Today’s question comes from Carol, a Facebook follower, who asked how hard it is to transition from oil painting to colored pencils. Here’s her question:
How hard is it to transition from oil paints to using pencils and where do you start? Guess that’s two questions and you could probably write a book on both.
You know me too well, Carol. I could write a book on just about anything!
People have asked before about my transition from oil painting to colored pencils, but the focus was painting mediums and paper. More about supplies than motives. So thank you for providing the opportunity to address the question from a different point of view.
I’ll break the question up into two parts and address each part separately.
How Hard is It to Switch from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils?
For me the transition wasn’t difficult at all, but there is a simple reason for that.
It didn’t happen overnight.
I had no intention of making colored pencils my go-to medium when I began using them back in the 1990s. I’ve always oil painted, and thought I always would. I loved everything about oils. The way they blended, went on the canvas, and all those lovely, lovely brushes. I even liked the smell!
Why I Switched from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils
But I exhibited horse paintings at equine trade shows and discovered that even at busy shows there were lull times. Times when it would have been nice to have art to work on, even if it didn’t draw people into my booth (which it almost always does, by the way.)
Oil paints are not nice to travel with. Yes they box up nicely and you can package them quite compactly if you don’t take every color, brush or tool with you.
But wet paint and lots of people—and lots of little people—are not a good mix. Even if no one (myself included) brushed up against a painting I was working on, there was the problem of getting a wet painting home again. It was just more risk and trouble than I wanted to deal with.
And I didn’t want to sacrifice the ability to do detail work for the ease of doing dry media work. I didn’t care for oil pastels and had never tried dry pastels, but they had their own set of challenges. Graphite was an option, I suppose, but another thing I loved about oils was the color. The solution? Colored pencils!
Colored pencils weren’t yet popular so I bought the only thing on the market in my area. Prismacolor. That was okay, because they were still well-made in those days. I bought a full set, mat board to draw on, and started drawing.
I did a few portraits, too, but colored pencils did not replace oil paints. Oils were still my primary medium. I just added colored pencils to them for the sake of portability.
So the transition was painless.
Where (and How) to Begin Transitioning from Oil Paints to Colored Pencils
If I were to transition from oil paints to colored pencils all at once, here is what I think I would do. (This advice comes from the experience of having used colored pencils and oils together for several years.)
One Thing Not to Do
The first I would do is NOT rush out and buy a full set of any brand of colored pencils. Instead, look at the colors of oil paint you use most frequently, then find an outlet that sells pencils individually and buy similar colors of colored pencils. For example, I relied on earth tones in oil painting, so those are the colors of pencils I’d buy first.
I’d do the same thing with paper. Select a full sheet of one or two types or colors of paper, cut them down to small sizes, and see how I liked them.
I can sum up the reason in one word. Cost.
You probably didn’t buy every color of oil paint when you started, right? I know I didn’t. I bought the colors I thought I’d need, then added to them as necessary.
Do the same thing with pencils.
Adapt Painting Methods to Drawing
When it comes time to use them, try adaptations of your painting method with the pencils. Oils are wet and colored pencils are dry, so there is not an exact comparison. But it’s surprising how many painting methods can be easily adapted to colored pencil work.
The Flemish (Seven-Step) method is very easily adapted to colored pencil work. I used a variation on it for oil painting then, and now I use a variation of it for colored pencil work.
Stick with Familiar Subjects
The third recommendation is to start by drawing subjects you’re already familiar with. You’re learning a new medium and new support. Why further confuse matters by doing a new subject?
In fact, I’d probably take that one step further and do one of my oil paintings over in colored pencil for a more direct comparison. That’s a great way to see just how close you can get to your oil painting work with colored pencils.
Start with Small Pieces
Also start with smaller pieces. The biggest difference between oils and colored pencils isn’t the difference between wet and dry. It’s the difference between fast and slow. To keep the frustration to a minimum, do small pieces.
I like 9 x 12 and smaller, but colored pencils work great for art trading cards (2-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches.) You can do several quick sketches in an hour at that size or more detailed work in an afternoon or two.
Making the Change from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils Doesn’t Need to be Difficult
Start with a few pencils and a little paper, then see what you can do. If you decide they’re not for you, you haven’t spent a lot of money on tools you’ll never use again.
And if you do like them, you’ll have a better idea what pencils and papers to get to make the most of your new favorite medium!