencil the way you normally hold it and strike it against the paper. The resulting mark will be quite dark, as you can see above. This stroke is best saved until toward the end of a drawing, and should be used sparingly and to add a few details.
If your favorite paper is thin, then you probably won’t want to use this stroke, because there is the possibility of tearing the paper. It works best on textured paper (Pastelmat, Colourfix, and sanded papers) and rigid, non-paper supports. I wouldn’t use it on Stonehenge or even Canson Mi-Teintes unless the paper was first mounted on a rigid support.
The Stippling Stroke
The stippling stroke is the last of my five favorite pencil strokes that I’ll show you today. It’s among the easiest to use, but also one of the more tedious, because all you do is tap your pencil on the paper. The resulting marks are dots if you hold the pencil perfectly vertical or elongated dots if you hold the pencil at an angle.
In this illustration, I used each color to stipple with the tip of the pencil on the left, and the side of the pencil on the right. It’s easy to see the difference.
You can also alter to shape of the mark based on the sharpness of your pencil. The sharper the pencil, the smaller the dot.
I usually use the stippling stroke when drawing foliage, especially toward the end of the drawing process. It’s a good way to add accents and highlights to trees and other types of foliage that’s viewed from a distance.
I’ve never tried this, but you could also add texture and visual interest to sand or other types of soil when drawing foot paths, roads or beaches.
Hold your pencil normally, and tap the tip against the paper. Place the dots close together to create smooth color and farther apart for more open color. You can also mix colors to create interesting transitions and patterns.
The Bottom Line
As I mentioned above, these are not the only strokes I use, but these are the strokes I use most often. There are several other strokes that I use on special occasions, and I’ll tell you more about those in a future post.
But I can do almost anything I need to do with these five favorite pencil strokes no matter what type of paper I’m using. Once you learn them and are comfortable with them, you’ll find them useful, too.
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