6 Things I Wish I Knew About Colored Pencils From The Start

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

Those of you who know me know I am a color pencil nerd and very proud of it. I have fallen in love with colored pencils over the past 3 years and learn something new about them almost every day when I practice. Even though I enjoy them there are a few things I wish I knew early on that would have saved me a lot of time and struggle during the learning process. I want to share my thoughts with you in hopes it can save you some frustrating moments while you grow to love color pencils like I have.

1. Each brand of colored pencils functions differently

You cannot expect to pick up a white Prismacolor pencil and expect it to do the same thing as a white Polychromos pencil. First, the pigments in each brand vary so you will not have an exact match and second the binders used in each pencil are different. When I first started using colored pencils I didn't quite understand--I mean I understood there are wax based and oil-based pencils, but I assumed it didn't really matter because you were still getting color on the paper. There is a big difference and it took me years of practicing to actually see the difference. Polychromos pencils tend to be more transparent with each layer you put down. Which means they are really good for glazing color over another color very easily. In the beginning I spent lots of money buying new sets of pencils (regardless of the brand) because I liked the colors in the set. This was a big mistake, not because I had to hide them from my husband each time (wink wink) but because the pencils didn't act the same when I wanted a color from different sets. You have to learn how use each brand of pencils to lay down the color in the way you like to color.

2. Buy a sharpener that makes a very sharp point

I have gone through probably 10 different types of sharpeners in all kinds of price ranges. At first, I was just looking for something that would be easy so purchased an electric sharpener. Then I heard someone say that it chewed up too much of the pencil so then I bought a hand crank. Then I was traveling a lot, so I got a portable sharpener. Then I started using one that I got in a new make-up bag that was for my eyeliner pencil. This whole time I was looking for convenience and not recognizing that the sharpness of my pencil was critical in my coloring process. One day I used a friend’s sharpener that got the tip of my pencil so sharp it could be classified as a weapon. I was amazed how easy it was to get the color to cover the paper and fill in the tooth of the paper so quickly. When I went home and looked at all my sharpeners, I found that not a single one could get my pencil that sharp. That is when the lightbulb went off that I was stuck in my progression to get better because I was using too dull of a pencil. Now I never use those other sharpeners for my art, they sit on my husband's desk. I tell him that he paid for them so he should benefit from it too - lol.

3. Practice pencil pressure

One of my first classes at Vanilla Arts I remember Amy saying "I'm using about a level 3 pressure here" or "on this part I am using a level 1". It took me years to figure out why that was important. Everyone has a different idea of what level 1 pressure to level 5 pressure when coloring. I am sure my level 3 pressure never looks like Amy's level 3 pressure. I always glossed over that fact and just kept going with the project but would wonder why my finished project didn't look the same as hers. This is what I learned, is that it is important to figure out your pencil pressure and get comfortable with each level so you can recognize which level you need in specific areas. The only way to really get to know your pencil pressure is to practice it. It seems silly to fill in boxes over and over with different pressure levels but it really does work.

4. Blending agents are not necessary

When I first started searching on the internet to learn everything I could about colored pencils each person would have an opinion about blending agents to smooth out their colored works of art. There are a lot of arguments out there about whether using mineral spirits are good or bad, or if you are using mineral spirits then you might as well just used watercolor pencils, etc. I have heard so many different arguments that it can spin you around into a state of confusion. I can tell you my experience, since I have tried using spirits and other agents that are similar to blending colored pencil. The smooth blend you get from doing this can still be achieved by simply adding additional layers of colored pencil until you create the smooth blend you are looking for. It just seems to me to lay down colored pencil to go over it again with a blending agent to again lay down another layer of colored pencil doesn't make sense to me as I feel like I am doing more work. I can build up the color and fill in the gaps with just a pencil. Don't get me wrong there are some people who are very successful with using blending agents to create a lovely project. I am just saying if you are worried about using chemicals or not sure about even attempting it - don't worry you can achieve the same results without it.

5. There is a huge difference between cool and warm colors

Starting out as an adult colorer without any formal training I didn't realize the differences in blues or reds or greens. I would buy colored pencil sets that had lots of colors and thought this is great so many different shades I won’t need to buy any pencils for a long time. What I did not notice until I was working on projects and seeing that the colors were “off” or things just didn't look right, my projects were plastic looking. It took a very long time to figure out the problem, but it was because I was not paying attention to the type of colors I was putting in the project. As an example, if I wanted to color a leaf, I would just grab a couple of different greens. When I was finished it just looked like plastic. What I was doing was using a cool color green and a warm color green for the same area and it would create this very odd color that didn't make sense to the eye. I finally learned to swatch my colors on paper before applying them on the project because that is when I could finally see the differences in color temperature. One green was on the cool side with more blue tones in it and one green was on the warmer side with more red tones in it. When I decided to stick with one side, or the other things looked much better.

6. Layers, layers, and more layers

The most important thing I wish I knew before starting with colored pencils is simply this, it takes a lot of layers. When you color with Copic markers you need only one or two layers maybe three if you are blending in another color. Colored pencils are very very different. One or two layers of pencils is not even close to building up the color you need to create the realism for your image. The thing that I love about color pencils is that you can layer several different colors to create a new color. Also, each layer can add texture or shade or highlights where you need them. If you color a project in 20 minutes with pencils my guess is that you are not close to being done. Most people stop after two or three layers of color but when you take it further you will see how the pigment builds to create a paint like texture. What I think is better with a pencil than a paint brush is that you have precision control of where to place each color.

These are the things I wish I had known about my beloved pencils earlier, but honestly I think I did hear someone say one or two of these things before but I did not really understand until I tripped up and got caught in the hamster wheel of frustration. Hopefully this helps you on your colored pencil journey. I am curious to know if there were any tips you have learned about color pencils that you wish you knew earlier. Tell me about it in the comments below.

Here's what we're practicing

now in the Corner . . .

Summer and sun . . . the perfect combination for us as we turn our focus to adding more realism to our coloring by adding shadows to our images. Shadows are an unsung hero in coloring, yet they help tell a story and/or add depth to our colored images.

If you want to learn more about adding shadows to your images why don't you come hang out with us in the Practice Corner for the month of July as we guide you though practicing this technique.

If you are reading this after July, don’t despair, you can still explore and practice creating shadows for more realism in your coloring by purchasing the "Shadows" Technique Practice Pack here.

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