What Are Colored Pencils?

Colored pencils are an art medium made of a thin core of oil or wax-based pigments (with binding material) encased in wood. There are water-soluble colored pencils which can be used like regular colored pencils and later brushed over with water to create a watercolor effect. There are also woodless colored pencils or colored pencil sticks which are good for filling in large areas of color with minimal pencil marks.

What Are Colored Pencils Made Of?

Techniques for Drawing With Colored Pencils

Let’s take a look at some of the different colored pencil techniques. Practicing these techniques will enable you to create smoother-looking colored pencil drawings.

Layering

Layering colored pencils is one of the first blending techniques people use when learning to use colored pencils. To blend with layering, use a controlled, light amount of pressure to apply different colors to the area in layers, alternating between colors until you have gradually built up layers of overlapping, blended color.

Layering tips:

  • When you layer complementary colors, both colors will appear darkened and more subdued.

Burnishing

What is burnishing? The word burnishing means polishing by rubbing. Burnishing colored pencils involves using more pressure to apply layers of dense color onto the paper until you can’t see through to the paper below. To better understand how burnishing works, think about the what the surface of your paper looks like. The surface of the paper may appear to be smooth and flat, but if you look at it with a microscope you will see that it’s actually a very bumpy, rough texture with some parts that are higher and some parts that are lower. A sheet of paper is covered in thousands of nooks and crannies! When you burnish with colored pencils, you’re pushing the pigment deep into those nooks and crannies and pushing down the bumpier parts of the paper, flattening the surface. Since burnished blending uses more pressure than basic layering, it deposits more pigment on the paper and tends to create more saturated results. The burnished area will also appear more shiny due to the flattening of the paper.

Using a colorless blender (also called a burnishing blender)

Colorless blenders (or blender pencils) are pencils or sticks made of pigment-less wax or sometimes oil and wax. You can use these blenders with some pressure on the area you want to blend or smooth, you push the pigment that’s already on the paper around, into the crevices of the paper’s texture and over the surface of it, without adding any additional pigments.

Saturation Burnishing

Saturation burnishing is done by using a white or a gray pencil to burnish instead of one with color pigment. The reason you would want to do this is to be able to control the level of saturation in that area of your drawing. By burnishing with a white pencil, you lighten the overall color while desaturating. Using a shade of gray will desaturate and control the value, whether you want it a bit lighter or a bit darker.

Solvent Blending

A solvent is a substance that dissolves other materials. With colored pencils, there are a few different liquid solvents that can be used for blending:

Colorless blending markers are clear, alcohol based markers that can be used for blending colored pencils as well as alcohol-based markers.

Rubbing alcohol is relatively non-toxic (compared to other solvents), and is oil-free. Its fast evaporation has pros and cons – on the one hand, it won’t bleed through paper as quickly. On the other hand, the amount of time you have to work with it for blending purposes is limited, so keep that in mind when using rubbing alcohol for blending colored pencils. Since rubbing alcohol is a liquid solvent, you’ll want to make sure that the paper you’re using is heavy enough not to buckle when liquid is applied to it. Use at least 100 lb paper such as bristol board or even watercolor paper to be sure that your paper can handle wet media.

How to use rubbing alcohol for blending:

  1. Be sure that colored pencil is applied with a medium amount of pressure in the area you wish to blend with alcohol. This is important to make sure you have enough pigment on the paper. Dip a brush or a piece of paper towel into the rubbing alcohol.

Mineral oil

Turpentine may be used to some degree for blending, however it is very strong. It is perhaps more useful as a remover when you need to remove color all the way down to the paper and get the tooth of the paper back.

Tools for Drawing With Colored Pencils

Blender / Blending Stick

Colorless blenders or blending sticks are like colored pencils that are “clear” or have no pigment. They can be used for burnishing to blend colors together. They also make colored pencil appear more vivid because they push the pigment deeper into the paper and add more medium for light to reflect on.

Blending Stumps & Tortillons

Blending stumps are typically made from densely felted paper fiber. They can be cut and shaped as desired, making them useful for blending very fine areas without blending over detail. Blending stumps are available in different sizes. Larger ones are better for blending larger areas, and smaller ones are better for blending smaller areas.

You can check out these lovely Derwent blending stumps on Amazon here.

Tortillions are similar to blending stumps in appearance. However, at a closer look one can see that tortillions are made from very tightly rolled paper. The rolled paper of the tortillion gives it a much stronger structure, enabling the tortillion to be used with greater pressure, although it should be noted that using too much pressure can still cause the tip of the tortillion to get crushed.

We like this set of various-sized tortillions which you can find on Amazon.

Erasers

Colored pencils are a little bit more difficult to erase than normal graphite pencils because of the oil or wax in the colored pencil pigment. If you try to erase colored pencil with a normal rubber eraser, more than likely you will just smudge up your drawing and push the pigment further into the tooth of the paper, making it even more impossible to erase!

Luckily, there are special erasers for colored pencil that have grit (very fine sand). The extra grit makes the erasers more abrasive, so that they will grab and pull away colored pencil pigment instead of pushing it deeper into the paper. Because of their abrasiveness, you need to be careful that you don’t use them too roughly. They may put thin spots or even holes in your paper, which you do not want!

We recommend these Mono Colored Pencil Erasers made by Tombow, which you can find on Amazon.

Pencil extenders

With lots of coloring and sharpening it’s inevitable that our colored pencils will become too short to handle easily. That’s when something called a pencil extender comes in very handy!

These pencil holders or pencil extenders allow you to continue using your colored pencils comfortably even when they become very short. They can be useful to extend the life of expensive colored pencils, which may be important to you if you are using more expensive colored pencils such as student quality or artist quality colored pencils. By using a pencil extender, you can be sure that you are getting your money’s worth on the pencil and not wasting any of it!

There are several styles of pencil extenders available online and in art stores. We find that the best pencil extenders for colored pencils are these ones made by Derwent. They easily accommodate many sizes of colored pencils and once you tighten them up, they hold the pencil very sturdily. You can find them on Amazon.

Paper For Colored Pencils

Regular drawing paper pads are suitable for practicing with your colored pencils. For making finished artworks, look for a heavier weight paper (at least 150gsm) with a medium surface.

Strathmore colored pencil paper pads are some of the best paper for colored pencils.

Colored papers can also be fun to work with when using colored pencil. We love these multicolor papers from Legion paper, which are excellent quality papers.

Best Colored Pencils

For the earliest beginners, the best colored pencils are the ones you already have at home. It helps to teach very young artists how to sharpen colored pencils (or do it for them) so they are not burning through them too quickly. If you have colored pencils laying around that are over 5 years old it might be a good idea to replace them, since they can become brittle as they dry out over the course of years.

Best Colored Pencils For Beginners

Crayola colored pencils are a good value for beginners.

Crayola colored pencils come in a large variety of colors, giving young artists lots of opportunities to exercise their creative decision-making! They are also very inexpensive.

You can find this pack of 50 colored pencils on Amazon. It also comes in a pack of 100! While Crayola colored pencils tend to be a bit harder than the better-quality pencils, they are suitable for children because they will take longer to use up and are still very good for kids to practice blending.

Best Colored Pencils For Students

Prismacolor Premier Colored Pencils For Students

For art students who wish to produce better quality work in colored pencil and still remain a bit budget-friendly, I recommend Prismacolor premier colored pencils.

The Prismacolor premier colored pencils have soft cores that are capable of a wide range of blending techniques and the colors are vivid. They are a very popular colored pencil choice for student artists.

The difference between these and more expensive sets is that they don’t have as high of ratings in lightfastness. Specifically in this set there are about 20 pencils that will fade within 15 years if exposed to UV light. As with any artworks you wish to preserve, it’s always a good idea to keep them out of the sunlight as much as possible.

Derwent colored pencils are another possible option for students. Most of the pencils in this Derwent 78 color set have a high degree of lightfastness, and that is also why they cost more than the Prismacolor ones. Artists describe the Derwent colored pencils as feeling “smooth” and “creamy.”

If you are a student who uses colored pencils regularly, I would love to hear your thoughts on what your favorite colored pencils are!

Best Colored Pencils For Professionals

When it comes to producing fine art in colored pencils, one of the best sets you can go for is the Luminance 6901 colored pencils by Caran d’Ache. These pencils boast that 80% or more of the colors in the set have the highest rating on the lightfastness scale. Translation: most of the colors in the box should remain vivid and bright for over 100 years.

Caran d’Ache Luminance Colored Pencils

Realistic Drawing with Colored Pencils

With such a variety of ways they can be used and applied, colored pencils are perfect for hyper-realistic drawings.

Check out these hyper-realistic / Photo-realistic artists who work primarily with colored pencils: CJ Hendry, Drawing Hands (Jeon Sook Young), Georgina Kreutzer, Sheila R. Giovanni

About the Author

Shannon

Hi, I'm Shannon, the mom behind Drawing Studio. I studied visual arts and design at Massachusetts College of Art, and have been a freelance website designer/developer for over ten years. I love drawing with my two cool, creative kiddos!

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