Layering and Blending Colored Pencils

Layering and Blending - Glazing

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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!

How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

How long should a colored pencil drawing take to finish? Carolyn is concerned about the amount of time she puts into her work. Here’s her question:

Colored pencil seems to take SO LONG, yet the results are satisfying.  Am I doing something wrong that it takes me so long to finish a piece?  I drew an 11×14 dahlia that I photographed in Seattle in August.  I finally called it “done” last week.  Almost 3 months.


I love this question, Carolyn, because it’s so common, and still so personal. Let’s get right to the answer.

How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take

How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

A lot of factors need to be considered in answering this question. The amount of time each day or week you have to work on your art is probably the most important. If you work on art only in your free time, it will take more weeks or months to finish than if you’re a full-time artist.

In the main, however, five factors determine how long any given artwork will take to finish. They are:



Level of Detail

Tools and Supplies

Personal Preferences


Size is obvious. The bigger a piece, the longer it takes to finish. I’ve completed ACEO sized drawings in just a few hours stretched over a week. Lets say about 10 hours.

Similar styles of portraits that are 11×14 take up to 30 or 40 hours depending on what I do with the background.

I once did a 16×20 portrait that took 72 hours and several weeks to finish (yes, I actually timed myself.)

The largest colored pencil I did took months to complete. I have no idea how many hours it entailed, but it was a fully landscaped horse portrait, so it took probably close to a hundred hours.

So a good rule of thumb is that the larger a piece, the longer it takes to complete.

This portrait was 20 x 24 inches on mat board. It took months and untold hours to finish.


For the purposes of this discussion, complexity and detail are not the same. When I speak of complexity, I’m speaking of the elements in the composition. If it’s a landscape, does it have a lot of trees, water, a mountain, flowers, animals, etc? If so, it’s more complex than a landscape of only trees and hills.

A still life with flowers, a vase, grapes, a coffee cup and saucer, and a biscuit on a plate is a lot more complex than a still life with only a banana.

If two drawings are the same size, have the same level of detail, and the artist uses the same tools, supplies, and methods to draw both, the more complex drawing is most likely to take more time.

Level of Detail

Level of detail means the amount of details in the drawing, both overall, and within each element. A sketchy-style drawing has very few details and can usually be completed quickly, sometimes in a single sitting if it’s smaller.

Lots of artists who draw from life do this kind of drawing and can complete one or two or more drawings in an afternoon.

But if a drawing has a lot of detail, it will take longer to finish, just because all those details require time. In some case, each area of detail can be like finishing a separate drawing!

This portrait was created in my usual detailed style, it took several hours to complete.
I used the same reference photo for this piece, but since it’s more illustration than fine art, it didn’t take nearly as long to complete.

Tools and Supplies

If you use just colored pencils and no solvents, blending tools, or special papers, it will probably take longer to complete a drawing, than if you used solvents, blending tools, or special papers. Solvents especially are time-savers for colored pencil artists.

So are watercolor pencils. You can lay down base colors very quickly with watercolor pencils if you want to, then let the paper dry and finish the drawing with regular colored pencils. The time saved with the watercolor pencils can sometimes significantly reduce the amount of time needed to finish even large pieces.

(I wish I had known about watercolor pencils back when I did that big portrait!)

Personal Preferences

Finally comes personal preferences. This includes the method of drawing you use—lots of layers applied with light pressure or just a few layers applied with heavier pressure.

Your personal preferences include (but aren’t limited to) the reason you’re making art in the first place, your goals for art overall and for each piece, size preferences, subject preferences, and too many other things to mention here.

Most important, however, is this.

“Colored pencil seems to take SO LONG, yet the results are satisfying.”

Do I need to say more?

So How Long Should a Colored Pencil Drawing Take?

As long as it takes!

Don’t worry about how long it takes other artists to do the same kind of art. Some will finish their pieces more quickly, and some will take a lot longer! Just enjoy what you’re doing and keep making great pieces!

If you find the process satisfying and you like the results of the time you spend, then don’t worry about how long it takes you. The process is as much a part of the pleasure as the finished drawing.

Colored Pencils and Fading Colors

Today, we’ll talk about colored pencils and fading colors, a common concern among artists. The question for the day comes from Carolyn. Here’s her question:

I originally began with Prismacolor pencils, read that they fade, gave them away.  

I replaced them with Caran d’Ache Pablo, then bought their Luminance set, as well.  Been working in both.  

I read that the latter are light-fast, but are the Pablo, too?  Understand that Pablo are oil-based, and Luminance wax-based, and therefore more opaque, which drove my decision to purchase and use with the Pablo, which are more transparent.

I just don’t want my work disappearing after all the time invested.


I wholeheartedly agree with you on the issue of having your artwork disappear over the years. If you’re like me, you put way too much time into your work to risk it fading into pale memories!

Colored Pencils and Fading Colors

Colored Pencils and Fading Colors

All mediums include colors that fade or are fugitive. The problem isn’t with the medium (oil, acrylic, colored pencil, etc.) The pigments used to make those colors are the problem. Some pigments, like those derived from minerals or the earth, are very stable and last a long time.

Other pigments, usually those derived from plant sources, are not stable and tend to fade. Some fade quickly.

Until science comes up with non-fading AND inexpensive substitutes for those fugitive pigments, we have to deal with fugitive colors.

Prismacolor Pencils

Prismacolor pencils have a reputation for fugitive colors.

Some of the fading colors fade because there are currently no non-fading substitutes for naturally fading pigments, or the non-fading pigments are prohibitively expensive. Pinks and purples are good examples.

Some of the colors could be more lightfast with the use of more stable pigments. But those pigments are expensive, so the Prismacolor people have chosen to use less expensive pigments (even though they fade) in order to keep their prices low.

That, incidentally, is true of most inexpensive pencils. They cost less either because they use inferior pigments, or a lot of binder.

Even so, about half the colors in the Prismacolor line are perfectly safe to use. I use colors that are rated I (1), II (2), or III (3), with I being the safest. Colors rated IV (4) or V (5) are not even in my tool box. I don’t buy full sets anymore, but prefer to buy open stock.

But a lot of artists are like you and prefer not to mess with Prismacolor at all.

Caran d’Ache Luminance

Caran d’Ache has chosen to take the high road in their colored pencils. They use the highest quality pigments, which means they have more non-fading colors.

They’ve also opted to produce fewer colors. Prismacolor currently has a line of 150 colors, for example. Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils come in only 76 colors. The colors that Prismacolor offers and Caran d’Ache doesn’t are the colors most likely to fade.

You can use every color in the Luminance line with confidence.

Caran d’Ache Pablos

The difference between an oil-based pencil and a wax-based pencil is the binder—-the stuff that holds the pigment together in that pigment core and allows you to put color on the paper. The binder has no affect on the lightfast qualities of the color.

The same pigments are used in Pablos that are used in Luminance.

The biggest difference will be in handling. Pablos are a harder pencil. They hold a point longer, and lay down color differently than the softer, thicker Luminance according to other artists.

I haven’t used either Luminance or Pablos, but I trust the company to produce a quality product and would have no hesitations at all about mixing Pablos and Luminance pencils.

The Bottom Line on Colored Pencils and Fading Colors

No matter what brand of pencils you use, some colors will be less lightfast than others. Knowing how each color from each company is rated for lightfastness is your best tool in deciding which companies (and colors) to trust and which to avoid.

How To Draw Trees with Colored Pencil

So how do you draw trees with colored pencils? Is there a “best way” to draw them far away and up close? That’s what Paula is asking today. Here’s her question:

Hi Carrie,

I’m having trouble with trees and leaves.  Trees in the distance aren’t too bad but as they get closer in view you need to combine the “fuzzy” trees in the distance with some more detailed leaves in the foreground.  Love your tips!


Thank you for your question, Paula.

How to Draw Trees with Colored Pencils

Trees. At one time, I hated drawing them and avoided drawing them whenever possible.

They’re now among my favorite subjects to sketch and draw.

When I started writing this post, I fully intended to show you how to draw a tree with colored pencil with a step-by-step tutorial.

Then I decided to begin with a few general tips and by the time I had those outlined, I realized adding a tutorial would make the post way too long. So we’ll focus on the general tips, then I’ll link to a two-part tutorial I wrote for EmptyEasel.

A Few Tips for Drawing Trees

Let’s begin with a few basic principles that will help you draw better trees no matter what type of tree you want to draw. They’re easy to grasp and put to use because you’re probably already using them with other subjects and didn’t realize they apply to trees, too (and anything else you might want to draw.)

Go for the Big Shapes First

No two trees are identical, even if they’re the same type of tree. Branches grow differently. Branches die and fall. Trees get pruned. Whatever the cause, each tree is as unique as each person.

So the first thing to do when you draw a tree is to look for the big, overall shape. Don’t worry about what’s within that shape.

If you’re drawing more than one tree, pay attention to how they relate to one another in size, too. Vary the sizes of the trees you draw so it doesn’t look like you’re drawing cut-out trees.

How to draw trees - start with the big shapes
Always begin with the largest, most basic shapes for each tree. If you’re drawing more than one tree, note how the shapes relate to one another in size and location.

Vary the Level of Detail

The closer an object is, the more clearly you can see the details of that object. Trees in the foreground should have more detail than the trees in the background. The further away a tree is, the less detail you should draw.

Color and value is part of this picture. Colors generally get less vibrant as they recede into the distance. The range of values also gets narrower. The light values get a little darker and the darker values get a little lighter.

Each of these three things contribute to the illusion of distance and space in artwork.

Don’t Draw Every Leaf

Even in the trees in the foreground.

There is one exception to this principle and that’s if you happen to have twigs or branches hanging down in the extreme foreground. You will need to be more careful about drawing individual leaves in a case like that.

Yes, the closer trees should look more like they have leaves instead of a solid canopy, but you still shouldn’t draw every leaf. A few strokes or dots of color in a few places around the outside edges of your tree will be enough to help a viewer “see” leaves in the rest of the tree.

Another good place to add these kinds of details is along the edges where colors or values change, such as the edges of shadows.

But you’re also probably going to show them in less detail and perhaps silhouetted in order to keep them from becoming the focus of attention.

Use More than One Color

Most of the time, trees are some shade of green. Obviously, Autumn is one time of year when many trees are not green, and there are some trees that are never green, but for the most part, when you draw a tree, you’ll be using a green.

But don’t limit yourself to just one green. Choose a dark green, a middle green, and a light green that work well together. Use each color where appropriate to draw the colors AND values.

For good measure, have an earth tone handy, just in case those greens get a little too artificial looking! Some shade of red or orange also work to tone down greens.

Stay Away from Those Neon Colors

Unless your landscape features something man-made, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find bright, vibrant colors in it. So when you make color selections, stay away from colors that are bright enough to attract the eye, but don’t look at all natural in a landscape.

How To Draw Trees with Colored Pencil

As mentioned earlier, I’ll send you over to EmptyEasel, where you can see the first article in a series showing how I drew a landscape with trees. I started with an umber under drawing, and you can read that article here.

How to Draw Trees with an Umber Under Drawing

The second part is all about color, and you can read that here.

This two-part tutorial will help you see how to separate the trees in the foreground from the trees in the middle ground.

And I hope to do a new landscape tutorial sometime in 2020, so stay tuned for that.

When Dull Pencils are the Best Choice

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

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


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

When Dull Pencils are the Best Choice

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

When You Do a Tutorial…

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

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

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

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

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

Are There Times When a Dull Pencil is Better?


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

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

Drawing Large Areas Quickly

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

Dull pencils and Base Layers

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

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

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

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

Dull Pencils are Ideal for Glazing.

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

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

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

Use Dull Pencils for a Blending Layer

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

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

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

Burnishing Requires Dull Pencils

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

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

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

There You Have It

A few ways you can use dull pencils.

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

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

Creating a Sketchy Style with Colored Pencil

Time to talk about drawing styles! Shirley wants to know ways of creating a sketchy style of drawing with colored pencil.

Dear Carrie,

I have sketched all my life for pleasure and am self taught on almost everything I do. I am trying to learn colored pencil but do not like the burnishing, etc.

Because of how much I like sketching and not a photographic look (I admire anyone who does that kind of artwork though), I would like my colored pencil work to look sketchy, as well. I’ve seen that style in magazines, etc. but not sure how to go about getting that result myself.

What kind of paper produces that style and/or any specific kinds of application. My feeling is that just because an apple is shiny doesn’t mean I have to draw it that way. I like realistic but not necessarily photographic.


Creating a Sketchy Style with Colored Pencils

Believe it or not, I have dabbled with less realistic art over the years. I don’t often share it on the blog because most of it is just for fun (as the reader pointed out,) or it’s an experiment. A way to learn a new medium.

I’ll share some of those pieces with you now, and tell you what I did to make each drawing.

Hopefully one of more of them will help you in creating a sketchy style all your own.

Creating a Sketchy Style with Colored Pencil

Coarse or Rough Papers

Most papers will produce most styles of artwork. You can use a coarser, toothier paper to get more “painterly” or “sketchy” results.

My first piece on sanded pastel paper, for example, was very sketchy and painterly. So it’s definitely worth a try.

Creating a Sketchy Style by using Sanded Art Papers
I used Uart Sanded Pastel Paper for this landscape, and limited the number of layers I used. The result was a more painterly look. Not quite sketchy, but nowhere near as realistic as I usually prefer.

You can, of course, do the same thing with smoother papers. Lay down color in broad washes and limit yourself to one or two layers (three at the most.) The paper will show through these layers and create a the kind of sketchy style you’re looking for.

Larger Pencils are Also an Option

You might also try using larger pencils.

Prismacolor Art Stix or Koh-I-Nor Progresso Woodless Pencils are ideal when you want to avoid detail. Color selections are limited with both, and only about half the colors in each set are lightfast, but the colors that remain are perfect for laying down large swatches of color, especially flat color.

You can then go over them with regular pencils to add accents.

Or sharpen your regular pencils and draw with the side of the exposed pencil core.

Use the side of a pencil by holding the pencil horizontally and drawing with all of the exposed pigment core, as shown here. Drawing this way allows a lot of paper to show through and produces a sketchier color layer.

In both cases (larger pencils and the side of the pencils) color lays on top of the paper tooth, leaving lots of paper holes showing through on all but the smoothest papers.

One or Two Colors on Colored Paper

I do a lot of life drawing and sketching on colored paper because it gives me a toned base. I can use one color of pencil for quick sketches, like the one shown here.

Creating a Sketchy Style by using One Color on Colored Pencil
This sketch was drawn with just one pencil—a white pencil—on black paper. It looks detailed, but it isn’t really.

I know. Colored pencils are meant to be colorful! I get that.

But if you want to do “sketchy” work, try limiting the number of colors you use.

It doesn’t matter what color paper you use, if you use colors that compliment that paper, or that contrast with it, you can produce a sketchy style quite easily.

You can also do quite finished work with only a few colors, so restrain yourself from layering too much or adding too much detail. A few contrasting values will produce nice drawings without a lot of detail.

I used three colors on black paper for this sketch. Using colors you don’t ordinarily use is also a great way to keep your drawing more sketch-like. I used silver, gold and copper metallic pencils here.

Make the Most of Those Lines

Have you ever seen pen-and-ink drawings? If the artist used only black ink and only pens, then the entire drawing is made up of lines. Long lines. Short lines. Straight and curving lines. Dots and sometimes splatters.

Use your colored pencils the same way. Develop color and value not by filling in every bit of paper, but by layering different colors and varying the type of lines you make.

Limit Color Layers

Here’s a small colored pencil drawing I did several years ago. It’s totally colored pencil with no blending or special techniques.

The sketchy, almost illustrative look is the result of doing only a few layers of color, and limiting color choices. For example, I used one blue in the sky, one or two greens in the trees and grass, and mostly black in the horse.

I also kept the value range fairly narrow. There are lights and darks, but not much contrast. This keeps each element of the drawing from looking three-dimensional. Ordinarily, that’s not a good thing, but if you want a sketchy style, it’s perfect.

Creating a Sketchy Style with Flat Color and Outlining
Use only a few layers of color and keep contrast low (not much difference between light and dark values.) Outlining also produces a more illustration-style drawing.

Outline Parts of the Composition

I outlined the horse and trees in the sample above.

Many other artists who prefer a more illustrative look have also made use of outlining to make their work unique. Rhonda Dicksion and Jan Fagan are two artists who make use of outlining. Some of their work is more realistic without outlining, and some includes outlining. But they also both do very illustrative type of work. Take a look at both and see what ideas you can glean from them.

Lots of Colors, But Keep Them Flat

It’s also possible to create a different kind of sketchy style by using flat color, almost in an abstract pattern.

Richard Klekociuk does the most amazing landscapes by laying colors next to one another. Rather than shading, he chooses light and dark colors to create values and contrast.

I wouldn’t call his style “sketchy” per se, but his basic compositions and color use are a great place to begin.

Also take a look at Dan Miller’s landscape drawings for a different way to use color and create beautiful landscapes without drawing tons of details.

Give Watercolor Pencils a Try

I did this piece entirely with watercolor and used some watercolor methods.

I let wet color run together in the sky and yellow trees in the background. In the yellow field, I added wet color to wet color for a slightly different effect.

The larger trees were added after the paper was dry, and I stippled them (tapped color on with a small brush.) There are light and dark areas in those trees, but not much detail.

Granted, it’s not a colored pencil look, so it may not be what you’re looking for.

Dry Colored Pencil Over Watercolor Pencil

If you let the paper dry thoroughly, you can draw over watercolor pencil washes to add touches of detail. For this small drawing, I washed blues and purples together wet-into-wet. When the paper dried, I added the dark trees in the foreground.

I didn’t draw them with much detail, but was still able to create the appearance of distance by making the closer trees a little bit larger than those in the background.

Special Effects

I did several small pieces in shades of blue just because I liked the color, and because I wanted to try night scenes. The image above is the simplest of this foursome.

I did the sky in this one by sprinkling table salt into the wet color. The salt soaks up the color with the moisture and leaves “stars”. When the paper was dry, I brushed off the grains of salt and this is the result.

With this one, I washed colors wet into wet and let them blend, then put salt on parts of it. My goal (as I recall) was to create the look of a cloudy sky with a break in the clouds and stars in that part of the sky.

Was I successful? It didn’t turn out the way I wanted, but it may be exactly what you’re looking for.

A Few Ideas for Creating a Sketchy Style

If nothing else, Shirley, I hope I’ve given you a place to begin creating a sketchy style of drawing. Try them for yourself, then experiment and see what else you might be discover.

Whatever you do, have fun and keep drawing. Sooner or later your style will come shining through!