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Gamsol and Smooth Paper

Gamsol and Smooth Paper

Solvents are useful tools for colored pencil artists, because they work with most pencils on most papers. But today’s question comes from a reader who asks a very specific question about Gamsol and smooth paper.

Can you use Gamsol O.M.S. to blend colored pencils on Strathmore smooth paper with no tooth?

I have tried the Finese Blender Pen, but It just removes the color from the paper. I’ve tried rubbing alcohol and it just muddies the colors. I have tried baby oil and it blends, but the colors loose a lot of their vibrancy. The only thing I haven’t tried yet is odorless mineral spirits.

Am I having these Issues blending because I am using paper with no tooth?

Most artists deal with blending issues at one time or another. I’ve been using colored pencils since the mid-1990s and still sometimes have difficulty getting the look I want. So take heart! Problems are part of the process!

Gamsol and Smooth Paper

Gamsol can be used on most surfaces from Bristol to sanded art paper. It works to varying degrees on different types of paper. For example, as a rule, I don’t use solvents on Bristol because it doesn’t often handle moisture well.

However, I don’t recall having used Strathmore smooth paper, so I can’t offer advice from personal experience on this paper.

Since I’m unfamiliar with the paper, I did a little research. If I looked at the right paper (Strathmore 400 Series Smooth,) it’s only 80 pounds in weight. That’s not very heavy.

You may be able to do a little bit solvent blending on paper this light-weight, but I don’t recommend it. The paper may buckle or soak through altogether. Paper tears are also a possibility.

Solvents and Smooth Papers in General

The reader mentioned other blending methods that failed for one reason or another, so let’s talk about those.

The Finesse Colored Pencil Blender is made specifically for waxy colored pencils like Prismacolor. Since all colored pencils contain some amount of wax in the binding agent, it’s possible this tool works with every pencil. But since it’s specifically designed for waxy pencils, it’s also possible the problems this reader experienced are because of the pencils, not the paper or the blender.

At one time, rubbing alcohol was my favorite blending solvent. It was easily available, inexpensive, and perfect for light blending or softening of colors. Muddy colors were never a problem, but I also never blended different color families together. Any solvent is capable of creating muddied color if you blend too many colors together, or if you mix complementary colors.

I did one test blend with baby oil (shown below.) The reader is right. It blends very well. My test involved Bristol, a very smooth almost slick paper, and the baby oil blended it smoothly.

But I don’t use baby oil because it’s not archival. It also can stain more absorbent papers. A major problem with art you want to exhibit or sell.

In Closing

Whenever you use solvent on any smooth, light-weight paper, proceed carefully. Dip your brush in solvent, then blot it on paper towel before touching the paper. In most cases, you don’t need a lot of solvent to blend colored pencil, so use the least amount possible.

Make sure the paper is taped to a rigid backing of some kind before you use solvent on it. The additional support of a rigid backboard may help you.

Let the paper dry completely after you’ve used solvent.

It’s always better to try solvent on a test piece of the same paper first. If that works out, then try it on your drawing.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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The Best Surfaces for Colored Pencils

The Best Surfaces for Colored Pencils

The reader who asked today’s question wants to know about the best surfaces for colored pencils.

I am fairly new to colored pencil work and I … would greatly appreciate some guidance as to the best papers or surfaces to use for colored pencil work.

Thank you for your consideration to this request.

Sincerely, Marie

Thank you for your question, Marie. You’re not the only new artist who has asked about the best paper for colored pencils.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you one paper that works best for every artist, every style of drawing, and every method of drawing. There are just too many variables.

There are so many different drawing methods and styles the paper that works for me may not work for you. The best paper for you is the paper that gives you the results you want, and fits your budget.

So I’m going to address it from two points of view: Craft art and fine art. I’ll also offer general suggestions on what to look for and a few things to avoid.

The Best Surfaces for Colored Pencils

Craft Art

Craft art includes adult coloring books, greeting cards, art trading cards, stamping, and so on. Short-term art that doesn’t need to be archival to be useful or marketable. I also include art you make for your own enjoyment in this category.

Adult coloring books are usually printed on inexpensive drawing paper so you have no choice in the paper unless you print the pages yourself. Coloring books printed on better paper are available, but the improved quality costs more.

The best surfaces for colored pencils may not be what adult coloring books are printed on.
Unless you get individual pages you can download and print, you’re limited to whatever paper the publisher chose for their adult coloring books. Check the information about a book you want to buy, and see if it tells what type of paper the book is printed on. If you like that paper, you may be able to purchase it from an art supply store.

Blank greeting card stock comes in a variety of qualities. Canson and Strathmore are two well-known paper companies that also sell artist-quality blank card stock. Other companies sell less expensive card stock, so you can pick and choose and try different papers until you find one that works well for you.

Strathmore makes a line of drawing papers ranging from newsprint, which isn’t archival, to high-quality drawing paper. Many other paper manufacturers also make different grades of paper.

Beyond that, any pad of good drawing paper will allow you to do what you need or want to do as far as craft art. I don’t do craft art, so recommend you try a few different papers and see what you like best. Buy small pads for the best buys and least expense.

Fine Art

Fine art includes portraits and other types of commission art, exhibit art, and art you want to sell. Artwork in this category needs to last a long time without fading or otherwise deteriorating, so you need the most archival paper you can afford.

Look for papers that are high-quality. Usually that means non-acidic.

You should also opt for papers made from cotton fibers, since those fibers are the strongest and longest lasting. Avoid papers made from cellulose fibers.

I prefer papers that are sturdy. 98lb paper is about the lightest I’ll use for fine art applications. Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes are both 98-pound papers and are sturdy enough to stand up under solvents and watercolor pencils in moderate amounts.

Stonehenge, Canson, Strathmore and others all make papers that are sturdy and archival. Some of them also come in a variety of colors so you don’t have to always work on white.

Portrait of a Blue Roan, Colored Pencil. I painted this portrait with colored pencils on Clairefontaine Pastelmat. Pastelmat is a sturdy, highly textured paper that works with with dry colored pencils, dry blending, and solvent blending.

What to Look for in Drawing Surfaces for Colored Pencils

Surface Texture

The first thing most of us think of when we consider drawing paper is the surface texture. Most drawing papers are quite smooth. Stonehenge has a velvety feel if you buy full sheets. Canson Mi-Teintes is more textured. But there are also sanded art papers that might fit your drawing style and preferences better than regular drawing papers.

For example, I’ve used Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes for years, but my most recent work has been on sanded art paper of one type or another and I’m moving away from previous favorites.


The weight of a paper refers to its thickness. A 98lb paper is thinner than a 120lb paper.

Thicker papers can usually handle more abuse. They take more layers of color, and can often be more easily erased. So if you do a lot of layering, look for papers that are sturdy enough to stand up under lots of layers.

Heavier papers are also helpful if you draw with a naturally heavy hand, or if you like to use heavy pressure with just a few layers of color.

Ability to Handle Dampness

Some papers buckle or tear when they get wet. If you want to use solvents to blend, stay away from these types of paper.

Most good drawing papers stand up well if you use small amounts of solvent to blend. I know Stonehenge can be wetted a little and will dry flat if it’s taped to a rigid support before you start drawing.

Other papers don’t perform well with even small amounts of solvent.

Drawing Surfaces to Avoid

Avoid drawing surfaces that are too thin. Newsprint is good for sketching, but not suitable for long-term colored pencil work. It yellows with age and often gets brittle.

If you want to do fine art as defined above, avoid papers made with cellulose fibers. Yes, cellulose-based papers are less expensive, but they not as archival as cotton fiber-based paper. These papers are great for craft art.

How to Find the Best Surfaces for Colored Pencils

You have essentially two options for finding the best surfaces for your colored pencil work.

The first is to ask other artists who are doing work similar to what you want to do. Most of them will be happy to help you, and some will already have produced articles or videos talking about their favorite papers.

The second option (and the best in my opinion) is to try as many papers as you can afford. It won’t take long to discover which paper gives you the best results. For more tips on this subject, read Getting Started with Colored Pencils.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Prismacolor Verithin Pencils

Prismacolor Verithin Pencils

Today I want to talk a little bit about Prismacolor Verithin Pencils and how best to use them. The topic was suggested by a reader question, so let’s begin by taking a look at the question.

I am very much a beginner and enjoy your weekly blogs immensely.

My preference is starting to go towards [the] Prismacolor series, and I’m learning layering and scraping or slicing… whatever it is called.

When I layer the Verithin pencils I have, I seem to have zero effect for [anything but] skinny stroke lines. Am I doing something wrong or is this normal because of the softness and/or hardness of the lead?

Am I never going to be able to use my Verithin pencils with my Premier?

Thank you


Thank you for your questions. My experience has been that not many people use Prismacolor’s Verithin line of pencils or know the best way to use them. I have Verithin pencils and have used them quite a bit, but even I have moved away from them in favor of other methods.

However, they are still very useful for certain techniques, so let’s talk about what these pencils are, how they differ from the Thick Core line of Prismacolor pencils, and how you can make the best use of them.

Prismacolor Verithin Pencils Box

Comparing Verithin and Thick Core Prismacolor Pencils

Verithin and Thick Core pencils are both manufactured under the Prismacolor name. They use the same pigments, and they share color names. Dark Brown in Prismacolor Verithin is the same color as Dark Brown in Prismacolor Thick Core.

That’s about all they have in common, however.

Most of us are very familiar with the smoothness and softness of Prismacolor Thick Core pencils. That’s what most artists think of when they think “Prismacolor.”

Prismacolor Verithin pencils are thinner, harder, and less waxy. They sharpen to a very fine point and they hold that point much longer. They also leave less wax on the paper.

But they do not layer as easily. Nor do they create the same kind of rich, saturated color as their thicker, softer cousins.

They also come in a limited collection of 36 colors.

It is possible to create complete works of art with Verithin pencils, but they will have a totally different look than the same art created with the same colors in the thick core line.

Because of these differences, they don’t perform the same way as Prismacolor Thick Core pencils.

But they do perform extremely well in certain applications.

How to Make the Best Use of Verithin Pencils

Fine Details

Because they are thinner, harder, and hold a sharp point longer, Prismacolor Verithin pencils are perfect for drawing fine details. For years, they were my go-to pencil for drawing long, flowing manes on my horses, or for adding detail to grassy fields and similar applications.

Etching Details

Sharp tips and hard lead also make them great etching tools. You can “slice” through heavy layers of softer color with a Verithin pencil AND leave a bit of color in the mark at the same time.

You can’t do as much detail work this way as you could do with a Slice tool or knife, but adding subtle details is much easier with a Verithin pencil.

And you’re less likely to cut through the paper!

Under Drawings

Even today, I most often use Verithin pencils at the under drawing phase. They leave less wax on the paper, so I can add almost as many layers of color as a I want without filling up the tooth of the paper.

It’s very easy to layer softer pencils over them to finish a piece.

Sanded Art Papers

I’ve even found them useful on sanded art papers such as Clairefontaine Pastelmat and Lux Archival. I don’t use them as much for under drawings on sanded art papers, but they’re excellent for blending layers of color and for adding details over layers of color.

In fact, in the last horse portrait I did, I used Verithin pencils over many layers of color to add flyaway hairs in the mane and forelock, eyelashes, and other details.

You’re Not Doing Anything Wrong with Your Prismacolor Verithin Pencils!

Prismacolor Verithin pencils can be extremely useful if you understand what they are and how they work. They have a very specific area of usefulness.

Once you find that place in your drawing process, you’ll be able to create wonderful art with them by themselves or in combination with other types and brands of pencils.

So continue practicing with them, and try a few of the techniques I described above.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

A Beginners Guide to Under Drawings

Today’s post is a quick beginner’s guide to under drawings, and it’s prompted by a recent reader question. Here’s the question to get us started.

I am a beginner to the art of colored pencils. You may have covered my question in a previous post but I could not find it.

My question: What do you mean by under drawing? An example would be helpful as well as I learn best by observation.


This is a great question. When you’ve been doing art for as long as I have (over 50 years,) it’s easy to take for granted that everyone knows what I know. That is so not true, and I thank this reader for bringing the question to my attention.

Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

In it’s most basic form, an under drawing is the first layers of color you put on the paper. The under drawing is also sometimes called “base layers.” This illustration shows the under drawing or base layers for a recent landscape.

To further complicate matters, some artists work over all of their drawing at each phase, while others finish one section at a time.

Whichever way you work, you most often probably start with the same colors that you’ll finish with, as I did in the sample above. Blues for a sky, greens for grass, and so on. That’s the way I worked when I first began using colored pencils back in the 1990s.

But I was also oil painting at the time and learning a painting process that involved starting with an umber under painting. With that method, I roughed in the painting with brown tones, followed by gray tones, and ending with color glazes.

When I got serious about colored pencils, I adapted that method to colored pencils.

So when I speak of an under drawing, I’m talking about a method of drawing that begins with a color other than the final colors of the piece.

Different Kinds of Under Drawings

There are different ways to do under drawings, so let me share the two I use most often.

Umber Under Drawings

An umber under drawing is an under drawing done in shades of brown. I do a lot of landscape art and brown tones are natural for landscapes.

I also like browns of all sorts, so starting with an umber (or brown) under drawing is my favorite way to begin many drawings.

This is an umber under drawing for a landscape.

A Beginners Guide to Under Drawings

I used Prismacolor Light Umber for this under drawing. Light Umber is a nice, medium-value, warmish brown that produces fairly dark values and extremely light values.

As you can see, there’s already a good sense of distance in the drawing because of the difference in values and details.

This is also a good way to double-check a composition before getting too far into a project. If I find mistakes at this stage, it’s easier to correct them. Then I can layer more browns or start glazing colors.

Here’s the finished landscape.

I did this piece as a demo piece for the first article I wrote for EmptyEasel, so you can start reading the step-by-step here if you’re interested. It’s a two-part series. I’ve linked to the second article, which contains a link to the first article.

Complementary Under Drawings

I have also used complementary under drawings, also usually for landscapes. With a complementary under drawing, I choose a color that’s opposite the final color on the color wheel. For greens, the under drawing would be some shade of red, for example.

Here’s a landscape started with a complementary under drawing.

I used a couple of shades of red for this under drawing; darker red on the main group of trees, and lighter red everywhere else.

But I used the same basic under drawing method for this piece that I used for the umber under drawing sample above. I drew a little bit more detail and darker values in the center of interest, and fewer details in the other parts of the landscape. Even though the colors look “odd” to us, there is still a feel of distance in the drawing.

I could also see the composition was working quite well, though I did make one change at the end of the project.

This is the finished landscape.

I described the drawing process in depth in a three-part tutorial for EmptyEasel. You can reach the third part here, and link to the other two parts from that article.

Tips for Under Drawing

The following tips work for me and I offer them with the hope that they may work for you, too. They are not absolute by any means. Merely suggestions.

Start with Harder Pencils

Before I bought Polychromos pencils, I used Prismacolor Verithin pencils for under drawings. Verithin pencils are harder than Prismacolor Soft Core pencils. They contain less wax, so they’re ideal for under drawings because they leave less wax on the paper. It’s easier to layer softer, waxier pencils over them.

They also are less pigmented. It’s very difficult to get too dark when you use a Verithin pencil, though it is possible.

And they also erase much more easily than waxier pencils. If you find a mistake in the under drawing, it’s easier to remove or correct, and then cover.

Now I use Polychromos pencils for under drawings, and for all the same reasons. They don’t erase quite as a well as Verithin pencils, but they do lift more easily than waxier pencils.

Plus they have many more colors: 150 colors compared to 36 colors in the Verithin line.

Use Light Pressure

Light pressure is always important. It’s even more important at the under drawing phase. Color applied with light pressure is easier to correct than color applied with heavy pressure, no matter what type of pencil you use.

You also have more control over values with light pressure. You may still get too dark, but drawing dark values bit by bit helps avoid that.

Evaluate the Under Drawing Before You Glaze Color

I’ve found it helpful to let a drawing sit overnight when I think the under drawing is complete. I can evaluate it with fresh eyes the next day. If I see things to improve or change, I make those adjustments before starting color glazes.

Of course you can make adjustments throughout the color glazing phase, but getting the under drawing as accurate as possible before you start color glazing makes color glazing that much easier.

Why I Start with Under Drawings

I often start with an under drawing for landscapes, because I can work out the shapes, values, and even some of the details without also having to make color decisions.

The earth tones or complementary colors also keep the greens in the landscape from getting too bright or artificial looking.

And I simply find it easier to develop a drawing without also making color choices in the early phase.

That’s my Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

There is much more to under drawings than that, but it would take a couple more posts (or a very long one!) to cover everything.

If you’re interested in trying any of the under drawing methods, I encourage you to do so. Start with something small and fun. Maybe even just drawing a series of balls with the same final color glazed over several different colors. That’s the best way to see whether any of these methods work for you or not!

For more information on layering color, read Layering Colors with Colored Pencils.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

Today’s reader question comes from a reader who wants to know the best way to blend colored pencils. Here’s the question.

Please tell me which is the best way for blending colored pencils and what you are thinking about solvents?
Thank you, best wishes!

The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

The most basic way to blend is by layering as you draw. Each time you layer one color over another, you’re also blending. The two colors blend visually, creating a new color. That happens because colored pencils are translucent in nature. The light passes through each color, bounces off the paper, and back through the layers of color. Your eye doesn’t see the individual colors. It sees a color that combines all those colors.

That is my favorite way of blending because it happens automatically as I draw.

There are other ways of blending colored pencils, of course. You can use a colorless blender (a colored pencil without color) to smooth colors and blend them together.

You can also use paper towel to smooth color. Fold a piece of paper towel into a small square and rub it on the area you want to blend. The paper towel smooths out the color somewhat and softens pencil strokes.

And you can burnish.

To burnish, you use either a colorless blender or a colored pencil with heavy pressure to “grind” the layers of color together. If you need to tint the color, use a colored pencil for burnishing. Light colors work best.

Burnishing with a colorless blender “grinds” colors together. It also flattens the tooth of the paper, so burnish when an area is nearly finished.

My Thoughts on Solvents

Solvents are also an acceptable way to blend.

A solvent is any liquid that breaks down the binder in colored pencils and allows the pigment to be moved around. Rubbing alcohol, odorless mineral spirits, and turpentine are all solvents. Each of those solvents blends to a different degree.

Use solvents with caution and in well-ventilated areas, since they all produce fumes that are harmful.

Solvents make blending faster and allow you to work more quickly, and many artists use them for that reason alone.

I don’t use solvents often because I prefer the look of colored pencil blended without solvent. But if I need to finish something quickly, or if there’s no other way to get the result I want, I use solvents.

My preferred solvent is Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits, but any artist-grade odorless mineral spirit works the same.

For more information on blending, I’ve published a tutorial called Blending Colored Pencils without Solvents. You can read more about that here.

So Which Way to Blend Colored Pencils is Best?

That differs from one artist to the next. As I mentioned above, I prefer not to blend with solvents. But other artists couldn’t use colored pencils if it weren’t for solvents because solvent blending takes a lot of pressure off the hands.

If you’re new to colored pencils, learn everything you can about the ways to blend.

Then try the blending methods that appeal most to you. Experiment a little bit. It probably won’t take long to discover the method or methods that work best for you.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Getting Started with Colored Pencils

Getting Started with Colored Pencils

There are a lot of new colored pencil enthusiasts in this audience. There are probably many others who are interested in colored pencils, but haven’t yet taken the plunge. So I want to talk about getting started with colored pencils.

Let’s begin with the reader question.


What would be a good starting point for doing color pencils? I am not much [with] drawing skill.


Thank you for your question, Steve! I’ve used colored pencils for so long, I often forget what getting started was like!

Getting Started with Colored Pencils

When you first start thinking about using colored pencils, it looks like there’s a lot to learn. And there is.

There are also dozens of tools and accessories on the market, and more are launched every month.

So where do you begin?

The truth is that you can start using colored pencils with only the basics. What are the basics? Pencils and paper (and a sharpener!)

When it comes to getting started with colored pencils, focus on the basic necessities.


You have to buy pencils, but everybody’s budget is different. The number and type of pencils purchased differs from artist to artist.

However, the best thing you can do isbuy the best pencils you can. That’s why I always recommend you buy the best you can afford.

I also suggest you buy a few colors open stock (single pencils instead of sets.) Each pencil will cost more, but you can make a good start with half a dozen artist-grade pencils.

Why artist-grade?

Because artist-grade pencils contain more pigment and perform better than scholastic- grade (grade school quality) and student-grade. You’ll get a better feel for the medium with better materials.

And if you decide colored pencils aren’t for you, then you haven’t spent a lot of money on a full set of pencils.

Another alternative is to buy smaller sets. Most brands and grades of pencils come in 12-color sets and 24-color sets for a fraction of the cost of full sets.

So find the best combination of quality, price, and selection.


Paper is the same way. Skip the fancy or colored papers. Start with a pad of good, white drawing paper, and go small. A 9-inch by 12-inch pad of paper is the largest size I’d suggest. Smaller is better. They’re usually less expensive, and a better fit for sketching, doodling, or just experimenting with your new pencils.

But don’t skimp on quality. As with pencils, starting with good paper is your best option for getting a true feel for the medium.

If you can, try a pad of Bristol and a pad of regular drawing paper like Strathmore or Stonehenge. Bristol is very smooth. Regular drawing papers have a bit more texture and a softer feel. By trying both, you’ll discover which basic type of paper gives you the best results.

Dick Blick offers a wide selection of good drawing pads and they’re customer service is excellent. They also sell pencils in sets and open stock!

I Don’t Have Much Drawing Skill

Steve also mentioned not having much drawing skill. That’s okay! You don’t need drawing skill to experiment with colored pencils. You need pencils and paper!

But there many options available to you if you want to try colored pencils that allow you to begin without having a lot of drawing skill. Here are three ideas.


If you have an adventurous personality, try just playing with your new pencils and paper. Make marks on the paper. Try drawing lines, and shading shapes. Doodle!

You can learn a lot about colored pencils just by shading one color over another, by pushing the pencil against the paper with different pressures, and so on. If you have a question about how a pencil performs under certain conditions, then try it and see!

Believe it or not, you can learn enough about colored pencils through this kind of experimentation to know whether or not colored pencils are a good fit for you.

Adult Coloring Books

If you’re not adventurous by nature, or if you prefer trying your new colored pencils with pictures, designs, and patterns that someone else has drawn, try adult coloring books.

Adult coloring books are available in all subjects from very simple patterns to complex, draw-by-number versions of Classical Masterpieces. Some specify colors. Some allow you to make your own color choices.

The biggest disadvantage to adult coloring books is that most of them are not printed on a good drawing paper. For the most part, the paper is good enough to give you a fairly accurate feel for colored pencils, but that’s all.

However, some books are available on higher grade papers, and they are a good way to learn colored pencils.

Then there are free coloring pages. Simply search for “free coloring pages.” Chose one you like, and then download and print it. You can print designs as often as you like on any paper your printer will print on.


Tutorials usually offer you a line drawing to start with. They also provide a color list, so if you haven’t yet purchased pencils, a tutorial gives you a place to begin!

Beyond that, if you prefer learning a new medium with a specific project, tutorials are the perfect place to begin. When you buy a tutorial, you get a project, step-by-step instructions, and a supply list (usually quite inexpensive.) You also can choose beginner, intermediate, or advanced level projects.

And the best part is that most tutorials are under $20!

A variety of tutorials are available right here, at Colored Pencil Tutorials, including tutorials for beginners. But many artists and companies publish tutorials. Ann Kullberg is one such artist. Dozens of beginner tutorials are available by a number of artists. The collection includes a selection of projects designed for beginners.

Getting Started with Colored Pencils Doesn’t Have to be Difficult

Or expensive.

Start small and with the basic supplies.

If in doubt about what supplies to purchase first, take a look at tutorials, choose a subject, and then see what supplies you need for that project.

You can always buy more colors and tools as you need them.

However you start, just starting is the most important part. After all, you can’t come to enjoy colored pencils as I do if you don’t start!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Looking for a Good Light Box

Looking for a Good Light Box

Today’s reader question comes from someone who wants to know about light boxes. Specifically, what is a good light box? Here’s the question.

What is a good light box? I looked and there are many. I do pencils in the winter and acrylic in the warmer days due to the space I have to work in.

This is a tough question for me to answer because I don’t remember ever using a light box. At least not one designed for artists.

Back in my newspaper days, I did page layout by hand, working on a huge slanted table that was lighted. The surface was yellow so the light was diffused. We laid the blank newspaper layout pages on that, then pasted the news, features, ads, and fillers onto the layout pages by hand.

It seems like I used that table once or twice to work on my art (with my boss’ permission, of course.) But that memory is dim.

I wouldn’t recommend a light table like that because it was long enough for three or four of us to work on at the same time! It was also tall enough that we didn’t have to bend over it.

Actually, it was quite comfortable to work at and my early years at the paper were spent mostly at that table.

Looking for a Good Light Box

The best light box I’ve ever used isn’t a light box at all. It’s a window or door. Depending on the time of day, I choose the best window or door, tape my line drawing to the glass, then tape my drawing paper over that. I work standing (which is most comfortable for me.) For large or complicated drawings, I leave the paper in place as long as necessary, but can still walk away or take breaks.

The biggest disadvantage is that my arms get tired after a while. That’s why breaks are so important.

If you want to try a window, choose one that isn’t facing the sun directly. Also choose a window that’s large enough for your drawing, and that you can reach easily without moving furniture, plants or other things.

A flat window is best, not a bay window like this illustration.

One good light box might be your front window.

But not everyone can work that way. You need either a portable light box, or a light table.

3 Brands of Good Light Boxes

A quick look at the Dick Blick website presented several very good possibilities. As I already mentioned, I have no personal experience with light boxes or light tables, so I cannot make a personal recommendation.

What I can do is pass on to you what I’ve heard other artists mention.


The most-frequently-mentioned name is Artograph. Artograph makes art projectors, light tables, and a number of other tools for artists of all types.

The most interesting light box I found is the Artograph LightPad LX LED Light Box. This light box is lighted by LEDs (which last a long, long time.) It’s only half an inch thick and comes in sizes ranging from 6×9 inches to 17×24 inches. That makes it easy to store, and a storage bag is also available.

Artograph also makes the LightTracer Light Box, which is small, light weight and less than $75 through Dick Blick. It’s not as compact as the light pads, but it is definitely more budget friendly.

The lightpads are rated 4.7 stars out of five stars. The Light Box is rated 4.5 stars out of five.


Another brand of highly rated light boxes is Daylight. The Daylight Wafer LED Light Boxes are 3/8″ thick and available in sizes from 9×12 inches to 18×23.5 inches. They’re a little more expensive than the Artograph LightPads.

I don’t recall hearing any other artists talk about these, but they are favorably rated at 4.8 out of five stars.


The last light box on this short list is Litebox’s light box. This one is more “vintage” in design. It uses florescent lighting for illumination and is a bit on the bulky side. This light box is 12×16 inches and about six inches tall. It’s rated 4.8 stars out of five by Dick Blick customers.

Are You Looking for a Good Light Box?

As this reader mentioned, there are a surprising number of light boxes on the market. They range in size from very slim and compact, to full size light tables.

The best tip I can offer is to talk to other artists who are using light boxes and find out what they use.

The second best tip? If you do your own search for light boxes, try searching for them as drafting tools!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Watercolor and Traditional Colored Pencils

Watercolor and Traditional Colored Pencils

Have you ever thought about combining watercolor and traditional colored pencils in the same work? Do these two types of colored pencils work well together?

You’re not the only one who wants to know. Here’s today’s reader question.

I have dabbled in watercolor pencils combined with regular colored pencils and I wonder if you would ever be willing to give some tips or do a tutorial combining the two? I am only just starting to do more of this and I love the rich colors that you can get when these two mediums are combined.

What a great question.

And what a great observation. You can get rich colors when you combine watercolor pencils and traditional colored pencils.

Combining Watercolor and Traditional Colored Pencils

Whenever you consider mixing mediums, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind.

The most important thing to remember whenever you combine traditional colored pencils with any other medium is that all colored pencils contain some wax. The pigment that gives them color is mixed with a binding agent that allows them to be shaped into lead form. The binding agent is a mix of wax, vegetable oil, and other ingredients. In wax-based colored pencils, the binding agent is mostly wax. But even oil-based colored pencils have some wax in the binding agent.

That’s important because wax and water don’t mix. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using watercolors, watercolor pencils, inks, acrylics, or some other water-soluble medium. Traditional colored pencils stick to water-based mediums, but water-based mediums will not stick to wax-based mediums.

Now let’s discuss a few other basic tips.

Choose Appropriate Paper

Whenever you use a water-based medium, it’s smart to use a paper designed for wet media. Watercolor paper is designed to handle repeated applications of water and it usually stands up well under lots of layering.

Regular Stonehenge paper can handle limited amounts of water without warping or buckling. If you tape it down first, it even dries flat. I’ve used it for small, experimental pieces and find it quite satisfactory.

Watercolor and Traditional Colored Pencils

For larger pieces or pieces in which you use watercolor pencils for most of the work, watercolor paper is best. Stonehenge Aqua is designed for watercolors and watercolor pencils, but it also accepts traditional colored pencils very well. It’s a great paper that feels like regular Stonehenge paper, but is much sturdier.

Tape the paper to a rigid support before you begin, unless you choose a paper that’s 140 lb or more. Most of them are thick enough to withstand repeated applications of water without being taped down.

Start with Watercolor Pencils

When you want to use watercolor pencils and regular colored pencils, always start with the watercolor pencils. They’re a great time saver and a great way to create color with no paper holes, but use them first.

No matter how you use them, do all the work with them that you want to do. It doesn’t matter if you paint with them wet, or if you layer them dry, then blend them with water. Take your time and make sure you’ve done everything you want to do before layering traditional colored pencils over them. Once you start with the traditional colored pencils, you can’t go back.

Think of the work you do with watercolor pencils as the under drawing (or under painting, if you prefer.) Do as much detailing or as little as you like. I blocked in color and a few details on this piece (above,) but I’ve seen other artists do watercolor work that looks almost like a finished piece. They use traditional colored pencils for detailing.

Let the Paper Dry

Before you finish with watercolor pencils, it’s important to let the paper dry completely before layering traditional pencils. Using a pencil on wet paper can scuff the surface of wet paper, and it’s possible to puncture wet paper.

The fact is that you should let the paper dry between applications of watercolor pencil, unless you’re applying wet color. Then you can work wet-into-wet. Just remember that wet watercolor applied into wet watercolor will run. The colors will mix. Some great, spontaneous affects are possible with this method, but they may not suit your overall style or the specific piece.

Some artists do light work on damp paper, but I’ve always found it safer to let the paper dry first. I’m not always that careful!

Finish with Traditional Colored Pencils

Once you do everything you want to do with watercolor pencils, finish with traditional colored pencils. For some projects, that may mean you’re doing only the detailing.

Other projects may involve more work.

I did most of the layering and detailing with traditional pencils with this landscape. The watercolor pencils provided the base layer, as shown above.

Apply traditional colored pencils over watercolor pencils normally. Use the same layering and stroking techniques. Watch the amount of pressure you use, and so on.

The only difference is that you begin with a layer of color that fills in all the paper holes without filling in all the tooth of the paper.

And that’s the beauty of mixing watercolor pencils with traditional colored pencils.

Combining Watercolor and Traditional Colored Pencils

Those are a few basic tips for combining watercolor and traditional colored pencils. If you follow those basics, you can create vibrant, richly colored artwork that lasts for years.

As for the reader’s second question about a tutorial, the answer is yes. Not only am I willing to write such a tutorial, I’m preparing to release one as I write this words.

So stay tuned!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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How to Draw Snow with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Snow with Colored Pencils

Today’s reader question comes from an artist who wants to know how to draw snow with colored pencils. Here’s her question.

I am a student of John Middick’s Sharpened Artist Course. I have a snow winter scene project, and would like to know how to create snow with colored pencils. I’ll be using Polychromos and Luminance pencils.

Thank you.

How to Draw Snow with Colored Pencils

Creating snow with colored pencils is pretty much the same as creating anything else. It often looks more scary because of all that white!

So the key is to stop thinking of it as snow, and look instead at the shapes, and at the pattern of light and dark. In other words, think of it as an abstract!

But before you start drawing snow, there’s one important thing to consider.

Because snow is white, it’s very reflective. That means lighting makes a huge impact on the colors you see in snow. Let’s look at four examples.

White Snow in Four Different Lighting Situations

The first example is what most of us think of when we think of snow. White snow on a sunny day. You’d expect to use a lot of white to draw this scene, wouldn’t you? The truth may surprise you, but more on that in a minute.

Here’s the same scene (or a portion of it) photographed on a cloudy day. It’s actually still snowing in this photo. The snow still looks white, but where are the bright highlights and clear shadows? You see no highlights because clouds and falling snow veil the light.

Without highlights, the shadows are also less dramatic in this scene than in the previous scene. Defused light decreases the difference between the lightest light values and the darkest dark values.

How to Draw Snow - Dim Light

Okay. Those are two “normal” lighting situations.

What about this one?

I took this photo in bright sunlight, but the sun was starting to set. Since I was shooting toward the sun, the snow is back lighted, which gives it an entirely different look.

And the snow also picks up the golden colors of the setting sun. No white to speak of here!

How to Draw Snow - Evening Light

Finally, here’s the same location photographed at night, lighted only by street lights. Very golden. That’s one of the things that appeals to me about this scene.

The street lights have since been changed to LEDs, so the snow no longer looks yellow like this at night. It looks bluer.

But you get the idea. The first thing you need to do when drawing snow is to really look at the colors in your reference photo.

And the first question you need to ask is not “How do I draw snow?” The first question is “how do I draw the colors in the snow I’m looking at?”

Check Your Colors

I mentioned above that even in the “normal” snow picture, there probably wasn’t much white. Here’s what I mean.

I used a photo editor (GIMP) to select what looked to me like the lightest value in the image; the snow on the flat surface. The color picker doesn’t show white. It shows a light gray. You can see the difference between that color and true white by comparing the box immediately above the HELP button with the smaller white box above the CANCEL button. They’re not very close at all!

So I chose another very light value in the same scene. It was a little bit lighter, but still clearly gray.

Take a close look at your reference photo. I’m guessing you’ll see that there really isn’t that much white involved in drawing snow. The shadows aren’t white, and often the snow isn’t true white either.

If you don’t trust your eyes, the color picker in a photo editor can be a great help. Match your pencils with the colors in the color picker.

But you will have to trust your color picker, and that can be difficult!

Apply Your Colors

Once you’ve chosen the colors, go back to looking at your subject as an abstract. Mask the drawing and reference photo to show just a small area if that helps. Draw each shape within that small area as accurately as possible, matching colors and values.

When you finish one area, move to the next. Apply color smoothly to avoid leaving pencil strokes, and use light pressure and lots of layers to build color and develop the values.

If you’re using traditional paper, keep your pencils sharp. If you’re using a sanded paper, that’s not as important.

When you’ve finished each section, remove the mask and adjust colors and values as needed.

Learning How to Draw Snow doesn’t Need to be Difficult

The most important thing to remember is to study your reference photo and draw what you see. Get past the idea that you “know what snow looks like” so you don’t need a reference photo.

Now that I think about it, that is probably the most difficult part of the process. It’s so easy to get into the habit of thinking you know what something looks like that you could draw it with your eyes closed. Especially something you’ve seen a lot.

You probably can draw a decent snow scene that way, but it will probably be quite generic in nature. It also won’t be as detailed and realistic as what you’d draw when you use a reference photo or draw from life.

So identify the shapes, values, and colors in your reference photo, then apply basic drawing principles, and your snow scene will turn out great!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Drawing on Black Paper: The First Steps

What Should I Do First When Drawing on Black Paper

Today’s reader question comes from a reader who wants to know the first steps in drawing on black paper.

The reader wants to draw a dog, but the steps I’ll outline for you work for any subject and any type of artwork. They also work for other dark colors of paper.

Let’s begin!

The First Steps in Drawing on Black Paper

For the most part, the basics of layering and blending apply no matter what color of paper you use. But black paper requires some adaptation in methods, beginning with the need for an under drawing.

Choose an Under Drawing Color

Whether or not you start with an under drawing with white paper, consider using an under drawing on black or dark-colored papers.

You’ll probably want to consider using white for the under drawing in most cases, (although Helen Carter did a great tutorial with a yellow under painting in the June 2020 issue of CP Magic.)

A white or light-colored under drawing acts as a buffer between the paper and color layers. The black of the paper doesn’t dim the color layers quite as much if you layer them over a white under drawing.

This isn’t absolute, of course. I didn’t use an under drawing for this horse drawing. But I also wasn’t doing a “finished portrait.” As I recall, I did this head study in a single day, and was basically just playing around with colored pencils and dark paper.

But it shows that you can start with local colors on black paper. You don’t need an under drawing.

However, I recommend starting with an under drawing for more finished pieces.

Block in the Lightest Values

The most important thing to remember about working on black paper is that you need to work in reverse. Instead of using the paper color for the lightest values, use it for the darkest values.

It’s still important to create a good range of values, with dark darks and light lights. But instead of shading the dark values, shade the light values.

When working on white paper, I start by establishing the shadows, because they give my subject form. But I have to start by shading the highlights when I draw on black paper.

With this little study, for example, I began by lightly sketching the large branches, and then continued to brighten them as I drew. I increased the brightness by adding more layers of white or by increasing the pressure. Sometimes both.

The darkest shadows are the black of the paper.

Yes, I used only one color on this study, but the process is the same when I use a full palette.

Reapply Light Colors

This isn’t any different than working on white or light-colored paper, except that you need to add light values and colors over and over instead of darker colors.

Light colors sometimes seem to seep into dark-colored paper. At least that’s the way it seems to me. So every time I work on a more complex piece like the one below, I have to redo the light colors.

That’s also often the last thing I do to finish a piece.

Don’t Be Afraid to Add Darker Colors

Sometimes, I shade black into the darkest areas to deepen the value. I did that with the dog portrait above to accent the dog a little more.

Depending on the type of paper you use and shade of black, you may not need to do this. But know that if you need to darken an area with black, that’s okay.

Basic First Steps in Drawing on Black Paper

A lot depends on the paper you use, of course. Toothy papers like Canson Mi-Teintes take more layers, so you have to add lighter colors again and again. You also have more paper tooth in which to add color layers.

Smoother papers like Strathmore Artagain have less tooth to fill. Artagain comes in a very lovely black that’s fairly easy to work with. I prefer their black paper to the much softer Stonehenge, as a matter of fact. That’s the paper I used for the dog portrait above. But I’ve had success with all of them.

The bottom line is that it is possible to get rich, vibrant colors on black paper. The secret is patience, a willingness to try different colors in the under drawing (on scrap paper!,) and persistence. Master those three things and you can master black paper!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.