Learning how to draw vibrant color with colored pencil is one of the most difficult things for new colored pencil artists to learn. Especially for an artist accustomed to painting or using pastels. In today’s post, I share a few reasons why you might be getting pale color. I’ll also share a few tips for getting rid of that pale color (unless you want it.)
How to Draw Vibrant Color with Colored Pencil
Lets begin with the reader’s question.
I am hoping that this will help me get vibrant results with my colour pencil art, [which] [always turns] out wishy washy. I am excited about your site and can’t wait to do it.
Thank you for the question!
I could better answer this question after seeing samples of work, since the “wishy-washiness” could be the result of a several factors, including method, paper, and the quality of the pencils you’re using. But I can share a couple of basic suggestions that should help no matter what method you’re using.
Not Enough Layers
One common reason for wishy-washy color is that there are not enough layers of color on the paper. Most artists, particularly those new to colored pencil, stop when their drawing starts to look finished. Unfortunately, they stop too soon. Here’s an example.
This is Afternoon Graze the first time I “finished” it.
And this is what it looked like after a few more layers.
The biggest difference was made on the horses, but the benefit of a few additional layers to the drawing are clear throughout the composition.
So if your colors seem wishy-washy when you finish, it’s possible that you just aren’t finished yet. Try a few more layers and see what happens.
The Wrong Type of Paper
It’s also possible you’re using the wrong paper for your methods. If you like to do lots of layers and are using a smooth paper, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. You can get rich saturated colors with a paper like Bristol vellum (the drawing above is on Bristol vellum), but it’s a lot more difficult. Toothier papers like Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Tientes, and Strathmore Artagain work much better for lots of layers.
Get a few sheets of different types of paper and try each one. You can either just do test swatches of color, or do a complete drawing.
You can buy paper online, but for something like this, it’s probably better to buy paper in person, where you can see and touch the paper before you buy. This is also a good idea because you can buy a single sheet, and many online art suppliers require a minimum purchase, and don’t usually allow mixing between brands and types.
What papers do I recommend?
Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Tientes are both good papers if you like to layer. Both are also capable of very vibrant color.
I also use Strathmore ArtAgain when I have it, and a variety of sanded art papers.
Don’t be afraid to try other kinds of paper, though. Something that works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.
The Wrong Color of Paper
I’m assuming you’re using white paper and getting faded colors, but that may not be true. You may be using a colored paper.
If you are—and especially if you’re drawing on a dark paper—it will be very difficult to get the same vibrant colors that are possible on white paper. Why?
Colored pencils are translucent to some degree. You can see through the layers of color. Every color you put down affects every other color you put down.
The color of the paper also affects the way the colors look. White paper is the least noticeable, but try drawing on colored paper and you’ll see a difference. Even with lighter colors.
Dark papers seem to absorb the colors you put on them. It doesn’t matter how many layers you put down or how hard you press on the pencil, the color of the paper makes colors appear somewhat dull in comparison to the way they look on white paper.
It is possible to get bright colors on dark backgrounds, but most of the artists who are doing this are working on white paper and coloring the backgrounds. Cecile Baird is one who works this way. Most of her work—if not all—is drawn on white paper, so when you see one of her colored pencil drawings with a black background, you know she drew those dark darks.
The Wrong Pencils
Another possible problem is the quality of pencils. Inexpensive pencils do not perform the same as higher quality pencils. They are not as heavily pigmented, and do not layer the same. In many cases, it’s quite simply impossible to get vibrant color with low-quality pencils.
You may be able to do a lot of layers with them, but the percentage of pigment to binder is usually lower with inexpensive pencils than with better pencils, so you’re putting more wax binder than pigment on the paper. That makes the colors look wishy-washy.
If the pencils you’re using are either “scholastic” or “student,” you could benefit from better pencils. Buy a few higher quality pencils and try them to see which ones will work best with your paper and methods.
Finally, your problem may be wax bloom. If the drawing looks okay for a day or two, then begins to “fade”, that’s because of wax bloom.
Wax bloom happens when the wax binder rises to the surface of the pigment layers. It’s a natural process and won’t hurt the drawing, but you need to control it or prevent it to keep the drawing looking vibrant.
The best way to prevent wax bloom is to use oil-based colored pencils, or wax-based colored pencils that aren’t quite as waxy. Prismacolor pencils are well-known for their smoothness, but they are that way because of the type of wax they contain. That wax makes them prone to wax bloom. Try a different type of wax-based pencil or an oil-based pencil and see what happens.
Also use light pressure and several layers to build color. That will reduce the wax bloom.
You can also spray your drawings with a final fixative to prevent wax bloom. Just make sure to use one designed for colored pencil work. If your drawing is already showing wax bloom, use a clean paper towel to lightly wipe the drawing. That will remove the bloom, and you can then apply the final fixative. Make sure to follow the instructions carefully.
For more answers to frequently asked colored pencil questions, read My Answers to 3 Very Common Colored Pencil Questions on EmptyEasel.