Colored Pencil 101

Using colored pencils can be frustrating for artists who are new to the medium. They seem like they should be easy, after all, everyone knows how to use a pencil! Although the two mimic each other in some respects, there are methods and techniques that are specific to colored pencil. A little knowledge and patience will go a long way if you’re a colored pencil newbie.

One of the most important decisions you will make when using colored pencil happens before you make a single stroke, your paper! Select a paper with a “medium” or “vellum” surface which will grab the pigment. Look for heavyweight papers as these will stand up to the application of multiple layers of colored pencil as well as blending techniques.

A Bit About Binders

Colored pencil brands will perform differently depending on the quality of pigment and the type of binder used in the core. Two types of binders are used to hold pigment together: wax, oil, or a mix of both. Many artists keep both kinds of colored pencils handy as each has type has pros and cons.

Student grade colored pencils will have less pigment to binder ratio whereas professional grade colored pencils will have higher pigment content. If you’re just starting out, open stock colored pencils are a great option to try just a few colors before investing in a set.

Secretary Bird artwork by Sarah Becktel

Secretary Bird by Sarah Becktel


Blending Colored Pencils

One of the most important areas to master in colored pencil is blending. There are multiple methods that can be used depending on the level of blending you’re looking for and the final effect you wish to achieve.


This is the simplest method of blending. Apply layers of color over one another allowing the upper layers to blend the lower layers using heavy pressure. For best results, lay down all the layers of color you want before you burnish as the process will flatten the paper texture making it much more difficult to add color later. Keep in mind whatever color you choose for burnishing will affect the colors below, which is why lighter colors are typically used over darker colors to minimize this effect. To burnish without adding color, use a colorless blending pencil such as the Lyra Splender.

Dry Blending

Dry blending methods are easy to do and utilize easily accessible materials. Tissue or paper towel is great for light blending between layers of color as it doesn’t push down the paper texture as much as burnishing does. Tortillons (blending stumps) are great for blending details. A cotton swab can be also be used in a pinch.

Solvent Blending

Solvents break down the binding agent in colored pencil making it more paint-like for smooth blending. It is very important to test any solvent with your colored pencil on a scrap piece of paper allowing it to completely dry before you use it on your artwork. All solvent blending is best used over heavy applications of colored pencil, although some artists use it with lighter layers for a watercolor wash effect.

Rubbing Alcohol is a great option for light blending. It’s inexpensive and non-toxic. For best results, stick with 70% or lower to minimize pigment pickup.

Odorless Mineral Spirits break up binding agents better than rubbing alcohol therefore allow better blending. It can be used with cotton balls, cotton swabs, or
soft paint brushes. You can also find it in colorless solvent markers which are convenient and great for detail work.

Turpentine can be used for more powerful blending needs. Use it sparingly as it can remove too much color. Use as you would Odorless Mineral Spirits.

Rubber Cement Thinner is the most heavy duty blending solvent. It can damage your paper so always test before using. It is very toxic so use sparingly and only if other solvent blending mediums are not strong enough for the effect you want to achieve.

When using any solvent for blending always use with care, especially if there are children or pets around. Always work in a well-ventilated room, recap containers immediately, and thoroughly clean up your work area and tools promptly.

Ruina by Brian Scott

Ruina by Brian Scott


The Last Word

Always test your materials to ensure you’re going to get the results you’re looking for. It’s frustrating to spend hours on a piece only to ruin it with a new technique or material that didn’t react like you expected. When purchasing your materials, remember that better quality art supplies will deliver better performance. However, don't spend so much money you feel paralyzed to use your new supplies because “nothing I can make will be good enough”. Find the sweet spot of buying the best quality materials at a price that fits your budget. Down the road if you decide you want to continue using colored pencils, treat yourself to a larger set or trade up to a professional level set. The only way you will waste money buying better quality art materials is if you don’t use them, otherwise your investment repays itself in final pieces you’re happier with and have more enjoyment creating.

Bullfrogs by Sarah Becktel

Bullfrogs by Sarah Becktel

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