Colored pencils are loads of fun, versatile to use, and easy to transport. Drawing is the foundation that all art is built upon. It is a great place to start, and a constant area to practice with a goal of improvement. You have used a pencil since you were a tot.
So the pencil is natural to use as an art tool. Be sure to explore Loew-Cornell’s All About Drawing to learn more about drawing basic forms and textures. After using graphite pencils and charcoal to learn shading and value, add a rainbow of hues with colored pencils!
Colored pencils are wax based. The pencil marks are transparent, and when used in layers, can produce glowing results. Solvents like turpenoid can be used on the colored pencil drawing to make a wash, but since we have watercolor pencils, why risk the toxicity of solvents? Colored pencils can be mixed with graphite pencils. Graphite pencils are the standard drawing and writing pencils. Sometimes referred to as a “lead pencil”, there is actually no lead in them. Lead is the term used for the color cylinder housed in the wood casing of the pencil.
Watercolor pencils feel like colored pencils in use, but are gum arabic based, instead of wax. After drawing with them, the images can be moved, blended and washed by water applied with a brush. Colored pencils and watercolor pencils can be used in combination.
Sharpening Your Pencils
There are many types of sharpeners, from hand-held to electric. The important thing is blade sharpness.
Small hand-held sharpeners give you control, and do not waste too much pencil by over-sharpening, as can be done with an electric machine. Blades need to be replaced when dull. You can tell if the sharpener is dull if the wood around the pencil crushes. Hand-held sharpeners are inexpensive, so if it is dull, it is time for a new one. There are two different sizes of pencil sharpener holes, so make sure your sharpener fits your pencil.
Try not to drop your pencils. The lead is fragile and can break inside the pencils, causing much sharpening frustration. Watercolor pencils should not be sharpened when wet as the lead has been softened and will break and smoosh.
Use a sandpaper paddle to achieve the shape of the point that you wish. This works especially well with watercolor pencils to make a wider stroke line. Some techniques work better with a chisel edge ￼on the pencil. When the sheet of sandpaper is filled, you can dispose of it and use the next one underneath.
Choosing a Surface
There are many fine papers and boards available to use for your drawings. Use a quality paper that is acid-free and not too thin. Beginners tend to use scratch paper to practice, but you may waste a wonderful work if it is not on a good substrate. Colored papers can give your work a whole new look. Try using light pencils on dark paper. In this method you are drawing light rather than shadows. Mat board is a great substrate and takes away all the problems of creases and wrinkles. “Tooth” refers to the texture of the paper. Some tooth is nice because it grabs the colored pencil and lets more layers be applied.
Watercolor paper is also good, especially if you plan to dampen your drawing with water or solvent. Watercolor paper comes in different weights and textures. 90# is light, 140# is a good choice, and 300# is like a board. Price increases as the weight increases. Paper finishes are hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough. Hot-press is smooth, cold-press has some bumpy texture and – you guessed it – rough is just that. Cold-press, or CP, is usually a good choice.
Watercolor paper is usually 100% cotton rag, and will last forever. It has been found in the Egyptian tombs. Try many varieties to see which you like. When choosing your subject, contemplate which paper lets you explore and say what you want.
- Stippling. Make little or big dots. The more dense the dots, the darker the value.
- Hatching. Short lines in a similar direction.
- Cross-hatching. Layers of lines going in a variety of directions. The more layers, the darker the value.
- Scribbling. Making little circles to build up value.
- Smooth light even value. This is a good way to start. Light pressure on the pencil using any technique 1-4. If color is applied too dark too fast, the paper will be saturated and will allow no more color to be applied. Build up layers of color with lightly applied pressure.
- Drawing with heavy pressure is called “burnishing”. Usually no more color can be added over a heavily burnished area, as it is “saturated” with color.
- Pencil residue is left in burnishing (#7) and can cause smears and smudges. To smudge on purpose, use your finger, a tortillon or blending stump to pull out soft color. To prevent a smudge, keep pencil particles clear by dusting your drawing surface with a soft brush. Another safety precaution would be to keep tracing paper over surface so your hand does not touch the drawing. This will prevent the oils from your hands from penetrating the paper. Even wearing cotton gloves may help keep paper clean.
- Plain, even-tone blue.
- White colored pencil burnished over the top of #9.
- #10 with blue burnished over the top.
- (Top) Dark to light gradation of blue.
- (Middle) Light to dark gradation of green.
- (Bottom) #13 applied over #12 to blend two colors
Learn About Color
Color Pencil Color Wheel
Colored pencil is transparent and semi-transparent in layers, so that when it is applied in layers it is luminescent. Creating a color wheel is a good exercise to get to know your colors. Each color has been applied with light pressure on the edges and burnished in the center to demonstrate how dark the pencil will go. The light pressure areas are overlapped. New colors are produced by the layering technique. Primary colors are yellow, red, and blue. Start with these three colors in a triangle, equal distances from each other. Secondary colors are green, orange, and violet. Place these between the primaries that are mixed to create them. Tertiary colors are going to be created by the blends and layered combinations that make yellow-green, red-orange, etc.
Watercolor Pencil Color Wheel
If you have never used watercolor pencils before, warm up with a watercolor wheel. Sketch a light circle. Around the circle, put a square burnished patch of each primary color. Place as many squares as you wish adding secondary or tertiary colors in their proper order. With a stiff bristle brush, put water on the edge of one square and try to blend the color toward the center of the circle going from dark to light. Control water with a paper towel. Blot your brush on the towel so that it is damp and does not release too much water onto the paper so as to become out of control.
Play With Color
Fun to try
– ￼￼“Frottage”, or rubbings, can produce magical drawings in seconds. Find low relief sculpture. Coins are perfect. Other sources might be jewelry, buttons, and decorative plates. Place the item under light-weight paper and rub a colored pencil over the item on the paper. These “drawings,” or rubbings, would look great in collage work or scrapbook pages.
– ￼Use colored pencils on vellum paper. Vellum looks like tracing paper but is stronger. Since you can see through the paper, it is easy to trace with. You can put pencil on both sides and achieve another color that is slightly frosted. It can be cut and layered with other drawings, too. No limit to this idea.
– Draw first with a graphite pencil. This ensures that you have all your values in place. Next add colored pencil. If done lightly, the art can look like a vintage hand-tinted photograph. The old masters used this technique, called grisaille, in their paintings.
– Watercolor pencils are versatile. You can dip the pencil in water and draw. You can draw on wet paper. You can draw, and then wet the line using a brush. Experiment and have fun!
– Doodle. Using graph paper and lined paper are fun ways to think though patterns, and a great way to challenge our brains, too. Colored pencils allow you to play with color themes when planning a quilt to planning a decorating scheme.