How to Blend for Smooth Color

Today’s reader question comes from Beth, who wants to know how to blend for smooth color.

That is an important issue for many of us, as well as a potential problem.

Here’s Beth’s question.

How [do you] blend using OMS or rubbing alcohol [for] a totally smooth effect?  I’ve used brush and cotton balls for sky or water, which turned out kind of how I wanted.

But what if I want the color of the entire sky a smooth, uninterrupted visual?  Every tool makes the OMS streaky.

Thanks much,

Beth

How to Draw for Smooth Color

Let me first share a few tips for drawing smooth color, because the smoother your color layers are to start with, the smoother they’ll blend out.

And I’ll start with the usual mention of sharp pencils and small, overlapping strokes. I won’t got as far as to recommend circular strokes because I didn’t learn that type of stroke and can still get smooth color layers. Just make sure your strokes are careful, closely spaced, and not scribbles!

Do more than one or two layers before blending, too. The more pigment on the paper, the better the resulting solvent blend.

Alternate the direction of strokes from one layer to the next. This is called cross hatching and it fills in the tooth of the paper more completely with each layer. For example, start with a layer of horizontal strokes. Follow with a layer of vertical strokes, then a layer of diagonal strokes. Finish with a layer of diagonal strokes in the opposite direction.

If you draw carefully, you should have good coverage by the time you finish that fourth layer.

For really smooth color, I like to draw with tissue paper or paper towel. There are two ways to do this.

Layer color in the normal way, then smooth it out with a folded piece of paper towel. The result looks like this.

You can also pick up color from one piece of paper using paper towel, then stroke it onto another piece of paper. This type of color is extremely soft and subtle, but it takes a lot of time and layers to develop.

So if your color layers aren’t as smooth as you like before you blend with solvent, try these suggestions.

How to Blend for Smooth Color

How to Blend for Smooth Color

Now for some blending tips.

I think a lot of artists have the mistaken idea that just using solvent automatically produces rich, smooth color. That’s not true and I know from experience that some methods produce the absolute opposite.

So if you need smooth color and you want to blend with solvent, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Make sure you have enough pigment on the paper before you blend.

Solvent blending works best if you have a good amount of color on the paper. The layering example I gave above, with four solid layers of color, should be enough. But if you draw with a naturally light hand, you need more layers than someone who is naturally heavy-handed.

Use the largest brush you can for each area.

I learned from years of oil painting that the best way to get smooth blends was to use the biggest possible brush for any given area and to use the fewest strokes possible.

That’s even more important with colored pencils because most solvents dry so quickly. It’s important to use a few, slightly overlapping strokes to blend pigment while it’s wet, then leave it alone until it dries.

No fussing!

Let the paper dry, add more layers, then blend again.

You can draw over layers that have been blended with solvent, but wait for the paper to dry completely. If you don’t, you risk damaging the paper. Especially with sharp pencils.

It often takes three or four cycles of layering and solvent blending to produce rich AND smooth color, so be patient.

If smooth color is your goal, then be careful to use just enough solvent to blend the most recent layers.

Reduce the amount of solvent with each blend.

It’s okay to use a wet brush for the first solvent blend.

But for each blend afterward, your brush should be a little bit drier. This is easy to achieve by dipping your brush in the solvent, then blotting it on a paper towel.

The reason for reducing the amount of solvent each time you blend an area is that if you use too much, the solvent dissolves all the color. Even previously blended layers. If that’s okay, then go ahead, but beware it could result in muddy color.

Using Solvent to Blend for Smooth Color Doesn’t have to be Complicated

These few tips should help you blend for smooth color every time, no matter how big your drawing, or what you’re drawing.

Still not sure? Make a few test swatches and try these tips first before trying them on a drawing. It’s always best to experiment when in doubt rather then plunge ahead and ruin a good drawing!

2 Replies to “How to Blend for Smooth Color”

  1. Carrie: As you know I use solvent extensively when working on either canvas or paper; I am also a chemical engineer/artist. As part of my testing of solvents to find out how best to use them as an aid to CP drawing, I tried combinations of OMS and alcohol (greater than 95-99% strength) to find a mixture that would give me the best properties combined in one CP solubility and working time – OMS (Gamsol , Turpenoid) dries slowly while isopropyl Alcohol dries very quickly. I didn’t use hardware store OMS because it contains impurities that cause flammability and toxicity. The result was: Gamsol/Turpenoid with alcohol do not mix, resulting in something akin to an oil/water mixture. I used 99% strength alcohol to minimize any effects of expected water/oil separation. As a check I tried 90 proof vodka which obviously contains water and got the same result as expected. So i’m back to using each separately.
    Cheers!

    1. Thank you for the information, John. I’m always glad to hear from artists who use colored pencils in unexpected ways.

      I’m not sure, however, that I’m quite ready to try adult beverages as a blending agent!

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