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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.

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