Getting Past the Amateurish Look

Getting Past the Amateurish Look

One of the biggest problems facing beginning artists is getting past the amateurish look. I wrestled with that for some time, and even gave up on colored pencil for a while because of it.

So I was glad to see the following question from Kae.

I am very new to colored pencils. As I learned my drawing skills, I wanted color to ‘pop’ my drawings. So enter colored pencils. But they seemed to look so amateurish, but being such, I guess that is the only way they might look. To use them seems so laborious and I don’t know how to make them be fun in creating the color. Any suggestions?

Kae asks some great questions, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to answer them.

But she’s actually asked three questions, so I’ll break my answers up into three different posts. Today, we’ll talk about getting past the amateurish look with your colored pencil drawings. In the weeks to come, I’ll address each of the other two questions.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look

We all want our art to look more professional. Even if we’re not professional artists—or don’t consider ourselves professional artists—we want to make art we can be proud of.

Getting past the cartoony stage is the first big hurdle we face, isn’t it.

The Best Way to Get Past the Amateurish Look is Practice

Colored pencils are slow by nature. Making art with colored pencils is sort of like mowing the lawn with a pair of scissors. You can get a fantastic look, but it takes a long time! There are methods for speeding up the drawing process like working on colored papers, blending with solvents, and using other mediums for under drawings.

But little as we want to hear it, the best way is simply to keep drawing. The more drawings you do, the better your drawings get.

Watching videos, studying books about drawing, and reading blogs about drawing (yes, even this one) are all good ways to learn about new techniques. But in the end, if you don’t draw, you don’t improve.

Most of us begin with drawings that look amateurish (my early drawings certainly prove that point!) If you don’t give up, you will get better. And so will your drawings!

So how do you do more drawings (so you can get better faster) when colored pencil takes so long?

Work Small to Finish More Drawings Faster

Consider working small. Small drawings take less time, so you can do more drawings. You improve your skills much faster by completing a lot of small drawings, than if you work for a long time on one large drawing. (I wish I’d known this when I started!)

The great thing about colored pencils is that you can do really fantastic drawings that are no bigger than 4×6 or 5×7. This drawing is 3-1/2 by 5 inches.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look

Art trading cards are 3-1/2 by 2-1/2 inches in size. They’re great for finishing drawings quickly.

A Few More Tips For Getting Past the Amateurish Look

Other than finishing as many drawings as you can, you can do a few other things to get you started properly.

You Learn More From Mistakes than Drawings that Go Well

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Yes, you’ll find a lot of things that don’t work, but you will also find things that do work. I know I learn more from my mistakes, than from the drawings that go well. So try things and learn from the mistakes!

Remember those little drawings I mentioned above? They’re ideal for trying out new pencils, new drawing methods, and otherwise just experimenting.

Use the best pencils and paper you can afford.

When you buy pencils, the very least you should look for is student-grade pencils. Artist-grade pencils are best, but can be expensive. Scholastic-grade pencils are made for grade school kids. They still color, but they have more filler than student- or artist-grade pencils, so they don’t cover the paper as well.

If you want artist-grade pencils, but money is tight, take a look at the Dick Blick colored pencils. They’re an artist-grade pencil, but are very competitively priced.

The same goes for paper. You can draw on newsprint or ordinary sketchbook paper. The fact is, I do a lot of plein air drawing in my sketchbook. But the better papers handle more layers of color, and some work with water media.

Getting Past the Amateurish Look - Use Good Paper

You can get good pencils and papers at places like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s. If you shop at Hobby Lobby, print a 40% off coupon before you go, and you can get 40% off the highest priced item you buy. That’s always a good deal!

Don’t leave outlines in your drawings

Outlines are what makes most beginners’ drawings look amateurish.

You can outline before you shade (I do that all the time,) but the outline should disappear as you add layers of color.

I’ve outlined part of this drawing before shading the shapes, but I used the same color on the outline that I’ll use to shade the shapes. When I finish, there will be no outline; just the edge between the dark and light shapes.

Take your time with each layer of color

If your color is splotchy when you finish—if some areas are lighter than others and you don’t want them that way—it may that you’re rushing through the drawing.

It doesn’t have to take hours to do each layer, but you should work carefully enough to fill in each part of the drawing with even color. Usually, the best way to do that is to draw with circular strokes. Circular strokes don’t leave start-and-stop marks like back-and-forth strokes do, and you can overlap them to create darker values.

The type of stroke you use matters less than taking the time to cover the paper, though. So just slow down a little. When you find yourself hurrying, take a break.

This is a difficult thing to train yourself to do, so that’s why I usually recommend that artists new to colored pencil do small drawings first.


There’s a lot more to getting your drawings past the amateurish look, but these things give you a place to begin

If you do nothing else, do this: Don’t expect your first drawings to look great. They probably won’t.

But they can if you keep drawing.

So keep drawing!


    1. Kathleen,

      Thank you for reading this article, and for commenting.

      Most of my current work is 8 x 11 or smaller because that’s the size of my scanner! I have worked large, though, and the largest colored pencil piece I’ve ever done was 20×24.

      Small is a good way to finish a lot of drawings, and that’s a good way to learn.

      Thank you again.


  1. Denise Pa vel

    I am proud of my art because it has a whimsical aspect to it. I try using humorous wquootes at the bottom in tandem with my colored pencil drawings. The size pictures I do are usually 9× 12. My work takes me typically two days at a four-hour stretch. I set an alarm on my phone to keep me aware of how long I’ve been working. I do this because I have neuropathy, and if I color too long, my right hand gets either excruciating spasms all day and night, or I experience an awful tingling in my fingers that drives me to drink, just about! Lol.

    Anyways, I have learned to appreciate the slow process of colored pencil art. It gives me time to “think about life”, and the eight hours it takes me to make an 8×10 picture is well worth it. I actually enter a state of peaceful meditation…in other words, I’m in my happy place!

    Keep Up The Good Work!
    Denise from the Chicago (Far North) Suburbs

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