Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

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?

Colored Pencil Comparison: Wax-Based or Oil-Based

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

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.

The light blue pencil at the bottom of the image has a nice tip, but is sharpened to too long a point if you tend to draw with heavy pressure. You’re quite likely to end up with something like the red pencil in the center!

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

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.

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are among the best known oil-based colored pencils.

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.

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Is Using Only One Art Medium Limiting?

Today’s post is the result of one of those reader questions that’s too good not to publish. Chris wrote to me and asked a couple of excellent questions, including is using only one art medium limiting for the artist.

Hi Carrie,

I’m an artist who mostly works on realism with ballpoint pen on paper.  I’ve seen you’ve worked with oils alongside your colored-pencils. Do you see a bias towards your oil work versus your colored-pencil work? Do your clients prefer works on canvas as opposed to your works on paper?

I’ve been thinking about establishing myself as a portrait artist and wonder if I should be taking on a different medium (oil painting?) instead of sticking to pen on paper. Am I limiting myself? Thank you for taking the time to read this.



Thank you for your email and for your question. You presented more than one good question, so I’m going to answer them individually.

Is Using Only One Art Medium Limiting

Is Using Only One Art Medium Limiting?

A lot of artists work their entire in one medium and/or one subject. A lot of other artists work in a lot of different mediums and paint whatever draws their attention.

There are “limitations” to both choices.

The artist who works in only one medium is limited in that he or she has decided not to take advantage of some of the benefits of other mediums. However, there’s lots of time learn everything there is to learn about their chosen medium and to get the most out of it.

The artist who works in more than one medium has the opportunity to learn about more than one medium and to take advantage of the benefits of each medium, but they may not have the time to explore each medium to it’s fullest.

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer to your question.

How you decide the answer to this question for yourself is by finding the things you most enjoy drawing and the medium that gives you the most satisfaction.

Image by ch1310 from Pixabay

If you enjoy drawing portraits with pen and ink, then that’s what you should do. Explore the medium as much as you can and find out what’s possible with it. Look for pen-and-ink artists on YouTube and see what they’re doing that could improve your work.

The only thing I suggest is that if you’re planning to sell your work, find inks that are archival. I don’t honestly know how long-lasting the inks used in ball point pens are. My gut reaction is that they’re not archival, so that’s something you’d need to find out.

Also use the best paper you can afford. Using an archival medium on paper that yellows over time is also damaging to your work.

Bias Between Oils and Colored Pencils

You also asked about biases toward one medium or the other.

Some of my portrait clients liked oil portraits better and some liked colored pencil portraits. The bulk of portrait work was in oils, but I used oils exclusively for twenty years. Once I added colored pencil work, I did a lot of portraits both mediums.

Whenever you decide to use two or more mediums, it’s inevitable that you’ll gain fans of each medium. Most of them appreciate all of your work, but when it comes time to buy, most people have favorites.

The most obvious bias was either internal (I considered my colored pencil work to be less valuable than my oil paintings) or in the art world. Some galleries still will not accept colored pencil artwork under any circumstances, but I believe they are getting fewer and fewer in number.

I hope that answers your questions. Thank you again for writing, and for your great questions!

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Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Today, I’d like to share a few tips for drawing clouds.

Clouds can be majestic and towering, thin and wispy. Peaceful. Threatening. Calm. Stormy.

They are almost always intimidating to draw, and drawing them accurately takes time and patience. But it is possible to draw any type of cloud realistically if you follow these basic principles.

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencil

Tips for Drawing Clouds in Colored Pencils

The following tips are universal to all clouds, no matter what tools you use, your favorite drawing method, or even your preferred artistic style. Master these four simple principles and you’ll find you can draw any cloud.

And almost anything else you want to draw.

Tip #1: Don’t Let the Scope of the Subject Intimidate You

Of all the tips for drawing clouds that I might offer, this is the most important, because it’s such a problem for so many.

You want to draw a cloud, but you look up in the sky or find a beautiful photo and are scared to death! Clouds are so big and awesome. There are so many details to get right, and all those colors. Especially in the morning or evening.

And for most of us that’s all the further the idea gets. We embrace the desire to draw clouds, but never follow through.

That’s a mistake! Clouds don’t have to be difficult to draw, and I discovered that lesson by trial and error.

Instead of focusing on all those details, focus on the overall shape and character of the cloud. Is it big and towering? Is it short and fat? Does it lean a little bit one direction or another?

Even slow moving clouds change constantly. By the time you do a quick sketch, the cloud you’re drawing will have changed, so let go of the idea that you have to get every detail right.

Adapt the same mindset when drawing from reference photos. The only way to get a 100% accurate drawing is by tracing it. There’s nothing wrong with tracing, but you still have to shade the drawing afterward.

So go for character. Forget all those intimidating details.

At least until you’ve drawn a few clouds.

Tip #2: Look at the Colors

Clouds are not always white. Let me rephrase that.

Clouds are hardly ever white. At least not just white.

In the middle of the day, with the sun on them, they can be full of shadow, half shadow, full light, and reflected light. Depending on where you live (it does make a difference) and what time of year it is, you could see grays, blues, yellows, and mixtures.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Clouds are not always white.

Before you start layering color, take a good look at the cloud you want to draw. Identify the main colors you see, then the secondary colors. You can add other colors as you draw, but having the main colors handy will help you draw more quickly if you’re drawing from life.

And even if you’re not drawing for life, it’s helpful if you don’t have to search through your pencil box every time you need to change colors. Some of us even prefer the “handful of pencils” method in which we keep our pencils firmly gripped in one hand!

Tip #3: Light Pressure, Sharp Pencils, Smooth Color

Smooth color is key to drawing realistic clouds. Even dark, stormy clouds require smooth layers of color and soft, sometimes subtle shading.

The best way to achieve that is by drawing several layers with light pressure and very sharp pencils.

If you’re still learning about pencil strokes, I suggest you make circular strokes your go-to stroke. The reason is that you can overlap layers without creating unwanted edges where strokes begin and end as might happen with back-and-forth strokes.

That’s not to say you can’t draw smooth color with other types of strokes, but it can be easier with circular strokes. If you’ve learned to make other strokes work for you, use them.

It’s important to keep your pencils sharp, too. Sharp pencils get into the nooks and crannies of paper tooth better than blunt pencils. The more you fill in the tooth of the paper, the smoother your color layers will be.

Tips for Drawing Clouds - Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.
Use sharp pencils and lots of layers applied with light pressure.

Tip #4: Don’t Quit Too Soon

The biggest mistake most artists (myself included) make with colored pencils is thinking a drawing is finished when there’s color all over the paper. That is so not true!

Most subjects benefit from vibrant color and clouds are certainly no different. Especially those colorful clouds that happen around sunrise or sunset. The best way to get vibrant color is with enough layers of color to fill in the tooth of the paper.

When you think a drawing is done, set it aside for a day or two, then evaluate it honestly. Start by asking the following questions:

What areas can I improve on?

Are the dark values dark enough?

Are the colors rich enough?

Does one area look more finished (or less finished) than the rest of the drawing?

Work on the drawing until you can honestly say it’s as good as you can make it. Even if all you end up doing is one more hour of work, you will be able to see the difference. Especially if you scan or photograph the drawing before and after you make those changes.

Which, by the way, I highly recommend.

These Tips for Drawing Clouds are Great, But is That All?


The reader who asked about drawing clouds actually asked specifically for help drawing the clouds of evening or morning. That sounded a lot like a tutorial to me and that was beyond the scope of a question-and-answer post.

So I’m planning a tutorial post with evening clouds as the subject. Probably a series of posts. So watch for that.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed these tips for drawing clouds and would like to read more, sign up for my free weekly newsletter. Click on the group labeled “Weekly Newsletter” in the “I’m Interested In” section of the sign up form to get the newsletter of new posts.

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Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

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.

Hi Carrie, 

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. 

Blessings, Jana

Thank you for your question, Jana. I don’t mind answering business questions at all.

Why I Switched from Oils to Colored Pencils

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!

Image by Katya36 from Pixabay

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.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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.

Why I switched from oils to colored pencils.
Even though my primary focus is now teaching colored pencils, I do have a website dedicated to marketing original artwork and promoting portrait work. In both oils and colored pencils.

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!

Yes, I have a website dedicated to my original art, but the main focus of my studio business is teaching and that’s the bulk of marketing energies go.

If I spent just half the time marketing original art that I do marketing this blog, I’d probably have sales.

And then I could answer your question more positively!

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How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

Toni wants to know how to keep track of colors and order of application.

Hi Carrie,

Just read your post about getting out of your comfort zone/challenges.  Read minds much? I’m bored with myself.  But I may have bitten off way more than I can do.

I’m working on a red/yellow pix of an African Bush Viper snake.  I am trying to do one scale at a time and it’s sorta working.  It’s VERY confusing trying to make sure that I’m on the right scale in the right row etc.  I’ve crossed out the scales as I go but …. good thing no one knows the snake personally!

How do you keep track of the colors you’re using, in what order you lay them down or blend.  This guy has lots of reds, dark reds, pinks, oranges, lemon yellow, light yellow, cream, and some in between.  The colors repeat (sorta) down a section of the body.  I get so involved trying to get the part I’m working on right that by the time I need to repeat it, I don’t know exactly what I did.

I feel like there is a logical answer but I can’t see it.

Sorry this is so convoluted.  You should see my rant on Flicker about POLKA DOTS😶


LOL Toni!

No, I don’t read minds at all (I don’t always know my own, let alone messing with other people’s!)

I’ve learned after so many years of blogging that if something affects me personally, it affects others. Those sorts of posts resonate.

How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

I know exactly what you mean about repeating patterns. I did one of those a year ago. A red Christmas ornament with a braided cord of yellow, green, and red. Not quite on the scale of what you’re doing, but very close.

How to Keep Track of Colors that Repeat

Here’s the finished drawing.

When it came time to draw the cord, I thought I had it pretty well taped, because I’d drawn everything out carefully. Except I hadn’t been as careful as I thought and I didn’t get more than two or three of those repeating patterns done before I realized I’d made a mistake in the line drawing.

Time for a rethink.

The first order of business? Scrapping the line drawing and just laying down color, blocking in each color from one end of the cord to the other. I don’t remember the order I worked in, but would guess it was probably yellow, then green then red (light to dark.) I put flat color in each area using light or medium pressure and a sharp pencil.

After blocking in the cord, I went back and add shadows and middle values to create highlights.

I used only six colors total. A light or medium value yellow, green and red, a dark value green and red, and a light golden brown. The blocking in was with the lighter colors and I did all of each color in that round. So there was no need to remember the order.

Then I went back and did the same thing with the darker colors. Again, there was no need to really remember the order of each color because I worked the entire area with each color.

When I did the final round and added details, then I worked back and forth between lights and darks and may have even added other colors to get darker values.

For the most part, I either laid the pencils to one side of my working area, or held them in my left hand. A method known fondly as the handful of pencils method.

But that method works best if you’re using only a few pencils on a small drawing (or a small area.) I used six or seven over a small area. The entire drawing was only 8 x 10 inches.

So probably doesn’t help you with your African Bush Viper, since you’ve already done some of the scales.

Two More Ways to Keep Track of Repeating Colors

There are a couple of ways to keep track of colors in complex pieces.

Make Swatches as You Work

The easiest method is to make a mark somewhere along the edge of the drawing or on a piece of scrap paper as you use each pencil. Either before or after you layer that color, do a little swatch or even just a mark or two. You don’t even need to label them, because you can compare pencils to the marks.

Do the same thing with the next color and the next and the next and so on. If you repeat a color, make another mark, so you have every layer documented, as well as every color.

I made these color swatches for the red Christmas ornament project above. This more of a color selection tool than anything, but it gives you an idea of color swatching. I have made marks along the margins of drawings before and found that useful. It may also work for you.

This will be easier if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the rest of your pencils. Hold them in your hand if they’re just a few, or put them in a cup or jar, or just lay them to one side. Quite often, I take them out of the box and then keep the box a little bit apart from where I’m working. Handy, but not so handy I’m likely to put a pencil back into it without thinking.

Mind, the difficult part is going to be remembering to make that mark. If you draw anything like I do, you get so involved in the process that everything else ceases to exist. You’ll have to train yourself to make this part of the process, so it becomes automatic.

Try a Color Recipe Sheet

The second way I’ll describe is to make a “recipe sheet” before you start. Use the same type of paper you plan to do the drawing on, and make a small study. In the case of your African Bush Viper, you might draw a few scales in full, glorious color. After you’ve seen which combination of colors works the best, make either a swatch or a written list of the colors you’ve used and the order in which you used them.

Keep that sheet handy as you work through your drawing.

Of course this method also works best if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the others.

One Thing to Keep in Mind

Even on an African Bush Viper, the scales that are the same colors and have the same patterns will look different depending on where they are along the body, and whether they’re in light and shadow.

It may be frustrating—maybe very frustrating—not to know the exact order of color application, but it probably won’t make that much difference in the finished piece.

I’ve never drawn a snake before, and I don’t know if I will. But I venture to guess those subtle variations that happen when the same colors are applied in different order might produce a more realistic and natural drawing. Get the light values light enough and the dark values dark enough.

Thanks for the question, though. It brought a smile to my face and that’s always a good thing!

PS: I’d love to see your African Bush Viper when it’s finished, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one (reading minds, again!)

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Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

Today’s question is a two-part question from Pat, who wants to know more about layering and blending colored pencils. Here’s the question:


You say that you like to keep your pencils very sharp.  Do you do most of the layering with the point or the side of the pencil?

Do you also use mineral spirits on all your pictures?

In advance, thank you for reading my requests. Pat

Thank you for your questions, Pat.

Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

You’ve touched on two of the most basic skills necessary to using colored pencils successfully. Master layering and blending, and everything else is icing on the cake!

Layering and Blending with Colored Pencils

Of all the ways to blend colored pencils, the best, most natural, and easiest way is layering. Every time you lay one color over another, you’re blending. The light moves through the different colors and mixes them so your eye sees a new color.

But you can layer with the tip of sharp pencils or with the side. There is a time and place for both.

Layering and Blending with Sharp Pencils

Most of the time, smooth color is vital to smooth blends, and sharp pencils are usually necessary for smooth color. So I use the tip of a well-sharpened pencil most of the time. And because I have a naturally light hand, I use light pressure for all beginning layers and as many others as possible.

But that’s not to say there’s never a time to use the side of a pencil. The side of a pencil is perfect for laying down thin layers of color over larger areas and for glazing. The sharper the pencil (and the longer the exposed pigment core,) the better.

In this illustration, for example, I wanted to draw a meadow seen from a distance. No sharp detail. Not much variation in values. So I used the side of the pencil to layer green, and let the paper show through help suggest the haziness of distance.

Layering and Blending with the side of a pencil
You can layer color with the side of a pencil instead of the point. When you use the side, the pencil can either be dull (as shown here) or well sharpened.

Another time when I’m likely to use the side of the pencil is to glaze one color over other colors.

Layering and Blending with Glazes

Glazing is a term that refers to adding very thin, transparent layers of color over color already on the paper. It’s an oil painting term and you create a glaze in oil painting by thinning paint so it’s very fluid and thin. It tints the colors under it, but doesn’t hide any of the details.

Obviously you can’t do the same thing with a colored pencil, because it’s a dry medium. But you can apply color so lightly that all it does is tint whatever colors are underneath. That’s what I mean by glazing.

I glazed yellow-green over the grass and a combination of greens over the umber under drawing of this portrait. The colors glazed change the color of the under under drawing without covering it completely.

A colored pencil glaze needs to be applied with light pressure. But broken color (when some of what’s underneath shows through) is also good for glazing with colored pencils. The side of a well-sharpened pencil is perfect for this, too.

Layering and Blending with Dull Pencils

There are also times when using a dull pencil is the best choice. I wrote about that a few days ago and you can read that post here. I mention it here because using sharp pencils sometimes isn’t the best—or fastest—way to layer or blend colored pencils.

Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits

Now, about odorless mineral spirits.

Odorless mineral spirits (OMS) are a solvent designed to “melt” or liquefy the binder in colored pencils. While the binder is liquefied, the pigment can be moved around on the paper, smoothed out, and if you’re blending more than one color, the different colors can be blended together almost like paint.

There are a number of reasons to use odorless mineral spirits or any other solvent for blending.


Solvent blending is faster than blending by layering. You do need to have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to work with, but that usually requires only three or four layers.


Solvent blending fills the tooth of the paper more completely and more quickly. Pigment soaks into the tooth of the paper better when wet than when dry.


If you have arthritis in your hands or wrists, or have some other painful condition, solvent blending may very well be the only way you can use colored pencils. Blending with solvent on a brush is a lot easier on your hands than blending by layering, especially in the later layers, when you have to apply more pressure.

So there are good reasons to use solvent blending.

Do I Use Solvent on All of My Work?


Although I have mineral spirits in my colored pencil toolbox, the truth is that I don’t use it very often. When I do use it, it’s usually because I want some kind of special effect that’s attainable only with solvents, or I’m on a short deadline and need to complete something quickly.

There’s nothing wrong with using solvents for blending. I used turpentine and other solvents for years with oil painting.

But I prefer the look of colored pencils blended without solvents. Layering and blending different colors or different shades of the same colors to get the effects I want is more enjoyable than using solvents.

What Matters Most When with Layering and Blending

What really matters most with layering and blending is what works best for you. If solvent blending gives you the look you want for you art, then use it.

If you prefer to blend by layering, that’s what you should do.

Investigating how other artists work is always a good idea. You never know when you’ll learn something that takes your art to the next level.

But don’t feel obligated to use every method you see demonstrated.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Every portrait artist wants to draw more realistic portraits no matter their chosen subject. Dee is interested in learning how to draw more accurate human portraits. Here’s her question:


Still having issues with drawing faces. It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with generic proportions, it’s more a question of how to modify the generic male/female proportions to more closely replicate a particular subject’s face and then, colored pencil color combos to better reflect various skin tones, including shadows.

Thanks, Carrie for your advice.


Thank you for your question, Dee. I can help you.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Dee has actually asked two questions, both of which would make complete posts on their own.

I also don’t do very many portraits these days and didn’t do very many people when I was doing a lot of portrait work. My subjects were usually equine in nature.

But the same principles that apply to drawing horse portraits also apply when you want to draw more realistic portraits of people.

How to Draw More Realistic Portraits

Drawing Faces to Look Like Specific People

Drawing generic faces is good practice, but when you start drawing specific people, it’s probably best not to start with a generic face.

Those generic drawings and an understanding of the basic proportions of any subject is good practice and time well spent. It’s helpful, for example, to know that the space between most people’s eyes is equal to the width of the eye itself.

But when you start drawing a specific person (or horse or dog or whatever,) it’s best to keep those basic proportions in mind, but to pay more attention to the individual subject.

Look at the person you’re drawing and draw them from the start.

The reason is that there’s endless variety in the human face. Yes, most people have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but a mouth can be small or large with thin lips or full. The eyes can be large or small and close together or far apart. And noses can be long or short, wide or narrow, dished, hooked, or perky.

And then there’s all the possible expressions.

So rather than start with a generic shape and try to make it look like a specific person, start by drawing the specific person.

How to Draw a Specific Person

I have drawn a couple of human portraits in my portrait career. The most recent one was a large oil portrait of a horse owner without the horse. She was the subject. Since the portrait was pretty large (24 x 36 inches,) my model was also going to be quite large. There was no room for error either in drawing or in painting.

So I drew a series of studies of her eyes, her mouth and her hands (the portrait was full body.) I even sketched her handbag and some of the other props in the portrait.

Draw more realistic portraits by drawing studies of individual features.

Then I drew her. When I had the drawing as good as I thought I could make it, I made a tracing directly from the reference photo then compared the two line drawings by laying one over the other. That was a great way to see where my drawing needed improvement.

I continued refining the drawing and comparing to the tracing until it was as good as I could make it.

Because the final portrait in my example was in oils, I continued improving the likeness while I painted. You can’t do that very easily with colored pencils, so take extra time to refine the likeness at the line drawing stage.

Colored Pencil Combinations for Skin Tones

Drawing accurate skins tones is both complex and simple.

It can be complex because there are so very many types of skin color from very dark to very light. Lighting also plays a role in drawing skin tones, so there really isn’t a standard set of colors that can be used for drawing every skin tone in every lighting situation.

This gray and white cat looks gray and white in this photo.

You would expect to use white to draw this cat in this light, and you would be right.

But I’d use different colors to draw him accurately in this photo, taken in the golden light of evening.

The same cat in different lighting. I’d use no white (or very little) to draw this portrait.

The same principle applies to drawing human skin tones.

Yes, those select sets for skin tones are a good place to start, but also use other colors. Using six shades of flesh tones and pinks will produce reasonable skin tones for many portraits, but they honestly can’t produce the vibrant, life-like skin tones you’re probably looking for. Even a portrait of a fair-skinned person in good light benefits from additional colors.

How to Select Additional Skin Tone Colors

First, take time to study the colors in your reference photo, but don’t focus on the actual skin tones at the beginning. The first thing is the lighting. Remember the cat illustration above.

The skin of a fair-skinned person in subdued lighting will require darker colors than the skin of the same person in strong light.

If you can, forget that you’re drawing a person and look at the colors in each area. Enlarge your reference photo to show each area separately or use a color picker. Match a colored pencil color to the color you see in the photo, or shown by a color picker.

I used IrfanView to pick a color in this illustration. The color picker tool is circled in black. I used that tool to click on the place in front of the cat’s eye and the color appeared in the box marked by the arrow.

Using a color picker helps you isolate individual colors, and that helps you match them more accurately.

Repeat the process for each part of the face, then blend those colors in with the skin tones when you layer.

Learning to Draw More Realistic Portraits Takes Practice

The more portraits you draw, the better you’ll get at seeing shapes accurately and accurately drawing what you see.

The same applies to seeing and reproducing colors, too.

So don’t give up. It looks daunting at the beginning. I know. I remember the first horse portraits I painted. Wanting to get them right but lacking the skill and know-how was agonizing!

But I did enough portraits to learn what worked and what didn’t.

You will too!

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How to Make Trees Look Real

Today’s question comes from a reader who wants to know how to make trees look real. Here’s the question:

When doing trees and bushes, do you round them similarly to rounding wine glasses and bottles.  I tried to round bushes and it does not appear real. What do you do to get the 3D for them?

Thank you for your question.

How to Make Trees Look Real

Making trees—or anything—look more real looks complicated, but it really isn’t if you keep three simple principles in mind.




Let’s take a closer look at each principle.

How to Make Trees Look Real

You can make trees look real by using the same shading principles you might use with a wine glass or a vase. Shading is shading, after all, no matter what you’re drawing.

The difficulty is that a wine glass or a vase is a simple shape and most trees are not. They are a collection of smaller shapes within the larger shape, so for your wine glass shading to work, you have to shade each of the smaller shapes, too.

To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.
To make trees look real, shade each of the smaller shapes within the larger shape.


Everything in the world can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes. Circles, squares, and triangles. Circles can be squeezed into ovals, and squares can be stretched into rectangles or twisted into other four-sided shapes. Triangles are pretty much always triangles, but they can take a number of different configurations.

Trees are no different than any other subject.

The trunks are usually some form of rectangle, with smaller rectangles as branches. The canopy of the tree (the leafy part) is usually some type of circle or oval at it’s most basic, but it can be broken down a collections of shapes as shown here.

Start with the biggest shapes first, then add the smaller shapes within the large shapes.

Drawing trees that look real begins with the very first marks you put on the paper, with the big shapes. Get those big shapes correct, and you’re off to a good start.


The thing that makes a shape (circle, square or triangle) into form (something that takes up space) is values. Shadows. Light areas and dark areas.

These light and dark areas reveal how light falls on the shape. The parts of the shape facing the light are getting direct light. The parts of the shape facing away from the light are getting very little light. In between is a variety of lighter or darker values known as middle values.

Values are just as important with trees as with anything else you might want to draw.

What makes trees look so complex is that they have so many different, smaller shapes within the larger shape. At first glance, they can look too complicated to draw, but use the same principle of values with each of the smaller shapes as with a larger shape and you’ll be surprised at how much easier it is to make trees look real.

Even with very crude shading as shown below, this sketch begins to look more like a real tree.

Shade around the largest shapes, but also around the smaller shapes. Treat each shape like an individual subject. Draw each one before moving to the next and the tree won’t be quite so overwhelming.


No two trees are ever identical. Not even two trees of the same species are identical. So vary the sizes and shapes of the trees you draw.

One of the best ways to do this is to draw from life. Keep to basic sketches and big forms, but take note of how one tree differs from the next.

The more you practice sketching trees so they look like individual trees instead of cookie cutter trees, the more realistically you’ll be able to draw trees with colored pencils.

I Hope that Helps You Make Your Trees Look Real

Like any other subject, trees look complicated when you first start drawing them. Take the time to practice first by learning the basic principles of drawing. Then sketch trees from life or photos until seeing the shapes and characteristics of each one becomes second nature.

Than you’ll be able to make your trees look real!

Making Reproductions of Your Art

For many artists, making reproductions of their work is an important way to generate income. Bob asks some very important questions on tht topic.

I need some advice. I am new at CP.

As I get going , I would like to be able to save my drawings so I can have a master of each and be able to make copies if someone would like to purchase one of any size. Obviously I don’t want to spend a lot of money because I may not find anyone that wants to buy anything. Here is a list of things that have come to me so far.

  1. What is a good size drawing to to have when making a master?
  2. Without spending a lot of money, how do I take a good picture of the drawing?
  3. What do I do to make different sizes of the drawing?
  4. What’s a cheap way to keep the master copies?

What a great question! I love talking about the business end of colored pencil art almost as much as I enjoy talking about the creative end of it. You’ve given me a lot of opportunities!

I’ll address each of your questions individually, if that’s okay.

Warning! This is a long post!

Making Reproductions of Your Art

Defining Terms

Before I go any further, let me clarify terms. A lot of us use the words “prints” and “reproductions” interchangeably. Once something gets into the common vernacular, it’s next to impossible to get it out, but there is a difference between a print and a reproduction.

A print is created when an etching is made in copper, linoleum or some other substrate called a plate. The artist spreads ink over the plate, then presses paper onto the plate either by a flat press or a roller. Sometimes the artist rolls the paper by hand.

The resulting image is a print and it’s called that because it was printed directly from the plate. As a rule, a limited number of prints can be made from a plate before the printing process begins to wear on the plate.

A reproduction, on the other hand, is created indirectly from a photographic or digital image. The artwork is finished by whatever medium the artist prefers. Oils, acrylics, graphite, pastels, colored pencils. The finished artwork is photographed, the image is color matched, and then reproductions are created from the digital image. An unlimited number of reproductions can be made from an image.

I understand why so many people call reproductions prints. They are printed, after all. But in the strictest, most art-related sense of the word, they are not prints.

Enough said!

Tips for Making Reproductions of Your Work

What is a Good Size Drawing for a Master?

You can make a good master from any size of drawing, but in general, the larger the original, the more flexible you are in making a master for reproduction purposes.

The more important thing to consider is how you plan to make the master. I’ll tell you how I do it now and in the past.

The Way I Used to Make Masters

When I started making reproductions, my husband suggested a professional photographer photograph my work, so that’s what we did.

The photographer had a set up much better than what I could afford. He photographed the work, color corrected it, and then printed a proof.

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

When the proof was ready, I was able to do side-by-side comparisons. Reproductions were then created on just about any paper I wanted, including canvas. My artwork at the time ranged in size from 11 x 14 to 20 x 24.

The reproductions from this method were identical to the original artwork. At least I couldn’t tell the difference. But they were expensive! Photography alone cost about $200 per painting. I received high-resolution images on CD when it was all said and done, but that was still a lot of money.

The advantage is that it doesn’t matter how big or small the artwork is.

The Way I Make Masters Now

These days, I have a good scanner and I scan my own work. I scan at a minimum of 300 dpi (dots per inch—the higher the number, the better the resolution,) and usually save masters at 3000 pixels on the long side.

Because my scanner is just a hair over letter size, all of my work is small enough to fit on the scanner bed. That way I don’t have to stitch the images together in a photo editor, something that has never worked very well for me!

I no longer make reproductions of my work, but I have used some of those images for printing. Ann Kullberg’s Grazing Horses* tutorial is my work and those images were all created on my scanner.

I also have a piece in her DRAW Landscapes* book, and those images were scanned.

Print versions are available of both of those publications and the printed images look just as good as the originals.

So you could very easily scan your artwork this way and then make reproductions at home.

*Contains affiliate links

Another Way to Make Masters

A lot of artists use medium- to high-end cameras to photograph their artwork.

Making reproductions by photographing your own work.
Image by Saiful Mulia from Pixabay

If you plan to do this, you need proper lighting, a tripod for your camera, and a method for displaying your work flat against the wall.

You also have to learn how to take the best images of your work. Automatic settings don’t always guarantee good results even with the best cameras.

As with professional photography, it doesn’t matter what size your original artwork is.

If you don’t have a scanner and don’t want to buy one, you can always have your work scanned by businesses like Office Max or some copy shops. The advantage to this course of action is that these companies can usually scan larger work, and produce high-resolution files. The cost per image scanned is usually less than $10, too, so you can have one or two scanned, see how it works, and not pay and arm and a leg.

How To Get a Good Picture of the Drawing?

(Without spending a lot of money.)

The best way I get good images of my work is with a scanner. Even some of the more inexpensive scanners are capable of producing excellent images with good color.

I currently use a HP Deskjet 1510 printer/scanner. It’s an older model, but still available through outlets like eBay. I found several on eBay while writing this article, and prices began at $25.

It’s good quality, scans anywhere from 100 dpi to 2400 dpi and scans artwork up to a little over 8-1/2 inches by a little over 11-1/2 inches.

You also need a good photo editor for fine tuning the scanned images. I use one of two free downloads. IrfanView is good for basic adjustments. If I need to make more in-depth adjustments, I use GIMP. GIMP is more versatile, but also has a steeper learning curve.

How to Make Different Sizes for Making Reproductions

Opening an account with Fine Art America is the easiest way to begin. Upload your master, and select the sizes best suited to your master. Fine Art America will do the printing for your customer and ship it.

Basic accounts are free and you can upload up to 20 images the last time I looked. They’re easy to set up and you can market different types of reproductions all from the same master.

No guarantees on sales, but if you want to test the market and you’re willing to do some marketing, it’s a good way to get started.

The only other option I see is to print your own reproductions at home. For that, you need a printer capable of printing larger sizes using archival inks. Those printers are not cheap.

If you go this route, you change the sizes in whatever photo editor you use. Just remember to always save the changes as a new file, and to never enlarge. Always reduce!

The Best Way to Store Masters

Digital Masters

Since your masters are going to be digital, you need a computer and/or separate storage device to store them.

How much computer space you need depends on how many high-resolution images you plan to store.

Now I scan most of my work regularly so I have step-by-step progress shots. I also scan the finished artwork. I save all images at 300 dpi resolution and a miminum of 3000 pixels on the long side. That produces a print image 10 inches by whatever the short side is.

I have over twenty years worth of images stored. Not all of them include progress shots, and most of the older ones are not at 300 dpi or 3000 pixels. I saw no need for larger images back then.

At the moment I’m writing this, all of those files (including written painting journals) are nearly 20 gigabytes total. I have them stored on the hard drive of our desktop computer, and backed up to a flash drive (aka thumb drive.)

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

CDs or external hard drives are also a good way to store digital masters.

Film Masters

I don’t know how likely it is that you’ll have film masters, but if you do, your best storage option is archival album sheets. I know such things are available, but that’s about the limit of my knowledge. Your best bet is to consult a professional photographer who has been in business long enough to have negatives in storage.

My Advice for Making Reproductions of Art

You’ll like this (I hope.)

Start where you are.

Your idea to start creating and saving masters of each piece is a very good one and long-sighted. Good for you! Use the equipment you have to create the best possible masters. Remember, larger and higher resolution is better.

Upgrade equipment when you can and after you’ve established a market.

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What to Draw Next: How to Decide

Today’s post is the third in a three-part question asked by Carolyn, who is new to colored pencils. The topic for today is deciding what to draw next, and how to know it’s worth the time it takes to finish. Here’s her question.

I asked my drawing teacher, an artist herself, how you decide what is worthy to be the subject matter upon which you spend so much time?  I guess I have my greatest indecision in this area.

Wow! What a question! Thank you for aking it!

How to Decide What to Draw Next

My first response is to ask whether you lack decisiveness because you have too many ideas or too few. Both can be a problem when you really want to make art!

So let me answer the question from the point-of-view of having too many ideas and having too few ideas. Then I’ll conclude with a few general thoughts.

(And if I’ve totally missed the point of your question, ask it again in the comments below.)

Deciding What to Draw Next

When You Have Too Many Ideas

Most of us think that having too many ideas is not a problem at all; it’s a blessing. And speaking from personal experience, I can agree with that. Sometimes.

But there are times when so many things look like worthwhile subjects that I cannot decide which one to do first. Most of the time, dozens of ideas look good, but no single idea is clearly the favorite. It’s like a horse race in which all the horses finish at the same time. Which one is best?

If this is the problem making you indecisive in choosing your next subject, then the best thing I can recommend is to write each idea on a slip of paper, put the slips into a jar, and draw one out.

Do that drawing, then choose the next one the same way if necessary.

I’m guessing you won’t have to do this very often, because after one or two, an idea will light a fire inside and you’ll know what to draw next.

Yeah. I know. It sounds pretty corny. It’s like drawing straws to make a decision!

But if your ideas are all equal enough that none really stands out, this is a great way to make a selection.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

When You Have Too Few Ideas

I’ve always had times when nothing looks worth drawing. As much as too many ideas frustrates me, having no good ideas is even worse. Such a total lack of enthusiasm for anything can lead to stagnation and do so quickly.

I have two suggestions for this problem: One I’ve used myself, and one I’ve heard recommended by other artists.

The Recommended Idea

Spend five to ten minutes looking at photographs. They can be your own photos, or from a photo website like Pixabay. The source doesn’t really matter so long as the images are royalty free.

Don’t spend any more than five or ten minutes. Pick a reference and draw it, whatever it is.

Don’t worry about whether or not it’s a favorite subject (or a hated subject.) Just. Draw.

My Favorite Method

What I prefer to do is draw something from life. I’ve drawn pebbles, the mouse of my computer, the door handle on a 1973 Capri, and many other things that are totally out of my usual fare. My favorite things to sketch this way are the oaks across the street.

You see, when you have too few ideas (or no ideas,) what you really need isn’t an idea.

What you really need is something to get you started. Little sketches and life studies are perfect for that. They don’t have to be important. They don’t even have to be finished. All they need to do get you drawing.

But what often happens is that whatever you start drawing leads to the next “serious” subject. Maybe you decide that quick sketch is ideal for a more finished drawing, and you’re off and drawing! What could be better?

What to draw next when you have no ideas. Draw the first thing that catches your eye.
When you have too few ideas what to draw next—or none at all—just look out your window (or in your studio) and draw the first thing you see. It doesn’t have to be great. It just needs to get you started. You might also try a different medium. Colored pencils are my go-to medium, but I did this sketch with watercolor pencils or watercolor (I don’t remember which.)

What’s Worth Drawing


Anything you choose to draw is worth the time. Why? Because drawing anything is better than drawing nothing.

And everything you draw teaches you something about colored pencils and getting them to do what you want to do with them. How can that kind of time be poorly spent?

Whether you have too many or too few ideas about what to do next, keep one thing in mind. Any subject that you are attached to is probably worth taking the time to draw.

Deciding What to Draw Next

Carolyn, when you asked how long it should take to do a colored pencil piece, you said you enjoyed the work and found the results satisfying no matter how long it took.

That tells me that you are able to find subjects to draw that hold your attention long enough to keep you interested until they’re finished.

It also tells me that time really doesn’t matter that much to you. The three months you spent on the dahlia were enjoyable, weren’t they?

I guess what I’m really trying to tell you is to pay attention to yourself and your instincts. Draw the things that attract you and don’t worry about what other artists are drawing. Trying to keep up with others is a sure way to squelch your creativity.

Don’t. Do it!

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