Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

A reader asked for advice on how to draw clouds. That’s a pretty big topic, so I decided to share 3 tips for drawing clouds rather than describe specific steps. After all, the basics of layering, shading, and blending are the same for drawing clouds as for drawing any other subject.

If you would like to see a step-by-step tutorial featuring clouds, let me know.

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

As I mentioned above, you can draw clouds using all the same basic skills you use for any other subject. Things like:

  • Start with light pressure and use light pressure for as long as possible
  • Work from light to dark on traditional paper (that’s not as important on sanded paper)
  • Draw smooth color layers

However, there are some tips for drawing clouds that differ from many other subjects. Those are what I’d like to talk about today.

Let me begin by showing you a picture of clouds. We’ll refer back to this image throughout this post.

How to Draw a Sky

The Character of Clouds

Clouds are as varied as we artists are. They come in a variety of shapes, densities, and appearances. Just look at the clouds in the reference photo above.

They’re a cross between massive and wispy. They’re what’s known as cumulus clouds, and they generally have rounded tops and flat bottoms. They give us the chance to practice drawing clouds with more defined edges.

But there are also very thin, wispy clouds that look flat in shape, color, and value. They may look like they’d be easier to draw, but that’s not always true.

There are, of course, different ways to draw the different types of clouds. So my first tip is to think of clouds the same way you might think of drawing a portrait.

What do I mean by that?

Look at the cloud. Consider the overall shape of the cloud, and it’s mass, which will be revealed in the shadowing. Pay attention to the edges.

In other words, look at the character of the cloud, and then focus on drawing the character. If you’re drawing from life (which I’ve done,) it won’t matter how quickly you draw. The cloud will change while you draw it.

The character, however, will probably remain the same. So identifying the character of the cloud is the first step.

Cloud Mass

When I speak of cloud mass, I’m referring to the bulk of the cloud. Cloud mass is determined by the amount of water droplets in the cloud and it’s revealed by the amount of light the cloud obscures.

Thin, wispy clouds are so thin, they let a lot of light through, so there aren’t many shadows on them. Nor do they cast many shadows on nearby clouds. The clouds at Number 1 in the illustration below are quite bright with little or no shadowing. That’s because they have very little mass. The sunlight passes right through them.

3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

The bigger clouds on the left (2) have shadows and highlights because they have enough mass to stop the sunlight; or to at least make it dimmer.

Thunderheads like the clouds shown below are so full of moisture that they stop a lot of light. That makes for dramatic light and dark patterns within the cloud. These types of clouds can also cast shadows on nearby clouds, and you can often see the shadow of a cloud against the clear sky.

Start General, Work Toward Details

When you begin drawing your cloud, start with general shapes and work toward details. Personally, I like to outline the basic cloud shapes, and then shade the sky. I do the clouds after the basic sky colors are down, but you don’t have to do that.

When it comes time to shade the clouds, start with light, basic values and gradually darken values. This rule-of-thumb applies to shading color as well as drawing with graphite.

In this sample, the basic colors of the sky are in place, and I’ve started by shading medium gray with light pressure into some of the clouds. You’ll notice that the cloud edges are very soft. Even clouds that look well-defined rarely have really crisp edges, so for a natural look, keep your edges soft.

Also pay close attention to the colors in the clouds. Those shadows are not always gray. On bright days, they also have shades of blue and blue-grays, especially if the shadows are very dark.

The time of day also affects the color of the cloud. Take a look at the thunderhead I showed you a moment ago. There is no white in it because it was late in the day and the sunlight was golden. If you drew this cloud white, it just wouldn’t look right.

Reference Photos

Reference photos are, of course, a huge help. For one thing, they don’t move. For another, you can zoom in on parts of the cloud to see shapes better.

But still use the reference photo only as a guideline. Unless you want to draw hyper-realistic clouds, there’s no need to draw every cloud in the reference photo exactly the same on your paper.

For example, here’s an enhanced version of the line drawing I started with when I drew the clouds at the beginning of this post. Enhanced because I lightly sketched them directly on the paper and used pencils that were just dark enough to see. That would never show up here, so I also made an ink sketch.

How to Draw Clouds in Colored Pencil

You can make a separate line drawing if you want to, but it’s not necessary. That’s one thing I like about drawing clouds and most landscapes. They tend to take on a life of their own as I work, so getting a precise line drawing first isn’t as important.

Those are My Top 3 Tips for Drawing Clouds

There is a lot more to drawing clouds than what I’ve described here. But of you master these three tips, you’ll be well on your way to drawing realistic clouds of any type.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m thinking about a cloud tutorial, so let me know if you’d like to see full-length tutorial on drawing clouds.

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

Is Using a Light Box Cheating

There are some questions that guarantee a heated debate in the art world. Tracing is one of those topics. Is using a light box cheating is probably another such topic. We’ll soon find out, won’t we?

Here’s the question to get the discussion started.

When I started using colored pencils I used a light box. I still use one. I can draw without it but it takes so long to draw freehand. I have used the grid method but it does not work as well. Do you think that it would be better to wean myself from the box? I am 69 so taking shortcuts helps. I enjoy your help.


Thank you for your question, Jim. I think I can put your mind at rest.

Is Using a Light Box Cheating?

The short answer is no. Using a light box is not cheating. A light box is just another tool.


Using a light box is no different than using a camera to “sketch” a subject instead of taking the time to draw the subject from life. Using solvents to blend could also be considered a form of cheating if an artist considers using a light box to be cheating.

You might also look at it this way: Is it cheating to use a calculator to tally up your grocery bill as you shop, or should you do the math by hand?

We could take the comparisons a lot further. For example, is using a cell phone to contact family members cheating or should you write a letter? Or is using a car cheating when you can walk?

But I think you get the point.


For the longest time, I thought all tracing was cheating. I believed I had to draw every drawing by hand. I called it freehand, but I actually used a grid to create my line drawing. (Is a grid cheating?)

I also used transfer paper or a light box of sorts (large windows) to transfer the drawing to the painting surface. Was that cheating?

In the end, I came to the conclusion that none of those art-related tools was any more a form of cheating than using my calculator to keep track of purchases while shopping. I had no problems with the calculator, so why did I feel differently about art?

Does that Mean You Don’t Need Freehand Drawing Skills?

Not at all.

It’s always good to know how to do things the old-fashioned way, by hand, whether you’re working on your next drawing, or basic math. Knowing how to draw well frees you up to draw and sketch wherever you are, whether you have an electronic device or other tool or not.

It’s not a bad thing to practice freehand drawing skills, too, because that does give you an additional drawing tool.

This is a life sketch of some trees as seen from my backyard. I have no problem with using a light box to transfer line drawings, because I know I can draw freehand. Is the light box a substitution for drawing? No. But it does help me finish work more quickly.

But it’s absolutely all right to continue using your light box.

What’s the Bottom Line?

What it all boils down to is personal preference. Some things really are written in stone and are always right or always wrong. If you jump off a cliff without a parachute, you will fall. (Even with a parachute, you’ll still fall; you’ll just fall more slowly.)

This is not one of those things. If you believe using a light box is cheating, then you shouldn’t do it. Doing something that you perceive to be cheating diminishes your pleasure in the creative process.

If you have no problems using a light box, then make the best use of that light box that you possibly can and enjoy making art!

There are, however, a few guidelines you should follow:

  • Never copy someone else’s art and call it your own. That’s not cheating; it’s stealing.
  • Using a light box doesn’t guarantee a perfect drawing every time. You still have to do all the layering, blending, and shading. So keep up with those skills.
  • Take the time to work on freehand drawing skills by sketching either from life or from photos. You won’t regret the time you spend in that activity.

What do you think? Is using a light box cheating?

I’ve shared my thoughts on this topic. Do you agree or disagree?

If you’d like to weigh in (and I hope you do,) click the “leave a comment” link at the top of the post. I’ve underlined it in red in this illustration.

You can also scroll down to the bottom of the page and type your comment.

Our goal here is to help one another learn in order to find the best solution for their individual needs, so keep it friendly!

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

Posted on Leave a comment

How Much Color is Enough to Blend

How Much Color is Enough to Blend

Blending is an all-important part of drawing with colored pencils. Today’s reader wants to know how much color is enough to blend. What a great question!

Hi Carrie,

I had a stroke, 5years ago. Now I find it hard to know [if I have] filled in the tooth enough. [Also] when should I use Zest-It, when should I use the powder blender?

I am like you, a horse fanatic. Plus I have done a lot of cats and dogs. I usually have everything planned before I start a project.

Im so grateful you have opened up this blog; I really enjoy your emails.

Kind Regards,


How Much Color is Enough to Blend


How very kind of you! I’m delighted to have you among my readers!

I’m sorry to hear about your health issues, but your interest in art and drawing is a great motivation.

The amount of color you need before you can successfully blend varies from method to method. So let me answer your question for solvent, and then for powder blender.

What is Enough Color for Blending with Solvent?

When you use odorless mineral spirits or other solvents to blend colored pencils, it is important to have enough color on the paper for the solvent to blend. Solvents break down the binder in the pigment, which allows the pigments to flow together and mix almost like paint. The more color on the paper, the better your results.

If you’re working on cotton paper (Stonehenge, etc.) or any absorbent paper, the paper also soaks up the solvent, making it dry more quickly. If you have just a little color on the paper, the solvent may be absorbed before it can do much blending. Having more color on the surface of an absorbent paper slows down the “soaking up” process and gives you a little more time to blend.

That’s less of a problem on sanded art papers. In fact, I’ve had solvent take quite a while to dry when I used it on sanded art papers (which are non-absorbent.) If the weather is damp or humid, it takes even longer! There’s plenty of time to blend colors on non-absorbent paper.

(It also takes less solvent to blend color when you draw on non-absorbent papers.)

No matter what type of paper you use, you need enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to melt and mix the pigments together.

That usually means three to six layers of smoothly applied color. If you have a naturally light hand, you need more layers. If you have a naturally heavy hand, you can successfully blend with fewer layers.

I use very light pressure to draw, so I have to put down more layers of color before solvent blends successfully.

This is a drawing on Stonehenge paper that I wanted to blend with solvent. I applied several layers of color evenly with light pressure and sharp pencils in this sample. My goal was smooth color, so I used a variety of strokes to create the smoothest color I could draw.

How Much Color is Enough to Blend with solvent.

I blended this area with rubbing alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is good for blending if you don’t need a very deep blend. It doesn’t completely break down the pigment binder, but you can blend with it.

This is what the color looked like after blending with rubbing alcohol.

You could blend with any other solvent, too, including Zest-It. Those solvents would produce more complete blends, so you might need a few more layers of color before blending.

Keep in mind that the milder your solvent (rubbing alcohol is very mild, meaning it doesn’t blend completely, and turpentine is very strong,) the smoother your color layers need to be. Milder solvents will not smooth out bold pencil strokes. A stronger solvent is more likely to smooth out bold pencil strokes, but that’s not guaranteed. Especially if you draw with extremely heavy pressure.

I’m not sure where Zest-It falls on the mild-to-strong scale.

What is Enough Color for Blending with Powder Blender?

I’m just beginning to experiment with Brush & Pencil’s Powder Blender, but I can offer some tips, the first being that it works best on sanded art papers. I used Pastelmat for my sample.

I had heard, seen, and read that you could just scribble color onto the surface, then blend it with powder blender and the strokes would all disappear. So that’s what I did.

First, I applied a small amount of powder blender to the background. Then I literally scribbled Faber-Castell Polychromos Sky Blue over the background with light pressure and bold strokes. It looked like this when I finished.

How Much Color is Enough to Blend with Powder Blender

Not very pretty, is it?

Next, I used the same sable round brush to blend the color that I used to apply the Powder Blender. I did not add more Powder Blender. I simply moved the color around.

When I finished, the background looked like this.

It’s still not very pretty, but you can see how well that little bit of color blended out.

It will take more layering and blending to get the look I want, but I am satisfied that you can successfully blend a small amount of color with Powder Blender. Obviously, the smoother the color layer you draw, the smoother the blend will be.

Three tips on using Powder Blender.

  • It works best on sanded art paper that’s quite heavy or is on a rigid support.
  • Blend with a tapping stroke for the smoothest blends.
  • Isolate layers with ACP Texture Fixative after you’ve finished an area.

So How Much Color is Enough to Blend?

The more color you put on the paper before blending, the better results you’ll get with blending.

The smoother the layers of color you want to blend, the better results you’ll get with blending.

That’s pretty much true no matter what type of paper you use, what blending method you use, or the pressure with which you draw.

If you’d like tips for layering colors, last week’s Q&A post will help you. It’s a short demo on layering color to create an umber under drawing and then glazing color. I hope you enjoy it.

And I hope my answers have helped you!

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

These week’s Q&A post is a follow up to last week’s question about choosing colors. I decided to share a few basic principles of layering colors with colored pencils through a short demo.

But here is the original question.

How do you choose the pencils/colors that you use when layering color? In what order do you apply them?

You can read the original answer here if you haven’t already read it. Today’s post is a demonstration of the principles I talked about in that post.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

There is no absolute way to decide the order in which you layer colors. Much depends on your particular drawing style and how you want each drawing to look. The type of paper you prefer even makes a difference, since you can layer light over dark when you draw on sanded art papers.

I don’t pay much attention to the order in which I layer colors. Instead, I start with the base colors, and then make adjustments as needed by adding other colors.

About the only thing I do regularly is start with an umber under drawing, because I like developing details and values without having to make color decisions. I prefer earth tones because they are an excellent “toning down” color for landscape greens.

Most of the time, I use Prismacolor Light Umber (for cotton papers) and Faber-Castell Polychromos Raw Umber (for sanded art papers.)

I also sometimes use a light warm gray for a blending layer.

One thing I can tell you, however, is that the last color you add will have the most influence on that area. If the last color is blue, the overall color will have a blue tint no matter what else is under it. If you use yellow on the same area, the overall tint will be yellow.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

So rather than give you specifics, let me share the general order of progression.

Start with the Shadows

I layer color into the shadows first. Blocking in the shadows first gives me a sense of the “mass” of the subject. The way it takes up space in real life.

I start with light pressure and build color and value layer by layer. As the shadows become darker, I add darker middle values, and then lighter middle values.

Here’s the landscape with only the shadows and darker middle values blocked in.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

But I still look for the lightest color I can use for the shadows. I used Prismacolor Light Umber to block in the shapes first, then darkened some of the shadows with Prismacolor Sepia.

You’ll have to find the color or colors that work best for you if you don’t start with a standard under drawing color. The principle is the same. Start with a light or medium-light version of the color you see in the reference photo, and then build darkness layer by layer.

I continue developing the under drawing until it looks the way I want it to look, with a nearly full range of values, and all the details I want to show. Throughout the under drawing, I use the same color or colors, so once the original colors are chosen, there are no further color choices to make until I start glazing color.

So let’s move ahead to glazing.

Choose the Base Colors

When you start glazing, look for the lightest color in each part of the drawing. In this case, I chose a light, yellow-green which I shaded over all of the landscape except the trees. This illustration shows the glazing about half finished.

The trees and scrub brush are darker than the grassy hills. They’re also a bluer shade of green than the grass, so I chose a darker, bluer green as the lightest color.

But I glazed this color over all of the trees, just as I layered the yellow green over the grass. These two colors (medium value blue-green and light value yellow-green) became my base colors for this landscape.

Add Other Colors as Needed

Once the base colors are in place, I chose additional colors based on the colors in the reference photo and the way I wanted the finished work to look.

This drawing, for example, was designed to capture the look and feel of a gray spring day. So I chose subdued, even dull, colors. If I drew the same scene on a bright, spring day, I’d use brighter greens and would replace some of the blue-greens with yellow-greens or even yellow.

Layer, Layer, Layer!

Once the general colors are established, I continued layering them to develop rich color. When the color needed adjustment, I added other colors to the mix.

After that, it’s a matter of layering colors, fine tuning values, and working out details until the drawing looked the way I wanted it to look.

This is the finished landscape, Late Spring in the Flint Hills.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

It doesn’t matter what you like to draw most or how you most like drawing. The basic principles for choosing colors and deciding the order in which to layer them should work for you. Even if they don’t, they will give you a place to begin.

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Tips for Choosing Colors

Tips for Choosing Colors

Let’s talk about a few basic tips for choosing colors.

Here’s the reader question that prompts this discussion.

How do you choose the pencils/colors that you use when layering color? In what order do you apply them?

The short answer is that every artist develops a different method of choosing colors based on their artistic personality, their style of drawing, and their preferred working method.

For example, a lot of my work begins with an umber under drawing. I use the same basic earth tones for umber under drawings. The only decision is which earth tone to use.

Other artists work with complementary under drawings, and still others start with the local colors.

However, there are a few basic principles that will help you design your own color selection method. So let’s talk about those basic tips.

Tips for Choosing Colors

The most important thing to remember is that colored pencils are translucent. Every color you put on the paper affects every other color you put on the paper. The first color influences the last color. Even the color of the paper makes a difference.

Some colors are more opaque than others. Some brands are more opaque over all than other brands, but they are all translucent. Unless you layer with very heavy pressure, the layers are translucent.

What that means in general is that it’s usually best to start with the lightest colors, also sometimes called a base layer.

So how do you choose the best colors to begin with?

Identify the Lightest Colors in Your Reference Photo

There are a couple of ways to choose colors. In this example, I used a photo editor to identify the lightest color (the base color) for this horse. I clicked the color picker on the lightest highlights on the face, and the color appears in the box on the left. Most basic photo editors have this capability.

Tips for Choosing Colors

Another method of comparison is to compare your pencils with a printed reference photo as I did below. One disadvantage to this method is that printed colors look different than they may appear on your device.

If you work from a printed reference photo, however, and you want to match the colors in the printed photo, then this is a great way to choose colors.

You can also just eye ball the reference photo and your pencils.

Whatever method you use, identify the base color for each area of your composition.

What is the Color Family?

Once you’ve identified the base color for each area, decide what color family each color is in.

The color families are: red, red-purple, purple, blue-purple, blue, blue-green, green, yellow-green, yellow, yellow-orange, orange, and red-orange. Basically, that’s three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors. You can simplify to primary and secondary colors, but you don’t need to go more complex than the tertiary colors.

For example, is the lightest color yellow, yellow-orange, or yellow-green?

Most brands of colored pencils have colors in each of the families. If you have a couple of different brands, you have more selections within each family.

All other colors from the lightest to the darkest can be selected using the same method.

With this color selection process, you don’t have to search through every color to find the best matches. If the colors in your drawing are all in two or three color families, those are the only color families you need to search through for good matches.

How to Decide the Order of Layering

There is no absolute way to decide the order in which you layer colors. Much depends on your particular drawing style and how you want each drawing to look.

I don’t pay much attention to the order in which I layer colors. Instead, I start with the base colors as described above, and then make adjustments as needed by adding other colors.

One thing I can tell you, however, is that the last color you add has the most influence. If the last color is blue, the overall color will have a blue tint no matter what else is under it. If you use yellow on the same area, the overall tint will be yellow.

These are My Tips for Choosing Colors

No matter what style of art you do or what your favorite subjects, these tips for choosing colors will help you choose the best colors for every drawing.

As I mentioned at the beginning, choosing colors is a highly personal matter. The best advice for learning how to choose colors is to experiment.

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors?

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

If you’ve been working with colored pencils for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that it’s best to start with light colors. Today, Anne asks the same thing. Here’s what she has to say.

Hi Carrie

Do you feel it’s better to start with pale colours as with watercolour and work up to the darker ones as you layer, or is it easier to start with darker colours and layer the lighter ones over them?



Thank you for your question, Anne. It’s a good question, and I’m glad you’ve asked it!

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

You might also be wondering if you always have to begin with light colors. So I’ll begin by answering Anne’s question, and then share a few times when you may not need to start with light colors.

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

If you’re working on traditional drawing paper, then yes. It’s better to start with light colors and add darker colors over them.

Colored pencils aren’t as transparent as watercolors (which is why watercolorists start with light colors,) but they aren’t opaque either. Every color you put on the paper influences every other color you put on the paper.

No matter how many colors you add.

So if you layer dark colors first, then layer light colors over them, the light colors will not be as bright as they would be on clean, white paper.

Yes, you can tint darker colors with lighter colors, but that’s about all.

Incidentally, the translucent nature of colored pencils is why it’s so easy to end up with muddy color if you put too many different colors one over another.

Are There Exceptions?


If you use sanded art papers, then you can layer light over dark and the lighter colors will show up. Those colors may not be as bright as they would be when layered over white paper, but they will show up.

This landscape is drawn on sanded pastel paper. I added the lightest green highlights to the main trees after shading all the other greens. Even in the darkest areas, those green accents remained bright.

I was also able to add sky holes in some places after the trees had been nearly finished.

Some products also allow you to add lighter colors over dark and maintain the brightness of the light colors. Brush & Pencil’s Touch-Up Texture is one. Paint a little Touch-Up Texture over a part of your artwork, let it dry, and you can add more color. Even light color.

If you need to cover a larger area, the Advanced Colored Pencil Texture Fixative (also by Brush & Pencil) accomplishes the same things.

And if you use an umber under drawing (drawing the first layers with earth tones and then glaze color,) you have a little more flexibility.

But you still need to preserve the brightest highlights.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time and on most papers, you should always try to start with the lightest colors and work into the darker colors.

At the very least, start with light pressure and gradually develop dark values by increasing pressure as your drawing progresses.

Thank you again to Anne for asking her question!

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Removing Waxy Buildup from Colored Pencil Art

Removing Waxy Buildup

For artists who like using wax-based colored pencils (pencils that use mostly wax as a binding agent,) wax can build up over the course of a drawing. Removing waxy buildup from colored pencil art is a major concern.

That is certainly true for the artist who asked today’s question.

Is there any way to remove the waxy buildup you get during your layering of colors? I put down three layers of colors, and burnish them together, but [add more] additional layers over my blended and burnished layers as I’m working on a project.

I use a 400 or medium paper, so I should have enough tooth. I layer lightly with very little pressure. It’s not unlikely for me to have 10, 15 layers,

I use Prisma, Lyra, Prang and Ticonderoga mostly. I could change to Faber-Castell or some other oil-based pencils, but they cost so much.

Thank you, and love following you. [I’ve] learned a lot.

Removing Waxy Buildup from Colored Pencil Art

I want to thank this reader for asking this question. Waxy buildup is a problem I’ve had to deal with over the years myself.

But in studying the question, I realized there are two answers to this question. So I’d like to talk about ways to avoid waxy buildup first, and then suggest a few ways to deal with it.

Preventing Waxy Buildup

There really isn’t anyway to remove waxy buildup once it occurs. I’ll explain why later. So your best option is to prevent it. The two best ways to prevent waxy buildup is with the tools you use and the way you draw.

The Tools You Use

The Type of Pencils

Colored pencils that use a binding agent that’s mostly wax are a delight to use. They usually lay down color smoothly and quickly. Most of you are probably thinking “Prismacolor” as you read these words and you would be right. But there are other top-grade pencils that are considered wax-based. Caran d’Ache Luminance for example, as well as some of the Derwent lines. The fact is that most colored pencils contain more wax than oil in the binding agents because wax is less expensive than oils.

But there is a downside.

Whenever you use any colored pencil, you put binding agent on the paper as well as color. There’s simply no way to avoid that because the color is held together by the binding agent. The binding agent is what makes the color usable and useful. Trying to put down color without also putting down binding agent is like trying to eat a pancake without eating the egg in the pancake.

So the pencils you use either add to waxy buildup or help you avoid it. Switching to oil-based pencils such as Lyra Rembrandt or using drier pencils like Caran d’Ache Pablos leave less wax on your drawing, for example.

The Quality of Pencils

Using inexpensive pencils also can add to waxy buildup problems. Why? Because they contain a higher percentage of binding agent to color than higher quality pencils. You can get good results with scholastic or student grade pencils, but you’ll end up with more waxy buildup for the same amount of color with those pencils. Prang and Crayola are examples of a scholastic grade pencil.

Tossing all those scholastic pencils and replacing them with better pencils isn’t necessary. Whenever you need to buy a replacement color, replace that inexpensive pencil with a similar color of better quality.

You don’t have to go all the way to the top of the line, either. Derwent has some very good mid-grade pencils that might work for you and wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. The Derwent Coloursoft line is a good example, and they are about the same price as Prismacolors.

Blick Studio Artist’s Colored Pencils are another line of pencils that combine artist quality pencils with a good price.

The Type of Paper

Paper doesn’t have that much to do with waxy buildup. Wax builds up pretty much the same way on every type of paper.

But you will be able to add more layers to a toothier paper than to a smoother paper. So if you like the paper you’re using, I wouldn’t change that. It’s better to work with drawing methods and pencils than with paper.

If, however, you are considering trying a different paper, I recommend Canson Mi-Teintes as a good choice. It’s one of my go-to papers. It’s designed for pastels, though, so has a pretty obvious texture on the front. The back is better for colored pencils, but you can draw on both sides.

The Way You Draw

The way you draw also can add to waxy buildup or help you avoid it.

This reader uses light pressure to layer color and that’s good. Drawing with light pressure reduces the amount binding agent on the paper.

But the reader also indicates he or she burnishes regularly. Burnishing is a method of blending in which you use extremely heavy pressure to blend layers of color together. When you burnish with a color, you add color to the paper as well as blend previous layers together. If you burnish with a colorless blender, then all you’re adding to the paper is the waxy binding agent.

Especially if you use the Prismacolor Colorless Blender, shown below.

Prismacolor Colorless Blenders are a colored pencil without color. They’re just the wax binder, so when you burnish with one, you leave a lot of wax on the paper. The wax helps blend colors.

Lyra makes a colorless blender. Their’s is called the Splender Colorless Blender, and it’s made with less wax in the binding agent. You can still blend wax-based colored pencils with the Splender Colorless Blender, but it leaves less wax on the paper.

There’s nothing wrong with burnishing. It’s a popular and often-used blending method. But it does leave a lot of binding agent on your drawing and that does contribute to waxy buildup. I usually recommend burnishing only a couple of times during the drawing process, and saving it until near the end.

So how do you avoid putting too much wax on your artwork?

  • Use light or medium pressure for as many layers as you can.
  • Don’t burnish until toward the end of your drawing process
  • Use the best pencils you can afford.
  • Use oil-based pencils as much as possible

Removing Waxy Buildup from Colored Pencil Art

Unfortunately, once wax is on your paper, it’s impossible to remove it all. And as we just discussed, using colored pencils without leaving wax on the paper is impossible. The wax is what makes the colored pencils work.

But there are ways to reduce the effects of waxy buildup on colored pencil drawings. Even those you may have burnished.

Blend with a Solvent

You don’t have to do all of your blending with a solvent, but solvent blending is one way to deal with waxy buildup.

Solvent works by breaking down the binding agent and liquefying the colors. The liquefied colors can then be moved around before they dry.

But a side affect of solvent blending is that the binding agent is neutralized to some extent. It’s not completely removed, but it is reduced. That means less wax on the paper. Replacing burnishing with a solvent blend is one way of removing waxy buildup during the drawing process.

Solvent isn’t for everyone, though. All solvents produce fumes that can be toxic, and some artists have allergic reactions to any kind of solvent. So if you can’t use solvents, or prefer not to use solvents, there is another way to deal with waxy buildup.

The Paper Towel Method

I like blending with paper towel. It’s easy to do and fast. Just fold a piece of paper towel into a small square, and rub the part of the drawing I want to blend. It’s not as deep a blend as burnishing or blending with solvent, but it’s safe and easy, and that makes it one of my favorite methods of blending without solvent.

It’s also a good way to deal with wax bloom.

Wax bloom is a direct result of too much wax on the paper. The wax rises to the surface and “fogs over” the drawing. It happens on all colors, but is especially noticeable on dark colors. That makes wax bloom a sign of waxy buildup.

Removing this type of waxy buildup is easy. Simply wipe the surface of the drawing very lightly with a piece of paper towel, a tissue (without lotion), or a soft, clean cloth. The wax bloom will return however and you probably won’t ever be able to totally eliminate it. Wipe off wax bloom every time it appears while you’re drawing.

After you’ve finished your drawing, remove the wax bloom one more time, then lightly coat your artwork with fixative. The fixative keeps the wax binder in place, and that means little or no wax bloom.

For the best results, use a fixative designed for colored pencils. Brush & Pencil’s Final Fixative is fully archival and is made specifically for colored pencil art.

Removing Waxy Buildup is Possible

But you’ll never be able to remove all of it.

Your best course of action is to use tools and methods that create less buildup, and then manage waxy buildup when it occurs.

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