A colored pencil comparison between wax-based and oil-based pencils is the topic for today’s post. It comes in response to the following reader question.
Hi Carrie, Which pencils do you consider best, oil or wax based? I have never used any pencils other than Derwents Coloursoft which I believe are wax based. What are the Pros and Cons of each?
There can be a lot of confusion about the differences and some artists go so far as to discount the distinctions altogether. So what’s truth and what’s hype?
Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based
Colored pencils are manufactured much the same as oil paints, watercolors, and other mediums. Powdered pigments are mixed with a substance that helps them perform the way artists want them to perform.
With oil paints, that substance is called a vehicle and is usually linseed oil, safflower oil, or walnut oil, although there are other vehicles available. The vehicle makes the pigment brushable and influences how quickly it dries.
Colored pencils use a binder. The binder makes it possible to form powdered pigments into a thin “lead” that can be used in pencil form. It also makes the pigment transfer to paper easily and stick there.
All colored pencils use a combination of some form of wax and oil as the binder. Wax-based pencils have more wax than oil. Oil-based pencils have more oil than wax.
The amount of wax compared to oil affects the way the pencils behave, as does the type of wax used in the binder.
Colored Pencil Comparison: Which is Best?
I don’t really consider one type of pencil better than the other. They’re just different.
Wax-based pencils are generally softer than oil-based pencils. They go onto paper more smoothly and blend extremely well by layering, burnishing, or with solvents.
Because they’re softer, they don’t hold a point very long and can be difficult to draw details with. I’ve used Prismacolor Soft Core pencils for decades and have been able to get wonderful detail, but it requires a lot of sharpening.
The pigment cores also are more apt to break if you use heavy pressure or sharpen them to too long a point. In addition, they can be susceptible to breakage if you drop them on a hard surface.
Finally, wax-based pencils can produce wax bloom, a misty sort of film that happens when the wax in the pigment rises to the surface of the drawing. It can easily be wiped away, but it can also be a nuisance. Especially if you use a lot of pressure or dark colors.
Oil-based pencils are generally harder than wax-based pencils. They hold a point longer and are excellent for drawing details. They’re not as likely to break while you’re drawing or if you drop them.
Oil-based pencils don’t produce wax bloom because they contain less wax.
They also erase or lift more easily if you make a mistake.
But they don’t always layer color as smoothly, so drawing even color requires either heavier pressure or more layers. I recommend more layers.
Using Wax- and Oil-Based Pencils Together
You can use both types together. That’s what I do.
Most of the time, I start with Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils (oil-based) and do as much layering as I can.
Toward the end of the process, I switch to Prismacolors(wax-based) where I need more color saturation.
But you don’t have to do it that way. You can intermix them at any point in a drawing.
The Colored Pencil Comparison that Really Matters
The much more important comparison is the grade of the pencil; the quality.
Scholar or student-grade pencils contain more binder (whatever it may be,) less pigment, and sometimes inferior pigment. You can create good art with them and if you’re on a budget, it’s better to start with student-grade pencils than not start at all.
But don’t go cheap. Always buy the highest quality pencils your budget allows. Select wax-based or oil-based pencils based on your personal preferences and you’ll be ahead of the game.
There’s been a lot of discussion on this blog about the best pencils to use and the best colors to use. Most of the discussion has been about issues with fading. So I thought I’d start 2020 by sharing with you the Prismacolor colors I use and why I use them.
I’m very particular about the colors I use. As a portrait artist and an artist interested in selling my work, I want buyers to get the most for their money. The idea of selling a piece at any price and having it fade away in any length of time is not a pleasant idea.
Yes. I know there’s no way to make most things 100% permanent. Even granite wears away.
But I can select supplies to help my work last as long as possible. Consequently, I’m careful about the colors I choose. They must fit my subjects (landscapes and animals,) AND be as lightfast is humanly possible. It doesn’t matter what brand I use, every color must meet these two qualifications.
That usually means I work with a limited palette. That’s definitely the case with Prismacolor pencils.
The Prismacolor Colors I Use (and When I Use Them)
Prismacolor rates their pencils on a scale of 1 to 5 based on American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) D6901 standards. Each pencil is labeled with a Roman numeral to indicate its lightfast rating. Roman Numeral I equals 1, Roman Numeral II equals 2, Roman Numeral III equals 3, Roman Numeral IV equals 4, and Roman Numeral V equals 5.
I (1) is the highest rating. V (5) is the lowest.
I do not use Category III (3), IV (4) or V (5) colors for anything but fun stuff, sketching, blog illustrations, or anything else for which the drawing does not need to be archival.
But this is an entirely personal choice on my part. A lot of artists whose work I respect use every color available to them, so the final choice is yours.
Prismacolor Soft Core Colors Rated I (57 colors)
These are the most lightfast colors Prismacolor produces. They are rated as Excellent and “exhibit no appreciable color change after being exposed to the appropriate equivalence of 100 years of indoor museum lighting.” American Society of Testing and Materials., D6901 Standard
The important phrase is “indoor museum lighting.” It not only includes the type of lighting artwork is exposed to, but the framing materials used. Proper framing, including UV resistant glazing, helps preserve artwork.
It’s also important to let clients and buyers know they should not display artwork in direct sunlight for any length of time.
ASTM D6901 indicates that these colors can be used on artwork meant to be displayed outdoors, but I’m not sure I’d go that far. Any artwork displayed outdoors is more likely to fade more quickly than artwork in museum conditions.
Fifty-seven colors are Category I colors, but I don’t use all of them. My go-to colors are:
Artichoke, Beige, Bronze, Burnt Ochre, Chocolate, Dark Brown, Dark Umber, Goldenrod, Light Umber, Mineral Orange, Sandbar Brown, Sepia, Sienna Brown, Terra Cotta, and Yellow Ochre.
Greens & Blues
Dark Green, Green Ochre, Jade Green, Kelly Green, Parrot Green, Peacock Green, and Yellow Chartreuse. Powder Blue.
Black Cherry, Black Raspberry, and Crimson Lake.
Lemon Yellow, Nectar, and Spanish Orange.
I also have a full complement of cool greys, warm greys, and French Greys but don’t use them very much.
These colors are used with almost everything I draw. They produce natural looking landscapes and are perfect for drawing realistic scenes and animals.
I don’t use all of the Category I colors because they don’t fit my palette, but there are several new colors I hope to try this year. Some of the new earth tones are especially tantalizing.
Prismacolor Soft Core Colors Rated II (26 colors)
ASTM D6901 standards categorize these colors as Very Good, and suitable for fine art uses where the artwork will be displayed indoors. They are not suitable for any work displayed outdoors, or anywhere in which exposure to high levels of UV light is possible.
No direct sunlight, in other words.
There are 26 Category II colors, but my palette is currently limited to about half that number, as follows:
Beige Sienna, Chestnut, Cream, Ginger Root, Pumpkin Orange, and Sand.
Greens & Blues
Chartreuse, Grass Green, Kelp Green, Olive Green, and True Green. Indigo Blue, Mediterranean Blue, and Slate Grey.
Black Grape, Crimson Red, and Scarlet Lake.
As with Category I colors, there are some Category II colors I don’t use.
And as I add other brands of pencils to my stash, Category II colors will become fewer and fewer. Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils include several good matches for Prismacolor Category II pencils, so I now use those before reaching for any Category II Prismacolor. I can see the day coming when I no longer need Category II colors.
The yellows, greens, and blues are used as needed on landscapes and, less frequently, animal portraits.
The Bottom Line
I’ve discovered over the years that I can do almost everything I want to do with Prismacolor Category I colors. Those generally more muted colors are enough to draw most animals and landscapes.
The Category II colors are a nice supplement, but unless I’m drawing a still life (which doesn’t happen often,) or adding bright accents to a landscape or portrait, I don’t need them. Since most of my subjects don’t require bright colors, there’s simply no need for a lot of bright colors in my pencil box.
When combined with other brands such as Polychromos, Derwent and others, the Prismacolor Category I colors provide an excellent color base.
Does this mean you can’t use all of Prismacolor’s colors? No. Deciding which colors to use and which to avoid is as personal a choice as deciding which brands of pencils to use.
A complete list of Prismacolor Category I and II colors is available as a free, PDF download, so you can print it and take it with you on your next in-store shopping list. The list downloads automatically, so check your download file if it doesn’t open for you when you click on the link.
Today’s reader question comes from a reader who wants to know the best paper and pencils for colored pencil art. Here’s the question.
In your opinion, which are the best coloured pencils to use for drawing and which is the ideal substrate to use? I look forward to hearing from you.
Thank you for the question. Other than questions about blending and layering, this is probably one of the more often asked questions asked of artists.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer beyond my encouragement that you buy the best of both that you can afford.
The Best Paper and Pencils for Colored Pencil Art
There are so many different drawing methods and styles that what works for me may not work for you. The best paper and pencils for you depends on what gives you the results you want, and what fits your budget.
So I’m going to address it from two points of view: Craft art and fine art. I’ll also offer general suggestions on what to look for and a few things to avoid.
The Best Paper for Craft Art
Craft art includes adult coloring books, greeting cards, art trading cards, stamping, and so on. Short-term art that doesn’t need to be archival in order to be useful or marketable.
I also include artwork from which you make reproductions, but which you have no intention of selling as an original.
Adult coloring books are usually printed on inexpensive drawing paper so you have no choice in the paper unless you print the pages yourself. Coloring books printed on better paper are available, but you will pay for the improved quality.
Blank greeting card stock comes in a variety of qualities. Canson and Strathmore are two well-known paper companies that also sell artist-quality blank card stock. Other companies sell less expensive card stock, so you can pick and choose and try different papers until you find one that works well for you.
Strathmore makes a line of drawing papers ranging from newsprint, which isn’t archival, to high-quality drawing paper. Many other paper manufacturers also make different grades of paper.
Beyond that, any pad of good drawing paper will allow you to do what you need or want to do as far as craft art. I don’t do craft art, so recommend you try a few and see which you like best.
And there’s absolutely nothing other than price keeping you from using high-quality paper for craft purposes. If your budget is flexible, give those pricey papers a try and see what you think.
The Best Pencils for Craft Art
You can use almost any pencil for craft art, from the most expensive to the least. Look for the best combination of price, color selection, and availability in your area.
In the United States, Prismacolor is probably the best combination of those four features. They have a stunning collection of colors and are a good value. Some quality issues exist, but broken leads, split casing, and warped pencils are sporadic, at worst.
Blick Studio Colored Pencils are also a good brand to consider. High quality, low cost, and color selection are their strongest selling points. They are available only through Dick Blick, but can be purchased online as well as in Blick stores.
If you buy a full set online, buy from a respected and trustworthy outlet such as Dick Blick. You can’t beat Dick Blick for customer service and if you end up with a bad purchase, they will make it right.
After that, you can buy open stock (single pencils) and look for things like warped pencils and split casings if you buy in person.
Other brands to consider are Bruynzeel Design, and Derwent Coloursoft.
I don’t recommend pencils such as Crayola or any other scholastic pencils. You can do craft art with scholastic pencils, but the colors aren’t usually as bright or the pencils as well pigmented. It takes more effort to get the same results you could get with better pencils.
The Best Paper for Fine Art
Fine art includes portraits and other types of commission art, exhibit art, and art you want to sell. Artwork in this category needs to last a long time without fading or otherwise deteriorating, so you need the most archival paper and pencils you can afford.
Look for papers that are high-quality. Usually that means non-acidic.
You should also opt for papers made from cotton fibers, since those fibers are the strongest and longest lasting. Avoid papers made from cellulose fibers.
I prefer papers that are sturdy. 98lb paper is about the lightest I’ll use for fine art applications. Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes are both 98-pound papers and are sturdy enough to stand up under solvents and watercolor pencils in moderate amounts.
Stonehenge Aqua and Canson L’Aquarelle 140lb hot press papers are also excellent papers. Both are made for watercolor painting, but both have a great texture for dry work, too. The biggest drawback is that they come in white only and cost more than regular drawing paper.
I also use Uart Sanded Pastel Paper, Bienfang Bristol Vellum, and Strathmore Artagain recycled paper. All are worth trying if you haven’t yet found a favorite paper.
The Best Pencils for Fine Art
Pencils should be lightfast tested and rated. The best pencils usually have a somewhat limited selection of colors because the companies have opted not to include fugitive (fading) colors in their selection.
Caran d’Ache Luminance and Pablos, for example, are about the best pencils on the market and come in only 76 or 80 colors. They have a good color selection, but lack many of the bright, jewel-tone colors that tend to fade the most.
Other high-quality brands are Faber-Castell Polychromos and Derwent Lightfast.
My Favorite Paper
This is a close call, since I use a variety of papers ranging from very smooth Bristol Vellum to sanded art paper. But the paper I use most often (by a narrow margin) is Canson Mi-Teintes. Why? Mostly the colors. Canson Mi-Teintes comes in a rainbow of colors that are perfect when I want to do a portrait-style drawing with a plain background.
Stonehenge and Stonehenge Aqua are the next favorite papers. The 140lb hot press Stonehenge Aqua looks and feels like white Stonehenge regular paper, but handles wet media better. Dry media works extremely well on it, so I can see the day coming when I no longer use regular Stonehenge.
After that, it’s a toss up and I often choose papers based on what I have in stock most of the time when I don’t want to work on either of those listed above.
At present, I have only two brands of pencils. A full set of Prismacolor pencils (with all the non-lightfast colors removed) and a full set of Faber-Castell Polychromos.
Wax-based Prismacolor pencils are quite soft. They lay down easily and are capable of a high degree of blending with or without solvent. They can be sharpened well enough to draw a lot of detail, but tend to break if you apply too much pressure.
Oil-based Polychromos are harder, so they resist breaking even when sharpened to a sharper point. They don’t create wax bloom, but they also don’t burnish quite as well as the softer Prismacolor pencils.
I use both brands in most drawings. Usually, I start with Polychromos, then switch to Prismacolor when I need to lay down more color or want to burnish.
But I also mix them if I need a color that’s only available in one brand.
Pencils I’d recommend for the serious fine artist (or anyone who wants to become a serious fine artist) include:
I don’t currently use and never used any of these brands, but they come from companies with a good name in the industry and with a proven customer-service track record. I trust them to provide a quality product.
The list includes hard and soft pencils, wax-based and oil-based. Buy a few colors in open stock and try them to find those you like best.
The Best Paper and Pencils for Your Art
Those are my recommendations for the best paper and pencils for colored pencil art.
As mentioned before, it’s difficult to do more than make general recommendations and share my favorites because there are so many ways to make art.
So my best advice is to find an artist creating the type of artwork you want to create and see what paper and pencils they use.
Jana wants to know why I switched from oils to colored pencils, and if I’ve noticed one sells better than the other? Here are Jana’s questions.
These are business related questions instead of technical ones, so if you choose not to use them on your December questions posts, I will understand.
1. Why did you switch to colored pencil from oils? I ask this because I went the opposite direction.
2. Do your colored pencil pieces sell as well as your oils did?
Your blog with all its tips and helps is so interesting to me because you reinforce much of what I tell my drawing students. Since I teach primarily how to draw with pencil, it is only my more advanced students who go to colored pencil, so I read your blog to be sure I am not leading anyone astray. (It has been about 15 years since I was active in the CPSA or used colored pencils other than as accents to my graphite.)
Thank you for your thoroughness and clarity.
Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.
Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils
I’ve addressed this subject more than once in the past, including a similar question earlier this month. But I wanted to answer this question because it also includes a question about sales.
And every artist trying to turn their artwork into money wants to know about sales!
I switched from oil painting to colored pencils for two main reasons, with about twenty years between the the first reason and the second.
Chapter 1: Convenience
For over forty years, I painted portraits of horses. I was an oil painter because that’s the medium I learned as a preteen and teen. By the time I sold my first portrait at 17-years-old, I’d already been painting for several years. Continuing to oil paint was never a question. I often told people I’d retire when I fell face down in my palette!
Part of my marketing strategy (if you care to use such lofty terms) was attending horse shows and trade shows. Michigan hosted two big shows every year. The Lansing Stallion Expo in March and the North American Horse Spectacular in Novi every November. For many years, I attended both with a collection of paintings and drawings, but my primary goal was lining up portrait work.
I saw artists working at those shows and thought it would be cool, but oil paints are such a nuisance to travel with. They pack all right if you don’t take everything in the studio, but working on a painting in public is risky, and getting wet paintings home safely is no picnic either.
So in the 1990s I started looking for another medium that traveled better. I wanted something that could produce oil painting-like results, high levels of detail, gorgeous color, AND was easy to transport and use on location. Pastels were out because I’d already tried those and disliked them, so colored pencils were the only choice.
I intended to continue oil painting. Colored pencils gave me a second medium to offer clients, but I really preferred to work in oils.
Most clients chose oils, but some preferred colored pencils. One couple even opted for watercolor colored pencils. Talk about a step outside my comfort zone!
Chapter 2: Changing Focus
Eventually, portrait work tailed off. I think the move to Kansas had a lot to do with that. Most of my clients were from Michigan and I had been active with the Michigan Harness Horseman’s Association since the second year it hosted a benefit art auction. Many clients purchased their first portraits there and some of them became repeat customers.
Kansas isn’t that far away from Michigan, but it was too far to make the trip to the MHHA auction every January. I continued participating, but by long distance. Then they canceled the auction.
After that, it didn’t seem to matter what I did, I couldn’t sell a portrait to save my life. The last portrait was completed in 2016. An oil portrait for which there’s a moving story. But still the last portrait.
Back then, colored pencils were just starting to catch on, thanks to adult coloring books. I enjoyed them. They were a lot easier to manage in my studio (which is one corner of what should be the dining room,) and they were still portable. My husband played in the Wichita Community Band and I could take pieces to work on during weekly practices.
So colored pencils became my primary medium.
Long Story Short
(I know. Too late for that, isn’t it?)
A decision that began as a matter of convenience became a matter of finding a marketing niche twenty years later. Simple as that.
I haven’t completely given up on oil painting. I still love the process, the colors, the results, and even the smells. But let’s be honest. With cats and kittens in the house, it just doesn’t make sense to try oil painting!
Maybe some day I’ll get back to it.
That’s why I switched from oils to colored pencils. Now about selling original art….
Oil Painting Versus Colored Pencils in Art Sales
The other part of Jana’s question is about sales. Have I noticed one medium outselling the other?
The cold hard truth is that my originals aren’t selling. At all. Any of them.
It’s been a couple of years since I sold original work and those were mostly ACEOs through eBay. Most of those were oil paintings, but mostly because that’s what most of my ACEOs were.
Now, before you begin feeling sad for me, let me add that my work doesn’t sell because, quite frankly, I don’t market it!
Today, we’ll talk about colored pencils and fading colors, a common concern among artists. The question for the day comes from Carolyn. Here’s her question:
I originally began with Prismacolor pencils, read that they fade, gave them away.
I replaced them with Caran d’Ache Pablo, then bought their Luminance set, as well. Been working in both.
I read that the latter are light-fast, but are the Pablo, too? Understand that Pablo are oil-based, and Luminance wax-based, and therefore more opaque, which drove my decision to purchase and use with the Pablo, which are more transparent.
I just don’t want my work disappearing after all the time invested.
I wholeheartedly agree with you on the issue of having your artwork disappear over the years. If you’re like me, you put way too much time into your work to risk it fading into pale memories!
Colored Pencils and Fading Colors
All mediums include colors that fade or are fugitive. The problem isn’t with the medium (oil, acrylic, colored pencil, etc.) The pigments used to make those colors are the problem. Some pigments, like those derived from minerals or the earth, are very stable and last a long time.
Other pigments, usually those derived from plant sources, are not stable and tend to fade. Some fade quickly.
Until science comes up with non-fading AND inexpensive substitutes for those fugitive pigments, we have to deal with fugitive colors.
Prismacolor pencils have a reputation for fugitive colors.
Some of the fading colors fade because there are currently no non-fading substitutes for naturally fading pigments, or the non-fading pigments are prohibitively expensive. Pinks and purples are good examples.
Some of the colors could be more lightfast with the use of more stable pigments. But those pigments are expensive, so the Prismacolor people have chosen to use less expensive pigments (even though they fade) in order to keep their prices low.
That, incidentally, is true of most inexpensive pencils. They cost less either because they use inferior pigments, or a lot of binder.
Even so, about half the colors in the Prismacolor line are perfectly safe to use. I use colors that are rated I (1), II (2), or III (3), with I being the safest. Colors rated IV (4) or V (5) are not even in my tool box. I don’t buy full sets anymore, but prefer to buy open stock.
But a lot of artists are like you and prefer not to mess with Prismacolor at all.
Caran d’Ache Luminance
Caran d’Ache has chosen to take the high road in their colored pencils. They use the highest quality pigments, which means they have more non-fading colors.
They’ve also opted to produce fewer colors. Prismacolor currently has a line of 150 colors, for example. Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils come in only 76 colors. The colors that Prismacolor offers and Caran d’Ache doesn’t are the colors most likely to fade.
You can use every color in the Luminance line with confidence.
Caran d’Ache Pablos
The difference between an oil-based pencil and a wax-based pencil is the binder—-the stuff that holds the pigment together in that pigment core and allows you to put color on the paper. The binder has no affect on the lightfast qualities of the color.
The same pigments are used in Pablos that are used in Luminance.
The biggest difference will be in handling. Pablos are a harder pencil. They hold a point longer, and lay down color differently than the softer, thicker Luminance according to other artists.
I haven’t used either Luminance or Pablos, but I trust the company to produce a quality product and would have no hesitations at all about mixing Pablos and Luminance pencils.
The Bottom Line on Colored Pencils and Fading Colors
No matter what brand of pencils you use, some colors will be less lightfast than others. Knowing how each color from each company is rated for lightfastness is your best tool in deciding which companies (and colors) to trust and which to avoid.
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.
That’s a fantastic question, Kathie, and I know exactly what you’re saying.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Old colored pencils. Many of us have a few of them lying around. I have a Spectracolor somewhere, as well as an Eagle. Both are previous incarnations of Prismacolor.
Are those old pencils still usable? That’s the subject of today’s reader question:
My question is: Can coloured pencils deteriorate or get “old” so that they’re no longer as good as when they were new? I use pastel pencils, but also have quite a few coloured pencil sets that I don’t use. I want to learn them but just haven’t taken the time. Do they have a “best before” or “expiry” date?? I hope not!
Thank you for the question, kind Reader. I think I can lay your fears to rest.
Are Old Colored Pencils Still Good?
Colored pencils do get old, just like everything else.
But unlike many mediums, they do not wear out. Twenty-year-old pencils should work just as well now as they did the day they were made. In some cases and depending on the brand, they may actually work better than their modern counterparts!
Wet mediums can dry out with age, especially if the tubes have been opened. Colored pencils are dry, so you don’t have to worry about them drying out.
So far as I know, colored pencils don’t become brittle with age either (at least no more brittle than it might have been when it was new.)
Sometimes a pencil may look like it’s turning gray or fading, but that may just be wax binder rising to the surface of the pigment core. This can be a problem with artwork drawn with wax-based pencils, and it can also be a problem with pencils that don’t get used very often. It’s usually most obvious with dark colors, but it can happen with any color.
Happily, it’s easy to remedy. Just wipe the exposed pigment core with a paper towel and the wax bloom is gone. But the pencil is perfectly usable even if you don’t remove the wax bloom first.
So if you have old pencils, go ahead and use them! They should do fine for you.
And if you don’t have the time to use them right away, don’t worry. They will still be good when you do get to them.
Today’s question comes from a reader looking for help using colored pencils on drafting film. Here’s the question:
I need instruction on handling Dura-lar drafting film. Do you know of any books or articles regarding this ground?
Thank you for your question. Drafting film is popular now, so there’s a lot of information available.
While I have yet to try drafting film personally, I am always watching videos and participating in discussions, so I can point you in the right direction! Following are a few of the better sources I’ve discovered.
Where to Find Help Using Colored Pencils on Drafting Film
Since there are so many resources available, let me share a few videos, then a few books and printed material, and finally social media resources. Some of them will deal specifically with Dura-Lar.
Videos about Drafting Film
Lisa Ann Watkins (Animal Art by LAW) uses drafting film for some of her colored pencil work. She has three or four videos about drafting film on her YouTube channel. The best place to start is her Introduction to Drafting Film video.
Bonny Snowdon also uses drafting film for many of her pet portraits. She has a very good real-time video on drafting film, Drawing Dog Eyes on Drafting Film.
One is a drawing tutorial featuring peppers drawn on drafting film. Plenty O’ Peppers* is by Gretchen Evans Parker, and Gretchen walks you step-by-step through her drawing process.
There are also a couple other kits for beginners on drafting film.
All three come in a digital format you can download today, or in print. Plenty O’ Peppers also comes in a bundle that includes the printed tutorial and a few sheets of drafting film.
CP Surfaces: Drafting Film* is a book published by Ann. It contains several projects on drafting film by Gretchen Evans Parker. The book features five full demos ranging from marbles and abstract glass, to a duck on water.
Participation is free, but you will have to apply to each group and be juried in. Colored Pencil Pushers is a group specifically for experienced and advanced artists, but go ahead and apply. No matter what level you think you may be currently, your work will have to speak for you, and it may be accepted!
Drafting film is currently a favorite support in all three groups. They’re free to join, though you need to apply, and the beginner’s group is especially helpful if you’re new to colored pencils.
Artworks on Drafting Film is a Facebook group dedicated to drafting film. It covers all media, but is an invaluable group if you want to learn all about drawing on drafting film.
Those are just a few places to find help if you want to use colored pencils on drafting film.
There are a lot more videos, tutorials, and other resources available, but you will find something in this selection to get you started!
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.
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.
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!
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.
Today’s question comes from Carol, a Facebook follower, who asked how hard it is to transition from oil painting to colored pencils. Here’s her question:
How hard is it to transition from oil paints to using pencils and where do you start? Guess that’s two questions and you could probably write a book on both.
You know me too well, Carol. I could write a book on just about anything!
People have asked before about my transition from oil painting to colored pencils, but the focus was painting mediums and paper. More about supplies than motives. So thank you for providing the opportunity to address the question from a different point of view.
I’ll break the question up into two parts and address each part separately.
How Hard is It to Switch from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils?
For me the transition wasn’t difficult at all, but there is a simple reason for that.
It didn’t happen overnight.
I had no intention of making colored pencils my go-to medium when I began using them back in the 1990s. I’ve always oil painted, and thought I always would. I loved everything about oils. The way they blended, went on the canvas, and all those lovely, lovely brushes. I even liked the smell!
Why I Switched from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils
But I exhibited horse paintings at equine trade shows and discovered that even at busy shows there were lull times. Times when it would have been nice to have art to work on, even if it didn’t draw people into my booth (which it almost always does, by the way.)
Oil paints are not nice to travel with. Yes they box up nicely and you can package them quite compactly if you don’t take every color, brush or tool with you.
But wet paint and lots of people—and lots of little people—are not a good mix. Even if no one (myself included) brushed up against a painting I was working on, there was the problem of getting a wet painting home again. It was just more risk and trouble than I wanted to deal with.
And I didn’t want to sacrifice the ability to do detail work for the ease of doing dry media work. I didn’t care for oil pastels and had never tried dry pastels, but they had their own set of challenges. Graphite was an option, I suppose, but another thing I loved about oils was the color. The solution? Colored pencils!
Colored pencils weren’t yet popular so I bought the only thing on the market in my area. Prismacolor. That was okay, because they were still well-made in those days. I bought a full set, mat board to draw on, and started drawing.
I did a few portraits, too, but colored pencils did not replace oil paints. Oils were still my primary medium. I just added colored pencils to them for the sake of portability.
So the transition was painless.
Where (and How) to Begin Transitioning from Oil Paints to Colored Pencils
If I were to transition from oil paints to colored pencils all at once, here is what I think I would do. (This advice comes from the experience of having used colored pencils and oils together for several years.)
One Thing Not to Do
The first I would do is NOT rush out and buy a full set of any brand of colored pencils. Instead, look at the colors of oil paint you use most frequently, then find an outlet that sells pencils individually and buy similar colors of colored pencils. For example, I relied on earth tones in oil painting, so those are the colors of pencils I’d buy first.
I’d do the same thing with paper. Select a full sheet of one or two types or colors of paper, cut them down to small sizes, and see how I liked them.
I can sum up the reason in one word. Cost.
You probably didn’t buy every color of oil paint when you started, right? I know I didn’t. I bought the colors I thought I’d need, then added to them as necessary.
Do the same thing with pencils.
Adapt Painting Methods to Drawing
When it comes time to use them, try adaptations of your painting method with the pencils. Oils are wet and colored pencils are dry, so there is not an exact comparison. But it’s surprising how many painting methods can be easily adapted to colored pencil work.
The Flemish (Seven-Step) method is very easily adapted to colored pencil work. I used a variation on it for oil painting then, and now I use a variation of it for colored pencil work.
Stick with Familiar Subjects
The third recommendation is to start by drawing subjects you’re already familiar with. You’re learning a new medium and new support. Why further confuse matters by doing a new subject?
In fact, I’d probably take that one step further and do one of my oil paintings over in colored pencil for a more direct comparison. That’s a great way to see just how close you can get to your oil painting work with colored pencils.
Start with Small Pieces
Also start with smaller pieces. The biggest difference between oils and colored pencils isn’t the difference between wet and dry. It’s the difference between fast and slow. To keep the frustration to a minimum, do small pieces.
I like 9 x 12 and smaller, but colored pencils work great for art trading cards (2-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches.) You can do several quick sketches in an hour at that size or more detailed work in an afternoon or two.
Making the Change from Oil Painting to Colored Pencils Doesn’t Need to be Difficult
Start with a few pencils and a little paper, then see what you can do. If you decide they’re not for you, you haven’t spent a lot of money on tools you’ll never use again.
And if you do like them, you’ll have a better idea what pencils and papers to get to make the most of your new favorite medium!