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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.

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Drawing Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Drawing Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Drawing smooth color by layering is your best option when you’re using colored pencils. But what’s the best way to accomplish that?

Rice submitted today’s question and wants suggestions on this topic. Here’s the question.

I am new to colored pencils. One challenge I have is getting a “clumpy” application of color rather than a smooth, even one. It seems no matter if [I] use a needle sharp pencil or a light touch, it still persists. It’s more of an issue with darker colors it seems. Is this just my inexperience showing? And is there a way to fix an area after the fact?

Drawing smooth color is something a lot of artists struggle with, and it’s not an issue that goes away. It’s so very easy to get careless, tired, or lazy and end up with uneven color. I’ve been drawing for years and still sometimes end up with uneven color.

Drawing Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Sharp Pencils

Rice mentioned using sharp pencils and they are important. Why? Because the sharper the pencil is, the more it gets down into the tooth of the paper. The more the pencil gets into the tooth of the paper, the more paper is covered and the fewer “paper holes” show through the layer of color.

But Rice is using sharp pencils and is still having problems getting smooth, even layers of color.

Careful Layering

The best way to get smooth color with colored pencils is by careful layering. It doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, or what pencils or paper you use. Draw each layer so carefully that the color needs little or no blending.

I mentioned above that I sometimes still get rough color. That’s because I draw until I get careless, tired, or lazy. When that happens, then I stop paying attention to the strokes I’m making and before I know it, I’ve got spotty, clumpy and uneven color.

So how to do you avoid this?

I’ve stopped pushing myself to work for an hour to two at a time. Short work sessions are the norm in my studio. Writing tutorials and blog posts helps because I draw a step, then describe it and either photograph or scan the artwork.

But you don’t have to write tutorials or scan your work step-by-step to keep work sessions short. Set a timer when you begin drawing. When it goes off, lay down that pencil and take a break.

Different Strokes

Hatching is laying down lines side-by-side. Crosshatching is doing more than one layer of hatching strokes, but making the lines of each layer go in a different direction. The first layer is horizontal, the second layer is vertical, and so on.

Circular strokes are just what they sound like. Touch your pencil to paper, then start making tiny circles. You can work back and forth across an area, or work in a circular pattern. The reason so many artists recommend this stroke is that there is no beginning or end to the stroke.

Glazing happens when you use the side of your pencil to lay down a broader stroke. You can either hatch and crosshatch (as I did with the green sample,) or use a circular stroke.

You get the best coverage when you combine the type and direction of strokes from one layer to the next.

Light Pressure

For the smoothest color, use light pressure through several layers. Each layer you add fills in the tooth of the paper more, creating steadily smoother color. Except for the darkest parts of the samples above, I used light pressure, but lots of layers.

What About the Paper or Pencils You Use?

I used Bristol Vellum paper for the illustrations for this post. I used light pressure, multiple layers, and different strokes.

And I still ended up with splotchy color in a few places. Some of it seemed to be flaws in the paper, while other problems seemed more likely to be the fault of the pencils.

I don’t know what type of pencils and paper Rice uses, but I wonder if the problem might be with the paper or pencils. The combination of paper and pencils might also result in uneven color. Some types of pencils simply work better on certain types of paper.

I tried my experiments on other types of paper and the results were much better. No splotchy color. No rough patches.

So if you end up with rough color no matter what strokes or layering methods you use, try different paper-and-pencil combinations.

Other Ways of Drawing Smooth Color

There are other options for getting smooth color, of course. Dry blending, solvent blending, and using mixed media are all good ways to draw smooth color, and I’ve used them all when needed.

But in my opinion, the absolute best way to produce smooth, even color is by paying attention to how you put color on the paper in the first place.

After all, the better you get at layering and controlling pressure, the smoother the results will be and the less you’ll need those other tools.

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The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

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

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

The Best Way to Blend Colored Pencils

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

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

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

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

And you can burnish.

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

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

My Thoughts on Solvents

Solvents are also an acceptable way to blend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Which Way to Blend Colored Pencils is Best?

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

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

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

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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!