Smooth Color Transitions with Colored Pencils

Smooth Color Transitions with Colored Pencils

What is the trick to smooth color transitions? Mine often seem to have defined stop and starts.

This is such a great question. Smooth transitions is such a basic skill, but often difficult to perfect.

I spent a lot of time learning how to transition smoothly from one color to another and tried a lot of different tools. I didn’t care for burnishing because I prefer the way colored pencil art looks unburnished. Solvents helped, but weren’t satisfactory, either.

The answer wasn’t smooth papers because I eventually learned that it was possible to get smooth color transitions even on sanded paper.

In the end, I got back to the basics and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

My Secret for Smooth Color Transitions

There are a lot of ways to get smooth color, but my secret is light pressure and lots of layers. The beauty of this method is that it works with one color and with multiple colors. It also works on almost every type of paper.

One Color to Paper Color

This is my favorite sketch from the month of December. It’s a 4×6 inch mountain scene drawn with one pencil (Prismacolor Dark Umber) on Fawn Stonehenge paper.

Smooth Color Transitions with One Color

There are a lot of value transitions in this piece. I drew the darker values with multiple layers and slightly heavier pressure. The lighter values are fewer layers and lighter pressure. The lightest values are a single layer applied with light pressure.

Light Values

I’ve isolated the lightest values in this illustration. The area inside the box is where I used one layer and light (or very light) pressure.

To get the color to fade into the color of the paper, I lifted the pencil slightly as I stroked. I started each of these strokes near the top, where I wanted a slightly darker value. Then I stroked downward, lifting the pencil from the paper as I drew.

It sounds complicated, but once you get used to drawing this way, it becomes automatic.

I could have done the same thing with a white or light colored pencil to get highlight values.

Middle and Dark Values

For the middle values, I did basically the same thing.

But I stroked repeatedly over the same area until I had the value I wanted.

In this illustration (below,) I applied four or more strokes, one over the other. The darker I wanted an area to be, the more times I stroked over it.

But I continued to start strokes at the top and stroke downward, so the lightest pressure was at the bottom of each stroke.

In addition, I staggered the length of the strokes, making some longer and some shorter. This also helped create smooth transitions.

I used the side of the pencil for almost all of this drawing. Drawing with the side of a well-sharpened pencil is a good way to get smooth transitions. That’s because more of the pencil is on the paper. It’s also easier to do the “lifting stroke” I described above when drawing with the side of the pencil.

One Color to Another

When I want to blend two colors together without ending up with obvious stop-and-start edges, I start with the lightest pressure possible.  Since I have a naturally light hand, my lightest pressure often barely tints the paper.

Let’s look at an example on Bristol vellum.

Step 1

I used a very sharp Prismacolor Crimson Red to make this shaded box. The darkest values on the left are a lot of layers of circular and vertical strokes applied with light pressure. As I drew to the right, I reduced the number of layers until you can barely see the color.

Smooth Color Transitions

Step 2

Next, I did the same thing with Parrot Green, starting on the right and working to the left.

Once again, I added a lot of layers on the right, and fewer layers as I worked toward the red. I kept pressure light and was very careful in how I put color on the paper.

One thing I need to stress is that this is a slow process. Even though this sample looks simple, it is not a quick sketch; I took time to make these swatches so the color in both areas was as smooth as I could make it. Beginning to end, it probably took nearly an hour to draw and the sample is only about two inches by six inches in size.

Being careful in how you layer color is as important as the pressure you use and the marks you make. Especially if your goal is smooth color transitions.

Step 3

The next step was going over each area again, fading the red into the green and fading the green into the red.

I continued with light pressure for as long as possible. When I needed to increase the pressure, I increased it only as much as necessary. The darkest values in the illustration below were applied with heavier pressure, but still not the heaviest pressure.

I continued layering colors until I had the darkness and coverage I wanted. I alternated between circular strokes, hatching and crosshatching. In addition, I stroked in different directions (vertical, horizontal, and diagonal.)

Step 4

The last step in this example was dry blending with bath tissue. I used a small piece of bath tissue to blend the red toward the green.

Then I used a clean portion to blend the green toward the red.

Finally, I blended vertically across the area where the colors overlapped.

Smooth Color Transitions

A Few Notes on This Process

The size of the area that gets both colors depends on the size of the transition area I want in the finished drawing. The transition area can be quite wide or narrow.

I also didn’t shade dark color all the way across my sample, but you can do that. Dark values transition just as smoothly with this method as light values.

You can also blend with solvent after layering color, but you will need to be careful not to muddy the colors. I happened to use near complements for my sample. Too much solvent blending would muddy them.

I also worked on Bristol, which doesn’t take to solvent very well. You need to be aware of how well the paper you choose handles solvents.

In Conclusion

There are other methods of creating smooth color transitions, of course, but I really prefer the method I described above. It’s the more natural to me, works on any kind of paper, and doesn’t require special tools.

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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