Have you ever wondered how to blend colour pencils?
If you browse the internet you'll find a whole myriad of options for blending colour pencils, some of which can work well... but other's are complete disasters! I've compiled and tested the most popular methods and additives for blending artist grade colour pencils, specifically focusing on oil based Faber-Castell Polychromos and wax based Prismacolor Premiere colour pencils so you can see what the results are for yourself before wasting precious materials finding a solution that works for you.
This guide is something that I hope will grow, as more products and suggestions for blending come into existence. If you see something missing, or would like me to test a product, let me know and I'll add it to the experiments.
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Why blend colour pencil at all?
Typically, artist grade colour pencils have enough of the right qualities to blend smoothly together and individually without any help. You can easily blend colour changes and gradients from light to dark with careful, patient layering. But being aware of the products and techniques available to you, that might speed up that process or create a different blended effect are useful things to know, so I've created a guide to those methods for your reference (and mine!)
When a colour pencil is drawn on paper, flakes of the pigment and its binder scrape off the pencil tip and smear themselves against the surface leaving a trail of pencil colour behind them. Depending on the texture of the paper and how soft or sharp the pencil is the pencil may not cover the surface of the paper opaquely, leaving an area of colour that is grainy, with areas of the surface still peeking through. Blending allows an artist to fill in those gaps and create a smooth area of colour which they may prefer, or require aesthetically.
Blending Colour Pencils
I've separated my tests into two groups of methods. First, ways you can blend colour pencils with additives, i.e. solutions and products you can buy that blend colour pencil by adding a new chemical to the mix. And then ways you can blend colour pencil with tools you may already have to hand and that keep your work purely colour pencil.
Below are the findings I made with a variety of colour pencil blending products. The Before and After images both show the results with Prismacolor Premiere pencils and Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, and the first row demonstrated simple blended colour pencil as a comparison. To test the full capability of the products I have opted to test how well they blend a colour switch. Finally I explore the results of each experiment individually.
Blended Colour Pencil
Prismacolor and Polychromos can be layered and softly blended together without the need for further additives or tools. It simply requires a delicate hand and patience. Opacity is attained by filling in all the areas where the surface may still me showing through, and having a sharp point can help. Prismacolor are notoriously simple to blend as they are incredibly soft and work well heavily layered. Polychromos require more precision. Problems may occur when trying to blend very light colours, however blending with white may provide a solution (see further below when I blend with white)
Blending colour pencil with Vaseline (Petroleum Jelly)
A small amount of Vaseline was applied and rubbed into the colour pencil with a cotton bud. The results were greasy and unrefined, especially with the Polychromos which seemed to go streaky and soaked through the page to the reverse (see below for further results on bleeding). The Prismacolor seemed to absorb the product and worked with it better. Both remained tacky to touch afterwards. It can create a satisfying painterly effect when respected as a wet medium but for the sake of dry colour pencil work, I do not recommend...
Blending colour pencil with Baby Oil (Mineral Oil)
I was particularly impressed with blending with Baby Oil. It effectively blended the colours together without streaking or removing too much colour, had a pleasant fragrance and was controllable. The fact you can easily and cheaply get old of it too was another bonus and after experimenting with Zest-It I found it behaved in a like wise manner. The problem was when it came to drying, the baby oil bled badly, created a visible ring around the blended area, especially with Polychromos, and the paper remained stained and oily on both sides. I would prefer to use this to Vaseline however it is still not a viable option for artists.
Blending colour pencil with Finesse Blender Pen
My initial impression of the Finesse Blender Pen was the strong scent which smelt alcohol based. It is non-toxic but it was an off putting factor if you are sensitive to chemical smells. Another issue was he fact that the nib gets dirty very quickly and is difficult to clean so mixing colours becomes difficult, especially if you need to blend other colours. This product is designed for wax based pencils however it worked just as well on the oil based. I would describe the blending as similar to an ink marker, which is quite a fun effect and might suit illustrators. It didn't appear to bleed or leave any marks on the reverse and the double nibs and portable size make it handy and clean for blending on the go or in the studio. Not a perfect solution but definitely an option and worth a go.
Blending colour pencil with Derwent's Colourless Blender Pencil
It's simple form as a pencil makes it incredibly portable and precise to use, not to mention affordable... Unfortunately, the Derwent Colourless Blender Pencil wasn't as effective as I had hoped and I don't intend to use it again. However it did manage to pick up some of the pigment and blend it about and it was particularly good at creating soft blends of one area colour but not mixing colours or blending out onto paper. It was also particularly fragile and the point continued to snap and leave gritty and streaky marks. Further experimentation with a chisel tip didn't improve the results either. It's certainly a viable budget option and may work for some artist's, but it's not something I would recommend.
Blending Colour Pencil with Zest-It Pencil Blend
Much like the Finesse Blender Pen I was immediately struck by the strong fragrance which seemed to be a mix of orange and turpentine- not an obvious combination but did seem to work at disguising the chemical smell. It came in a small bottle so I experimented with both a cotton bud and paintbrush and both seemed to work well at applying the product. It was very successful at lifting pigment and blending colours with both Prismacolor and Polychromos and even though it did bleed through the page initially, it dried and left NO residue which unlike Baby Oil, was very impressive. Layering with pencil over the top was also an option and this is something I will continue to experiment with despite being the most expensive product and a bit tricky to get hold of. Recommended!
Page Bleeding Results
Below are the results showing the reverse of the test page after 24hrs drying to show how each product performed in terms of bleeding. Despite the problems with some of these products on paper, they may work better with other surfaces such as primed paper, canvas, wood, thick watercolour paper etc.
Blending without Additives
Here are a handful of methods that blend colour pencil without additives. These methods require only colour pencil and a few familiar tools. Once again I demonstrate the results with both wax based Prismacolor and Oil based Polychromos. To the left of each swatch is the before shading and the right shows the result of blending.
Blending colour pencil with a White Pencil
A very popular technique, simply shade your white pencil over the layer of colour until it begins to smooth and blend together. Obviously this method does lighten the colour so you will need to apply another layer of the colour you wish to show through on top of the white and repeat this with further layers of white until you have a fully mixed, blended but VIBRANT layer of colour pencil. Be warned. White can grey your colours out and sometimes blending with another colour like a light yellow, pink or blue might suit your colour better. It's important to experiment and see where this works best for you.
Blending colour pencil with an Eraser
This was recommended to me many years ago and does seem to work, but mainly with permanent pigment colours. For the most part it just seems to erase the colour pencil instead. To try it yourself, simply shade and then erase the colour. Shade over the top and erase again. Eventually a smooth area of blending should appear.
Blending colour pencil with a Blending Stump/Tissue/Cotton Bud
Another suggested technique but one which I consider a write-off as it takes SO long and so much effort for barely visible results. You may have better results with blending with a tissue or stump but I think there are far easier and more effective ways to achieve blended colour pencil!
Have I missed anything? Is there a method you know of that I should try? Let me know and I'll add it to this list.