My Thoughts on Gel Pens and Acrylic Paint

My Thoughts on Gel Pens and Acrylic Paint

Today’s post question comes from a reader who wants to know how to get bright highlights in eyes. The reader also mentions using gel pens to create highlights, so I’ll answer the question with two posts. Today, I’ll share my thoughts on gel pens and acrylic paint.

Next week, I’ll show you how to get bright highlights in eyes using archival materials.

But first, here’s the question.

How do you get that realistic look of a shiny glaze in eyes, besides just having a white dot from a jelly roll pen? Please, I’m lost on making this seem real, Thanks.


Thank you for the question!

Gel Pens and Acrylic Paint

My Thoughts on Gel Pens and Acrylic Paint

A lot of artists use gel pens, acrylic paint, and other similar tools to add bright highlights to their colored pencil drawings. Many of those artists are artists whose work and talent I respect. They get excellent results, in most cases.

Acrylic paints are another medium I’m often asked about for adding highlights to colored pencil drawings.

Acrylics seemed to make sense when I tried them decades ago. I was a painter, after all, so using a brush and paint came naturally. What better way to add highlights and accents than by brushing them on with acrylic paint?

But unless you’re drawing for your own pleasure, it’s wise to avoid gel pens, acrylic paint, and any similar substances. They look good when you first use them, but they won’t stick well to the colored pencils. Sooner or later, they will flake off.

Why That Doesn’t Work

No matter what brand of colored pencils you use, the pigment is held together in lead form by binders. The binder is made up of a mixture of wax, oil, clay and fillers.

Gel pens and acrylics are water-based.

You can safely use water-based mediums under oil- or wax-based mediums. Artists have been using acrylics under oils for decades.

Many colored pencil artists use watercolors, watercolor pencils, India ink and even acrylics under colored pencils. In most cases, you can use colored pencil over any water-based medium as long as you use the wet medium as intended, and let the paper dry thoroughly.

But using a water-based medium of any kind over a wax- or oil-based medium of any kind often leads to problems down the road.

That’s because water and oil (or wax) do not mix.

If it helps, try a little experiment. Fill a glass with water, then pour a little vegetable oil into it. You’ll get something that looks like this.

Leave the glass sit for a moment or two and the oil rises to the surface. Once all the oil is on the surface, it’s fairly easy to skim the oil off the water.’s surface If you’re careful, you might even be able to pour most of the water out of the glass and leave most of the oil behind.

The same is true for dry mediums. It takes longer for the separation to happen, but it will happen. Since the pencils are dry and the gel pen or acrylic dries after application, the two will eventually separate cleanly. The gel pen or acrylic flakes off and your drawing is without those lovely highlights.

Is There Ever a time to Use Gel Pens or Acrylic Paints?


If you’re doing artwork in which permanence isn’t important, then you can use whatever tool or material gives you the result you want.

Greeting cards are an excellent example. A lot of people make their own greeting cards with stamping, colored pencils, markers, stickers, and other things. Greeting cards aren’t meant to last for decades, and they’re not usually framed or displayed. So it doesn’t matter if they’re absolutely archival.

Any type of craft use involving colored pencils is also suitable for using gel pens and acrylic paints to create highlights are accents. And, of course, adult coloring books are good places for gel pens.

And as I mentioned at the beginning, if you’re making art for your own pleasure, then by all means make use of those gel pens.

So if you shouldn’t use gel pens, how do you make bright, realistic highlights in eyes? I’ll answer that question next week.


  1. Gail M Jones

    Hi Carrie, one thing this brings to mind is the following question. “Is there anything that can be used on lighter weight paper to add bright white highlights? I know what I can use now if it is not meant to be permanent, and I know that I can use Titanium white on heavier paper. But what about lighter weight paper? Is there anything white that can be used on that?

    1. Titanium white if used dry would probably work on lighter weight papers. The problem is that it usually has to be fixed in place with one of the Brush & Pencil fixatives, and they dry to a hard surface. That means that they probably wouldn’t last long on light-weight paper, unless you were able to attach it firmly to a rigid support.

      I’m reading through Colored Pencil Painting Portraits and learning a lot. So far, all of those products are designed to be used on rigid supports that are also non-absorbent. That means, sanded art paper, or regular papers after you’ve coated them with acrylic gesso.

      But my knowledge of and experience with these products is extremely limited. For now.

  2. Gail M Jones

    Thank you Carrie. I understand. I kind of figured that is what you were going to say but knew it couldn’t hurt to ask in case there was something I didn’t know about.

  3. Richard Steffens

    I have used [mostly white] gel pens and various colors of acrylic paint on my colored pencil drawings. And when I’m done, I spray a fair share of a clear, glossy overcoat spray on them. Doesn’t that help to keep them from flaking off?

      1. Richard Steffens

        I usually put it on fairly thick and have not seen anything change much on drawings I have here & have had no customer complaints. I finally finished my chemo treatments for colon cancer. Hoping MRI or CT scan on the 25th shows I’m cancer free!!!

  4. Dennis Purdy

    I am a brand new artist of just two days. I’m painting leather covered baseballs with acrylic paints after treating the baseball’s surface with leather debrazer. If I use a gel pen to letter over the acrylic paint, will it be permanent? Or should I use an acrylic paint pen to do my lettering? And in either case, should I apply some sort of clear coat after doing the lettering? Thank you.

    1. Dennis,

      Congratulations on beginning your art journey. What a unique way to get started!

      Since I don’t use acrylic or gel pens and have never painted on a baseball or other leather object, I can’t answer your question with any certainty.

      However, instinct suggests that a gel pen will not be permanent on acrylic paint. Acrylic paint is basically a form of plastic and dries with a fairly slick surface texture. The best thing I can suggest is to try it on a baseball that you plan to keep and see if it flakes off after drying.

      Lettering with acrylic paint would be the safest choice.

      Acrylic paints don’t need a sealant, so if you used acrylics for the lettering as well as the painting, you shouldn’t need a sealant.

      But as I said, I don’t use acrylics now and it’s been years since the last time I did anything with them. You might want to look for an acrylic artist for that information.

      Thank you for reading this post, though. Thank you for your question, as well.

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