Four Colored Pencil Lessons I’ve Learned

Four Colored Pencil Lessons I’ve Learned

Today, I want share four colored pencil lessons I’ve learned over the years (some of them the hard way.)

Don’t worry.

This isn’t going to a long technical article. Instead, I want to share a few things I had to learn through experience with the thought that it might help you avoid those same pitfalls.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons I've Learned (the hard way)

When I first began doing art, I was a toddler drawing on brown paper grocery bags with Crayola crayons. The big ones. Anyone else remember those?

Then I graduated to paint-by-number sets and started learning oil painting. I painted every set involving a horse, and painted some of them twice.

For many years, oils were my only medium. Then I started going to horse shows and trade shows with my art. Three days away from the studio seemed like a vacation at first, but the more shows I attended, the more I realized I needed something to work on during the slow times. Enter colored pencils.

4 Colored Pencil Lessons I Had to Learn the Hard Way

In my naivete, I thought colored pencil work would be the same as oil painting. Just drier.

Did I have a lot to learn!

Following are the four lessons that made the most difference in my attitude toward colored pencils, and in the quality of my work.

Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Colored pencils are a very deliberate medium.

Colored pencils are not very much like oil paints. Yes, there are some similarities, but the differences are many.

The main difference is that colored pencils are a slow, deliberate medium. Not like oil painting, where you can thin paint to a transparent glaze, brush it on in ten or twenty minutes and be done. No. Glazes are possible, but if the drawing is very big, it can take a day or two to do one glaze.

I gave up on colored pencils as a medium many times before finally learning there are very few shortcuts that also produce the kind of drawings I wanted to draw. If I wanted to do colored pencils, I had to work with them the way they are, rather than try to make them behave like oil paints.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Colored Pencils

TIP: If you’re interested in producing a lot of work fast, find a medium other than colored pencils. If you really want to create great colored pencil art, slow down and take your time.

It’s more difficult to cover up mistakes with colored pencils than almost any other medium.

It’s easy to cover up mistakes with oil paints. If the paint is still wet, just wipe the mistake off and repaint. If the paint has dried, paint over it with an opaque color, and keep painting.

You can’t do that with colored pencils. Nope. Most colored pencils are translucent. You see whatever is under the top layers even through several layers.

They also tend to “stain” paper. Once you’ve put color on paper, it’s next to impossible to “wipe it off” and get back to the color of the paper.

Especially if you layer with heavy pressure.

This old drawing is from my early years. I drew the neck incorrectly, and tried to erase the mistake, then cover it over. Nothing doing (at least not then.)

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Covering Up Mistakes

I could fix this mistake now. I’ve learned how to do that. But I’ve learned it’s better to avoid mistakes whenever possible.

How?

Working slowly and carefully with colored pencils results in fewer mistakes (usually) and more finished pieces.

I’m one of those painters who dashes the first layers of color onto the canvas, then refines the painting layer by layer.

I can’t do that with colored pencil because it’s so difficult to cover up mistakes.

It’s far better to take my time from the start to avoid as many mistakes as possible. That begins with a drawing that’s as accurate as possible, even if that means working on the line drawing a week instead of a day.

Then a careful transfer to the drawing paper, followed by careful stroking throughout color application.

Yes, I have to make an effort to slow myself down. Repeatedly. It’s my nature to want to finish things quickly, and I still wrestle with the fact that I’m drawing with a pencil, not painting with a brush.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Slow and Steady Drawing

One way I’ve learned to do that is to make very deliberate strokes, such as those shown above. When I catch myself hurrying, or stroking carelessly, I force myself to slow down.

Is it easy? Nope.

Is it necessary? Absolutely. I’ve spent too much time fixing errors that could have been avoided with a little more carefulness. It really is faster to work slowly.

TIP: Draw even color from the very start of each drawing and each layer will be the best it can be. When you find yourself rushing, take a break. Or at least a deep breath.

You don’t have to draw every hair or every blade of grass .

One of the reasons I decided to try colored pencils in the first place was that I thought they’d be great for details. I love drawing details, especially the long manes and tails of horses.

And since I started drawing landscapes, there’s all that grass to draw.

But I eventually learned, you don’t have to draw every hair or every blade of grass to create a believable drawing.

This drawing from 2005 would have looked just as believable had I started the foreground with a base layer of green, then added directional, grass-like strokes in a few places. Instead, I drew every blade of grass. An unnecessary expense of pencil and time!

I’m the first to admit this is still a struggle. I want to draw every blade of grass and every hair in a horse’s mane. It’s so much fun!

But it’s also unnecessary when you can get excellent results without drawing every detail.

Besides, it’s far too easy to turn your drawing into a maze of details that distracts from your art, rather than making it better.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Don't Draw Every Hair

TIP: Start drawing with a base layer of even color, preferably a mid-tone. Add details along the edges between changes in value or color, or “clump” hair, grass, and other things into groups, rather than draw every hair or blade of grass.

Learning These Four Colored Pencil Lessons Turned My Art Around

They can turn your art around, too.

Whether you have to learn through experience or can learn by example, you will sooner or later have to learn a lot of lessons about colored pencils. It is possible, but be warned. It will take time.

In fact, it’s a life-long journey.

There is, after all, always something new to learn, isn’t there?

Looking for More Specific Lessons?

A few years ago, I did (what was, for me at that time) quite an experimental drawing. It was a smaller than normal landscape, on a surface I didn’t regularly use, but I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned because of that drawing. Read the full article.

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9 Comments

  1. Patricia Wilson

    Yes, of all the mediums I have tried in my cardmaking I find that colored pencils are hard to work with, especially with no artistic background. Thanks for your input as it really helped!

  2. You and I share the same love of horses. Like you all I ever wanted to draw horses for as long as I can remember. I never intended to do color pencils but after a surgery I couldn’t just sit around doing nothing, so I started playing around with color pencils and it turned into a business! Surprised the heck out of me! As you said in your article, “you don’t have to do every hair.” I looked at other artists and wanted to do the very real looking drawings where they do every hair. But I lost my style! It wasn’t me! I’m relieved to hear that what I’m doing is”okay”. My customers love my work so, ” if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
    Thank you for the lessons. I’ve read many of them and learning as I go. Some of my work is on my Instagram.

    1. Lee,

      Thank you for your comment!

      The biggest mistake I see new artists make is trying to be like their favorite artist. I know I was that way when I was getting started.

      Advanced artists have a lot to teach newer artists, but new artists should remember that they should never attempt to be like their favorite older artist. As you and I have figured out, it’s much, much better to be the best You that you can be.

      Carrie

  3. Lesley Morgan

    Thank you so much for your articles, Carrie. I have only just come across your posts and find that learning from you is so relaxing and encouraging.

    I started drawing and using coloured
    pencils about 2 years ago when I gave up work as I needed something to engage me fully.

    As yet I haven’t drawn from life but I copy pictures and alter colours and details to challenge me into making my own creations step by step.

    However it is now time to use a sketch book and draw what is in front of me.
    I am pretty scared that I am going to be useless….but with you to keep me positive I will persevere…

    1. Lesley,

      Thank you for your very kind words! I’m glad to have you as a reader and fellow colored pencil enthusiast.

      When I first started as an artist, I was still a youngster. I learned oil painting by doing paint-by-number sets. When I’d done all the horses we could find, I did some of my favorite sets over, but I started changing things up. I put white markings on horses that had no white, changed colors, and eventually started changing leg positions. I even got to the point of changing backgrounds.

      From there, it was a simple step to start drawing my own pictures and painting them.

      So you’re on the right track!

      As for being scared you’ll be useless at drawing, that’s normal. Just jump in and draw something. Be prepared to make some bad drawings. We all do. I still sketch a clinker with regularity. It’s part of the learning process.

      And if you have a question, ask! I’m always happy to answer questions.

      Keep up the good work!

  4. Lesley Morgan

    Thank you so much for your informative and comforting( strange word to use, I know) articles.
    You always explain clearly and gently which helps settle me down rather than thinking ‘Aaargh this is too much for me.’
    Your article on value was especially useful to me as I really struggle with deciding how, where or even why I need to bother to put contrasts in my drawings.
    If you could show some more simple examples ( like the green circle and ball) of how to place highlights and shadows onto faces, animals and objects that would help me so much.

    Thank you again.

    Lesley

    1. Lesley,

      Thank you for your very kind words.

      I know exactly what you mean about explanations. I’ve been taking some courses myself and it’s so helpful and, yes, comforting to find someone who can explain things in a way that makes sense!

      What great suggestions for future posts. Let me see what I can do!

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