Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils?

A short time ago, I wrote a post about the best colored pencil papers. Jana Botkin read that post and had a question.

Will you expand on the paper in the basic list? I use Strathmore 400 series Bristol smooth for graphite, but prefer the vellum for cp. Which surface and weight were you thinking of? The Michael’s in my county only carries 300 series, which has inconsistent grain, so I order from Blick. –Jana Botkin

Thank you for your question, Jana. I’d be glad to share my thoughts on drawing paper. There are a lot of choices available so I’m confident many of your fellow readers have the same question.

Best Colored Pencil Papers

Best Papers for Colored Pencils

The truth is, choosing paper for colored pencil work is as much a personal preference as anything else. So many things factor into those decisions. Jana mentioned the surface and weight of the paper and those are two important things to consider.

But they aren’t the only things, so before I get to my recommendations, lets take a look at a few “paper basics”.

Paper Basics

There are six things to consider when considering which paper to buy. Fiber, weight, surface texture, sizing, longevity, and color.

Fiber

Paper is made from plant fibers. The most common plants for paper making are cotton, linen, flax, jute, hemp, bamboo, rice straw or rattan. The size and shape of these fibers determine the type and sturdiness of the paper.

Cotton papers are made from cotton fibers, the longest fibers of all the plant types. It’s generally considered the highest quality paper and is referred to as 100% cotton rag. 100% cotton rag paper can withstand heavy erasing and drawing. The highest quality 100% cotton paper can last over 100 years, but not all cotton papers are the same. The shorter the fibers, the more the paper may tend to get “fuzzy” with use. Check the specifications on cotton paper to know what you’re buying.

Cellulose papers are made from wood pulp. Wood pulp papers are usually less expensive, but they’re also usually less archival (long lasting). That’s because wood pulp contains a natural acid that breaks down the fibers over time. Buffers can be added during the manufacturing process to neutralize the acids. Look for the words “buffer”, “buffered”, or “neutral” when deciding which cellulose paper to buy.

Weight

Paper weight is a measurement of the thickness—or heaviness—of paper. Traditionally, it’s been measured by weighing 500 sheets (a ream) at a standard size. The more a ream of paper weighs, the thicker each sheet is.

The thicker a sheet of paper is, the more color it can accept without buckling (if you’re using wet media), tearing, or falling apart.

Tracing paper is a light-weight paper. Strathmore 300 series papers are heavier. Card stock papers are still heavier.

Papers used to always be measured in pounds. 300-pound watercolor paper, for example.

But many art paper manufacturers have converted to a grams per square inch (gsm) measurement. A 50-pound paper is the same as an 81gsm paper. Many art retailers show both forms of measurement.

Surface Texture

Surface texture is properly known as “finish” when discussing art papers. How the paper is dried during manufacture determines the finish.

Paper with a rough finish is allowed to air dry without being smoothed or pressed. The resulting finish is very textured and is best suited for water media and pastel.

Cold press paper has been pressed before it dries. Handmade papers and machine made papers are pressed in different ways, but the result is the same. The surface fibers are “pressed down” somewhat. Since the pressing is done without heat, the paper isn’t completely smooth. Cold-press paper is the most popular and versatile and is suitable for most media, depending on its weight.

Hot press paper is made by pressing newly made paper through heated metal rollers or plates. All texture left after manufacture is pressed out of the paper. This paper is excellent for highly-detailed illustrations, printmaking, etching, drafting, sketching, and drawing.

Sizing

Sizing is added to make paper more water-resistant. The paper doesn’t absorb as much moisture or pigment, so watercolors and inks stay brighter and lines stay crisper.  It’s less important for papers used for dry media. Sizing also can affect a paper’s archival qualities.

Internal sizing is added while the paper pulp is still in a liquid state. It becomes part of the paper.

External, Surface or Tub sizing is applied to the surface of the paper after the sheet is formed and dried. Some paper is both internally and surface-sized.

Longevity

Also known as being archival. Archival papers have a proven history of stability over time. They don’t yellow or fade. They’re also more likely to be acid-free, which means they contain little or no cellulose acid natural to wood pulp papers.

Many sketching papers are wood-pulp based papers and are not archival. They’re perfectly suited for sketching, but if you want your drawings to last a long, long time, use higher quality papers.

Color

Some drawing papers come in only one color. White.

But many others are available in a range of colors. Working on colored paper can be both fun and frustrating. Paper color does affect the way colored pencil looks, but it can also provide a good foundation for your drawing and reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a colored pencil drawing.

What I Use & Why

I buy the best-quality papers possible for colored pencil work because many of my drawings are portraits. Portraits or not, I want all of my best drawings to  look fresh and new for years.

My favorite papers are Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, and Bristol Vellum pretty much in that order.

Stonehenge

I’ve used Stonehenge for years. It’s a cotton-based paper suitable for watercolor (in limited amounts), drawing, and printmaking. It has enough tooth to take a lot of color, but is smooth enough for drawing details. It’s available in several sheet sizes, in pads, and rolls, and comes in white and a selection of light colors and black. It has no sizing (that I’m aware of) so the surface is relatively soft, almost velvety.

It’s my go-to paper for large and small drawings. For smaller drawings, the 90-lb (250 gsm) is very good, but I prefer the heavier 120-lb (320 gsm) paper. It’s also available as a rigid support, which I haven’t yet tried.

The biggest disadvantage to Stonehenge is that it can be difficult to find locally. I order mine from Dick Blick.

It also should be handled with care, since the surface can be easily impressed. Flat storage for sheets is recommended.

Canson Mi-Teintes

Canson makes Mi-Teintes paper for pastel artists, so it has quite a bit of surface texture (tooth) on the front. The texture is also mechanical in nature. Lay a little color over the paper and you see a pattern of hexagon shapes.

But the back is less textured and the texture is less dramatic. It still has more texture than Stonehenge, but it’s great for colored pencil work of all types.

What makes Canson Mi-Teintes one of my favorite papers is that it handles solvent blending and a moderate amount of water media work with ease. Make sure it’s taped securely to a rigid support and you can do several solvent blends in a single drawing.

Bristol Vellum

Bristol paper is a more economical paper. Usually acid-free and generally heavier than other papers, it’s often referred to as “Bristol board”; usually 100-lb (270 gsm).

It comes in two surfaces. The smooth (or regular) surface is very smooth and somewhat slick.

Vellum finish has a little more tooth and is ideal for drawing. I have a pad of it in my paper drawer and use it for article illustrations, but layering a lot of color can be difficult without the use of solvents or workable fixative.

Bristol comes only in white and is available from a variety of manufacturers. I currently am using Beinfang Bristol Vellum because it’s available in 146 pounds.

Colored Pencil Basics for Beginners

A few weeks ago, I talked about what you needed to buy if you want to get started drawing with colored pencils. This week, let’s take a look at a few colored pencil basics.

Colored Pencil Basics for Beginners

There’s so much to learn with any art medium that it can quickly get confusing. Confusing isn’t what I want to accomplish, so let’s stick with just a few of the essentials. Papers, pencils, pressure, and more.

Let’s begin with paper.

Colored Pencil Basics for Beginners

Colored Papers

If you’re thinking of using a colored paper, choose a color that works well with all parts of your artwork. The color of the paper should ideally provide a base color for the artwork.

For example, for a landscape on a rainy day, light gray or a light gray-green paper is ideal. Gray paper provides an excellent base for a gray sky or misty air with very little work. Gray-green paper provides a good base for the greens in the landscape but might be more problematic for the sky if the sky is light.

For this little landscape, I used light gray paper. All I had to do was add the colors for the sky (white and light gray) and the landscape.

West of Bazaar
West of Bazaar 5×7 on Gray Mat Board

This is not to say no other paper color would work. I drew a more recent “gray day” landscape on very light tan paper for a slightly different look.

White paper is also a good choice for both landscapes, but would have taken longer to draw.

The color of the paper affects the drawing, so choose a color that adds to the atmosphere or tone you want to set for the drawing.

Hard Lead Pencils

Using a pencil with a harder lead can be helpful for beginning a new drawing. Prismacolor Verithin pencils are much harder than Prismacolor Soft Core pencils. The two red pencils are Prismacolor Soft Core. They’re what people usually think of when they think of Prismacolor pencils.

Prismacolor makes a soft, thick lead pencil (top) and a thinner, harder leader pencil (bottom.) Combine hard and soft leads for best results.

The two pencils on the bottom are also Prismacolor pencils, but they’re Prismacolor Verithin. The leads are thinner and harder because they contain less wax binder.

They hold a point longer, and lay down less color even with heavy pressure. They are subsequently easier to lift or erase if you need to lighten an area or remove color altogether.

Oil-based colored pencils are generally harder than wax-based pencils so they’re also a good choice if you want to lay down a lot of layers, but don’t want to fill up the paper’s tooth too quickly.

Use light pressure in the early stages no matter what type of pencil you use.

Applying Pressure

It takes pressure to put color onto paper. Pressure is usually measured on a 10-point scale, with “0” being no pressure at all and “10” being burnishing pressure. Normal hand-writing pressure is generally considered to be “5” on the 10-point scale.

In most cases, it’s best to begin with light pressure and gradually increase pressure as you add more layers. It’s easier to correct or conceal mistakes drawn with light pressure.

It’s also easier to avoid getting too dark too quickly if you add layers and colors little by little.

Sharp Pencils

It’s important to keep your pencils well sharpened. The surface of most papers is made up of tiny hills and valleys. The difference between the tops of the “hills” and the bottoms of the “valleys” is what is called the paper’s tooth. The rougher a paper, the bigger the difference between the hills and valleys.

The deeper the tooth of the paper, the more layers or pressure it takes to fill in the “valleys.”

The sharper you keep your pencils, the better they reach all of the parts of the paper and the better they cover the paper.

You can also combine sharp pencils with heavier pressures to get good coverage on papers. Just don’t do this too early in the drawing because it flattens the tooth of the paper. That makes it more difficult to add more layers.

Sharp pencils are also ideal for drawing detail.

Blunt Can be Useful, Too

Blunt pencils are not always a bad thing. More paper shows through when you use blunt pencils, so color will appear more grainy.

Glazing color (applying a very think layer of color to tint color already on the paper) is best done with blunt or dull pencils in my experience. That’s because so much of the previous colors show through.

Top to Bottom: Very Blunt, Blunt, Dull. All three points can be useful in colored pencil art.

Using heavier pressure takes care of those paper holes (if you don’t want them.)

This method works best if you don’t plan to use a lot of color layers, since heavy pressure adds more wax binder as well as more color (assuming you’re using wax-based colored pencils.)

Getting Dark Without Getting Too Dark

Values are the most important tool you have to use. It’s more important to get the values right, than to get the color right.

It’s also important NOT to get too dark too early. Every layer of color darkens the shadows and middle tones.

It’s always better to stop short of what you think is the proper darkness. It’s much easier to darken shadows later than it is to lighten them.

Working On Everything At Once

Working the entire drawing at once (as opposed to finishing each area before moving on to the next) allows you to make adjustments throughout the process and keep the composition unified.

It’s not necessary to work in this fashion, but it can be helpful in establishing the initial layers of color.

One of my problems in my early drawings was avoiding seams. I always worked one section at a time and even when I used the same colors from one section to another, I could often tell where the two sections met—especially if I was working in an area of uniform color, like a grassy field. The best way I found to avoid this was to work over the entire area, one color at a time.

To Turn Your Paper or Not to Turn Your Paper

Turn the drawing if necessary to make it easier to apply color. Orient the drawing in a fashion that is most comfortable for the area you’re working on.  When doing large amounts of grass, for example, turn the drawing upside down so you can stroke toward yourself (which is more natural for most artists than stroking away). This will also reduce hand stress and give you a fresh perspective on the composition.

Reviewing Your Work

It can be productive and helpful to give your artwork a periodic check throughout the process.

Also try viewing it in a way other than normal. Ways to do this are:

  • Viewing it in a mirror
  • Looking at it upside down
  • Viewing it from a distance
  • Setting it aside and looking at it after a couple of days

Imbalances in drawing, values or colors can more easily be seen when you look at your artwork in a way other than the normal.

Photographing or scanning your artwork and viewing it on your computer screen can also reveal problem areas or areas that are not quite complete.

There’s a lot more to creating beautiful colored pencil art, but these colored pencil basics are enough to get you started. Master these and you’re well on your way!

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils

Today continues a series of articles on colored pencil basics for those who are either new to colored pencils, or want to try them. Today, we’ll talk about the things you need to get started with colored pencils.

Since this is an article on the basics, I want to keep it simple. But I also I want to answer a few common questions asked by people considering colored pencils.

If that’s you, read on!

Why Colored Pencils?

With so many great mediums available, why should you consider colored pencils?

Reasons are a varied as the artists who use them. I dedicated an entire posts to why I like them and you can read it here.

For the sake of this post, I’ll share the most important reasons I prefer colored pencils.

  1. They’re great for creating detail.
  2. They’re clean. No messy cleanup. No migrating paint.
  3. You can take them anywhere!

Those are the three main reasons I started using colored pencils back in the mid 1990s. I needed a medium I portable medium ideal for producing the same, highly detailed portraits I was doing with oils.

Of course there are all the great colors, ease of use, all the ways you can blend with them, and all the great brands available. If you give them a try, I’m sure you’ll find your own reasons to love colored pencils.

What You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils

Okay. So I’ve convinced you that you are on the right track in considering colored pencils. Now for the big question. Just what must you have to get started?

But the artists you read about and whose work you admire talk about so many different pencils, tools, accessories, and methods, you can’t help but wonder:

I confess. I’m guilty of the same kind of talk. There are just so many really cool things available!

What do you really need to get started?

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils

I was once right where you are now. Wanting to try colored pencils but not sure how to start.

Or what to buy or how much of it.

One of my goals with this blog and with every post is to help artists at all levels avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made. That includes clearing up some of the confusion about basic supplies.

Lets begin with three very simple lists.

I have a basic list, an expanded basic list, and an Everything & The Kitchen Sink List. There are so many useful, fun, and cool things on my to-be-purchased list, that this method is the best way I’ve found to prioritize purchases.

This post covers the first two lists because, quite frankly, I could make two or three posts just on the third list, and still not mention everything.

The Basic List contains the minimum amount of supplies necessary to get started with colored pencils. It is the most simple list, and the least expensive.

In most cases, you can find these items locally. No shipping or handling! If you’ve never tried colored pencils before and you’re not sure how you’ll like them, this is the list for you.

The Expanded Basic List is the Basic List plus a few additional items, as well as different types of some of the same items. Two kinds of paper, for example.

You may still be able to find many of the materials and supplies locally, but you will also probably have to do more searching. Online shopping will generally produce better prices and less footwork. If you’re serious about getting started with colored pencil—and sticking with it—this is your list.

If you want to start with the basic list, then add a few items from the other two lists after you’ve used colored pencils for a while, that’s perfect.

One Additional Word of Advice

It’s advisable to buy the best tools you can afford. A few artist quality pencils give you a better feel for the medium than a large set of student grade pencils. The higher quality pencils usually have less filler and a higher ratio of pigment to binder than less expensive pencils. That makes them easier to use and learn with.

You can buy less expensive pencils, if you wish. That’s how I started. But I wasn’t aware of the differences and soon found that cheap wasn’t always less expensive.

NOTE: I realize that not all of my readers are in the United States. If you are not and cannot get some of these supplies, substitute whatever is available where you live.

Now on to the lists!

The Basic List

Paper

I warned you the list was basic!

But paper can be confusing enough on its own, so here are some ideas to get you started.

One 9×12 pad of Rising Stonehenge paper, either white or toned. I recommend white. It’s easier to see what your pencils can do on white paper.

If you can’t get Rising Stonehenge, get a good, basic drawing paper like Strathmore 400 series paper.

Pencils

One 24-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils. This set has the basic colors (reds, blues, greens, yellows, black, and white) with enough variety to let you experiment, without burdening you with colors you may not use or unnecessary expense.

And not all of those.

NOTE: Roughly half the colors in the Prismacolor line are not lightfast, meaning they will fade over time or if exposed to direct sunlight. I’ve put together a list of the colors that are top-rated for lightfastness. If you can buy pencils individually and if you’re interested in making fine art, take this list with you when you shop.

Other Tools

Sharpener

A pencil sharpener is a must. A simple, hand-held sharpener is all you need to sharpen pencils. Prismacolor makes a very nice one for a few dollars, but you can also get them anywhere school supplies are sold.

A mechanical pencil sharpener gives you better sharpening with Prismacolor pencils, but I have also used hand-held sharpeners with good results.

The Kum sharpeners are a good value. The Kum wedge sharpener is made with two openings, one for standard size pencils, and one for larger pencils. It’s high quality and inexpensive, though you will probably have to buy it on-line.

Eraser

There are a number of good erasers available for colored pencil work, but I recommend getting a good click eraser, such as shown below. They are a pencil-like tool into which you can insert the eraser. They’re great for fine detail erasing as well as general erasing. The Pentel Clic Eraser is the one I use.

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils - Click Erasers

Note: All of these items can be purchased locally most of the time. I can buy them all with a single trip to Hobby Lobby. If there’s an art store, office supply store, or university near where you live, you can probably find them all there.

The Expanded Basic List

These are tools you can add to the previous list or, in some cases, replace similar items on the previous list.

Paper

A pad of Bristol. Bristol paper is heavier than Rising Stonehenge. It’s available in two finishes: Vellum and Regular (or smooth). Regular surface is very smooth. The vellum finish is a little softer, but still not as soft as Stonehenge.

I’ve used both Bienfang and Strathmore. Both are good papers, but they’re so smooth, they don’t work well for my drawing methods. They are ideal for learning, though, and are the go-to papers for a lot of colored pencil artists.

You can also add larger pads of paper. Or smaller, whatever is your preference.

For a paper with more tooth, try a pad of Canson Mi-Tientes. They come in pads of assorted colors, earth tone colors, and grays. I’d suggest a pad of assorted colors, which includes white.

Pencils

Replace the 24-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier pencils with a 36-pencil or 48-pencil set of Prismacolor Premier pencils OR a small set of some other brand, such as Faber-Castell Polychromos, Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor or Caran d’Ache Luminance. Be prepared to pay more for these, but better performance and more lightfast colors are worth the expense.

A colorless blender is also a handy tool to have. A colorless blender is essentially a colored pencil without pigment. It’s made with the same wax binder the colored pencils are and it’s used to blend colors. Use it just like a regular colored pencil to blend without adding additional color.

Get Started with Colored Pencils - Colorless Blender

Other Tools

Sharpener

Get a good, low cost electric sharpener instead of a hand-held sharpener. They’re usually available starting at around $30.

Erasers

One package of mounting putty. Look for Hand-Tak, Poster-Tack, Blu-Tack or similar. Handi-Tak or similar brands. Mounting putty is a soft, moldable substance most commonly used to hang posters. Tear off a piece, shape it however you want, stick it to the back of a poster and press the poster against the wall.

But it’s also very useful in lifting color from a drawing. You can make it whatever shape you need to lift color. It’s also self-cleaning. Work it in your fingers and the color disappears!

Brush

A large brush is handy for sweeping away eraser crumbs. You can use your hand, but doing so runs the risk of accidentally marking your drawing. You can also blow the crumbs away, but a brush is easier to use. Look for  a large brush with soft bristles. Drafting brushes are ideal.

Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils - Drafting Brush & Erasing Shield

Erasing Shield

This is a handy template—usually very thin metal—with a variety of standard shapes cut into it. To use it, lay it over your drawing and erase through one of the openings. The result will be that shape on your drawing.

You can also add color using an erasing shield.

A Note on Solvents

You’ll notice I didn’t mention solvents. That’s because there’s enough to be said about them that they require their own post. You can, of course, use solvents with colored pencils. Many of us do. I do, in limited form.

Solvents are liquid tools that allow you to blend colored pencil. Standard solvents are odorless paint thinner, turpentine, rubber cement thinner, and rubbing alcohol. They can speed the drawing process, but you also need to use them with care.

That’s why I don’t include them on the Basic List or the Expanded Basic List. Better to find out first if you like drawing with colored pencils enough to invest in additional tools.

Are you ready to get started with colored pencils?

I’ve put together a PDF download shopping list that includes all three of my shopping categories.

Click Here to Download Your Own Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils Shopping Lists

Click here to get my Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils shopping lists.

Free Color Wheel & Value Scale Templates

Time to share a favorite freebie with you—a free color wheel template.

Free Color Wheel & Value Scale Templates

Every time I talk about using the complementary method of drawing, color wheels come up. If you’ve been an artist for a while, you probably know what a color is.

But maybe you’ve never made one of your own.

Now’s the time!

To get you started, I decided to offer you a tool you might not have, but do need: A free color wheel. While I’m at it, I’m also including a free value scale template.

Free Color Wheel Template

This is the same template used in the EmptyEasel.com article, Making a Color Wheel with Colored Pencil, but with a few improvements. It can be used for a standard color wheel or as a project-specific color wheel.

Free Downloadable Color Wheel

The template is a jpg file and should be accessible through any photo manipulation program. All you have to do is open it, print it, and start filling in the slices.

Click here to get your color wheel template.

Free Value Scale Template

The value scale is a 10-part scale that can be used to create gray scale or color values. It can also be used to create a palette for two colors. My sample shows blue, but you can use any colors or color combinations with this template.

This is a great tool for practicing pencil control and pressure levels. It also is ideal for deciding how light or dark to make something. Just lay it over your reference photo to see how light or dark an area is, then shade your drawing until it matches.

The download includes instructions.

The template is a doc file and should be accessible through most Microsoft Word versions or any word processing software that can translate Microsoft Word.

Click here to get a value scale template.

Both templates are free downloads.

Questions?

Leave your question in the comment box below and I’ll answer them as quickly as possible.

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Tips for New Artists

I know from reading emails and answering your questions that there are a lot of new artists in my audience. So I thought it would be a good idea to share a few basic tips for new artists; the sort of things I wish someone had told me decades ago!

Tips for New Artists

Tips for New Artists

1. Be prepared to persevere.

The real secret to success is getting up one more time than you’re knocked down, plain and simple.

The world doesn’t owe you a living.

Neither do the people around you. You may be the most talented artist since Rembrandt, but even he had to persevere.

2. Develop a thick skin.

From the first piece of art you make to the last, there will be critics.

You have to learn to deal with people who criticize your work, your methods, your marketing… probably even you. They are as much a fact of life as the sun rising in the east. Learn not to internalize it.

Tips for New Artists - Develop a Thick Skin

3. Learn to learn from criticism.

Some of the criticism may be warranted, so you can’t automatically discard it all, but learn to be gracious.

Analyze criticism at face value and glean the comments that will improve your skills as an artist, and in dealing with people (and let’s face it, most of us like nothing better than to shut ourselves up and make art!)

4. Draw (or paint) every day.

Don’t fall into the habit of thinking you need to wait for inspiration to strike before you make art.

Don’t accept the lie that you need large chunks of time, either.

I’ve lived both and know they are not true.

The best way to be an artist is to make art. Every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you have the time or not. Even if it’s just a few minutes to doodle on a napkin, make use of it. Nothing is more discouraging than waking up one morning and realizing it’s been a year since the last time you made art.

5. Set goals.

You’re probably as tired of hearing this as I used to be. Get over it. I had to and when I did, I learned just how valuable goals can be. And easy.

Start small. A sketch a day, maybe.

If a time goal works better, set a time goal. Just make sure you’re drawing for that five or ten or 60 minutes each day and not doing Facebook or the on-line crossword puzzle. They DO NOT count as making art.

I’m sorry to report that one of my favorite activities (browsing Pixabay) also doesn’t count as making art!

Tips for New Artists - Set Goals

6. Develop a system to monitor goals.

Try a calendar with big squares. Jot a few words about what you did each day.

Or try a white board list, or even a text document or piece of paper.

Decide on your goal for the week or month, then decide what you need to do each day to reach that goal. For each day you make art, record the amount of time you spent or what you drew. You’ll be surprised how quickly it adds up.

7. Don’t let your goals rule you.

You may be thinking this is a contradiction. It’s not. Life happens. There will be some days when, despite your best planning and intentions, you just can’t draw or paint. Don’t let it stress you out. That’s part of the reason I like weekly and monthly goals in addition to daily goals. If you miss a day, you can make it up somewhere else and the weekly or monthly goals provide the incentive to do so.

8. Have fun.

Whether you make art for personal pleasure or as a livelihood, have fun.

For some, making art will become like a job and will require you treat it like a job, maintaining regular hours and behaving like your own employee. Try not to lose sight of the joy of art. The reason it drew you in the first place. Take time to nurture that, to grow it as you grow your career or hobby.

You won’t regret it.

Those are my tips for new artists. What can you add to the list?

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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!

The Challenges of Colored Pencils

Every artist who has ever picked up a colored pencil with the intent of creating art is familiar with the variety and number of challenges of colored pencils.

But let’s face it. For those of us who are die-hard colored pencil artists, the challenges of using colored pencils are part of their charm!

The Challenges of Colored Pencils

I’ve been making art with colored pencils for over twenty years. They’ve challenged my will, my problem-solving skills, and my discipline more times than I care to admit.

It often seems like every drawing presents a new challenge of some kind.

The Challenges of Colored Pencils

Here, in no particular order, are some of the challenges of colored pencils I’ve discovered (and sometimes overcome.)

Blending

Do you know what search engine word is used most often in bringing people to this blog? Blending.

And do you know why? Because it’s so difficult!

Colored pencils blend beautifully by layering one color over another. That’s because they’re translucent. You can see through the various layers no matter how many layers are on the paper. All those colors combine to make new colors and it can be glorious!

But it’s also time-consuming (see the next item.)

So artists are always looking for better, newer, and faster ways to blend. Some are great. Odorless mineral spirits and powder blender, for example.

Some are good only if you’re not making fine art.

But there is now and probably always will be an avid search for the perfect blending method because blending colored pencils is such a challenge for so many!

Especially blending methods that are faster or more thorough than simply layering.

Speed

Let’s face it. Using the words “speed” and “colored pencils” together is rather like pairing “speed” and “turtle” in the same sentence. The thought just doesn’t compute.

Colored pencils are a slow medium. There’s no way around it. Even with solvent blending, it can take weeks to complete a large, complex piece. Think about it. You still have to put color on the paper one stroke at a time.

And it’s not like you can make bigger strokes by using a bigger pencil. Colored pencils aren’t like brushes. There isn’t a “wash” pencil, for example. No #20 colored pencil or a half-inch shader pencil.

Nope.

Colored pencils are all like #000 Liners. Made for fine details. Not broad washes!

If you’re going to use colored pencils, you have to be prepared for s-l-o-w.

Permanence

The fine artists among us are concerned not only with creating great pieces, but creating pieces that look just as bright and vibrant in twenty years or more as they look the day they’re finished.

That can be a challenge depending on the pencils you buy and the colors you use.

You see, some colors are fading by nature. Pinks and purples are notoriously bad for fading across almost all brands. There are a few brands with light fast pinks and purples, but they’re the more expensive brands.

While some brands of pencils are more reliable, with fewer fading colors, they all have some colors that are less permanent.

Finding ways to work with those colors and minimize potential damage is one challenge facing many colored pencil artists.

Finding ways to work without those colors, is the challenge for many of us.

Framing

Framing is another challenge for a lot of colored pencil artists. Because colored pencils are usually used on paper, the artwork needs to be protected. The means a rigid back board to protect the artwork from behind, and glass or something similar to protect it from the front.

You want a spacer between artwork and glass, so that also means at least one mat and sometimes two or even three.

Then there’s the frame.

All of that costs money, especially if you’re framing for an exhibit. The challenge here is finding the right balance between a professional frame and a reasonable cost.

Selling

Selling any kind of artwork can be a challenge. Most of the time, it’s not what most people consider “necessary,” so if finances are tight, art is among the first things to go.

Selling colored pencil art can have additional charges if all people think of when they hear “colored pencil” is grade school.

And then there’s the added cost of special framing (see above.)

Selling any kind of art is a challenge, but selling colored pencil art sometimes seems to have its own unique set of challenges.

What About You?

Those are a few of the challenges of colored pencils that have confronted me over the years. Maybe your biggest challenge is on that list.

Or maybe it’s something else altogether? If so, share your biggest challenge in the comments below. Maybe someone else can show you how to overcome it!

Are Prismacolors Right for You?

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about Prismacolor pencils over the last several years. Some artists love them; some hate them. After all the debating, you have only one question. Are Prismacolors right for you or not?

Are Prismacolors Right for You

Last week, I shared reasons you might want to try colored pencils.

This week, it seems appropriate to answer some of the more common questions about Prismacolor pencils, and give you tips for deciding whether or not Prismacolor pencils are right for you.

A Little Bit of History

I always like to provide a little background for discussions like this, because background can provide insight into present day problems. Don’t worry. It’s going to be brief and personal.

I started using Prismacolors back in the 1990s, when they were Berol Prismacolor. There was no better pencil so widely available (in the US at least) and at reasonable prices. They were a high-quality pencil and problems like breaking leads, split casings, and off-center pigment cores were unheard of.

At least I never heard of them.

I had no problems with the pencils. They were perfect for the work I was doing, which was almost exclusively horse portraits.

Sometime since then, Prismacolor changed hands. Berol sold the brand to Sanford, which subsequently sold the brand to Newell-Rubbermaid. Manufacturing changed location and artists began having problems shortly afterward.

I used Prismacolor throughout all those changes, and to be honest, I had very few problems with them.

One batch of Indigo Blue pencils were so gritty I couldn’t use them.

Some pencils did break during sharpening or drawing, and there were a few that broke so much, they were useless.

I did discover (or maybe started noticing is a better way to say it) that quite a few pencils had off-center pigment cores, and I learned still later that sharpening problems often result from off-center cores.

More recently, I started finding pencils that were warped. Fortunately, I usually buy open stock from a local suppler, and learned how to check for warped pencils, so that problem was solved.

But overall, I’ve had relatively few problems with Prismacolor pencils.

Then came the spring of 2017.

The Case of the Fugitive Pencils

Early in 2017, I started hearing a word that aroused concern. Lightfastness. Specifically, the poor lightfast ratings of many Prismacolor pencils.

I believe I mentioned that I was using colored pencils almost exclusively for portraits, right? Portraits people were paying a good amount of money for.
I’d also started doing landscapes, which I hoped to sell.

So it was discouraging (to say the least) to discover that some of my favorite blues and greens, as well as a number of other colors, were fugitve. They faded over time, even in the best conditions.

How permanent were all those portraits I’d created? Would I start hearing from clients about disappearing portraits? It still gives me a twinge of concern thinking those thoughts!

So I went through my pencils, and sorted out all the fugitive colors. The pile of safe colors was almost the same size as the pile of fugitive colors, but I confess I erred on the side of caution. I threw out everything rated III, IV, or V.

I still use the other colors and I still love the way they go onto paper and the effects I can get. I also still miss colors like Sky Blue Light, Light Cerulean Blue, and Limepeel.

But I refuse to use them for anything except sketching and filling in my monthly habit tracker.

All of That to Say This….

What does that mean to you?

It means that what I’m about to say is being said from the standpoint of personal experience. Nothing more, nothing less.

You want to know if it’s safe to use Prismacolor pencils or not, and I’m here to tell you it is.

Depending on what you want to do with your art.

Reasons to Use Prismacolor

So how can you know if Prismacolors are good deal or not?

You Color for Fun and Relaxation

If adult coloring books are your thing, then by all means invest in that full set of Prismacolor pencils.

I don’t do very much in the adult coloring book line—I don’t have much time, to be honest—but I have read plenty of articles about the subject written by artists who do. Almost to the artist, they recommend Prismacolor because of the smooth color lay down, wide variety of colors, reasonable cost, and availability.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - Adult Coloring Pages

I do, too, and for all the same reasons.

In fact, when I doodle with a coloring page, I often use those fugitive colors.

You’re Crafty

You’re making greeting cards, coloring in adult coloring books, or doing crafty things. Color permanence doesn’t concern you.

Color selection, ease of use, and price do.

Prismacolors are probably your best choice. There are over 150 colors altogether. They lay down like a dream, and blend beautifully. You can get them almost anywhere in the United States, and in most cases they’re a good value.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - You're Crafty

They’re also artist-grade, which means pigment quality is high. That means you’ll get a lot more color per pencil than you’d get if you purchased student-grade pencils.

You’re New to Colored Pencils

You think you’ll enjoy them, but you don’t know. You’re not interested—right now—in making art for sale. You just want to draw.

You also don’t want to spend an-arm-and-a-leg on something you may not enjoy.

But you want to try the medium with the best quality tools you can find.

Prismacolor is the answer. They offer students and beginning artists the best combination of quality and value around. Yes there are better pencils, but they’re more expensive.

Are Prismacolors Right for You - You're New to Colored Pencils

And there are cheaper pencils, but they’re lower quality. Even if you get them at a bargain basement price, you may soon find they don’t put much color on the paper or are a struggle to use for other reasons.

Prismacolor is, in my opinion, the only way to go if this describes you.

You Make Fine Art, but Sell Reproductions, Not Originals

The fact of the matter is, you often keep your originals yourself because you like them so much, or you give them to family members or friends. What you sell are reproductions.

Most reproductions are made with lightfast inks, so the lightfastness of the pencils does not matter. At. All.

Use every pencil in the set, lightfast and not-so-lightfast. Get top-notch photographs or scans of the finished pieces, and sell reproductions to your heart’s content!

Then give the original pieces to whomever you like, or hang them on your own walls.

Just make sure to advise friends and family to frame those works of art under UV resistant glass and never, never, NEVER hang the art in direct sunlight.

So Are Prismacolors Right for You?

Prismacolor pencils are perfect for uses like those described above, as well as many others I didn’t touch upon.

By the way, the same applies if you make art mostly to teach others.

In other words, if you don’t care to sell your originals, it doesn’t really matter whether they fade away with time or not. It seems a shame to me to put that kind of time into something that will fade whether you sell it or not, but it’s really up to you, the artist.

Have a question about Prismacolor pencils I didn’t cover? Click here to ask me by email.

6 Reasons to Try Colored Pencils

There are lots of reasons to try colored pencils for fine art or fun art. I started using them mainly because they’re easier to travel with than oil paints (and cleaner, too!)

But the longer I’ve used them, the more reasons I’ve found to recommend them to others.

6 Reasons to Try Colored Pencils

Today, I want to share six of the best reasons (in my opinion) you should try colored pencils if you haven’t already.

(Or to give them another try if you tried them before and weren’t sure they were for you.)

6 Reasons to Try Colored Pencils

#1: They’re Relatively Inexpensive

You can spend $4 a pencil if you want to, but you don’t have to. And if you’re just getting started, you probably shouldn’t.

For most people who want to try colored pencils, the basic Prismacolor pencils you find at Hobby Lobby or Wal-Mart are an excellent place to begin.

Reasons to Try Colored Pencils - Inexpensive

You don’t need the full set, either. A set of 12 gives you enough colors to try. You’ll be able to see how they feel to draw with, how they go onto the paper, and how they look when you layer various colors one over another.

And even if the colored pencils you’re looking at seem expensive, take a look at the get-started supplies for oil painting, watercolor, or acrylics!

#2: You Can Get Them Almost Anywhere

Most Wal-Mart type stores carry colored pencils in some form.

So do most office supply stores and even some print shops.

And of course colored pencils are a staple at most hobby shops, art stores, and crafting supply stores.

You can even buy them from eBay and Amazon if you don’t mind paying for shipping.

#3: You Don’t Need a Bunch of Special Equipment

No fancy easels, canvases, or dozens of brushes. No paint thinners or drying retardants, and no varnishes or fixatives.

Reasons to Try Colored Pencils - No Fancy Supplies

Just pencils, paper, and a sharpener.

What could possibly be easier?

#4: You Don’t Need Solvents or Other Toxic Materials

You can use a wide range of drawing techniques with colored pencils without using smelly or toxic solvents. Many artists, even advanced artists, don’t use any of those tools and they produce vibrant, real-to-life works of art.

You can use those things if you wish. They can be time saving tools if you decide colored pencil is your medium.

But if you’re just getting started, leave those things on the shelf.
Get an extra sheet or pad of paper instead!

#5: They’re Clean

Colored pencils are a dry medium. They go on the paper dry and they stay dry. You don’t need to worry about cleaning up afterward, unless you spill shavings out of your sharpener.

Reasons to Try Colored Pencils - Clean

I mentioned above that you don’t need toxic solvents or other materials to use colored pencils.

The even better news is that most colored pencils are also non-toxic to use. Just don’t eat them, chew on them, or suck them.

(Yeah, I know. You’d think that warning shouldn’t be necessary, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself with a pen or pencil in my mouth while pondering something or studying a drawing. NOT a good idea!)

#6: They’re Portable

This is the primary reason I took up colored pencils years ago. They’re portable. Because they’re clean and dry, you can travel with them and use them almost anywhere without worrying about leaving or making a mess.

I took them to horse shows and other venues, and was able to work on a piece while on site. They were a lot easier to travel with than the oil paints I’d been using for years.

That’s why I now use them almost exclusively. Even in the studio, they’re mess-free.

Bonus Tip: They’re Great for the Kids, Too

If you have kids and are looking for an art-related activity you can do together, there is no better medium than colored pencils.

Reasons to Try Colored Pencils - Kids

You and your budding artist can use the same pencils without worries about messes, unsafe materials, or the other cautions required with many other mediums.

And if you find colored pencils aren’t for you, turn them over to the youngsters in your household.

I’ve put together a list of Basic Drawing Lesson Materials & Supplies that you can download for free, then print it and take it shopping. It includes not only the items you need, but my recommendations on brands and size (when applicable.)

I hope you find it useful.

And I hope you also enjoy your adventure with colored pencils, no matter where on the journey you may be!