Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

We all know it takes time to complete a drawing with colored pencils. It’s just the way pencils are. What we all need—and want—are labor saving tips for colored pencils and colored pencil work.


Some time ago, I replied to a reader asking for help getting her work past the amateurish phase. Today, I want to answer the second part of her question. Here’s her question.

[Using colored pencils] seems so laborious and I don’t know how to make them be fun in creating the color. Any suggestions?

Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

I know exactly how this reader—and a lot of you—feel! Creating highly detailed colored pencil drawings takes hours of labor. We all love our pencils, but there have to be shortcuts.

Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

I don’t know how to change the laborious nature of drawing with colored pencils. I don’t know that it’s possible, to be truthful, but there are ways to deal with what some might call tedium and still use colored pencils.

Drawing small is one way to finish more drawings quickly and improve drawing skills. Drawing small doesn’t reduce the labor—you still have to cover the paper. But it does reduce the tedium, and here’s how.

When you do small drawings, it takes less time to finish each layer. You see progress more quickly, and that keeps drawing from becoming tedious.

Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils
Each of these drawings are 3-1/2 inches by 2-1/2 inches in size. Small drawings like this are ideal for trying new skills and new tools, or practicing what you already know.

It’s also a good way to train your drawing muscles (that includes your eyes and your brain) to draw for longer periods of time. Think of it like exercising. You start with a few repetitions or with short walks, and gradually work toward more repetitions or longer walks.

Or even more strenuous exercises.

The more small drawings you do, the easier finishing larger drawings becomes. So small drawings are the cure for a lot of colored pencil difficulties.

Small drawings are also my favorite labor saving method!

Here are a few more.

Try a vignette-style drawing to keep your focus on the subject

What’s a vignette-style drawing? Let me show you.

What these drawings have in common—other than the subject—is that for each one, the paper is the only background. The horses got all my attention, and drawing time.

I don’t do these types of drawings very often anymore except for plein air studies, but they can be an excellent way to take some of the labor (and time) out of colored pencil work. After all, if you let the paper be the background, you don’t have to do anything with it!

And this style of drawing works with almost any subject.

You can also add just a suggestion of background by shading around your subject to highlight it. This portrait started out as a vignette-style portrait, but the dog disappeared into the background, so I shaded around the upper part of the dog, then faded the background at the bottom. Roughly 20 minutes of work that brought the dog to life.

Water soluble colored pencils let you lay down an under drawing quickly

Water soluble colored pencils are great for getting color on the paper fast. Draw with them dry on dry paper, then wet them with a damp brush. Draw into damp paper. Dampen a brush and pull color off a palette or directly off the pencil.

Whatever method you use, water soluble colored pencils allow you to draw backgrounds and under drawings quickly. They also fill in the tooth of the paper completely, saving time and layers later on.

Just make sure to use water soluble pencils first, since wet color may not stick to traditional colored pencil layers.

TIP: You can also try other water soluble media like watercolor, acrylic, or airbrushing to do backgrounds

Try drawing on colored paper to reduce labor and drawing time

Colored paper is one of the best ways to save drawing time. Whether you use the color of the paper as the background (see above) or as a base color (or value), drawing on colored paper saves pencil strokes and minutes.

If you choose a medium value paper, you can also use just light and dark pencils to complete a drawing.

That’s what I did for the drawing of the black Tennessee Walking horse I used to create the drawing for the Portrait of a Black Horse tutorial, and for this small plein air drawing.

Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

Combine colored paper and small drawings for the best results.

Read more about Fast & Easy Background Options for Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel.

Draw for short periods of time to keep your eyes and hands rested, and your mind alert

Keep drawing sessions to twenty minutes or less.

It may not make much sense, but you can get a lot more done if you work twenty minutes every day for a week than if you work two hours one day a week.

Your work is more likely to turn out well, too.

If you want to work longer each day—or if you have to—then break your drawing day up into shorter segments. In between, do something else that gives your hands, your back, and your brain a rest, and you’ll be more energized when you go back to work.

TIP: This is a great idea if you have trouble making a start. It’s a lot easier to start drawing if you know you can stop and have accomplished your drawing goal after fifteen or twenty minutes.

There are a Few Labor Saving Tips for Colored Pencils

There are other ways to save time and effort with colored pencils, but if you don’t want fancy tools or accessories, these tips will help you. I encourage you to check them out.

If you’ve found other ways to make drawing with colored pencils easier, share your suggestions in the comments below.

We’d all like to know other ways to save time and labor with our favorite medium.


  1. Gail M Jones

    Really good tips for saving time and effort. I guess for myself, since I used to only embroider, any CP drawing seems faster then an embroidery project that might take me months or even years to complete. So taking time with CP is just fun.

  2. Gail Jones

    I love seeing all your pictures of your art that you post as examples! You get such rich color! Do you have any photo gallery where one could see more of your pics? Your horses and scenery are always amazing!

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