Putting Together a Field Kit for Plein Air Drawing


Welcome back to the Autumn Plein Air Drawing Challenge series. The first post was all about how I set up for drawing and you can read it here.

You need more than an easel, though. You need drawing supplies and a number of other things. That’s what today’s post all all about!

Putting Together a Field Kit for Plein Air Drawing

Putting Together a Field Kit

The first thing you need for plein air drawing is a field kit, beginning with a sturdy, light-weight bag or case. It needs to be large enough to carry the tools you need to draw, but small enough to manage easily, and light enough to carry.

This is my field kit.

Putting Together a Field Kit - My Colored Pencil Field Kit

It contains a small drawing pad, a set of 12 Faber-Castell Art Grip pencils, a small jar of Prismacolor pencil stubs, a graphite pencil or two (usually 4B or 6B,) and a hand-held sharpener.

Depending on how long the trip will be or how long I’ll be away from the studio, I may either take a larger, more fully stocked field kit or may take my laptop carrier-turned-portable-studio.

Each artist will have different supplies in their field kit. I wrote about mine for EmptyEasel. Read the full article here.

A Few Additional Items

The supplies listed in the EmptyEasel article are just the basics. There are other things to consider when you draw outside that you don’t have to think about when doing studio work. Here are a few.

View Finder

Not a necessity, but very helpful. A view finder is a tool for showing just a portion of the world around you. It helps you narrow down the view to find a subject to draw. It also helps you compose your drawing before you put pencil to paper.

You can, of course, use your hands to frame potential compositions. Artists have been doing this for centuries and it still works.

You can also use a camera or phone. By zooming in or out, you can isolate a single item or try a larger view. You also have the advantage of snapping a shot of the view for reference if you decide to do a studio piece of the scene. I’m a picture-taker by nature, so this is one of my favorite things.

But phones and cameras run out of power and can be bulky. So having another type of view finder handy is a good idea. A small pre-cut mat is ideal. Select one in a standard configuration—4×6 and 5×7 are my favorite sizes. They’re small. They’re easy to slip into a drawing pad or tote bag, and they’re very easy to use.

Select a neutral medium dark or darker color. Personally, I like some shade of brown, dark blue or dark green. For darker scenes, use the pre-cut mat with the white back facing you. For bright scenes, use the front.

Read How to Use a View Finder.


If you’re going to be outside for a while, make sure to take along a bottle or two of water. Even in cooler weather, it’s important to stay hydrated.

If you’ll be using water-soluble mediums, keep the painting water separate from the drinking water. No sense in drinking paint residue!


While not as important as water for most of us, some of us will need to consider taking along a snack to keep blood sugars and other things functioning smoothly.

If you’re planning a long day out, pack a picnic lunch. Just make sure you have a way to keep the cool things cool and to keep insects and animals out of your lunch before you get to it. Even if you do want to draw wildlife, you probably don’t want too close an encounter!

Bug Repellent

A must in the summer, but also for any time of year other than the dead of winter.

Sun Glasses

Whether you’re drawing outside in the summer or the winter, it’s a good idea to have sunglasses handy. About the brightest thing in the landscape is bright sunlight on fresh, white snow.

Even if you wear glasses that tint automatically, keep sunglasses handy. A wide-brimmed hat or bill cap to shade your eyes is also a good idea.

Sun Screen

Need I say more? If you’re not wearing a long-sleeved shirt, you will need something to protect your skin from the sun. Even if you’re working in a shaded area, it’s not a bad idea to have sun screen available.

Something Over Your Head

Something besides the hair on your head and the open sky, that is.

A sun shade of some type is almost a necessity when you’re working outside in the summer or in hotter climates. Look for something that’s large enough to shade yourself and your easel, since painting on a surface that’s brightly lighted by the sun can be a cause for eye strain.

Something To Sit On

When you’re young and agile, you can stand for long periods of time and never notice it. You can also sit on the ground or a rock and be none the worse for it.

Then you get to be my age, and standing is not so easy for long periods of time.

So take along a comfortable chair. A folding lawn chair, a camp chair, or something similar is great for working outside.

 Is There Anything Else?

Every artist has different needs when painting outside. I’ve listed the basics based on my admittedly limited experience drawing and painting outside. As you work outside, you’ll discover things to add. You’ll probably also discover that some of the things I’ve listed here are not helpful to you. Feel free to create your own list.

And if you know of anything I’ve left off my list that every artist should carry into the great outdoors, share your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Autumn Plein Air Drawing Challenge

The Autumn Plein Air Drawing Challenge is all about drawing outside with colored pencil during September. My personal challenge is to do one plein air colored pencil drawing each week, but you can draw outside as often as you wish. Just so you get outside at least once!

Want to share your work? I’ve set up a special group board on Pinterest where I’ll be posting my plein air drawings. If you’d like to post your drawings, all you have to do is request an invitation to join the board. You will need a Pinterest account, but they’re free and easy to set up.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside


With my Autumn plein air drawing challenge fast approaching—September 1 is the first day—it seemed like a good idea to share some basic information about plein air drawing. For the next few days, I’ll be publishing a post every day (except Sunday).

A reader of the plein air drawing with colored pencil autumn challenge brought up a good question. She asked:

If you are going to be using an easel, what type will you be using?

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

I rarely use an easel for any colored pencil drawing. It’s simply easier to draw sitting in a chair or on the couch and working on my lap. I got into that habit early on and continued to use it while at horse shows, art shows, and traveling.

But I thought it worthwhile to speak a little bit more about the process behind the drawing methods, especially since I realize many of you may be thinking about trying plein air drawing for the first time.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

I employ two different, but similar methods for drawing with colored pencil.

Two Basic Methods

Drawing Pads

The first one is very simple. I buy pads of paper with rigid back boards and use them like a drawing board. Spiral bound pads are best because you can fold the front cover back without bending it. A lot of drawing and sketching pads are spiral bound and most of them also have rigid back boards, so you have a great selection of papers from which to choose.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside - Drawing Pads
Keep a selection of drawing pads on hand for plein air drawing. I recommend at least one small pad 8×10 or smaller and one that’s larger. The largest drawing pad in this collection is 14×17 and it’s probably the largest size I’d take on a short trip. Larger pads are nice to have for extended travel.

When I use the word “rigid”, I mean rigid enough not to bend. All drawing pads have backs of cardboard of some type. But some of those back boards are not sturdy enough to be useful as drawing boards.

To see if the drawing pad you want to buy has a rigid back, hold it by the back cover only. If the cover remains straight, it’s heavy enough. If it doesn’t, you may still need a drawing board of some type.

For those who prefer a higher quality paper such as Bristol or Stonehenge, you can still purchase them in pads. You’re more likely to get a glue bound pad with the better papers. The reason is that a glue-bound pad allows you to remove sheets with a clean edge.

Some drawing pads are spiral bound and some are glue bound. Each type has advantages and disadvantages.

This type of drawing pad works very well and is a self-contained “package” but you may need to carry a binder clip or two or a rubber band to keep the cover folded back.

You can work without marking off margins or you can draw margins the paper, use tape (low tack, of course) to mark the margins, or combine the drawing pad with a pre-cut mat as shown here.

If you plan on doing wet media drawing, choose a paper capable of handling the moisture. Stonehenge is good for moderate amounts of wet media and it also dries flat, but it you want to use watercolor or water soluble colored pencils almost entirely, a watercolor paper is your best option.

Either way, tape the edges to a rigid support to keep the paper from excessive buckling.

My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside - Working Mat
This is how I often work on smaller drawings. I’ve clipped a small pre-cut mat (4.5 x 6.5) to a 9×12 drawing pad. That leaves enough space for a nice composition with room for color swatches.
This is the back of the drawing pad shown above. I’ve clipped the cover back so it’s out of the way. When I finish drawing, I can put the cover down again, covering the drawing in progress. Use binder clips or large rubber bands (available at any office supply store) to keep the cover in place.

Laptop Drawing Boards

I also use home-made drawing boards that I’ve come to refer to as laptop drawing boards.

A laptop drawing board is put together with sheets of corrugated cardboard with a piece of mat board on top as the drawing surface. I lay my drawing paper on top of the mat board, then clip or tape a pre-cut mat over that, binding everything together for drawing.

Step-by-step directions for building your own lightweight laptop drawing board.

I prefer these because I can make them any size I want. The largest I currently have on hand is for an 18×24 inch drawing. The smallest is a 4×6.

They’re ideal for plein air work, especially if you’re traveling, because you can set up several and take them along, ready for drawing.

This is one of my smaller laptop drawing boards with a studio drawing in progress. The drawing size is 7×9. The outside dimension is 8×10. I used binder clips to hold it together so I can take the drawing out whenever I want and even swap it for a fresh sheet of paper for a new drawing if necessary.

How the Process Works

The actual drawing process with either a drawing pad or a laptop drawing board is simplicity itself. Find a comfortable place to sit and work with the pad or board resting in your lap. If you’re like me and turn your paper a lot when you draw, you can just turn the drawing pad or laptop drawing board as necessary.

Want to step back and take a look at your drawing? Prop the board or pad in your chair and take a few steps away.

The Bottom Line on My Favorite Equipment for Drawing Outside

Any of these options is perfectly suitable for drawing outside, while traveling, or even in the studio. They’re easy. They’re lightweight. And you can prepare for drawing before you leave the house, so you have more time to draw in the field (or the park or the front porch.)

But the real bottom line is to find the system that works best for you.

Even if you have to make it yourself!

But What About Easels?

Since I can’t share personal experience with field easels, I refer to you my favorite supplier of art supplies. Dick Blick. From their page on Portable and Field Easels:

Portable and Field Easels are designed for artists who plan on traveling with their easels, need to be able to easily move them around their studio, or who want to plein air paint. These easels fold to a compact size for easy storage and portability and are considerably lighter weight. These easels usually contain the minimal necessities to successfully use them effectively.

Several types of portable and field easels are available through Dick Blick and similar suppliers. The best suggestion I can offer is to find an easel that’s lightweight, folds to a small size that’s easy to transport even if you have to carry it yourself, and is stable enough for rough terrain.

Here are a couple of video reviews of portable easels that might also be helpful. Even though they’re for painters, the easels can be used for colored pencil work. Even if you don’t end up buying any of these easels, there are some great tips for plein air painting in each one.

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Autumn Challenge

We all have visions of artists outside, painting landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the London Bridge or San Fransisco Bay.

Maybe you’ve even seen them in your town, painting local scenes and doing wonderful work.

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Autumn Challenge

Plein air art is usually associated with wet media like oils, watercolors, or acrylics. If people think of plein air drawing, they usually think graphite or charcoal. I know I do.

But have you ever considered doing the same thing with colored pencils?

Colored Pencil Plein Air Drawing Autumn Challenge

An Autumn Project

I’ve never been much of a plein air artist. I much prefer studio work and years of working as a portrait artist seemed to make plein air drawing unnecessary.

But I have often admired artists who can accurately capture the personality of a subject while painting or drawing outside, no matter what medium they use.

Summer is drawing to a close here in Kansas. Daily temperatures are beginning to fall, which means it’s more pleasant outside. In fact, it’s the perfect time to be outside.

So I’m giving myself a challenge. This fall, I want to do more drawing outside.

It won’t officially be fall until September 22, but I’m not going to wait. Beginning September 1, I want to do one plein air drawing a week. Just. One.

To make myself accountable, I’ll post my drawing on the blog so all can see.

Plein Air Drawing Challenge

You’re invited to participate in the challenge, too. There are no real rules. You can follow my plan to do one drawing a week or make your own plans. The real goal is to get outside and draw, so whatever suits your schedule and creativity works.

The challenge will run from September 1 through October 31. Counting the first three days of September as a week and the last two days of October as week, that’s ten weeks.

Ten weeks.

Ten drawings.

That sounds easy enough, even to me.

I want this to be a fun challenge and I want to learn more about drawing outside, drawing quickly, and learning how to better capture the personality and appearance of a subject.

But I also want to improve my ability to see each subject and render the detail on paper.

You’re welcome to join me. I’ve set up a special group board on Pinterest where I’ll be posting all the plein air drawings I do in September and October. If you’d like to post your drawings, all you have to do is request an invitation to join the board. You will need a Pinterest account, but they’re free and easy to set up.

Bruynzeel Design Colored Pencils

A few weeks ago, I shared a few tips for for repairing broken Prismacolor pencils.

The discussion led to another question:

I don’t want to mess with fixing broken pencils. What other brands of pencils are available?

The good news is that there are dozens of high-quality pencils to choose from.

The bad news is that most of them are more expensive than Prismacolor and some of them are more difficult to get. I’ve already shared a video review of Caran d’ache Luminance Pencils and a comparison of Faber-Castell Polychromos and Caran d’ache Luminance. If you haven’t watched those videos, give them a look. You may need go no further.

Today, I’m highlighting another brand of pencils with a video review.

Bruynzeel Design Colored Pencils

Artist’s Caveat

I haven’t used these pencils so my recommendations are based on the fact that I’ve used other products by the same company or have talked to other artists whose judgment I trust. These pencils were on my To Buy List. Yes, I said were; more on that in a minute.

Now, for the review.

Bruynzeel Design Colored Pencils

A very long time ago, I purchased a set of Bruynzeel Full Color Colored Pencils. That was back in the day when I didn’t know much about how colored pencils were made or the differences between scholastic, student, and artist grade pencils.

I loved those pencils. Color went onto paper smoothly and with very little wax build up. I didn’t have a very big set because they were expensive, but they mixed well with the Prismacolor pencils I was also using. I remember thinking that if I ever stopped using Prismacolor pencils, I’d use these instead.

Unfortunately, that line of pencils was discontinued.

Bruynzeel now produces Design Colored Pencils. The same pencil renamed? I’ve wondered about that, but don’t know for sure.

A Few Interesting Facts

From DickBlick.com: The 3.7 mm wide-gauge, perfectly centered, and double-glued colored cores combine with the finest light cedar casings to make Bruynzeel Design Colored Pencils very resistant to breakage and a joy to sharpen. A balanced color range, with matching pigments between the colored pencil and watercolor pencil ranges, in addition to subtle color release and incredible lightfastness, make them a top choice for the discerning graphic artist, fine artist, designer, illustrator, or hobbyist.

The largest set contains only 24 pencils, even though there are a total of fifty colors available.

The pigment core is thinner than many other pencils—3.7mm versus 3.8 or 3.9. Personally, a thinner core is helpful in creating finer detail and/or for smaller work.

I checked prices at Dick Blick.com (my go-to online source for art supplies). The 12-pencil set lists at $19.95 and the 24-pencil set is $39.46. Pencils are available in open stock for $1.69 each unless you buy twelve or more. The bulk price is $1.52 each.

For more, check out this review.

Would I Buy These Pencils?

They appear to be a step above average in quality, but according to the above review, are not on a par with other pencils in the same price range. The last time I bought open stock Prismacolor soft core pencils, I paid about the same price that Dick Blick is charging for these.

I also had good success with the Fullcolor pencils and have saved even the stubs, though they’re years old.


Bruynzeel-Sakura claims the pencils are  made in the Netherlands, but they are actually manufactured in China under the guidance of Bruynzeel.

The less than honest disclosures about where the pencils are actually made is a problem for me and negates the price and quality issues to some extent. Is it enough make me look elsewhere? That’s why I’ve taken them off my list of pencils to buy.

Does that mean you shouldn’t give them a try?

No. That decision is yours entirely. If you do—or if you already use them—let us know what you think of them.

Product Update

2017.05.06: In October 2016, Royal acquired Bruynzeel-Sakura. I don’t yet know how that will affect the quality of Bruynzeel Design colored pencils or any of the other products under the Bruynzeel-Sakura name.

In response to a reader question, I have contacted Royal Talens about getting lightfast information, and will let you know what I learn.

Royal Talens Website

Bruynzeel (Official Website)

Bruynzeel Design Pencils at Dick Blick

What Do You Want to Know?

Is there a brand of pencil you’d like to know more about? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts. Whenever possible, I’ll purchase the pencils and try them myself. When that’s not possible, I’ll research them as I’ve done here and summarize my findings, along with my best recommendation.

Is It All Right to Use Oil Painting Varnish on Colored Pencil Drawings?

Can you use oil painting varnish on colored pencil drawings?

In two previous posts, I shared the pros and cons of using fixative or final finishes on colored pencil artwork and then recommended a few fixatives and varnishes that I and other artists use.

But questions still abound and one of the most common is:

Is it all right to use oil painting varnish on colored pencil drawings?

The short answer is no.

Varnishes—more commonly known as final finishes these days—are not all made the same way. The intended use of the varnish determines how it’s manufactured and what ingredients are used.

Final finishes made for oil paintings often contain damar, which is an actual liquid varnish that can be brushed onto the surface of a painting. Spray final finishes for oil paintings contain an atomized (turned into spray) form of damar.

Damar varnish is a yellowish substance in liquid form. It becomes part of the painting surface by bonding with surface of the paint. It forms an impenetrable coating that protects the paint for years to come.

That ability to saturate a surface is great on canvas or rigid supports.

On paper?

Not so much.

Is It All Right to Use Oil Painting Varnish on Colored Pencil Drawings?

Why You Should Never Use a Varnish Containing Damar on Paper

When used on paper, damar saturates the paper, darkening and sometimes discoloring it. The discoloration is permanent. It won’t dry out of the paper.

If you use a varnish made for oil paintings on a colored pencil drawing, the varnish is likely to soak through the layers of colored pencil and saturate the paper you’ve drawn on. Layers of wax and pigment will not prevent the eventual discoloration of the paper.

If it darkens the paper, it will also darken the drawing that’s on the paper.

This kind of varnish will protect your colored pencil artwork, but you’d be well-advised not to use it for that purpose unless you want to purposely discolor the paper and/or the artwork.

If you still want to give it a try, try it first on a scrap piece of paper. If the results satisfy you, try it next on a drawing that isn’t vital. See what happens and make future decisions based on that.

It may also work for you if your drawing is on wood or a similar rigid support that’s impenetrable. But even so, I strongly recommend a test first. Better waste a small support than ruin your best drawing.

If You Do Decide to Try a Varnish for Oil Painting

Make sure to follow the instructions on the can. Varnishes produced for oil paintings are heavier, even in the spray form, than varnishes or final finishes made for dry media. Too heavy an application and your paper may buckle.

My recommendation?

Don’t. Do. It.

Broken Prismacolor Pencils: How to Repair Them

Broken Prismacolor pencils driving you to distraction?

You’re not alone.

After reading a recent post, Everything You Need to Get Started with Colored Pencils, Jana Botkin left the following question in the comments:

Will you address the fact that the majority of Prismacolor pencils are broken all the way through? Sanford denies there is a problem and blames the wrong sharpeners.

If you’ve been using colored pencils for very long or if you’ve participated in any social media discussions on the subject, you’ve already heard the comments. Perhaps you’ve even experienced quality problems with Prismacolor pencils, as I have.

My Opinion

I’ve observed over the years that most companies tend to follow the same course.

Someone has an idea for a new product. They’re passionate about the idea and product. So passionate that they spend time and money to start a business. Product quality and customer satisfaction is the most important thing and they’ll do anything to keep their customers happy.

Eventually, the company moves from the first generation (the person who started it) to the second generation. The founder dies and passes the company to children or maybe sells the company. The second generation owners may be committed to quality, but they lack the burning passion the original creator had. The product is still good and customers may not notice a difference, but there is a change behind the scenes.

The company is sold again. Perhaps it becomes part of a larger company. Just another department or product line. Quality is important, but maybe not as important as the bottom line. The company talks the talk but may be lax in walking the walk.

If a company goes through enough of these cycles, product quality begins to suffer to the extent that customers begin going elsewhere.

It’s not uncommon for many things to follow this course. It takes a lot of work to maintain principles, whether that’s providing the best colored pencil possible or sticking with a diet. It’s kind of like keeping water from running downhill. Possible, but not easy.

I don’t know beyond all shadow of doubt that this has happened with Prismacolor, but I have some very old pencils that bear the Berol name and some even older Prismacolor pencils with the Eagle name. It seems that every time the product lines changed hands, quality suffered.

What to Do About Broken Prismacolor Pencils

The CPSA taught a method of repairing them in the microwave. — Jana Botkin

There are two camps when it comes to the best response to broken pencils.

Send ‘Em Back

The first camp says the only thing to do is return the pencils if they’re new and came with broken pigment cores because you can’t repair the core. If you buy brand new pencils and discover broken pigment cores, return or exchange is probably the best policy if you can afford to wait for new pencils.

Unfortunately, broken pigment cores aren’t usually discovered until after you’ve started using the pencils. Most stores won’t accept a return on a pencil that’s been used.

And sometimes you drop pencils and they break. Prismacolor pencils seem to be especially prone to damage in this fashion. In this case, you don’t want to send them back.

Heat ‘Em Up

The Microwave Method

The second camp declares with equal conviction that you can repair broken pigment cores and they have just the solution.

Every source I looked at recommended 5 seconds in a microwave. What no one said was at what setting! (Start low and increase the setting if that doesn’t work.) If you microwave pencils longer than that, you risk splitting the wood casings or causing a fire.

This works because wax melts when subjected to heat. Yes, even the wax binder in a Prismacolor pencil—or any wax-based colored pencil, for that matter. The softened wax melts, “healing” breaks or fractures. The pigment core is restored as the wax cools.

I’ve never used this method of repairing colored pencils, but I have no doubt it’s one way to deal with the issue of breakage with Prismacolor colored pencils or with any other brand of wax-based pencils. How can I be so sure?

The Sunny Window Method

Because I do have experience warming pencils in the sun and seeing how soft the pigment cores get. Granted, I wasn’t repairing broken pigment cores; I was attending a horse show. I took my pencils along, but left them in the back window of the car while I watched horses. It was a sunny July day and when I got back to the car, the pencils were so soft I could almost paint with them.

That experience leaves no doubt in my mind that leaving pencils in a sunny window would be an excellent way to apply gentle heat to a pencil with a broken pigment core no matter where you live. The warmer climate, the less time it would take, but I’d still suggest that a few hours wouldn’t hurt the pencil. Check the exposed pigment core every couple of hours and see how soft it is, then use your own judgment on how much longer to leave the pencil in the sun.

Not Quite Convinced?

That’s okay. If you want to try either of these methods without exposing your pencils to possible risk, break off a few tips—yes, on purpose unless you have broken pieces of pigment lying around. Put them together in a small container and set them in the sun and see what happens. If you like the results, you can be more sure about using the same method for your pencils.

The Final Alternative to Broken Prismacolor Pencils

Of course, if you’ve had so much trouble with broken Prismacolor pencils that you’re ready to throw them over, you can always find a different type of pencil. There are plenty of high quality, artist grade pencils available.

The most popular are Faber-Castell Polychromos, but there are others. Jana recommends Polychromos first, but for her students who are on a budget, she also recommends Staedler Ergosoft as a high quality, lower cost substitute.

I can’t recommend the following brands because I’ve never used them, but they are on my list of pencils to try (in alphabetical order).

Caran d’Ache Luminance

Derwent Coloursoft

Lyra Rembrandt Polycolour

Staedler Ergosoft

What’s your favorite brand of colored pencil? Why do you prefer them?

What Should You Use to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

In a previous post, I shared three professional reasons to consider using fixative or varnish on your colored pencil artwork and three reasons not to.

You read that post and decided to try varnishing your finished work. The next logical question is which type and brand to use. There are so many on the market. How do you choose?

Fixative and Varnish: What’s the Difference?

Before we go further, though, let me take a moment to define terms.

“Fixative” and “varnish” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

Fixative is only a temporary “fix”. It’s a light coating you use as part of the drawing process. Fixative sprays are not designed to be a final coating because it doesn’t provide protection from ultraviolet light (UV), environmental dirt, or rough handling. It’s generally applied lightly and between layers of color.

Varnish is a final coating designed to provide protection from environmental dirt, UV, and—to some extent—rough handling. It is applied more thickly. It is not designed to be used as part of the drawing process since it can easily saturate and discolor the paper and darken both the paper and the colors already on the paper.

Another term frequently used for varnishes is final finish. Not all final finishes are useful for colored pencil work. Many of them are produced for oil paintings and contain damar varnish. When purchasing final finishes, make sure to check the contents label. If it lists damar, leave it on the shelf.

So You Want to Varnish Colored Pencil Art: What Should You Use?

John Ursillo uses workable fixative throughout his drawing process and varnishes finished pieces when he works on canvas (yes, canvas for colored pencils). John says:

I use intermediate layers of workable fixative along with solvent-enhanced CP and water-based CP. The finished piece is coated with two layers of Krylon Archival Series UV protective gloss acrylic spray. There are other brands but I’ve not tried them – happy with the Krylon. This goes on very shiny but after a week or so the coating dries completely into the weave of the canvas resulting in a pleasing semi-gloss coating.

The net result is that these colored pencil drawings on canvas can be framed without glass.

For works on paper, he uses workable fixative before adding the final color, then gives the finished drawing an additional coat of workable fixative.

When I use workable fixative, it’s usually late in the drawing process, when I need to restore a little tooth in order to finish the drawing. I have Krylon Workable Fixatif and Prismacolor Premier Fixative on my shelf. I’ve never done a side-by-side comparison, so I don’t know that one is better than the other. Both are good both for controlling wax bloom and for working over.

I also use Krylon Gallery Series Conservation Retouch Varnish. It’s more suitable for finished work on either paper or canvas. Prismacolor produces a non-workable fixative that I have yet to try but that’s worth a look.

In the past, I’ve used Blair products and Grumbacher products and have had good results.

Best Practices for Using Varnish or Fixative on Colored Pencil Art

Look for a fixative or varnish made for colored pencils or, if you can’t find that, one that’s made for dry media. Not all varnishes are created equal and what may work for an oil painting may not work as well—or at all—on colored pencil. Prismacolor makes a final coating made specifically for colored pencils and I recommend it whole-heartedly.

Since each brand of fixative or varnish comes with instructions for use, check those instructions first. Follow them, too, in order to get the best results.

Here’s how I do my varnishing.

  • Work in a well-ventilated area
  • Position the artwork in an upright position. It doesn’t have to be perfectly vertical, but it shouldn’t be flat, either
  • Shake the aerosol can a few times to properly mix the contents
  • Hold the can in a vertical position about twelve inches from the artwork (check the instructions on the can for the ideal distance, as there may be some variation).
  • Holding down the nozzle, move the spray across the artwork horizontally in a slow movement.
  • Start just past the edge of the drawing and spray across the drawing to just past the opposite edge, then back in the opposite direction until you’ve covered all of the drawing, top to bottom
  • Let the artwork dry for a minimum of 30 minutes. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution and usually wait 45 minutes or longer
  • Give the drawing another coat (optional).

Two or three coats should be sufficient. Just make sure you don’t soak the paper with varnish. When a heavy coat of varnish dries, it could become brittle, making it necessary ship unframed art flat, instead of rolled.

So You Want to Varnish Colored Pencil Art. What Should You Use?

The Bottom Line

What it all comes down to is finding the best product for the type of work you do and the results you want. Generally, the best place to start is with a brand known for high quality in other products. Grumbacher and Krylon, for example. Products produced by or for companies that also make colored pencils is also a good idea. I can’t guarantee you’ll like Prismacolor workable fixative as well as you like Prismacolor colored pencils, but there’s a better chance the fixative will work favorably with the pencils.

Whenever you try something new, try it first on scrap paper or on a drawing that won’t hurt your feelings if it gets damaged. Talking to other artists about what they use and why they use it is another excellent way to find a good product.

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

You’ve finished your latest piece. Now you want to know if you really need to varnish colored pencil art.

Some artists swear by it.

Other artists would never do it.

Many are undecided and most of us are somewhere in between.

Still the question remains.

Do You Really Need to Varnish Colored Pencil Art?

Aside from personal preference, there are good reasons to varnish colored pencil artwork and there are reasons not to. Personal reasons for varnishing colored pencil drawings or not varnishing them are as varied as artists are. The purpose of this post is to look at some professional reasons for and against varnishing colored pencil art.

Reasons to Varnish Colored Pencil Art

Controlling Wax Bloom

Some colored pencils are made with a wax binder that allows the pigment to be formed into a core during manufacture and that allows you to put color on paper while drawing.

You leave wax on the paper, too. If you use heavy pressure or lots of layers, you may end up with a lot of wax on the paper.

The wax slowly rises to the surface of the color layers and gives the drawing a foggy or cloudy look. This is wax bloom.

Wax bloom is easy to remove. Simply wipe the surface of the drawing very lightly with a piece of paper towel, a tissue (without lotion), or a soft, clean cloth. The wax bloom will return however and you probably won’t ever be able to totally eliminate it.

Giving your finished drawing a light coat of fixative or varnish does more than keep the color in place. It keeps the wax binder in place, too. That means little or no wax bloom.

Of course, if you use oil-based colored pencils, you have no wax bloom worries!

Protecting the Surface

Even a light coat of fixative or varnish will provide protection for your colored pencil drawing. Environmental dirt, dust, and other similar substances will come to rest on the varnish instead of on the drawing itself. A light dusting with a duster or dry clothe is all that’s necessary to remove the dust.

It’s recommended that any artwork on paper be framed under glass for the best protection and that includes colored pencil drawings. But even then, a coat of varnish provides added protection.

Restoring Tooth

Up to this point, I’ve talked about using fixative or varnish after you’ve finished the drawing—that is, after all—the focus of this article.

But you can use fixative or varnish on a drawing that isn’t quite finished. Doing so will give the surface a little more tooth for additional work if that’s what you need.

How much tooth is restored is debatable and depends in large part on the type of fixative or varnish you use and on how heavily you use it. While it merits mention here, it’s really a topic for another discussion.

Reasons Not to Varnish Colored Pencil Art


Some artists have had drawings discolored and some have had them ruined by an application of fixative or varnish. If you happen to be using a cheap varnish or fixative, there is the risk of discoloration. That’s why I generally advise artists to do a test on a piece of scrap paper or an old drawing first.


Anytime you use an aerosol, there is the risk of some of the substance coming out as droplets. This is a special concern if you don’t use varnish very often and the can has been sitting on the shelf for years. Again, the best way to avoid this is to test the varnish first. If it produces droplets after a couple of sprays, don’t use it on anything else.

Unnecessary Effort

I admit that I don’t finish every colored pencil drawing with a coat of fixative or varnish. Sometimes it just isn’t necessary.

Drawings I don’t varnish are either:

  • Drawings I didn’t burnish or use heavy pressure on
  • Predominantly light value or color (wax bloom shows up better on dark colors)
  • Drawn with oil-based pencils

You may also simply not wish to add varnish to a drawing because you like the look of unvarnished drawings. That is a perfectly acceptable way to finish any drawing.

Next week, tips on types of varnishes to use and how to get the best results.

Do you varnish finished drawings? Why or why not?

Review of Caran d’Ache Luminance Pencils

Video Review of Caran d'ache Luminance Colored Pencils

When I came across this video review of Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils, I knew I wanted to share it with you.

I don’t know about you, but I’m always looking for new ideas. New tools, tips and techniques. New colors.

And yes, new pencils.

So whenever someone reviews a product I don’t yet have, I want to watch it.

I’ve heard a lot about the Caran d’Ache Luminous pencils since their introduction a few years ago, but I’ve have yet to give them a try.

What I learned in this video makes me more interested in trying Luminance pencils than ever.

Review of Caran d’Ache Luminance Pencils

The review is provided by ColoringKaria on YouTube. Karia does reviews of adult coloring books and supplies, but this review will be of interest to fine artists, too.

Here’s Karia.

Caran d’Ache is a Swiss company.  According the Caran d’Ache web page for Luminance 6901 pencils, these wax-based pencils are “designed for works intended for exhibition, collection and museum purposes.”

In other words, high quality.

And fairly expensive. At the time of this writing, open stock Luminance pencils are $4.62 each at Dick Blick.

As Karia mentioned, that’s on the pricey side for adult coloring book artists.

Even so, I am curious enough to consider a few open stock pencils, even if it’s only a handful of their luscious looking earth tones. I’ll let you know!


Since I first wrote this post, I purchased a Caran d’Ache Luminance White (along with a Derwent Drawing Chinese White.) They’re reportedly among the most opaque colored pencils available, and they work fairly well over darker colors.

Both pencils are more opaque than my other pencils (Prismacolor and Polychromos,) but they don’t cover color completely. As least not as completely as I hoped. But you have to remember that I’m a former oil painter and when I hear one color covers another, I expect it to perform like oil paints! No colored pencil is capable of that.

But the Luminance pencil is more like Prismacolor when it goes onto paper. Limited use still makes me want to buy a few more colors in open stock and try them on a landscape drawing.

More from the Caran d’Ache Luminance Web Page

Highly sought after by drawing masters from every creative sector, the subtle velvety effect of the new permanent pencil stems from two years of technical research conducted in complete secrecy at the heart of the Maison’s workshops. Its delicate texture, along with the vibrancy of the many recently developed shades, open up exciting new vistas in the realms of overlaying, mixed techniques and gradation.

Its extreme lightfastness is confirmed by the most rigorous tests, earning Luminance 6901 top results and international ASTM D-6901 certification.

With Luminance 6901, Caran d’Ache has achieved the feat of creating quite simply the most lightfast colour pencil ever designed.

The line is created according to the criteria laid down by the Swiss Made label and eco-friendly standards, thereby providing an additional demonstration of the Maison’s steadfast ethical commitment.

More Information

Caran d’ache Luminance Pencils web site.

Luminance Colored Pencils Open Stock at Dick Blick

Have you used Caran d’ache Luminance pencils? What did you think?

3 Excellent Drawing Paper Alternatives

In a previous post, I shared my thoughts on drawing papers you can use with colored pencils. Today, let’s look at three drawing paper alternatives.

There are enough paper choices to keep most of us happy forever.

But paper isn’t the only thing you can draw on.

3 Excellent Drawing Paper Alternatives

Lets look at the three drawing paper alternatives I’m most familiar with. They aren’t the only alternatives anymore, but they are easy to find and easy to use.

Mat Board

That’s right. The same material you use to frame your colored pencil drawings can also be drawn on. I drew Portrait of Blizzard Babe, shown here, on gray mat board with a medium texture. The tooth is visible in the upper, left corner.

Colored Pencil Portrait of Blizzard Babe
Portrait of Blizzard Babe
Colored Pencil on Gray Mat Board

That’s one of the things I like about mat board.

Unlike paper, there’s a wide variety of textures available from rough and almost “pebbly” to egg shell smooth.

If you want something truly unique, you can also use suede mat board. Gemma Gylling has been using suede board for years and creates the most phenomenal pet and wildlife artwork.

Mat board comes in a wide variety of colors, so if you like experimenting with colored supports, give mat board a try. I chose a gray mat board for Portrait of Blizzard Babe because the gray provided an excellent basic color for this wonderful light gray filly and because it reduced the amount of time necessary to produce the portrait.

Mat board comes in full sheets and can be purchased online or at any reputable framer. While you can draw on any type of mat board, use archival or museum quality mat board for your best work. Lesser quality mat board often contains acids that can leach into artwork and cause discoloration.

Sanded Papers

Pastel artists have been using sanded papers and supports for years, but what about colored pencil?

Here’s a small work I did on UArt Sanded Pastel paper. Spring in Colored Pencil is my first drawing on sanded art paper. Since then, I’ve also used Fisher 400 Pastel Paper and Pastelmat.

Spring in CP
Spring in Colored Pencil
Colored Pencil on UArt Sanded Paper

Most sanded papers are heavier by nature than standard drawing papers, but many are also available as rigid supports. UArt has a line of sanded pastel panels and Ampersand Art Supply has flat panels and cradled panels in a variety of depths. They even have toned panels!

Most sanded drawing surfaces are archival, but not all the substrates are, so shop wisely when you shop for sanded drawing papers.

The biggest advantage for many colored pencil artists is that works can be framed without glass.


That’s right. Basic wood!

When it comes to wood, however, make sure to stick with the types of wood proven by decades of use as oil painting supports. Birches and hardwoods have been popular among oil painters for a long time and they’re also wonderful with colored pencils.

Colored Pencil on Wood
Colored Pencil on Wood

One of the neatest things about wood is that you can find it almost everywhere. Literally. Several years ago, we cut down an old Maple in our front yard. It had been dying for a couple of years, thanks to carpenter ants. After the tree was removed, I collected a few pieces with the intention of drawing on them after they’d cured for a year or two.

But I got a few small pieces from another source and have made a drawing or two on those. The small landscape shown above was drawn on a piece of wood six or seven inches long and roughly two inches tall.

Wood can be drawn on with just a little sanding—which is what I did—or with the more involved preparation of planing and varnishing or painting. You can leave it fairly textured or sand it smooth.

And that little landscape drawing? The piece of wood was thick enough that it stood up on its own! No framing or hanging necessary. It was just right for display on a shelf or a desk.

Two Recommendations when Trying Drawing Paper Alternatives

When trying a new surface, it’s best to experiment a little before you start a major work. The more exotic the surface, the more necessary the experimentation.

The drawings on sanded pastel paper and wood shown above are both very small. The sanded pastel paper is actually an ACEO (3-1/2 inches by 2-1/2 inches). Each piece was large enough to give me a good idea of how color went onto the surface, but not so large that it took days to finish it. I think each of those drawings took no more than an hour and probably a lot less.

Also, whenever you try a new support, it’s a good idea to do a piece you can keep around for a while. Especially with untested supports. You want to get some idea of how permanent the artwork will be on each support and the only way to determine that is to keep a small drawing you can examine. I can’t think of very much that would be worse than selling a lot of drawings on an unproven support and having customers return them when the artwork failed to last.

Beyond that, I encourage you to try supports and have fun.