Transitioning from Graphite to Colored Pencils

Transitioning from Graphite to Colored Pencils

I recently received a question from a reader who is transitioning from graphite to colored pencils. Here’s the question.

I am a beginner to sketching and creating art. So far I have been practicing sketching with pencils and some charcoal. I can see improvement in my sketches, however I really want to try colored pencils. Thus far, it has been frustrating with little success. Somehow what I have learned in graphite does not transfer to the coloured pencil medium. Any suggestions?

This is an excellent question. So good, in fact, that I decided to go into more depth with an answer than was convenient in an email.

Making the Transition from Graphite to Colored Pencils

Moving from graphite drawing to drawing with colored pencils appears to be a simple enough process. After all, you’re exchanging one kind of pencil for another.

Some skills do transition easily.

The way you hold the pencil is one of those skills. The way you hold a graphite pencil is the way you hold a colored pencil, too.

Many of the strokes are the same, and creating values is also pretty much the same (more on values below.)

However, there are some very important things that apply to graphite, but not to colored pencils. Let’s talk about those.

The Differences Between Graphite and Colored Pencil
Binding Agents

The biggest difference is in the manufacturing process. Graphite pencils and colored pencils are made with different types of binders.

The binding agent in graphite pencils is a clay binder. When mixed with other ingredients, this binder makes it possible to form the graphite into a lead core, then draw or write with it. The clay-based binder is also easily erased and blended. That’s what makes graphite such a great tool for sketching and blending.

Colored pencils also contain clay in the binder, but the ingredients that make graphite so easy to blend are left out of the binding agent for colored pencils. Instead, different combinations of wax and oil are mixed with the clay. This binder still allows the pigment to be molded into pencil form, and allows it to be transferred to paper.

It also allows blending, but not in the same way you blend graphite. Erasing is also much more difficult with colored pencils. In fact, the erasers that work so well with graphite may smear your colored pencil.

So you can hold colored pencils and graphite pencils the same way, use the same strokes, and create values with both, but the similarities end there.

Transitioning from Graphite to Colored Pencils
Combining Graphite and Colored Pencils

As a rule, graphite doesn’t work well under colored pencil because the wax binder in colored pencils smears graphite into the color. Remember how easy it is to blend or erase graphite? That means it can also be easily picked up by colored pencil.

The only way to make this work is to seal the graphite under drawing before adding color. This method doesn’t work well all the time, so test it on scrap paper first.

You cannot layer graphite over colored pencil because graphite will not stick to the waxy surface colored pencils leave on the paper. You might be able to seal the colored pencil with workable fixative and use graphite on that, but I don’t recommend it.

So most of the methods you use with graphite are not very helpful with colored pencil.

One Thing That Does Transition from Graphite to Colored Pencil

But one thing that does transfer is knowing how to use values in drawing. A good graphite artist knows all about using value to create form in their drawings. Form is what makes a drawing on flat paper look three-dimensional.

So once you’ve mastered creating values in graphite, you know the most important thing you need to know about transitioning to colored pencils.

What’s the Best Way to Transition from Graphite to Colored Pencils?

There is no “rule” for this. All of us learn in different ways and what works for me may not work for anyone else. But I can make a suggestion.

Start learning colored pencil by working with just one or two colors. Get a feel for how they layer and blend, and see what you can draw. It probably won’t take many drawings to show you the possibilities.

At that point, you will have a good idea whether or not you want to invest in more colored pencils. Then you can begin adding more colors to your palette.

I don’t recommend buying a full set of any kind of colored pencils until you’ve tried a few colors first. There’s no sense in investing a lot of money in something you may end up not using.

The Bottom Line

It is possible to transition from graphite to colored pencils successfully. It will take time, and there will be frustrations along the way.

But if you don’t give up and draw regularly, you’ll become as good with colored pencils as you are with graphite.

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