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Waiting for that Ah-Ha Moment

Waiting for that Ah-Ha Moment

A reader recently asked a question that included a comment about waiting for that Ah-Ha moment. The main question has been answered in a previous post on this blog.

But I also want to respond to this comment. It seems like a lot of artists spend a lot of time waiting for that elusive Ah-Ha moment. I base that statement on personal experience and observation.

Mostly, I’m afraid, personal experience.

Waiting for that Ah-Ha Moment

There’s nothing wrong with looking for those moments when everything seems to come together. They do happen in all parts of life. The fact is that most of us have experienced those wonderful “ah-ha!” moments.

The problem comes when we stop doing things and start waiting. Don’t wait.

Keep drawing.

All of my important break-throughs in gaining colored pencil skills came from drawing. The more I drew, the better I got. The more I learned, the more ready I was to learn more.

Yes, there have been a couple of times when I completed a piece and could see I’d taken a huge step forward. There was something about that piece that far excelled everything I’d done before. This piece is one of those. As soon as I finished it, I knew my skills in drawing landscapes had taken a big step forward.

August Morning in Kansas, featured in Ann Kullberg’s DRAW Landscapes. Contains an affiliate link.

But behind every one of those break-through pieces were dozens of so-so pieces, or pieces in which I advanced just a little bit.

There were even a lot of bad pieces; artwork I thought was a failure of one kind or another.

The more you practice the skills you already have, the more you’ll improve. For most of us, improvement comes one step at a time. Some day, you’ll look back at these two pieces and be able to see just how much you have improved.

Stop Waiting for those Moments

Embrace them and celebrate them when they happen.

But put in the hard work between break-through moments. And yes, even after the Ah-Ha! moments happen. You have to work hard to make those advances, and you have to continue working to repeat them.

That’s really the best way to make sure you have break-through moments, and have them more often.

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Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

Drawing hair in colored pencil is our topic for today, and it was suggested by a reader question from a few weeks back.

That question was specifically about drawing long, curly hair, and I intended to find a sample of long, curly hair and do a tutorial. But other obligations got in the way and rather than holding this topic until time allowed for a tutorial, I decided to write about four basic principles that apply to drawing all types of hair.

Including long, curly hair!

Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

Hair looks like a perfect subject for colored pencils. Pencils are perfect for drawing lines, and lines are the perfect way to draw hair. Or so it seems.

But there’s more to drawing realistic hair than just making lines. In fact, if all you do is make lines, the hair you draw will not look like hair, or it will look very stringy. If your style is realistic, you want hair that looks natural.

Here are a few tips for drawing hair that looks touch-ably real.

Choose the Right Stroke

One thing I tell readers and students often is take a good, long look at your reference photo, then choose the type of stroke that will produce the best results. For example, if the hair you want to draw is long and straight, use long strokes when you draw that hair.

But don’t stroke from one of the hair to the other end. Strokes should be only as long as they need to be to draw the part of the hair you’re drawing.

Take a look at this example.

The horse’s mane is long and straight, so I used long, straight strokes to draw it. But there are very few strokes that go all the way from the root of the hair to the hair tip.

Instead, the strokes in the darker values cover only the darker values. The highlights were made either by adding darker colors around them, or by using lighter colors within them. When I used lighter pencils, the strokes are only as long as the highlights.

Yes, there is some overlap, but only enough to keep the edges from being too straight, and to keep the mane looking natural.

Avoid Extreme Detail When Drawing Hair with Colored Pencil

Unless you’re goal is hyper-realism.

Instead of drawing individual hairs, look for hair groups. Block in those larger shapes first, then break them down into smaller details. Don’t draw every hair. That’s not only frustrating, it’s unnecessary. A few shadows and middle values in the right places, and a few highlights are all you need. Get those right, then add other details.

This example looks like I drew every hair. I did draw a lot of hairs, but what makes these shapes look like hair is the movement in the lines, the shadows, and the few “stray details” along the top of the neck, and toward the ends of the hair.

Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

Pay Attention to Values

Believe it or not, color matters less than values.

Also remember that glossy surfaces show more dramatic values. The shinier a surface is, the darker the dark values look and the lighter the light values look. That’s part of what makes a surface look glossy or reflective when you draw it.

Healthy hair is glossy. The highlights should be bright, almost intense; especially in direct light. Shadows appear also deep and intense. Depending on the color of the hair, you may also see other colors in the main color.

The bright highlights and dark shadows in this example give the hair a high-gloss appearance.

Note also that the shape and placement of the highlights gives movement to the hair. It’s not just hanging there; it’s blowing in a strong breeze.

The type of strokes (straight or curved or wavy) help define movement, as well.

Use Multiple Colors

Always use a minimum of three colors: light value, medium value, and dark value.

But even for white or black hair, you want more than just shades of gray. For the black mane above, I used different values of blue and brown in addition to black. Those colors are not obvious, but they provide depth for the black, and create a more lively black. Hints of them are visible in the actual drawing, and they provide the illusion of sparkle.

To see the colors in hair, look closely at the highlights. Secondary colors appear most closely where the highlights transition into middle values and shadows. Add those colors throughout the rest of the hair.

It’s helpful to look at hair in natural light. Strong sunlight is best, since morning or evening light often produces a golden glow.

Pay Attention to Your Reference Photos

When it comes to drawing hair, we all too often set our reference photo aside and wing it. We all know what hair looks like, after all. We see it every day in one form or another.

But what your brain tells you hair looks like, and what the hair looks like in your reference photo may be two entirely different things.  If you want to draw hair that looks real and that looks like your subject, pay attention to the large shapes, the values, and movement of the hair in the photo.

Then draw what you see; not what you think should be there.

Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

Drawing Hair in Colored Pencil

I think the thing that scares most artists about drawing hair is that it looks so complicated and detailed. Water has much the same affect on us and so does glass or any highly reflective surface.

But break it down into more basic elements, and then draw it the same way you draw anything else.

Go slow. Draw carefully. Break the hair down into sections and, if it helps, think of it as an abstract subject.

Still looking for help? Read How to Draw Realistic Dog Hair here.

Remember, all hair is basically the same. My examples are horses and I’ve linked to post on drawing dog hair, but the principles talked about in both posts also apply to human hair, and any other type of hair you might want to draw.

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Suggestions for Drawing People

Suggestions for Drawing People

Today I’d like to share a few suggestions for drawing people, specifically faces and beards. But before we start, here’s the reader question.

Do you ever do people portraits? I know your main passion seems to be horses, which is cool, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions as far as drawing people, their faces and features. I think I do okay but I’d love to improve on drawing beards and other hair, dimples, etc. Thanks!

I’ve only done a few human portraits, and they were in oils or graphite. Only one of them was a commission piece.

So I can’t answer you from a wealth of information as a portrait painter.

However, I can answer your question in more general terms.

Suggestions for Drawing People

Regardless of the subject you want to draw, drawing is the absolute best practice you can get. The more you draw, the better you’ll get at seeing your subject and reproducing it on paper. It doesn’t matter what you draw. The reason my horse drawings look the way they do is because I’ve been drawing and painting horses for over fifty years. That’s a lot of horses!

But what should you practice drawing? Here are a couple of suggestions.

Challenging or Difficult Features

If a particular part of the face gives you special problems, practice sketching and drawing that feature. A lot.

Some time ago, I was commissioned by a horse owner to paint her portrait in oil. To this day, it remains the largest human portrait I’ve ever done, measuring 24 x 30 inches. The size meant there was a lot of room for details.

And that meant I needed to get the details right.

So I did a lot of sketching. Not of the lady herself, but of the more important parts of the portrait. This sample shows you some of what I did in working out the shape of the eyes.

Suggestions for Drawing People

I also sketched other parts of the portrait such as her handbag, one of her feet, and some of the background elements.

The reader mentioned faces and beards, so that’s what I’d start with. Sketch eyes, noses, and mouths. Sketch different types of beards and hair. Get a sketch book and fill it up with sketches!

I did my sketching with graphite, but you can also sketch with colored pencils, charcoal, conte, or whatever medium works best for you.

Sketch Some Fun Features

Don’t limit your sketches to the hard parts of the face. Have some fun!

One way to do this is to draw amusing, odd, or funny expressions. How many different expressions can you convey just by sketching an eye, for example? Or a mouth?

Find a Good Teacher

Find a portrait artist whose work you admire and who is doing the type of work you want to do. Study their work and their methods. Try their methods. Keep what works, and discard what doesn’t work for you. If something almost works, then experiment with that technique until it does work.

Chances are that you won’t ever draw exactly like someone else, but you will accumulate a wealth of knowledge and out of that wealth, you’ll be able to develop your own specific methods.

Finally, if your favorite artists offer courses, I strongly recommend you consider taking one. Tutorials are great, but what you really need if you want to improve is the type of course that gives you direct feedback.

The first person to come to mind for me is John Middick. He’s a great portrait artist and he has a set of video courses that will get you started. The collection of portrait and basic courses* he offers is amazing.

He also mentors, and his group, Monthly Sharpener, is a great forum where you can post work and get feedback.

Most of the artists there are portrait artists, but there are also lots of animal artists and landscape artists. I’m also a member there and have found that particular resource invaluable. Even on the free side.

Suggestions for Drawing People

I hope that helps. There really isn’t a shortcut to improving your work that works any better than learning everything you can learn from other artists who are doing what you want to do, and drawing a lot.

For a bit more information on this subject, read How to Draw so Things Look Real. I share a few basic principles in that post that will help you draw anything you want to draw more realistically.

*Contains an affiliate link.

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How to Draw so Things Look Real

How to Draw so Things Look Real

Today, I’d like to share three keys to help you draw so things look real, no matter what you like to draw.

This topic was suggested by a reader who asked about drawing realistic feathers. Here’s the reader question to get us started.

I have been struggling with trying to create the head and chest feathers of Scarlet Macaws and hummingbirds. I have watched several tutorials and I just can’t seem to get It.

I’m starting to get the hang of the wing feathers, but I cannot get the head and chest feathers to look right.

I completely understand if this question remains unanswered. I just thought I would ask, because I have watched and purchased every tutorial I can find and this is the only place I haven’t tried, yet.


Dustin asks a very good question. But the answer I’m about to give applies to every subject, not just feathers.

How to Draw so Things Look Real

The keys to drawing so your subject looks real are basic. In short, you need to:

Really look at your subject.

Disregard what you “think you know” about your subject.

Draw what you see, not what you think is there.

I confess that these principles are a lot easier to write about than to do. Yes, even for established artists like me.

So let me go through them one at a time and explain more fully what I mean.

Key #1: Really Look at Your Subject

Whether you’re drawing feathers like Dustin, some other animal, a still life, a landscape, or a portrait, it’s important that you really look at your subject. You need to do more than just take a quick glance and start drawing. Study the subject.

Studying your subject is just as important if you’re drawing something you’ve drawn many times as it is if you’re drawing something for the first time.

Let me use myself as an example.

I did portraits of horses for over forty years. It would be pretty easy for me to draw a horse in the right pose without studying the reference photos from each client. But when I draw that way, I’m drawing a generic horse.

Drawing a generic horse might turn out as a pretty good portrait, but it will be a portrait of a generic horse; not a portrait of the client’s horse. There is a big difference.

No matter how many times you’ve drawn your favorite subject, it’s vital to study your reference photos every time you begin a new project.

Why? Because every individual is different.

Every horse is unique. Every cat or dog is unique. Let’s face it; every landscape, still life, and piece of fruit is unique in some way. Creating realistic art means finding and drawing those unique qualities and characteristics.

Key #2: Disregard What You Think You Know about Your Subject

This key is most important if you specialize, like I did.

Those of us who have a favorite subject and tend to draw that subject over and over again start thinking we know enough about our subject to draw it blind-folded.

As I pointed out above, you may be able to draw a very nice generic version of your favorite subject. But if you draw only what you know about your subject, your artwork will start looking the same.

Sometimes, you have to ignore what you think you know in order to see each subject as an individual subject. If you have difficulty grasping the importance of this key to drawing realistically, then refer back to Key #1.

Key #3: Draw What You See

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of studying each subject and disregarding what you think you know about that subject, the next step is drawing what you see.

Not what you think you see.

Or what you think should be there.

This means referring to your reference or references often.

Don’t glance at your reference photos and then draw for twenty minutes (or even just five or ten minutes.)

Master artists study their references, then make a mark or two, then look at their references again. If you want to make art that is truly realistic, this is the most important of the three keys I’m describing.

Obviously, the larger your artwork, the more detail you can draw. But even when your artwork is small, it’s very important to draw enough detail to make your subject look real. To do that, you need to see the important details in your references and draw those details to best of your ability.

That means knowing what colors to use, what values to draw, what strokes to make marks with, and so on.

How to Draw so Things Look Real; Yes, Even Feathers

What does all this have to do with Dustin’s original question about drawing feathers?


Dustin wants to know how to draw feathers, and the short answer is that he can draw realistic feathers the same way he draws any subject so it looks real. By studying the subject, disregarding what he thinks he knows, and drawing what he sees.

Yes, the techniques might differ as far as making marks on the paper, but everything else is basically the same.

And some subjects are more difficult than others, so patience and persistence are also very, very important.

I recommend a post I wrote on my art blog, Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers, that goes into those basics in a little more detail. That post includes a mini-tutorial, so I hope you’ll take a look at it.

But even if you don’t draw birds, and you’re not interested in drawing feathers, I hope the three keys I’ve shared in this post help you draw your next subject so it looks real.

For more basic principles on drawing so things look real, check out Drawing Iridescent Colors: General Principles for more principles that apply to all subjects.

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Choosing Titles for Art: How Important is It?

Choosing Titles for Art- How Important is It?eatured Blog Image

Today’s question comes from a reader who struggles with choosing titles for art. She wants to know just how important a catchy title is. Here’s what she had to say.

I finish a drawing and then try to come up with a title for it that is quirky enough to make a viewer take another look. Not always successful. How important do you think is a good title ? How much can it add to the overall drawing? Sue


Clever titles can add an extra dimension to artwork. There’s no denying that.

But you’re right. It can be a lot of work to come up with interesting titles.

Whether or not they’re actually important is a difference of opinion. So I’ll share my thoughts on titling work, and then Kathryn Hansen will share hers.

Carrie’s Thoughts on Naming Artwork

I’ve been an artist for decades, and for most of that time, I was a commissioned portrait artist. For many years, I painted a minimum of twelve portraits each year in my spare time. I had a full-time job, so creative time was at a premium.

Consequently, I didn’t spend a lot of time naming my work. It was always the name of the subject, with names like Blizzard Babe and Mercury: Portrait of a Blue Roan. Not very exciting, but the titles were as much for my record keeping as for the clients. It didn’t require a lot of cleverness because the work was already sold.

I don’t do portrait work very much anymore, so my titles have gotten a little more clever, but the only claim to fame I have in the cleverness department is this piece: Christmas Tree-O.

And I don’t consider it a very good piece.

For the most part, my titles these days are descriptive rather than clever. Most of the time, I have a title in mind when I begin a piece, but sometimes that working title gets changed after a piece is finished. The titles work for me and gives potential buyers some idea of what the subject is.

Besides, the artwork has always seemed more important to me than the title.

But that is only my opinion.

Kathryn Hansen’s Thoughts on Choosing Titles for Art

Kathryn Hansen, the featured artist for the August 2021 issue of CP Magic, is very good at coming up with imaginative titles; the kind of titles that prompt a second look at the art work. So I asked her to comment on this subject. Here’s what she had to say:

“Personally I think titles are very important, and consider it part of my whole art package from conceiving the original idea for the piece to the title, to the images I take of it along the way, to how I market it…it’s very well thought out. And followers/fans/collectors have now associated me with puns and clever titles for my art and in my marketing posts/newsletters…so I stand out from the pack so to speak of other artists.

“So, in a nutshell, I think it’s very important. I find it very boring and lacking in creativity when I see unimaginative titles on pieces or when an artist asks followers for ideas about titles. I don’t wait till I finish a piece and scratch my head wondering what I’ll title it. I thought about it in the beginning or along the way. It’s the energy of the piece then as it’s getting created.”

This is one of Kathryn’s pieces, Let it Bee. After seeing some of the other titles of the work she provided for CP Magic, I spent a lot of time looking for a bee in this piece. Can you find it?

Let it Bee, by Kathryn Hansen

Neither could I.

So I asked Kathryn if there was a bee. Her reply?

“Yes there is…no physical bee…just a play on bears, honey and bees…I had Winnie the Pooh in mind when titling it!!”

So is Choosing Titles for Your Art Important?

I have to agree with Kathryn that it is indeed important. Her artwork is so beautiful, it’s easy to spend time looking at it.

If your creativity runs in that direction as well as in creating the art, then use a clever or catchy title.

But if you’re stressing over finding exactly the right title, then you’re probably better off with a more typical or descriptive title.

But when a title keeps drawing you back to the artwork, as happened to me with Let it Bee, then the title is important.

Very important.

Thanks to Sue for asking this intriguing question and to Kathryn for sharing her insights!

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Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Pencils

Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils

Today, I’m comparing Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils in response to a reader question. Here’s the question.

Crayola Colores of the World: These are supposed to be skin tone colored pencils. Recently purchased. How do they compare with Prismacolor?

First, let me do a general comparison, brand to brand.

Then I’d like to share a few thoughts on skin tone colors.

Let’s get started.

Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils

I only recently came into possession of a large batch of Crayola colored pencils, and have experimented with them enough to discover that they’re great coloring book pencils.

But they’re not very useful for fine art. I show you why in a moment.

The reason is that Prismacolor pencils are artist quality pencils. Despite all their quality control issues, they have more pigment so they lay down color better, faster, and more smoothly. They also contain less fillers and binding agents than Crayola, so they’re easier to use.

However, every pencil works differently for each artist. A lot depends on what you hope to accomplish with your art (is it just for fun, or do you hope to sell it,) your skill level, and your dedication to long-term colored pencil use.

So what works for me may not work for you, and what doesn’t work for me may work wonders for you.

A Couple of Tests

I did a couple of shading tests with Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils, just to see how they performed side-by-side.

Pressure Test

First, I made three color bars with the heaviest color at the top and bottom of each bar, and the lightest in the middle. The Crayola color bar is first, followed by the Prismacolor color bar.

You’ve no doubt noticed that I got smooth color and transitions with both brands of pencils. The Crayolas were actually a bit smoother. That surprised me. I expected the scholastic grade pencils to be a lot less vibrant in color, and more difficult to use. They were neither.

Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils
Shading color with Crayola colored pencils
Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils
Shading color with Prismacolor colored pencils

What I did notice at once was that it was difficult to make color stick to previous layers of color with the Crayola pencils. The difficulty was most pronounced where I’d used heavy pressure, but it was noticeable even in the lighter pressure areas. I couldn’t even get blue to show up layered over yellow.

The Prismacolor colors layered beautifully, top to bottom.

My conclusion? Crayola’s are good for putting down saturated color (no paper holes showing through) if you don’t intend to layer another color over the first layer. You can get value transitions by changing the pressure with which you apply color, but that was about the only way.

Layering Test

I tested that theory further by alternating layers of yellow and blue, choosing comparable colors in each set. Once again, the Crayola sample is first, followed by the Prismacolor sample. I used light pressure for all layers with both types of pencils.

Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils
Blending yellow and blue to make green with Crayola colored pencils
Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor Colored Pencils
Blending yellow and blue to make green with Prismacolor colored pencils

As you can see, there isn’t as much difference between the two brands of pencils when I used them this way. However, although these two samples look very close in a digital format, the Prismacolor sample is slightly more green in real life.

What’s more, it was quite a bit easier (and faster) to get to this level with the Prismacolor pencils.

I conducted both tests on inexpensive paper (a medium-weight sketch pad, in fact.) I haven’t used the Crayola pencils on better paper or used them enough on the sketch pad to know how they would perform in a drawing.

However, it’s my opinion that any artist who intends to blend color by layering should probably not start out with Crayola colored pencils. They will be frustrating to use for that purpose.

Thoughts on Skin Tones

I’m always a little hesitant to recommend sets of “skin tone colors,” for the same reason I hesitate to buy sets of landscape colors or portrait colors.

The reason is simple.

There are so many variations to consider that no set, not even the Colors of the World set from Crayola, can accurately produce every type of skin color imaginable.

I took a look at the set online and even with 24 colors, it barely scratches the surface of possible skin tones.

However, colors are arranged in three basic color groups, and the set includes a selection of gradations within each family. So they provide is a nice line of base colors.

Or coloring book colors.

The fact that it’s difficult to alter the colors by layering other colors over them further complicates the problem.

But even the marketing for these pencils indicates they’re designed for about First Grade students. In other words, artists who won’t know much about layering or blending and will most likely apply color heavily to cover the paper. These pencils are perfect for that.

Prismacolor does not offer a similar set of colors, but they do offer similar colors available open stock. The cost will be higher, but not significantly. If you want to layer and blend colors, Prismacolors will be a much better buy in the long run.

Final Thoughts on Comparing Crayola and Prismacolor

Since this reader has already purchased the Crayola colored pencils, I suggest trying them out with a few drawings or sketches.

It is my opinion, however, that any artist interested in doing human portraits is better off buying similar Prismacolor colors to get started. You can also more easily test other brands by buying open stock.

Better yet, one of the medium sized sets of Prismacolor would be an even better purchase overall.

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The Best Colored Pencils for Adult Coloring Books

The Best Colored Pencils for Adult Coloring Books

I received an interesting question for this week’s Q&A post: What are the best colored pencils for adult coloring books?

And the reader did an even more interesting thing. He took price off the table!

The Best Colored Pencils for Adult Coloring Books

I really enjoyed answering this question. It’s almost like putting together a personal wish list!

The good news is that the best pencils for coloring books are artist grade pencils. Few coloring books are printed on artist-quality paper, so the better your pencils, the better your results. Combining a lesser quality paper with poor quality pencils is going to be unsatisfactory, at best.

How you draw and the results you prefer all play a role in choosing pencils, too. What works for me may not work for you.

Artists with hand or wrist problems may also need to consider the shape and size of the pencils.

So what I’ll do is list the pencils I’d use for coloring book work and I’ll list them in order of rank, starting with the pencil I’d be most likely to use.

First Hand Recommendations

Let’s begin with the pencils I have either used in the past or currently use. I’m listing seven brands in order of familiarity. The pencils at the head of the list are the pencils I’m most familiar with. The pencils at the bottom are pencils I’m currently trying, and have very few of.

  1. Prismacolor
  2. Faber-Castell Polychromos
  3. Blick Studio
  4. Derwent Lightfast
  5. Lyra Rembrandt Polycolor
  6. Caran d’Ache Luminance
  7. Caran d’Ache Pablo

Prismacolor and Polychromos pencils are my favorite pencils for almost every application. I do finished art with them, I sketch with them, I do test swatches with them. Yes, I have used them on a coloring page or two.

I don’t think you can go wrong with either of those two brands.

What’s even better is that they work well together.

Blick Studio pencils are a good pencil if price is an issue or if you find Prismacolors too soft and Polychromos too hard. I have a full set and use them most on sanded art papers because that’s the best combination of pencil and paper for the way I draw. But they can also be useful with adult coloring books.

I have about half a dozen Derwent Lightfast pencils and I enjoy using them, though my use has been limited so far. They are probably a bit pricey for adult coloring books, but if money is no object, they would do very well.

The same applies to the pencils from Caran d’Ache. Luminance and Pablo are both absolutely top of the line in pigmentation and lightfast ratings, but they may be more than you need for adult coloring books.

Second Hand Recommendations

Other artists recommend the following three pencils, but I have not used them.

  1. Bruynzeel Design
  2. Derwent Coloursoft
  3. Derwent ProColour

These are recommendations only, but the reviews and recommendations I’ve seen and heard are mostly good.

Those are My Picks for Best Colored Pencils for Adult Coloring Books

The pencils on these lists are all considered artist quality or near artist quality. Prices range from very affordable to pretty pricey.

I hope that helps! Thank you again for your question.

At the beginning of July, I started a new sketching habit, which I’ve been documenting every Monday on my art blog, This Monday’s post is a sort of pencil review. I did all of the sketches on white Clairefontaine Pastelmat, but I used different pencils, including Faber-Castell Polychromos, Prismacolor, and Derwent Lightfast.

You can see the results of those sketches and read my thoughts on how the pencils performed here. That may give you a better idea of how each of the pencils I reviewed actually performed.

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Using PanPastels Under Colored Pencil

Using PanPastels Under Colored Pencil

Today’s reader question comes from a reader who wants a little advice (and encouragement!) on using PanPastels under colored pencil. Here’s her question.

On under paintings for colored pencil, could I cheat and use pan pastels?

Using PanPastels Under Colored Pencil

Is Using PanPastels Cheating?

The first thing I need to point out is that using PanPastels under colored pencils is not cheating. Doing an under painting with PanPastels is no different than creating an under painting with watercolor, India Ink, or markers.

It’s simply another method of drawing.

However, any time you mix media, you need to be mindful of the characteristics and limitations of the second media. Here are a couple of things to remember when using PanPastels under colored pencils.

Things to Remember When Mixing PanPastels and Colored Pencils

First, PanPastels work best when you rub them into the tooth of the paper because they’re basically only powdered pigment with very little binder. That’s what makes them so easy to blend.

So you want to use a paper with enough tooth to hold the PanPastel pigment firmly. That usually means a paper made for pastels. Any type of sanded pastel paper is your best option. These papers never run out of tooth and you can use colored pencils on them.

But Canson Mi-Teintes is also made for pastel, so it’s a good choice if you don’t want to use sanded art papers.

Second, use PanPastels sparingly in the areas where you plan to apply colored pencil. PanPastels fill the tooth of the paper enough to fill in all those paper holes, but if you use too much, colored pencil may not stick.

Some artists use a spray fixative on their pastel work, so that might be of help to you. It will definitely secure the PanPastel.

It may also cause some discoloration, so do a test swatch on scrap paper first (preferably the same type of paper you want to draw on.)

Most of the artists I’ve spoken with on this subject say they prefer not to use fixatives, or to use a fixative only on the finished piece. They tell me that rubbing the PanPastel into the paper is sufficient.

Third, do all the PanPastel work you want to do before adding colored pencils. The binding agent in colored pencils helps them stick to PanPastels. But PanPastels are not likely to stick to colored pencils very well.

I hope that helps. I’ve never used PanPastels, though the more I learn about them, the more curious I get.

Much more information is available from the PanPastel company website. A variety of instructional videos are available on using PanPastels alone and in combination other mediums. It’s a great place to learn more about this unique medium.

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When Your Paper Gets Slick

When Your Paper Gets Slick

Like last week’s Q&A post, this post answers a question that wasn’t asked specifically; it was suggested by another question. But when your paper gets slick after layers of color, it’s a source of irritation. So it seemed worthwhile to explain why that happens, and what you should do about it.

When Your Paper Gets Slick

Why a Drawing Surface Gets Slick

Every colored pencil is made with a binding agent that holds the pigment in lead form. When you draw, you put pigment AND binding agent on the paper.

The more layers you add, the more pigment and binding agent works it’s way into the tooth of the paper. All those layers fill in the tooth, and when the tooth gets full, your paper feels slick.

That’s bad enough, but depending on the type of pencils you use, it gets worse.

All colored pencils contain wax as part of the binding agent. Wax-based pencils contain more wax than oil, while oil-based pencils contain more oil than wax.

Wax and oil both work as binding agents, and they work very well. But oil doesn’t fill the tooth of the paper as quickly as wax. So the waxier your pencils, the more quickly the paper tooth gets filled and your paper gets slick.

The type of paper you draw on also makes a difference. Smooth papers start feeling slick sooner than rougher papers. That’s because there’s less tooth to fill on smooth papers.

Ways to Avoid Slick Paper

Of course the best cure for slick paper is avoiding slick paper. How can you do that? Here are a few suggestions.

Use Oil-Based Pencils

Switching to oil-based pencils or combining them with wax-based pencils is another good idea.

Using oil-based pencils such as these Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils can help you avoid creating a slick drawing surface on your paper.

Binding agents that are primarily oil don’t clog up the tooth of the paper as much as wax-based binding agents. So whenever you use an oil-based pencil, you put less wax on the paper.

Less wax on the paper, less slickness.

Draw with Light Pressure

Put down each layer of color with the lightest pressure you can. You can still get rich, vibrant color using light pressure, but it takes more layers.

The advantage to light pressure is that you put down less binding agent, too. It still builds up. You can’t avoid that. But if you use light pressure for as many layers as possible, you may be able to finish your artwork before the paper gets slick.

What about a Toothier Paper?

The more texture your drawing paper has, the more difficult it is to fill the tooth. You can layer more colors without making the paper slick.

Sanded art papers are the best papers for avoiding a slick feeling drawing surface, because they seem always to take more color. But even if you don’t want to use sanded art papers, you can use other papers that have more tooth. I like Canson Mi-Teintes for this. It’s sturdy and can take abuse, but it also takes a lot of color.

Sanded art papers can take almost limitless layers of color, so they’re an ideal paper to use if you really want to avoid slick paper as you layer.

Even hot press watercolor paper is a good option for avoiding a slick drawing surface.

Use Colorless Blenders Carefully

A colorless blender is a pencil that’s nothing but binding agent. That’s why they blend so well.

But they also fill up the tooth of the paper very quickly.

Since most of us burnish when we use a colorless blender, we’re also crushing the tooth of the paper. Once the tooth has been crushed, restoring tooth is difficult, if not impossible.

It’s okay to use colorless blenders, but save them until the end of your drawing.

Solvent Blending

Solvent breaks down the binding agent so the pigment can be blended. Liquefied pigment tends to soak into the paper without filling the tooth, so it’s a great way to fill the tooth with color without filling the tooth with binding agent.

Ways to Get Rid of the Slickness

There are a few ways to remove the slickness once it develops, but a word of caution before I share them. In most cases, it’s impossible to completely restore the tooth of the paper once it gets slick. That’s why I listed ways to avoid slickness first.

But once your paper gets slick, one of the following methods may be helpful.


I’ve also had limited success cutting through the slickness by blending with rubbing alcohol.


Rubbing alcohol dissolves the wax binder enough to soften the surface, which sometimes removes a bit of the slickness.

Odorless mineral spirits also cut back the binding agent, but they also blend more thoroughly. If you only want to dissolve a little wax without a lot of blending, rubbing alcohol is the best option.

However, neither solvent completely restores the tooth of the paper.

If you decide to try solvents, test them first on a scrap of the same type of paper with similar applications of color.

Workable Fixative

Most workable fixatives for dry media work on colored pencils. Dick Blick offers a selection of workable fixatives.

Whatever type of fixative you use, test it on a sample first to make sure it doesn’t discolor the paper or your drawing. Follow the instructions on the can, and work in a well-ventilated area.

Preventatives (and Remedies) for Slick Paper

The best way to deal with slick paper is to avoid the slickness. The methods I described above will help you do that.

But even if you take all those precautions, if you like layering lots of layers, you will sooner or later end up with slick paper.

When that happens, it pays to know how to restore at least a little bit of tooth so you can finish!

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Paper Showing through Color Layers

Paper Showing Through Color Layers

Let’s talk about paper showing through color layers in your colored pencil work. Is it good or bad?

Today’s post arose from a recent reader question. The reader didn’t actually ask about paper holes, but I thought it was a good topic because there are differing opinions on letting paper show through colored pencil artwork.

Paper Showing through Color


For those of us who like our work to look realistic, letting paper show through color layers seems like a bad thing.

I started out as an oil painter, so I prefer color that covers every inch of the surface (whatever the surface is.) That was easier with oil paintings than with colored pencils, because oils are wet. They tend to “sink” into a canvas. But I’d sometimes still see pinpoints of light shining through my finished canvases when I held them up to a light source.

I hated that!

So it’s no surprise that my personal preference is to have no paper holes showing through color layers on my colored pencil pieces. For me, paper holes are to be filled in. No question about it.

Most of the time.


But letting paper show through color can be helpful, too.

Here’s one of my finished pieces, Afternoon Graze. Seen this way, it looks like I’ve filled all the paper holes, doesn’t it?

But look at this detail.

See all those tiny little white dots in both horses? That’s paper showing through.

Paper Showing through Color Layers

Yes, I’ve filled in the paper holes in some parts of the horses, and in most of the background.

But many other areas, the paper is not completely covered. The dark horse in particular shows a lot of paper holes. Is that a bad thing?

Not at all.

Letting paper show through layers of color lightens the values in those areas. The color of the paper itself helped me show distance, reflected light on the black horse, and texture throughout the composition.

Letting the paper show is also a great way to show distance. It naturally de-saturates the color, making it look more distant than whatever is in the foreground. This detail (also from Afternoon Graze) shows the line of trees in the middle distance. Look between them at the trees that are far away.

Yes, I used lighter colors there, but there’s also paper showing through those colors. That keeps the colors soft and lighter in value, and that makes the shapes look very far away.

I’ve used the color of the paper to draw mist or fog, too, and it’s great for that, especially if you lightly layer color, then lift it with mounting putty.

In all of these situations, letting paper show through the color layers was good. It achieved the look I wanted AND saved time. I didn’t have to do as much layering or blending!

Getting Rid of Paper Holes

So you can see the advantage of letting paper show through layers of color, but you want to fill in all those nasty paper holes anyway. What’s the best way to do that?

My favorite method is lots and lots of layers applied with light pressure. The more layers you add, the more paper holes you fill in. It’s also a good way to develop value and color depth if you alternate two or three different colors.

Mixing the types of strokes you use from one layer to the next can also help fill in paper holes.

In this simple illustration, I layered green over a fairly textured paper. I started with light pressure, then gradually increased the pressure as I added layers. By the time I finished, the color covered all of the paper.

You can also use solvents to blend. Solvent liquefies the pigment, letting it soak into and stain the paper. The paper holes may not be filled in with pigment, but they are no longer white (or whatever color the paper is.) Just make sure the paper you use can handle solvent without warping, buckling, or falling apart.

Burnishing is also a good way to force pigment down into the tooth of the paper. You also crush the tooth when you burnish, further filling in paper holes. You need to burnish toward the end of the drawing process, though. It can be difficult to add more color after burnishing.

What Finally Helped me Get Past Paper Showing Through Layers of Color

You might have to do what I eventually had to do. Stop holding those canvases up against the light and looking for pinpoints of light!

In other words, I stopped looking at my art work so closely.

I know. That’s hard to do when you’re working on it. Using colored pencils is such a personal thing. But I eventually figured out that my works looked pretty good when viewed at normal viewing distance of six feet or more. I still didn’t like seeing paper holes, but I couldn’t see them from across the room.

That’s why it’s important to take a step back and view your work from a distance. If you like the way it looks from a distance, then maybe it’s okay if paper shows through when you look at it up close.