When Dull Pencils are the Best Choice

Kathie asks today about dull pencils and when they might be the best choice. Here’s her question:

When are sharp pencil points important?  When I am doing a background in several light layers, it seems that a duller pencil does the job better.  But in the tutorial I am finishing now, the teacher wants sharp points even on the lightest layers.  

Kathie

That’s a fantastic question, Kathie, and I know exactly what you’re saying.

When Dull Pencils are the Best Choice

But before I get to the “point” of your question, let me say a word or two about doing a tutorial or taking a workshop. I can speak on the subject from both sides, you see.

When You Do a Tutorial…

As a student, I know what it’s like to have a teacher tell me to do something a certain way when I already know from experience that another way works better for me. I always remind myself that the reason I’m taking the workshop or doing the tutorial is to learn how that teacher works. Then I take a deep breath, swallow, and do what the teacher says the way the teacher says to do it.

Afterward, I assess the information I learned, compare it to what I’ve been doing all along, and decide which is the better method for me.

Speaking as a teacher, I know what it’s like to present information a certain way and have a student resist everything I tell them. That was frustrating for me, and it kept the student from learning.

It’s also important to remember that the artist who created the tutorial had to learn those skills at some point. It’s possible he or she was taught to always use sharp pencils. There’s nothing wrong with that. A lot of us learned that way.

But that’s not to say you must use sharp pencils all the time.

Are There Times When a Dull Pencil is Better?

Absolutely!

There are occasions when a dull, or even a blunt pencil produces better results more quickly than a sharp pencil. So I use a dull pencil for those things. Sometimes, I go so far as to put a flat angle on a pencil for some special effect.

When Dull Pencils are the Best Choice
There are different degrees of dull when it comes to colored pencils. The pencil in the center is dull. It’s still got a point, but not as sharp as it could be. The other two pencils have been blunted to an angled wedge shape to put more color on the paper with every stroke.

Drawing Large Areas Quickly

When doing backgrounds or drawing things like the sky, a dull pencil puts more color on the paper with fewer visible pencil strokes than a sharp pencil. If you keep the pressure light, you can get a lot of thin layers down even on a smooth paper like Bristol.

Dull pencils and Base Layers

I often begin a piece by laying down a base color. Usually a color that’s about the same value as the highlights.

The base color is applied with light pressure, and I usually try to make it as smooth as possible. Dull pencils really shine when you draw base layers.

This is especially true if the surface texture of an area is smooth. But it can also be effective under animal hair or the rough surface of a stone.

Drawing base layers and glazing are both ideal times to reach for a dull pencil such as this one. I used this pencil to lay down smooth color, then I used a sharp pencil to add the hair-like strokes.

Dull Pencils are Ideal for Glazing.

When you glaze, you put down just enough color to tint whatever color is already on the paper. With oil painting, you do that by adding painting medium to thin the paint and make it more transparent.

Colored pencils are already translucent, so you don’t need to add anything to them to use them for glazing.

Instead, you glaze by using extremely light pressure and not doing more than one or two layers. Dull pencils are perfect for this because they create a smoother color layer.

Use Dull Pencils for a Blending Layer

When I mention a blending layer, I’m not talking about burnishing. I mean a layer of color added over top of a few other layers to smooth out pencil strokes.

A blending layer also makes colors and strokes less obvious. When I do a blending layer, I usually use a warm, light gray. If I need a warmer color, I might use something like Light Umber or Cream. To cool down an area or push it into the background, I might choose Powder Blue or something similar.

The idea, though, is to lay down smooth color and light layers. As with the previous two applications, use light pressure and a couple of layers if needed.

Burnishing Requires Dull Pencils

There’s no way around it. Burnish with a sharp pencil and you’re asking for trouble.

The reason is that you use very heavy pressure when you burnish, and a sharp pencil will break.

Use dull pencils for burnishing
I’m burnishing with a very dull colorless blender here, but you can also burnish with a colored pencil. When you do, use a blunt pencil to avoid damaging the drawing or the paper.

There You Have It

A few ways you can use dull pencils.

The best advice I can give you is to try different things. If something works for you, use it.

If it doesn’t work, don’t use it again. No two of us work exactly the same way, so try things and decide for yourself!

Oil Painting Mediums and Colored Pencils

Is it possible to use oil painting mediums with colored pencils? That’s what Lorraine is asking. Here’s her question.

I’ve read of several different solvents that are used with coloured pencils but are worried about the archival quality of some of them on paper.  Which are archival?  Also are different solvents used with oil-based and wax-based pencils?

Oil Painting Mediums and Colored Pencils

There are a lot of oil painting mediums on the market today, and a lot of opinions about their usefulness with colored pencils.

So to keep this discussion on course, I’m tackling each of Lorraine’s questions in turn.

Oil Painting Mediums with Colored Pencils

Let’s break this up into two parts, because there are so many painting mediums available. First, those mediums that do work well with colored pencils, then those you should probably stay away from.

Oil Painting Mediums You can Use with Colored Pencils

The mediums used most by colored pencil artists and oil painters are the basic mediums. Turpentine and odorless mineral spirits.

Most artists opt for odorless mineral spirits whether they use oil paints or colored pencils because turpentine has such a strong odor. It’s simply not advisable for use by people with sensitivities, or if you have to work in small, enclosed spaces. Even with proper ventilation, the smell lingers in the air, and if you’ve used a lot of it to blend colored pencils, the smell can also cling to the paper.

But both turpentine and odorless mineral spirits are as archival with colored pencils as with oil paints. If you use them correctly, you should have no problems with fading color or deteriorating paper.

Don’t use ordinary paint thinner from the lumber yard or hardware store. Yes, it is the same basic solvent as artist quality solvents, but without the additional refining. Cheaper, yes. Archival? No.

Oil Painting Mediums You can’t Use with Colored Pencils

Some of the other oil painting mediums might not transition from oil painting to colored pencil work quite as well.

For example, my favorite oil paints are M. Graham Oils. M. Graham Oils uses walnut oil as the vehicle for their paints instead of linseed oil or safflower oil.

They also produce walnut oil and an alkyd/walnut oil blend for thinning oils. Both would probably blend colored pencil to some degree, but neither is archival because they discolor paper, and perhaps damage it in other ways.

These oil painting mediums and anything similar to them are not suitable for blending colored pencils.

None of the other oils commonly used with oil paints would be suitable, and for the same reasons.

Liquin is another popular oil painting medium. It’s a glazing medium. My guess is that Liquin might blend colored pencils, but also would not be archival for use with colored pencils.

So my advice is to stick with the basics, and forget the more modern, specialty oil painting mediums when you use colored pencils.

Different Mediums with Oil-Based and Wax-Based Pencils

All colored pencils are made with a binder that allows the pigment to be rolled into pencil shapes. All binders contain some wax and some oil.

Wax-based colored pencils contain more wax than oil. They are usually softer, often slightly thicker, and put color onto the paper more easily.

Oil-based colored pencils contain more wax than oil. They are usually harder, often slightly thinner, and put color on the paper a little less easily.

Turpentine and odorless mineral spirits work equally well with both. You may need to adjust the amount of solvent you use with one type of pencil over the other, but you can use the same solvent for both.

Conclusion

I hope that information helps you, Lorraine.

A lot of natural and synthetic mediums are available for oil painters. Since turpentine and odorless mineral spirits are archival with colored pencils, it seems to make sense that all the other mediums are, too.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that if the medium contains any kind of oil or varnish, it’s probably not going to work well either with colored pencils or paper.

And if you decide to try one of them, don’t try it on a drawing. Test it first on scrap paper!

Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

Blending colored pencils with OMS (odorless mineral spirits) is one of my three most frequently used blending methods. In today’s reader question, Patsy asks how to use odorless mineral spirits. Here’s the question:

I would like to know more about using OMS. I seem to make mud. I try using less, smaller brush, maybe not enough layers? Help!

Thank you, Patsy. How-to questions are always good questions. If one person asks, there are usually dozens of others who want to know the same thing, but haven’t asked. Well done!

There’s more than one way to blend with odorless mineral spirits (OMS,) and I’ve already written a tutorial on the subject. You can read that here.

Blending Colored Pencils with Odorless Mineral Spirits

I don’t think the problem is with the size of brush you use, although it is usually a good idea to use the largest brush possible for whatever area you want to blend. The reason is that you can cover the area more quickly, and that’s important because solvents can dry so quickly.

Tips for Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

Let me start with a few general suggestions for blending colored pencils with OMS, and then I’ll address the issue of mud.

Tip #1: Use the Right Paper

Any time you use odorless mineral spirits to blend colored pencil, you need to make sure you’re using a paper that can stand up to the moisture.

That doesn’t have to mean you use watercolor paper, but watercolor papers—and especially hot press watercolor papers—are great for blending colored pencils with odorless mineral spirits.

I often use 140lb hot press watercolor paper such as Canson L’Aquarelle or Stonehenge Aqua when I plan to blend with solvents. Watercolor paper stands up to moisture much better, and both of these papers have a tooth similar to drawing paper, so they’re perfect for colored pencils and solvent blending.

So are sanded art papers, although you need to adjust how to you blend when you use any sanded art paper.

Rigid supports (papers mounted to a rigid support) are also usually okay to use with odorless mineral spirits.

Believe it or not, regular Stonehenge papers perform well with limited amounts of wet blending. I’ve even used watercolor pencils on Stonehenge. Tape it securely to a rigid backboard first and it dries perfectly flat.

Tip #2: Put Enough Pigment on the Paper

Odorless mineral spirits work by breaking down the binder in colored pencil. The binder is what holds the pigment together, so when it’s broken down, the pigments can be blended almost just like mixing paint.

But you must have enough pigment on the paper before you blend. There isn’t a certain number of layers because a lot depends on how heavily you apply the color in the first place. If you use light pressure, you’ll probably need five or six layers before odorless mineral spirits will do any good.

If you tend to draw with heavier pressure, you can blend after fewer layers.

Tip #3: Use Less Odorless Mineral Spirits Each Time You Blend

The standard procedure with solvent blending is to do the first blend with a wet brush, then use a slightly drier brush with each successive blend.

Each subsequent time you blend an area, use less odorless mineral spirits. That way you’re not blending down to the paper each time (which can cause mud.) Keep a paper towel handy and after the second or third blending, blot your brush after picking up OMS and before touching it to paper.

In other words, the more often you blend a particular area, the less odorless mineral spirits you should need.

Now, to the matter of mud!

How to Avoid Mud when Blending Colored Pencils with OMS

All artists who have made art for any length of time have experienced mud. Mud is what happens when your beautiful colors suddenly lose all that vibrancy and turn into some colorless, dull, drab thing. It’s called mud for the very simple reason that the resulting color so often is mud-colored!

Image by Simon Steinberger from Pixabay

How to Make Mud

Mud often happens when complementary colors are mixed together. Complementary colors are those colors that appear opposite one another on the color wheel. Yellow and purple are complements. So are red and green, and blue and orange.

Complementary colors tone down each other. They’re a great way to keep a color from getting too vivid. If you want to tone down greens in a landscape, add a touch of red.

But usually, you need only a little bit of the complement to tone down the color. A little bit of red in a landscape green is good. A lot of red in a landscape green and you end up with mud.

Mud also happens when you mix too many colors together. That happened to me a lot when I was oil painting because it’s so frightfully easy to keep adding different colors on a mixing palette.

But you can do it with colored pencils, too.

How to Avoid Mud

Without knowing specifics about what is happening to with your blending, Patsy, my guess is that you’re blending too many different colors together or that you’re blending complementary colors.

Try layering a few layers of one color, then blending with odorless mineral spirits. After that’s dry, layer the next color, then blend that. Remember to use less solvent with each blend, so you don’t also blend the colors underneath. This should give you more of a glazing effect, and should result in cleaner color so long as you avoid complements or near-complements and layering too many colors.

One other thing to watch for is a dirty brush. Rinse your brush between uses by blotting it on a clean paper towel until it no longer leaves color no the paper towel. Any color on the brush when you blend will dirty the color already on the paper.

And finally, don’t use dirty solvent. You can use solvent if there is sediment on the bottom of the container; just don’t stir it up. If there is sediment at the bottom, it’s better to carefully pour off the clean solvent, then dispose of the remainder.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

One of the biggest challenges for most of us is getting rid of paper holes in our color layers. No matter what the subject, we’re always looking for better ways to get smooth color with colored pencils.

That’s especially important if your subject includes a sky. Unless they’re filled with clouds, most skies move seamlessly from one shade of blue to another, and from light to dark. You simply can’t afford to have edges between those shades. Nor are paper holes acceptable.

“But aren’t solvents or complex techniques necessary for absolutely smooth color?” you ask.

No. Let me share two ways I use to get smooth color, and you already have the tools!

The first sample is on 140lb hot press watercolor paper, which is fairly smooth.

The second sample is on Canson Mi-Teintes, which is not so smooth. These two methods can be used on most papers suitable for colored pencil.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Get smooth color by careful layering.

The best way to get smooth color with colored pencils is by careful layering. It doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, or what pencils or paper you use. Draw each layer so carefully that the color needs little or no blending.

For the smoothest color, use light pressure through several layers. Each layer you add fills in the tooth of the paper more, creating steadily smoother color.

You can use heavy pressure to get smooth color. The darkest stripe in the sample below was drawn with very heavy pressure. The other values are multiple layers of repeating strokes applied with light pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Layering

Layer multiple colors to create new colors or subtle variations, as well as create smooth color.

Keep your pencils sharp, so they reach down into the tooth of the paper. Small strokes are also best for layering smooth color. Many artists also recommend circular strokes because they don’t leave edges. If you’re new to colored pencil and learning how to draw, then it is better to learn circular stroking.

But if you’re an established artist, you may already have developed other strokes that produce the desired results. Continue to use those strokes.

Get smooth color by blending with paper towel.

The second way to get smooth color with colored pencils is to blend it with paper towel. This method works especially well on Canson Mi-Teintes and other toothier papers.

Let me show you how to blend with paper towel.

Fold a piece of paper towel into quarters or smaller, depending on your hand size and the size of the area you want to blend. The paper should be small enough to hold firmly, but large enough to blend effectively. I usually fold a sheet of paper towel three times.

Rub the paper towel against the drawing. It’s next to impossible to cause damage (other than by blending over the edges,) so don’t be afraid to use heavy pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 1

Some color will come off on the paper towel. That’s okay. You can continue to blend with this paper, but be aware that if you begin blending an area of a different color, the first color will come off on the new color, especially if the second color is lighter than the first color.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 2

The illustration below shows blending on the left side, but not on the right. It doesn’t seem like it would do very much, but on Canson Mi-Teintes, it’s very productive.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Blended Sample

I have blended with paper towel on just about every type of paper I use regularly. That includes Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, and 140lb hot press watercolor paper.

If getting smooth color with colored pencils is one one of your big challenges, give these two methods a try.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Today, I want to share some of the colored pencil blending tools I use most often.

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you may have read about some of these in different posts. But a recent reader question prompts me now to talk about them in a single post.

That reader asked about my favorite blending tools. Yes, of all the colored pencil blending tools available and all those I’ve used, I do have a few that I reach for repeatedly.

So I’ll tell what they are and why I like them so much.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools

Colored Pencil Blending Tools

As I describe in The Only Blending Methods You’ll Ever Need for Colored Pencil, there are really only three main categories of blending:

Pencil blending is what you do when you layer one color over another.

Dry blending is any method of blending that happens after you’ve layered color, and that doesn’t involve solvent.

Colorless blenders, blending stumps, and scraps of paper fall into this category.

Solvent blending is any blending method that requires a solvent. The solvent could be odorless mineral spirits, turpentine*, rubbing alcohol*, or rubber cement thinner*. Anything that dissolves the binder in colored pencil can be put into the solvent blending category.

*Links to articles on EmptyEasel.

I’ll list at least one in each of these three categories, and tell you not only why I like it, but how and when I use it.

The Colored Pencil Blending Tools I Reach For Most Often

Colored Pencils

The pencils themselves are my blending tool of choice. I use them every time I draw.

Why?

I love layering color and that’s the easiest—and most easily used—method of blending colored pencils on the market today. You don’t need smelly solvents (or any other kind.) You don’t need special tools or materials. Just pencils and paper.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Colored Pencils

Whenever I draw, I’m blending, whether I’m adding more layers of the same color to make darker values, or adding other colors to make new colors, it’s all blending.

Colored pencils are also great for burnishing, which is a form of blending in which you press down as hard as you can on the paper.

But the best part is that they require no additional storage containers or special treatment!

Bristle Brushes

A good, stiff bristle brush is also an excellent tool for blending colored pencils. Whenever you blend with solvent, you need a brush, and I get the best results with bristle brushes because I can use a little more pressure.

Well-worn bristle brushes are my absolute favorite. These two are just a couple from a jar full of worn out oil painting brushes I’ve kept on a shelf for years.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Bristle Brushes

TIP: If you happen to have old oil painting brushes lying around, don’t throw them away. Wash and rinse them thoroughly, let them dry, then put them in your colored pencil toolbox!

Yes, bristle brushes are perfect for blending with solvent, but that’s not my favorite way of using them.

When you draw sanded pastel paper (which I highly recommend you try at least once,) you create a lot of pigment dust. You can sweep that dust into the trash if you want, but there’s a much better option.

Blend it into the tooth of the paper with a bristle brush. The results can be quite pleasing.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Dry Blending Sample

Granted, this method of blending works best on sanded papers.

Colorless Blenders

For regular drawing paper, my favorite dry blending tool is what’s known as colorless blenders or blending pencils. Prismacolor colorless blenders are shown below, but many other brands also have blending pencils.

My Favorite Colored Pencil Blending Tools - Colorless Blenders

Colorless blenders are pencils without the pigment. Prismacolor colorless blenders are a wax-binder core. Lyra’s Splender Blender is an oil-based blending pencil.

But in both cases, you can blend with them without putting additional color on the paper.

You can use any brand of blender on any brand of pencils. Lyra’s Splender Blender is oil-based and I used it on Prismacolor pencils until I used it up. It worked fine.

But in most cases, the blenders do work best on the pencils for which they were designed.

Solvents

I don’t really have a single favorite tool for blending with solvents other than my trusty bristle brush and a sable or two, so let me share my favorite solvent.

As I write this, I have Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits on my drawing table. I also have a small jar of rubbing alcohol. Both blend colored pencils quite well, though the Gamsol does produce a more thorough blend.

My Favorite Blending Tools - Sovlent

It’s difficult to say which I like better, since they’re suited for different types of blending.

Gamsol, for example, works on Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, watercolor paper (but not with watercolor pencils,) and sanded art paper.

Rubbing alcohol doesn’t have much of an impact on sanded art paper, and even on smoother papers, it’s better for smoothing out surface color, then deep blending multiple layers. What I refer to as “gentle blending.”

So those are my favorite colored pencil blending tools.

Do I use other tools to blend colored pencils? Absolutely!

Paper towel and bath tissue are great for soft blends on smooth papers like Bristol or Stonehenge. Sable brushes work quite well with solvents when I can blend an area without exerting a lot of pressure.

Don’t tell anybody, but I even sometimes use a finger tip, which is not recommended because of skin oils.

And there are many blending tools I’ve never tried.

But that, my friend, is an topic of another day!

3 Beginner Colored Pencil Problems (and My Solutions)

Every now and again, finding a topic for the Saturday post is a challenge. I have two art pieces in progress, but they’re both connected to an email drawing class, so I can’t use them.

Taking care of kittens, the house, a Facebook page makeover, and a number of other things have eaten up the hours on a daily basis, so there has been no time for other artwork. That means, no tutorials.

And this is the month I need to write an article for COLOR Magazine, so that’s been a top priority this week (one of many, I might add.)

But joy really does come in the morning! As I was writing my article for COLOR Magazine, I discovered the topic for this post! Hooray!

So what is it?

3 Beginner Colored Pencil Problems (and My Solutions)

Who hasn’t encountered problems, and looked for solutions? Answer? We all have.

Everything comes with a learning curve. Even our beloved colored pencils.

The problems you faced may not be the same as mine, but I’m certain that sooner or later, we’ve all had to find solutions to these three problems.

The trick is finding the right solutions for each problem.

So I’m not only telling your about the biggest problems I faced when I started using colored pencils; I’ll share my solutions.

3 Beginner Colored Pencil Problems

Problem #1: Filling in Paper Holes

I spent the first 30 or 40 years of my art career oil painting. Horses. Landscapes. Horses in landscapes. An occasional deer or dog and even a cow or two.

From the beginning, I hated being able to see light peeking through a painting if I held the canvas up to the light. That’s one of the reasons I started painting on panels.

So while I was able to get a lot of detail with colored pencils, I was immediately disappointed by the amount of paper that showed through no matter what I did.

Beginner Colored Pencil Problems - Filling Paper Holes

It didn’t matter all that much back then, because I was still primarily an oil painter. But it was an annoyance, to be sure.

And it kept me from doing more colored pencil work than I did.

My Solutions

My first solution was changing paper. I’d been drawing on mat board because it was rigid and I liked the selection of colors. It was also big enough to do larger pieces.

But it’s not always very smooth. The rougher the paper, the more difficult it is to fill in the paper holes.

So I started experimenting with smoother paper. Stonehenge was the first high-quality paper I remember using. I loved the feel of it from the first touch, and filling in paper holes was a lot easier.

Bristol vellum, Bristol regular, and Strathmore Artagain papers have also found a place in my paper drawer, though I use them less frequently these days.

Using a colored paper may not help fill in the paper holes, but it does disguise them.

The portrait below was drawn on gray paper, which served as the middle values, as well as the background. Suddenly, paper showing through the colored pencil was a good thing!

Beginner Colored Pencil Problems - Colored Paper

Problem #2: Blending

Blending oil paints is easy. Colors can be mixed on a palette, or you can put one color directly into another on the canvas.

Not so with colored pencils. They’re a dry medium, so they don’t mix the same way.

I struggled with blending them for a long time before finally learning how to get the results I wanted.

My Solution

The best and easiest-to-use solution I found for this problem is slowing down, and taking the time to add enough layers of color.

As I look back on some of those early pieces, like the dog above, I can see how unfinished they look. Another hour or two and a few more layers would have made a huge difference.

Don’t think that makes much difference? Here’s a drawing that I thought might be finished.

3 Beginner Colored Pencil Problems - Almost Finished

And here’s the same drawing after an additional day of work and a few more layers. That extra day made a lot of difference.

3 Beginner Colored Pencil Problems - Finished

No, it’s not easy to go slow. I still get impatient and want to finish a drawing. But if I don’t force myself to slow down, I end up with the same disappointing results that were so common in the early days.

Solvent blending was also a major step forward. Learning how to use painting solvents like turpentine and odorless mineral spirits on colored pencils was a game-changer.

I’ve also since discovered the joys of blending with paper towel and bath tissue.

Both blending methods have helped me get the results I want.

Problem #3: Time

Of all the problems I faced when I started using colored pencils, this one is still the biggest challenge. Let’s face it.

Colored pencils are SLOW!

Yes, you can blend with solvents, and yes, there are watercolor pencils, and both of those solutions speed up the process. But you still have to put the color on the paper, and you’re still using a pencil with a pigment core that isn’t very wide.

With oil painting, I could thin paint and use a big brush to cover a lot of canvas in a hurry.

Not so with colored pencils.

My Solutions

Honest answer? I haven’t yet found the perfect solution, and I doubt there is one!

And sometimes that’s enough to get me thinking about taking out the oils again and dashing something off, just to see if I still can.

But I have found some ways to deal with impatience (and that is what it all comes down to, isn’t it?)

15-minute work sessions have been the biggest help. It’s a lot easier to give a drawing the time it needs if I’m not punishing myself by working for hours at a time.

Working in small areas is also helpful. I can see progress more quickly when I can bring an area to completion, before moving on to the next area.

When I can’t easily work in one small area at a time, I alternate between two larger areas. I might work on the background a while, then switch to the foreground if I’m doing a landscape or portrait.

Conclusion

Of course, those weren’t the only beginner colored pencil problems I faced. There were many others.

And the more I use colored pencils, the more challenges arise. That’s just part of the learning process.

But most of my students struggle with these issues, and they are among the most frequently asked questions from readers.

So I hope my solutions help you solve these problems.

Or at least get you one step closer to finding your own solutions!

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Let’s talk about those necessary accessories that help us get the most out of our pencils: colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

There are lots of sharpeners and erasers on the market. I haven’t used all of them, or even most of them, so the best I can do is tell you the which sharpeners and erasers I’ve used and what I thought of them.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers

Let’s begin with sharpeners.

Colored Pencil Sharpeners

Reader Question:

What is your favorite sharpener for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

Of all the sharpeners I’ve used, I’m not sure I have a favorite. All of them have worked well for some applications, and haven’t worked at all for others. I haven’t found a sharpener that works great for everything.

Hand-Held Sharpeners

The first sharpeners I ever used were hand-held sharpeners. You know the kind. They’re a dollar or less at your favorite super store or grocery store, they come in bright colors, and are made of plastic.

Sometimes they come with a container to hold shavings; sometimes they don’t.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Hand-held Sharpener

My first sharpeners didn’t have a container for shavings, so I had to carry one. Usually a small, empty wide-mouth jar. The sharpeners were usually small enough to fit into the wide-mouth jar.

Back then, they worked extremely well. Prismacolor pencils were still made with a solid wood casing that could withstand sharpening without breaking or cracking. I never once considered a different sharpener, especially since I was doing a lot of work out of the studio. Usually at horse shows.

The bonus was that if I happened lose or break a sharpener, it was no big deal. I just went and bought another!

Mechanical Sharpeners

I currently use an old-fashioned crank sharpener by Apsco. The kind that used to be in every classroom in every public school. I like this sharpener because it’s solid, is designed to take pencils of different sizes, and it sharpens like a dream.

It’s easy to clean, too. Just turn the shaving container a quarter turn, slide it off the blades, and empty it.

To keep the blades sharp and functioning properly, I sharpen lead pencils once in a while to remove wax and other colored pencil debris.

Electric Sharpeners

A few years ago, I had a battery operated, which made it ideal for working away from the studio. I used that Stanley Bostitch Model BPS10 everywhere.  It fit into the laptop carrier I used to tote art supplies, and it was quiet enough to use almost anywhere I wanted to draw.

It used four AA batteries and had a good-sized, easy-to-empty shavings tray.

Amazingly, it is still available for only $10.99 directly from Bostitch.

I also used a Panasonic Auto-Stop KP-310. The power cord was long enough to also make this compact sharpener good for drawing away from home if I was going to be in a place with access to electricity.

It sharpened extremely well, and had an auto-stop function, so it didn’t sharpen pencils beyond an ideal point.

But perhaps the best thing about this sharpener was the suction cup feet on the bottom. They kept the sharpener from moving backward when I used it. No need to steady the sharpener with one hand.

This sharpener is no longer available new, but I did find several listings at Amazon and eBay.  If you’re looking for a good, reliable, and inexpensive electric sharpener, this is a good place to begin.

Colored Pencil Erasers

Reader Question:

What is the best eraser for colored pencils?

Carrie’s Answer:

There isn’t a good eraser for colored pencils. Colored pencils are either wax-based or oil-based, so most “normal erasers” tend to smear the color around rather than remove it.

Some companies make colored pencils that can be erased, but these are not recommended for fine art use, or for any art you want to last. However, if you use them for sketching, you can use almost any standard eraser on them.

Here are some erasers I’ve tried…. for better or worse.

Click Erasers

What I refer to as click erasers are similar to mechanical pencils. The eraser is a long, round “tube” and fits into a plastic, pencil-like holder. The eraser is “advanced” by clicking a mechanism at the top of the barrel, hence my name for them.

Here are my click erasers.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Click Erasers

The lighter blue one is a Pentel Clic Eraser ZE22. The darker pencil is a very old Faber-Castell Jet Eraser.

Refills come in various hardnesses. It’s helpful to have more than one eraser, each with a different hardness of eraser refill.

These erasers are stiff enough to sharpen with a blade if you want to make a very fine point. You can also shape them with an emery board or sand paper.

Kneaded Eraser

Kneaded erasers are pliable, which means you can shape them into various forms, roll them into points, or tear off pieces for small work.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Kneaded Eraser

I’ve used kneaded erasers, but they’re better suited to graphite than colored pencil.  They work wonders for graphite, but aren’t very effective for colored pencils.

Electric Erasers

My husband has a couple of old electric erasers that work extremely well with my colored pencils. He worked on one drawing that I thought was hopeless and was able to remove enough color to allow me to finish the drawing.

I’ve used them once or twice myself, but confess that I’m not comfortable with them. There’s just too much risk of scuffing the paper. They could be extremely useful with enough practice, but I work with such a light drawing hand that I see no reason to spend the time to get proficient with an electric eraser.

If you’re more daring with electric tools, you might try an electric eraser, though. A lot of colored pencil artists swear by them.

My Favorite Erasing Tools Aren’t Erasers

When I really want to remove color, I don’t reach for an eraser.

Instead, I use mounting putty (shown below,) or transparent tape.

Mounting putty is a lot like a kneaded eraser, but it’s sticky enough to remove wax- or oil-based colored pencils. You can’t lift all of the color, but you’ll be able to remove enough to work over it.

The real beauty of mounting putty is that you can shape it, clean it by kneading it, and reuse it for a long time.

Transparent tape is very good at lifting color, and it’s very easy to use. Just tear off a piece, press it lightly to the color you want to lighten, and lift carefully.

The only real disadvantages to using tape to erase is that you can tear the paper if you’re not careful, and it can leave the paper feeling a little bit slick. My suggestion is to use it as a last resort, and use it sparingly.

Questions about Colored Pencil Sharpeners and Erasers - Tape

For tips on using mounting putty and tape, read 2 Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel.

Conclusion

There you have it. My favorite colored pencil sharpeners and erasers.

As I said before, these aren’t the only sharpeners and erasers available, but they are the ones with which I have experience. They may be ideal for you, but if not, I at least hope I’ve given you a good place to begin looking!

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners

Last week, I defined some of the basic terms relating to colored pencils and drawing paper. This week, I want to continue that discussion with more basic colored pencil terms, but this time, lets talk about method and technique terms.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners

Before we go any further, let me assure you there is no “right way” to draw. The methods and techniques I’m about to describe are just a few of those that are available to artists.

Some of the technique terms apply to colored pencils no matter what methods you use. Some of them are applicable only to specific methods or techniques.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners

Method

Let’s begin with the broader subject of drawing methods. The following definitions are very basic. For more information on any of them, read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.

Direct Drawing Method

When you use what I call the direct drawing method, you begin with the same colors you end with. There is no clear difference between the first layers of color and the final layers except perhaps in the vibrancy of the colors, and the level of detail.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners - Direct Drawing Method

This is the most common drawing method.

It’s also the most intuitive. It’s natural to begin drawing a tree with greens and browns, after all. That’s the way I started drawings (and paintings) when I first started doing art.

Complementary Under Drawing Method

With the complementary under drawing method, you start drawing with colors that are on the opposite side of the color wheel from the final colors. The complementary under drawing for an orange is going to be blue.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Color Wheel

The complementary method is excellent for landscape drawings because the complementary under drawing automatically keeps the greens from getting to bright.

Umber Under Drawing Method

The umber under drawing method begins with an under drawing that’s brown, like those old-fashioned sepia-tone photographs. Values and details are developed in brown no matter what color the subject is.

The shade of brown can vary from subject to subject. You can choose a warm brown such as Prismacolor Light Umber (my preference) or a cooler brown such as Dark Umber or Sepia.

You can also mix browns, using a combination of light and dark browns or warm and cool browns to create more interest and contrast in the under drawing.

But with this method of drawing, the under drawing is always only shades of brown.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Umber Under Drawing

Monochromatic Under Drawing Method

One method I haven’t mentioned here, but that I have talked about elsewhere is the monochromatic method. With this method, you create an under drawing in a single color or, sometimes, with a single color family. For example, you might choose to draw an Indigo Blue under drawing.

The reason I’ve not described this method further is that I haven’t used it in years. Why? Because the colors I most often choose for a monochromatic under drawing are either earth tones  or complementary colors.

I tried Indigo Blue once and didn’t care for the result. Most other colors don’t result in the look I want for my work, so this method has fallen out of favor.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners - Monochromatic Method

But that’s no reason for you not to try it. The fact is, it may suit your choice of subject and your drawing style beautifully!

Combining Methods

There are other methods of drawing, and you can combine elements of these methods in a single drawing. For example, I’ve used an umber under drawing for the trees in a landscape, but drawn everything else using the direct method.

As mentioned previously, there is no right way to draw. Every artist needs to find the method or methods that work best for them.

But understanding the basic differences and characteristics of each method helps you make better decisions.

Technique

Under Drawing/Under Painting

The first layers of color you put on a drawing are called the under drawing or under painting. No matter what method you use, these layers are the foundation of the artwork.

The colors you use for the under drawing are determined by the method you use, as described above.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners - Under and Over Drawings

This sample shows a complementary under drawing.

Over Drawing/Over Painting

The over drawing or over painting refers to all the layers of color you put over the under drawing. Some of the methods I use have very distinct beginnings and endings. Others do not.

Layering

Layering is the process of layering one color over another, or adding multiple layers of the same color. You can use light, medium, or heavy pressure to add color. You can also use sharp or blunted pencils, and hold them vertically, horizontally, or somewhere in between.

Glazing

Glazing is the same as layering, except that the layers are thinner, so that the colors that are under the new layer are still clearly visible. The term comes from oil painting, a medium in which you can thin paint so it’s very transparent, almost like laying a piece of colored plastic over a painting to tint the colors.

Most colored pencils are translucent by nature, so almost every layer you put on a drawing is technically a glaze. But when you glaze a color onto a drawing or painting, you use very light pressure, and barely add any color at all. I usually glaze with the side of a pencil held horizontal to the paper.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Glazing

Pressure

Pressure is the amount of force you put on the paper with the pencil. It’s often measured on a scale of 1 to 10, with one being the lightest pressure and ten the heaviest. Burnishing is the heaviest pressure you can use. It’s most used at the end of the process.

When you glaze a color, you’ll most likely be using a pressure of one or two.

Blending

When an artist uses a wet medium such as oils, acrylics or watercolors, they mix two or more colors together to get a new color.

Colored pencils are a dry medium, so they can’t be mixed the same way. Instead, colored pencil artists create new colors by layering one color over another color on the paper. Since colored pencils are not opaque, every color influences every other color in some way.

This is called blending, and there are different ways to do it.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Layering

Dry Blending

Layering is one method of blending and it’s the method most artists use because it requires no additional tools or smelly solvents. I drew the sample above with multiple layers of yellow and blue. The green results from alternating layers of each of the other colors.

Other methods of dry blending include rubbing a drawing with paper towel or tissue, or using a colorless blender.

Burnishing is another form of dry blending in which you use very heavy pressure to “grind” layers of color together. You can use either colored pencils or a colorless blender to burnish.

Solvent Blending

Solvent blending is a method of blending in which you use a solvent or paint thinner such as odorless mineral spirits to break down the binder. Once the binder is dissolved, pigments mix and blend more like paint.

Solvent blending is often faster than dry blending or blending by layering, but it also requires some caution, due to fumes. It also requires drying time.

Conclusion

There are, of course, even more basic colored pencil terms to learn, but they can wait for another post.

It may seem confusing now, but once you understand each of these terms and how they apply to colored pencil art, you have a great foundation. Most other art terms—and colored pencil terms—build on these basic terms.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners

Let’s talk about basic colored pencil terms today.

A lot of readers are new to this blog, or new to colored pencils, or both. Whichever category you fall into, welcome! Welcome to the blog and welcome to colored pencils!

If you haven’t already, you’re going to hear a lot of terms that make no sense. That’s my bad. I’ve been doing colored pencils so long, I tend to forget what it was like when I first got started!

I also know there are a lot of budding artists out there who already love the medium, but are confused by the jargon.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners
So today, I want to go back to square one and define some of those confusing-but-basic colored pencil terms.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained

To make things less confusing, I’ve arranged terms into four separate categories. We’ll begin with the two most basic: Pencils and Paper!

Basic Pencil Terms

The following terms apply to your colored pencils no matter what brand you prefer or the quality of pencils in your pencil box.

Wax-Based

All colored pencils are made by grinding pigment, then mixing it with a binder. The binder allows the pigment to be formed into the core of the pencil, holds it together while you use the pencil, and allows the pigment to lay down smoothly on the paper.

Wax-based pencils like Prismacolor and Caran d’Ache Luminance utilize a binder that’s mostly wax.

Wax-based pencils generally lay down more smoothly, and are softer. They also tend to break more easily if you press too hard with them.

They’re great for laying down lots of color quickly, but can be more of a challenge in drawing details.

Wax bloom can also be a problem, especially with dark colors.

Wax-based pencils are the most popular and the most widely available.

Oil-Based

Oil-based pencils have a binder that’s mostly oil, often vegetable oil. They do contain some wax, but not usually much. Faber-Castell Polychromos and Rembrandt Lyra are oil-based pencils.

Oil-based pencils are harder and sometimes more brittle feeling than wax-based pencils. That makes them great for detailed work. Smooth layers of color are possible, but aren’t usually as easy to achieve. They hold a point much longer, too.

Wax bloom is not usually a problem with oil-based pencils, even if you tend to use heavier pressure when drawing.

Wax Bloom

When you draw, you leave color on the paper, but you also leave binder. The harder you press on the paper with the pencil, the more color and binder you leave on the paper.

Wax binder eventually rises to the surface of the color layers, giving them a foggy, misty, or gray appearance. This is normal with all colors, though it’s more obvious on darker colors.

The cloudy right half of this sample is wax bloom. The left side shows the natural color after the wax bloom has been removed.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Wax Bloom

Wax bloom is easily removed by wiping a drawing with clean tissue and light pressure. It can be prevented by sealing a finished drawing with final finish; preferably one designed for colored pencil work such as Brush & Pencil’s Final Fixative.

Framing under glass will not prevent wax bloom.

Grades of Pencils

Colored pencils are manufactured in three grades: Scholar, Student, and Artist. Scholar-grade pencils the least expensive and poorest quality. Artist-grade pencils are the highest quality, so are usually more expensive.

Artist grade pencils have a higher ratio of pigment to binder, so they produce better color and results with less effort. They’re often more fade resistant.

Scholar grade pencils have more binder and less filler, so the color they produce may be weak or pale.

You can make great art with any grade of pencils, but will generally get the best results with higher quality pencils.

Lightfastness

A pencil is lightfast if it doesn’t fade over time.

If a color fades over time, it’s also referred to as fugitive. The color “runs away and hides” if exposed to light. Sometimes it may disappear altogether, and sometimes very quickly.

Pencils are rated differently in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, but all brands are tested in some form, and many companies provide color charts that include lightfast ratings.

Watercolor Pencils/Water Soluble Pencils

These are watercolors in pencil form. Many artists consider them to be colored pencils, others don’t. Since many colored pencil manufacturers also produce watercolor pencils, I tend to think of them as colored pencils that just happen to dissolve in water.

Instead of a wax- or oil-based binder, they use a binder that dissolves in water. You can draw with them dry and mix them with other colored pencils.

You can also draw with them dry, then wet blend them with water, or paint with them by dampening the pigment with water and using a brush.

Paper

The following terms apply to drawing papers of all types.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Paper

Support

The surface you draw on. For colored pencils, that’s usually paper, but colored pencils can also be used on wood, pastel papers, mylar and other similar films, and mat board, just to name a few.

Some paper manufacturing companies also produces papers mounted to a rigid support. The drawing surface is still paper, but the support itself is rigid. Many sanded art papers are available as sheets and boards, for example.

Tooth

Tooth refers to the surface texture of papers. The toothier a paper is, the more texture it has. Sand paper has more tooth than inkjet paper.

Tooth is important to the colored pencil artist because of the way colored pencil lays down on different types of paper. In most cases and for most methods of drawing with colored pencils, smoother papers are better.

However, there sanded art papers are one notable exception. The grittiness of sanded art papers would seem to make them unsuitable for colored pencils, but many artists actually prefer them to traditional drawing papers.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Tooth

Weight

The weight of the paper refers to the thickness. A 98lb paper is thinner than a 140lb paper. Paper is measured this way because the “weight” is what a standard ream of a particular paper weighs. A ream is 500 sheets, so a ream of 98lb paper weighs 98 pounds.

The actual process is quite complicated, since the weights assigned to papers are assigned based on the standard size for each type of paper, and the type of paper (bond paper, card stock, etc.)

All you really need to keep in mind is that the higher the pound weight, the thicker the paper is most likely to be.

This is important because you don’t want to use a drawing paper that’s too thin (light weight.)

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Paper Weights

Most pads of drawing paper include clear labeling on the weight of the paper (see above.) Most full sheets are also labeled, though the information may be more difficult to locate.

Conclusion

Those are our basic colored pencil terms defined for today. There are a lot more terms relating to both pencils and papers, so if you encounter a term you don’t understand, send me an email and ask about it.

Next week, we’ll talk about some basic colored pencil terms concerning drawing methods and techniques.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s a question I’ll bet every colored pencil artist—beginner and advanced—has asked at one time or another. Why do every layer if you draw over them anyway? What’s the point?

Am I right?

Colored pencils are such a slow medium to begin with. Yes, there are ways to speed up the process. Blending with solvent, using watercolor pencils, drawing on colored papers, or sanded art paper, for example. But no matter what methods you use, it still takes time to finish a colored pencil piece.

Wouldn’t it be faster to just put down one or two layers and be done with it?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway

We’ve all heard about the layering process. Even if your “main thing” is adult coloring books, you’ve read countless articles on the importance of layering colored pencils. Still, you sometimes wonder.

Are all those layers really necessary?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s the truth.

Colored pencils are a translucent medium. Because so few of them are truly opaque, every color you put on the paper affects the colors you layer over it. They all influence each other.

So if you drew the same painting once with many layers of different colors and drew another version of it skipping or combining some layers, there would be differences. Even if the end result was similar, the two paintings would not be identical.

What’s more, most people would most likely prefer the layered version, even if they didn’t know why.

Yes, you can leave layers out or combine them to finish faster, but you will lose something in the process. In some cases, the trade-off may be worth it, but the best paintings are usually created without shortcuts.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Color

Remember I said most colored pencils are translucent? That means you can layer five different colors, one over another, and all five will influence the look of the last color. They all contribute something to the final color.

Let me show you what I mean.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending Colors

From left to right, I layered Canary Yellow, Limepeel, Grass Green, Peacock Blue, and Light Umber, then a second layer of Canary Yellow, and Grass Green.

I used light pressure for each of the first five layers, and medium pressure for the last two.

On the far right is only Grass Green, applied with heavy pressure and two or three layers.

Layering the grass green with heavy pressure was faster, but the green created by using five colors is a more realistic green. If your subjects are landscapes or florals, this blended green is the one you want.

Does that mean it’s never good to do a single color with just a few layers? Not at all. There are times when that’s your best choice. A clear blue sky is often best drawn with a few layers of one or two shades of blue.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Blending

The illustration above also shows how layering colors lets you create new colors. Every color layered over existing color changed the existing color in some way. Sometimes subtly; sometimes dramatically.

In the sample below, I layered pink and blue with very light pressure to create a shade of purple.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending

You can create even more subtle color gradations by changing the order in which you layer. Blue over pink produces a blue-ish purple, while pink over blue creates a purple that’s a little more pink.

What this means is that even if you’re limited by cost to a small set of colored pencils, you’re not limited to the number of colors you can create.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Value

The same principle applies for drawing values. You can choose a darker color or press harder on your pencil to get a darker value, but building value layer-by-layer is the preferred method. Even if you don’t use different colors and even if you use light pressure for every layer, every layer you add makes the value darker.

I shaded each of these squares with the same color. The square on the extreme right was shaded with one or two layers applied with heavy pressure. The others were shaded with multiple layers applied with light or medium pressure.

Why does that matter?

Not everything you draw will be equally dark. Let’s say you want to draw this blue jar. Look at all the values! They range from almost white in the brightest highlights, to very dark.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Values

Even though the blue is the same all over the jar, there’s a full range of values.

You can draw the shadows with a layer or two applied with heavy pressure, but you need many layers applied with lighter pressure to draw all the gradations between the lightest light and the darkest dark.

Using light and dark blue pencils may help you, but not as much as multiple layers of the right blue (or the closest blue you have.)

Why All Those Layers Matter in Finishing Pieces

This is Afternoon Graze on the day before it was finished (top) and on the day it was finished.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Afternoon Graze

It’s not difficult to see the difference, especially in the horses.

What did I do to get from the top sample to the bottom one? Added more layers over the horses and parts of the background.

Was that necessary? That depends. When I first started doing colored pencil work, I probably would have been content with the piece the day before it was finished.

But I’ve learned the hard way that skipping the last few layers decreases color vibrancy, value depth, and generally results a flat-looking piece.

Most of the time, I now give a piece I think is finished one more day’s worth of work. Very rarely do I regret that extra day.

Does the Order in Which I Add Colors Matter?

Now that I’ve explained why you should do all those layers, let me address another issue. The order in which you put color on the paper.

It does matter what order you add colors. The color with the most influence will be the last color you use. Layer yellow over green, for example, and bright, yellow-green is the result. Layer green over yellow, and you’ll get a green that’s more green than yellow.

Burnishing with a color changes the final look even more, but even burnishing (which is applying color with the heaviest possible pressure) doesn’t completely cover up what’s underneath.

That’s why it’s important to consider the last color you use.

In the following illustration, I’ve drawn six boxes with a medium value red, then layered other colors over most of them. The first box (on the left) is just red.

I burnished the rest of the boxes as follows:

A colorless blender in the second box

Yellow in the third box

Dark blue in the fourth box

White in the fifth box

Red in the sixth box

 

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Order

It’s easy to see the differences wit burnishing. Layering with light or medium pressure also produces differences in color and value.

Conclusion

And that’s why you have to draw every layer even though you draw over them. They all matter!

If you’ve been creating work with just a few layers, try doing a small piece with more layers. Even if you layer the same selection of colors the second time around that you used the first time, I guarantee you will see a difference.

As I mentioned before, it is possible to create beautiful art with just a few layers. Many artists do it.

But for most of us, the more careful layering we do, the better our work is. At least, that’s been my experience.