Today’s question is a two-part question from Pat, who wants to know more about layering and blending colored pencils. Here’s the question:
You say that you like to keep your pencils very sharp. Do you do most of the layering with the point or the side of the pencil?
Do you also use mineral spirits on all your pictures?
In advance, thank you for reading my requests. Pat
Thank you for your questions, Pat.
Pat touches on two of the most basic skills necessary to using colored pencils successfully. Master layering and blending, and everything else is icing on the cake!
Layering and Blending with Colored Pencils
Of all the ways to blend colored pencils, the best, most natural, and easiest way is layering. Every time you lay one color over another, you’re blending. The light moves through the different colors and mixes them so your eye sees a new color.
But you can layer with the tip of sharp pencils or with the side. There is a time and place for both.
Layering and Blending with Sharp Pencils
Most of the time, smooth color is vital to smooth blends, and sharp pencils are usually necessary for smooth color. So I use the tip of a well-sharpened pencil most of the time. And because I have a naturally light hand, I use light pressure for all beginning layers and as many additional layers as possible.
The best way to layer and blend with sharp pencils is to hold the pencil in whatever way is most comfortable for you, and simply draw. In this illustration, I’m holding the pencil at a little less than 45 degrees, but most of the time, I hold a colored pencil the same way I hold a pen when I’m writing.
Also use the stroke that gives you the smoothest color. A lot of artists recommend small circular strokes, but if you learned a different type of stroke (as I did,) then use that stroke. The important thing is to create smooth color as you layer; not necessarily the type of stroke you use.
Or the way you hold your pencil!
Layering and Blending with Glazes
Glazing is a term that refers to adding very thin, transparent layers of color over color already on the paper. It’s an oil painting term and you create a glaze in oil painting by thinning paint so it’s very fluid and thin. It tints the colors under it, but doesn’t hide any of the details.
Obviously you can’t do the same thing with colored pencil, because it’s a dry medium. But you can apply color so lightly that all it does is tint whatever colors are underneath. That’s what I mean by glazing.
A colored pencil glaze needs to be applied with light pressure. But broken color (when some of what’s underneath shows through) is also good for glazing with colored pencils. The side of a well-sharpened pencil is perfect for this, too.
In this illustration, for example, I used a well-sharpened Polychromos to layer color onto paper. I used a toothy paper so you could see that the color is only hitting the “top” of the surface texture. Paper shows through everywhere else. That’s what makes glazing work.
Glazing works just as well on smoother papers, though the results differ. It’s a great way to add a hint of color to an area without covering up the color already on the paper.
It’s also ideal for drawing the illusion of distance, fog, mist or other types of weather.
Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits
Now, about odorless mineral spirits.
Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are a solvent designed to “melt” or liquefy the binder in colored pencils. While the binder is liquefied, the pigment can be moved around on the paper, smoothed out, and if you’re blending more than one color, the different colors can be blended together almost like paint.
There are a number of reasons to use odorless mineral spirits or any other solvent for blending.
Solvent blending is faster than blending by layering. You do need to have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to work with, but that usually requires only three or four layers.
Solvent blending fills the tooth of the paper more completely and more quickly. Pigment soaks into the tooth of the paper better when wet than when dry.
If you have arthritis in your hands or wrists, or have some other painful condition, solvent blending may very well be the only way you can use colored pencils. Blending with solvent on a brush is a lot easier on your hands than blending by layering, especially in the later layers, when you have to apply more pressure.
So there are good reasons to use solvent blending.
Do I Use Solvent on All of My Work?
Although I have mineral spirits in my colored pencil toolbox, the truth is that I don’t use it very often. When I do use it, it’s usually because I want some kind of special effect that’s attainable only with solvents, or I’m on a short deadline and need to complete something quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with using solvents for blending. I used turpentine and other solvents for years with oil painting.
But I prefer the look of colored pencils blended without solvents. Layering and blending different colors or different shades of the same colors to get the effects I want is more enjoyable than using solvents.
What Matters Most When with Layering and Blending
What really matters most with layering and blending is what works best for you. If solvent blending gives you the look you want for you art, then use it.
If you prefer to blend by layering, that’s what you should do.
Investigating how other artists work is always a good idea. You never know when you’ll learn something that takes your art to the next level.
But don’t feel obligated to use every method you see demonstrated.