Making Bright Whites Pop with Colored Pencils

Let’s talk about making bright whites pop with colored pencils. That’s the topic for this post, and here’s the reader question to get the discussion started.

Hi Carrie. I need to know how to make bright whites pop with pencils.

This is a big issue for a lot of colored pencil artists because it’s so difficult to add white highlights (or bright highlights of any color) over layers of color. That’s because colored pencils are naturally translucent, so every color you put on the paper changes the look of every other color.

Making Bright Whites Pop with Colored Pencils

Even the color of the paper affects the way colors look.

But getting bright highlights is vital to realistic art, so what are the best ways to make those bright whites really pop?

Two Easy Ways of Making Bright Whites Pop

Let me make a couple of suggestions that are easy to implement, and a couple of others that require more thought and effort.

First, the easy methods.

White Paper

The best way to make white areas pop in a drawing is to work on white paper and preserve the white of the paper. No white pencil is as bright white as bright white paper.

Not all white paper is equally white, however. Some whites are warm white, which means they have a bit of yellow tint, while other, cool white papers have a bit of a blue tint. The tints are very minor and may not even be visible, but they do make a difference. If you decide to rely on the white of the paper, then look for a paper that’s “bright white.”

Then mark the highlights before you starting layering color and work around them.

This portrait was drawn on white Stonehenge. All the highlights are either the white of the paper or the white of the paper lightly tinted with color.

For really small areas, like the highlights in eyes, you might also add a layer of white before using any other color. A layer of white color protects paper somewhat, and makes lifting color a bit easier if necessary.

Dark Surrounding Values

Also remember that when the values around a patch of bright color are dark, the light color appears brighter.

After most of the layers are in place, darken the areas around the bright white highlights slightly. Darkening surrounding values makes the highlights look brighter.

You don’t want to go too dark, but if you need to punch up a highlight just a little bit, this is a good option.

I used darker values around many of the highlights in this portrait to make the highlights pop. Notice the bright area at the base of the ear and on the leather next to it.

Making Bright Whites Pop

This portrait was drawn on medium-gray paper, so I was able to use heavy pressure and a “star” shape to add the sparkling highlights on the rings of the bit. This doesn’t work for every application, but if you’re adding highlights over colored paper where you haven’t put other colors, it’s very effective.

Two More Complex Methods for Making Bright Whites Pop

These methods also work very well, but they require special tools and a bit of a learning curve.

Sanded Art Papers

Sanded art papers are great surfaces to use if you prefer adding highlights over other colors. Because of the grit of sanded art papers, you can layer colors indefinitely.

You can also layer light colors over dark colors more effectively on sanded papers than on traditional papers. You still get the best results by using white papers and preserving the highlights, but with sanded papers, you can brighten highlights by adding white afterward, too.

I recommend Lux Archival because it’s fully archival and the brightest white sanded art paper I’ve tried.

Titanium White from Brush & Pencil

Brush & Pencil makes a great product called Titanium White. It’s powdered titanium white pigment; the same pigment used in white colored pencils but without the binding agents. It’s more opaque and covers better when mixed with Touch-Up Texture (also from Brush & Pencil.)

It’s also easy to use. Mix a small amount of Titanium White into Touch-Up Texture, brush or dab it onto the highlight, and let it dry. Once it’s dry, you can easily draw over it to tone it down or tint it.

I used Titanium White and Touch-Up Texture to add the sun in this piece, then lightly tinted it with colored pencil.

Making Bright Whites Pop

By the way, I used Lux Archival paper for this piece.

Making Bright Whites Pop

Those are my top four suggestions for getting white highlights that really pop. You can use them all together, one at a time, or in various combinations.

They are also archival, so you have no worries about the integrity of your work if you use them.

Are they the only methods? By no means. But they are the most effective for me.

I hope they also work for you.

4 Replies to “Making Bright Whites Pop with Colored Pencils”

  1. i’ve found the easiest way to get popping whites is to use Caran d’Ache Luminance white. Normally i mix pencil brands, & while i haven’t wanted to invest heavily in this expensive, high quality brand, i find the slightly more opaque white (&, to a lesser extent, other light colors), works well for me.

    1. Valerie,

      Thank you for reading this post and for sharing your methods of getting bright whites to pop.

      I’ve heard that Caran d’Ache Luminance white is more opaque than other brands. I bought Derwent Drawing Chinese White for the same reason.

      Thanks again for sharing your comment.

  2. Interestingly, i’ve always hated Chinese white, in any Derwent line. It, um, really is opaque.
    And, though i seldom remember to mention it, i do want to say that reading your weekly emails & following links is one of the highlights of my week.

    1. Valerie,

      That’s why there are so many different brands of pencils. None of them work equally well for every artist!

      Thank you for your very kind words about the weekly newsletter. I’m delighted to hear that you enjoy it!

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