Mixing Soft and Hard Colored Pencils

Mixing Soft and Hard Colored Pencils

Welcome back to this special edition of Q&A. Today, let’s talk about mixing soft and hard colored pencils in the same artwork. To get us started, here is the question.

Is there a best way to layer when using both oil & wax pencils? Or if harder vs softer would be a better way to phrase that; since some pencils contain both. Lately I’ve been wondering this and thought maybe it is similar to pastels with laying down hard first, to preserve tooth, then using softer pastels for later layers. But I’m not sure and would love to know more info about layering different brands. Any info about layering different brands would be helpful! Thanks!

Mixing Soft and Hard Colored Pencils

First of all, let me assure you that mixing soft and hard colored pencils is perfectly acceptable. If all the pencils you use are archival (non-fading) then using any colored pencils in combination doesn’t hurt the archival quality of the finished artwork. Not only can you mix brands; you can also mix types.

The Way I Mix Soft and Hard Pencils: Starting with Hard Pencils

I generally begin with the harder oil-based pencils, because they don’t leave as much binding agent on the paper.

I typically do as much work as possible with oil-based pencils, usually Faber-Castell Polychromos. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The main reason is that I enjoy using Polychromos pencils. The color selection is nearly perfect for the type of work I do (animals and landscapes.) There are bright, jewel-tone colors in the full set, but there are also enough more earthy colors to keep me happy.

The second reason is that Polychromos pencils don’t fill in the tooth of the paper as quickly as waxier pencils like Prismacolor, Luminance, and others. It’s possible to do more layering even on smoother papers.

The third reason is that I can sharpen Polychromos to a very sharp point and they hold that point longer than softer pencils.

If I need a particular color that’s available only in my softer pencils, then I’ll use that, but generally, I don’t use soft pencils until toward the end of a drawing.

Finishing with Softer Pencils

As a drawing gets more and more finished, I usually begin using more soft pencils. Softer pencils lay down very nicely over harder colored pencils. Softer pencils are also excellent choices for filling in whatever paper holes remain.

It’s also sometimes easier to add details with a softer pencil. When working this way, it’s important to keep the pencils as sharp as possible.

Not a Hard and Fast Rule

This is just the way I usually work. It is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes, I don’t use softer pencils at all. On rare occasions, I don’t use harder pencils at all.

Some artists mix different brands and types of pencils throughout the drawing process. There isn’t a problem with this method, either, because all colored pencils contain some wax and some oil in the binding agent.

What it comes down to is personal preference. I like starting with harder pencils and gradually adding softer pencils as needed. If that method works for you, too, great!

If not, keep trying things until you find the method that works best for you.

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    1. Gail,

      Thank you and you’re welcome.

      It’s a variation on the fat over lean principle in oil painting. In order to have layers of oil paint stick to one another and dry properly (from the inside out), the artist uses a little more painting medium in each successive layer. So the first layers of paint are dryer (less medium) than the last layers, which are “softer” because they have more medium.

      This principle isn’t as important with colored pencils because all types of colored pencils work well together as long as they’re artist grade. You also don’t the drying process to contend with when you use colored pencils.

      But I suppose that similarity with oil painting is part of the reason why I tend to start with harder, dryer pencils and finish with softer pencils. It fits with my experiences as an oil painter.

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