Today continues a series of articles on colored pencil basics for those who are either new to colored pencils, or want to try them. Today, we’ll talk about the things you need to get started with colored pencils.
Since this is an article on the basics, I want to keep it simple. But I also I want to answer a few common questions asked by people considering colored pencils.
If that’s you, read on!
Why Colored Pencils?
With so many great mediums available, why should you consider colored pencils?
Reasons are as varied as the artists who use them. I dedicated an entire post to why I like them and you can read it here.
For the sake of this post, I’ll share the most important reasons I prefer colored pencils.
- They’re great for creating detail.
- They’re clean. No messy cleanup. No migrating paint.
- You can take them anywhere!
Those are the three main reasons I began using colored pencils back in the late 1980s. I needed a portable medium ideal for producing the same, highly detailed portraits I was doing with oils.
Of course there are all the great colors, ease of use, all the ways you can blend them, and all the great brands available.
If you give them a try, I’m sure you’ll find your own reasons to love colored pencils.
What You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils
Okay. So I’ve convinced you that you are on the right track in considering colored pencils.
But the artists you read about and whose work you admire talk about so many different pencils, tools, accessories, and methods, you can’t help but wonder if all of those things are really necessary.
I was once right where you are now. Wanting to try colored pencils but not sure how to start.
Or what to buy or how much of it.
One of my goals with this blog and with every post is to help artists at all levels avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made. That includes clearing up some of the confusion about basic supplies.
Lets begin with three very simple lists.
I have a basic list, an expanded basic list, and an Everything & The Kitchen Sink List. There are so many useful, fun, and cool things on my to-be-purchased list, that this method is the best way I’ve found to prioritize purchases.
This post covers the first two lists because, quite frankly, I could make two or three posts just on the third list, and still not mention everything.
The Basic List contains the minimum supplies you need to get started with colored pencils. It is the most simple list, and the least expensive.
In most cases, you can find these items locally. No shipping or handling! If you’ve never tried colored pencils before and you’re not sure how you’ll like them, this is the list for you.
The Expanded Basic List is the Basic List plus a few additional items, as well as different types of some of the same items. Two kinds of paper, for example.
You may still be able to find many of the materials and supplies locally, but you will also probably have to do more searching. Online shopping will generally produce better prices and less footwork. If you’re serious about colored pencil—and sticking with it—this is your list.
One Additional Word of Advice
It’s advisable to buy the best tools you can afford. A few artist-quality pencils give you a better feel for the medium than a large set of student grade pencils. Higher quality pencils usually have less filler and a higher ratio of pigment to binder than less expensive pencils. That makes them easier to use and learn with.
You can buy less expensive pencils, if you wish. That’s how I started. But I wasn’t aware of the differences and soon found that cheap wasn’t always less expensive.
NOTE: I realize that not all of my readers are in the United States. If you are not and cannot get some of these supplies, substitute whatever is available where you live.
Now on to the lists!
The Basic List
I warned you the list was basic!
But paper can be confusing enough on its own, so here are some ideas to get you started.
One 9×12 pad of Rising Stonehenge paper, either white or toned. I recommend white. It’s easier to see what your pencils can do on white paper.
If you can’t get Rising Stonehenge, get a good, basic drawing paper like Strathmore 400 series paper.
One 24-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils. This set has the basic colors (reds, blues, greens, yellows, black, and white) with enough variety to let you experiment, without burdening you with colors you may not use or unnecessary expense.
NOTE: Roughly half the colors in the Prismacolor line are not lightfast, meaning they will fade over time or if exposed to direct sunlight. I put together a list of the colors that are top-rated for lightfastness. If you buy pencils individually and are interested in making fine art, take this list with you when you shop.
A pencil sharpener is a must. A simple, hand-held sharpener is all you need to sharpen pencils. Prismacolor makes a very nice one for a few dollars, but you can also get them anywhere school supplies are sold.
A mechanical pencil sharpener gives you better sharpening with Prismacolor pencils, but I have also used hand-held sharpeners with good results.
The Kum sharpeners are a good value. The Kum wedge sharpener has two openings, one for standard size pencils, and one for larger pencils. It’s high quality and inexpensive, though you will probably have to buy it on-line.
Note: All of these items can be purchased locally most of the time. I can buy them all with a single trip to Hobby Lobby. If there’s an art store, office supply store, or university near where you live, you can probably find them all there.
The Expanded Basic List
These are tools you can add to the previous list or, in some cases, replace similar items on the previous list.
A pad of Bristol. Bristol paper is heavier than Stonehenge. It’s available in two finishes: Vellum and Regular (or smooth). Regular surface is very smooth. The vellum finish is a little softer, but still not as soft as Stonehenge.
I’ve used both Bienfang and Strathmore. Both are good papers, but they’re so smooth, they don’t work well for my drawing methods. They are ideal for learning, though, and are the go-to papers for a lot of colored pencil artists.
You can also add larger pads of paper. Or smaller, whatever is your preference.
For a paper with more tooth, try a pad of Canson Mi-Tientes. They come in pads of assorted colors, earth tone colors, and grays. I’d suggest a pad of assorted colors, which includes white.
Replace the 24-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier pencils with a 36-pencil or 48-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier pencils OR a small set of some other brand, such as Faber-Castell Polychromos, Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor or Caran d’Ache Luminance. Be prepared to pay more for these, but better performance and more lightfast colors are worth the expense.
A colorless blender is also a handy tool to have. A colorless blender is essentially a colored pencil without pigment. It’s made with the same wax binder the colored pencils are. Use it just like a regular colored pencil to blend without adding additional color.
Get a good, low cost electric sharpener instead of a hand-held sharpener. They’re usually available starting at around $30.
One package of mounting putty. Look for Hand-Tak, Poster-Tack, Blu-Tack or similar. Handi-Tak or similar brands. Mounting putty is a soft, moldable substance most commonly used to hang posters. Tear off a piece, shape it however you want, stick it to the back of a poster and press the poster against the wall.
But it’s also very useful in lifting color from a drawing. You can make it whatever shape you need to lift color. It’s also self-cleaning. Work it in your fingers and the color disappears!
There are a number of good erasers available for colored pencil work, but I recommend getting a good click eraser, such as shown below. They are a pencil-like tool into which you can insert the eraser. They’re great for fine detail erasing as well as general erasing. The Pentel Clic Eraser is the one I use.
A Note on Solvents
You’ll notice I didn’t mention solvents. That’s because there’s enough to be said about them that they require their own post. You can, of course, use solvents with colored pencils. Many of us do. I do, in limited form.
Solvents are liquid tools that allow you to blend colored pencil. Standard solvents are odorless mineral spirits, turpentine, rubber cement thinner, and rubbing alcohol. They can speed the drawing process, but you also need to use them with care.
That’s why I don’t include them on the Basic List or the Expanded Basic List. Better to find out first if you like drawing with colored pencils enough to invest in additional tools.
Are you ready to get started with colored pencils?
Carrie has put together a PDF shopping list that includes each of the two shopping lists mentioned above and a special, Everything & the Kitchen Sink shopping list, plus links to places to shop and other updated content.
Download Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils shopping lists for free.
Excellent post – very organized lists. I have some questions and thoughts on the Basic List.
Will you expand on the paper in the basic list? I use Strathmore 400 series Bristol smooth for graphite, but prefer the vellum for cp. Which surface and weight were you thinking of? The Michael’s in my county only carries 300 series, which has inconsistent grain, so I order from Blick. (Besides, all art supplies are 35 miles from home. . . and there are only art aisles within craft stores)
Because Prismacolor are wax based, I’ve found the white eraser to be useless. Only poster putty or “magic” Scotch tape works, and only sort of.
And, will you address the fact that the majority of Prismacolor pencils are broken all the way through? Sanford denies there is a problem and blames the wrong sharpeners (OH PUH-LEEEZE!) The CPSA taught a method of repairing them in the microwave. I’ve stopped recommending them and am now preferring Staedtler Ergosoft for beginners if they can’t afford Polychromos (by Faber Castell). Both the Ergosoft and Polychromos respond well to the white erasers. Polychromos are oil based, but I don’t know about Ergosoft.
Thank you for reading this post and the blog. I appreciate your readership, as well as your comments and questions.
I’m delighted to expand on the list of papers, since I’ve tried a good many over the years and have definitely formed some opinions on what works and what doesn’t. More opinions than can be shared in the comment section, I’m afraid.
The same goes for the Prismacolor pencils. I’ve been a user of Prismacolor for a long time and have some from the days when they were Eagle Spectracolor. It has seemed like every time the company changes hands, quality suffers, but that is so often the case. I’ve heard great things about a couple of different brands and lines of pencils and have tried others, as well. I’m already planning a post on that subject, too, but thanks for the added incentive.
White Pearl erasers are of limited use with wax-based pencils. I usually reach for the Handi-tak first. But I have found some instances in which the White Pearl is ideal, especially with Verithin pencils, which contain less wax than the soft core Prismacolor pencils.
Thank you again for your very kind words and your very good questions! And for joining the conversation.
I use Pastels (not oil) and have been most of my life for mostly landscapes. But for the last 9 months have been doing commissioned pets and have seen the detail that people using pastel pencils get and want to use the pencils for eyes etc. I’m in South Africa have just ordered Prismacolor online but you say its a waxi lead not pastel what is a good pastel color pencil?
Prismacolor pencils are colored pencils, not pastel pencils.
I do not use pastels of any type, so cannot advise you on a good brand.
If there are any pastel artists reading this blog, can you advise Barry on a good brand of pastel pencils?
Carrie; Have you ever tried the Prismacolor Col-Erase colored pencils? They are not of professional quality but I’ve found them to be quite nice for some of my caricature like drawings in the facts that they have a nice tone of color and they all have erasers and erase fairly well. I bought some for me and my 12 year old granddaughter who seems to have some ability and interest in art. She loves them! And they’re quite reasonable in price plus I found them at Walmart saving me a 25 mile trip to the nearest Hobby Lobby or similar type store[s]. Just thought I’d throw this in for beginners and people on a tight budget. Thanks!
I enjoyed reading the article for beginning pencil colorists. Is there some sort of prep to do for the pencils? I have 3 different brands (all inexpensive, purchased from Amazon) and none of them lay down color like I see on videos, regardless of how much pressure I apply. Putting down more coats doesn’t improve the amount of color. And I sharpened them before use. Am I missing something?
Thank you for your very kind words and welcome to the wonderful world of colored pencils.
The problems you’re having are due to the type of pencils you bought. It sounds like you purchased student or scholastic pencils. These pencils are made for school kids and are inexpensive because they have a lower percentage of pigment to binder (the stuff that makes the pigment solid.)
It is possible to do art with them, but you’re not likely to get the same results you’re seeing in the videos.
The best thing to do is get better pencils. Brands I would recommend are Prismacolor, Faber-Castell Polychromos, and Derwent Coloursoft. They will lay down color on paper very nicely and you will be able to get results much closer to what you see in the videos.
You’ll still have to practice, but you’ll find your work advancing much more quickly with better pencils.