Colored Pencils: Getting Started

There are three types of colored pencils:

  • Wax: Pigments are bound together with wax to create either hard or soft pencil cores (the colored part of a colored pencil). Wax-based pencils provide excellent coverage but are more prone to breakage, quick wear and debris. They also produce bloom, a coating of powdery film that appears after the color has been applied.
  • Oil: The binder (substance that holds the pigment together) consists of vegetable oil, which does not produce bloom. Oil-based pencils are slightly harder than wax-based.
  • Water-soluble: These pencils can be either wax or oil based, hard or soft. An emulsifier is added, allowing the pigment to be liquefied with water.

Regardless of the type of colored pencil you use, you’ll also need these items:

  • Surfaces: Colored pencil can be applied to virtually any porous surface; however, heavy applications require a toothy surface to anchor the pigment. Always use acid-free materials. These three are good choices:
    • Strathmore or Rising brand four-ply museum board (available in white, black, ivory and gray)
    • bristol vellum, regular surface
    • cold-press or rough watercolor paper, for water-soluble colored pencils
  • Graphite pencils: Use 2B pencils for layouts (preliminary line drawings).
  • Sharpener: An electric pencil sharpener is the colored pencil artist’s most important tool, because pencil points must always be sharp. Electric sharpeners are available in AC (corded) and battery-operated models. I recommend the Panasonic KP-150 (AC) and the Panasonic KP-4A (battery). Manual sharpeners are not efficient for serious colored-pencil work.
  • Erasers: A kneaded eraser is most commonly used with colored pencil. It’s suitable for light erasing or lifting debris lodged in the paper tooth. Imbibed and white vinyl erasers are also good for removing colored pencil, but art gum, rubber or abrasive erasers are not. For larger areas, an electric eraser is a more efficient option. These are available in AC and battery-operated models.
  • Desk brush: To keep your art free of debris, use a large, soft-bristled paintbrush or, alternatively, a spray can of compressed air.
  • Pencil lengthener: This tool increases a pencil’s longevity and makes handling stubs easier.
  • Colorless blender: This item looks like a colored pencil, but the core consists of binder only, which allows you to blend pencil colors without adding color.
  • Solvent: You can blend wax- and oil-based colored pencils with solvents—and different solvents produce different results. Bestine rubber cement thinner is excellent for blending smaller areas of color. It evaporates rapidly and can be applied with a cotton swab or brush. A longer drying time makes Turpenoid ideal for blending large areas and can be applied with cotton balls, rags or a brush. Other solvents include mineral spirits, rubbing alcohol, bleach, lighter fluid—and even vodka or gin! Experiment with several types.
  • Brushes: Use inexpensive, synthetic watercolor brushes for applying solvents. Use quality brushes to apply water-soluble pencil.
  • Cotton Swabs: These are handy for applying solvent. Wood-handled swabs are best.
  • Fixative: Use this product to eliminate wax bloom, but keep in mind that color cannot be applied after fixing. Prismacolor Final Fix is formulated specifically for colored pencil.

Gary Greene is the cover artist for the November 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Click here to order this issue with his feature article.

Click here to see more of Gary Greene’s colored pencil artwork.

For Gary Greene’s explanation on how to create a preliminary line drawing for a work in colored pencil, click here.

Award-winning colored pencil artist Gary Greene discovered the medium in 1983 and never looked back. He’s a signature member of the Colored Pencil Society of America and has created several video workshops and written three books on colored pencil technique, including No Experience Required: Colored and Watercolor Pencil (2005, North Light Books). For more information, go to www.geocities.com/garygreeneart.

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