My Essential Colour Pencil Techniques

my essential colour pencil techniques

Today I'll be sharing a quick guide to MY essential colour pencil techniques which I hope will answer some of your questions and help beginners, or anyone really, expand their repertoire of drawing skills.

Obviously this isn't an exhaustive list of every technique on tha-planet, because that would be a ridiculously long blog post (which even I wouldn't be tempted to write), and the wonderful thing about art is that these techniques are meant to be ignored, broken and adapted, so if something here isn't a good fit for you, that's okay- no hard feelings.

Because this is what I do.

This is how I work and I know for sure you have and will develop all sorts of different techniques and quirks to me and YAY, that's what art is about. Don't be nervous. Embrace it. I look for other artists trying new things and applying materials in crazy ways because I learn from those people more then artists who stick to the text book.

Ignore your teacher who told you 'Never use black!'

Ignore your friend who said 'Never erase'

Screw those guys. Do what works for you. And here's what works for me. Pep talk over and out.

I'm using Faber-Castell Polychromos colour pencils for these techniques today and Winsor & Newton Bristol Board to draw on. Other tools I'm using include my drawing board, a pencil sharpener and an eraser pencil. Even though these techniques are pretty straight forward you will find that the brand of colour pencils you use may produce different results with these techniques. For instance, erasing Prismacolor is very different to erasing Polychromos.

Some thoughts on Artist Grade vs Student Grade vs Children's Colour Pencils... Long-story-short, don't worry about it

As a general rule Artist grade pencils will have a combination of consistent high pigment strength and good bendability. This makes them comfortable and easy to use, you get nice result, quicker and easier. They are a great investment for people who use them a LOT, and they're going to work hard for you. Be prepared to be a pencil snob forever once you try them. They are rather nice to use.

Student pencils, or lower grade pencils (which you will still find in art shops and are just a little more affordable) will usually be a little paler in pigment strength and a bit more 'sticky' to layer. They generally don't blend as well and you might get streaking. But that being said a) that can all be rectified with SKILL and b) you can still get some brilliant student grade pencils which work perfectly well and you would be hard pushed to tell the difference between them and Artist grade. Be warned there are some dreadful student grade pencils out there which I wouldn't even let me children use. Test them first, if in doubt, before you invest. 

Children's pencils, and I'm talking about the ones you get for free in restaurants, magazines, and also children's art and craft sections, are usually significantly paler in pigment strength and often difficult to blend. However, 'The tool does not an artist make' and with a little bit of practice ANY colour pencil can become a versatile drawing instrument.

Now lets get on with those techniques...

Colour Pencil Technique 1: Layering

Colour Pencil Technique Layering

My number one technique has to be layering. Its essential.

Understanding the different properties each layer adds, and why, will give you so many more creative options then just filling in areas with block colour.

Layers add:

  • depth,
  • character,
  • texture,
  • colour nuances
  • and a whole host of detail you cant get with block colouring.

How to Layer your Colour Pencil

When it comes to layering, shade lightly and gently, building up many layers, maybe more then six, until you get a heavy coverage of colour. By this I mean that no white of the paper shows through. It is only with layering that you will get a glassy, smooth finish. The pigment needs to be heavy enough on the page to fill the gaps in the tooth of the paper. When the tooth has all gone the colour pencil becomes the drawing surface and this is very smooth and blendable. When you've achieved this, your pencil marks will start to blend smoothly and softly together, just like paint on a canvas. 

Bonus Tip: You can change colours in your layers, direction of the shading, the marks you make... it all adds to the effect. Explore.

Bonus Tip: If you want a delicate random texture, like you might find on delicate skin around the eye, one unblended layer can quickly replicate that effect of lacy thin, papery skin, without having to draw every little crease.

Colour Pencil Technique 2: Erasing

Colour Pencil Technique Erasing

I gotta-tell-ya. When I first discovered I could erase colour pencil I could have cried for joy. For years I was told it was impossible or you had to use one of those erasers with the blue end that tore holes in your paper and was allegedly able to remove ink. Do you remember those? Anyway.

Polychromos can be erased quite easily with a standard eraser, but obviously the harder you press the more likely you are to stain or dent the page which is not good. Plus, you might damage the paper which is Game Over. Blues can be particularly difficult to shift, so plan ahead. If you want to keep something in your drawing 'paper white' DO NOT, REPEAT, DO NOT, rely on erasing to gain that area back later... There are better ways to do that- considering masking or using white ink if it really needs it.

Be Warned. Not all colour pencils are equal. Prismacolor for instance doesn't erase well, at all.

Erasing Prismacolor compared to Erasing Polychromos colour pencil

Bonus Tip: Consider erasing colour pencil for special effects like delicate textures or stippling

Bonus Tip: Don't forget to use a clean eraser every time so you don't accidentally add in any odd colours. This is why I use an eraser pencil as not only can it be kept meticulously clean, it retains a sharp point for fine detail.

Colour Pencil Technique 3: Know Your Colour Wheel

 Check out how dark that green becomes when added to pink. So much darker then more pink or blue... that's colour theory and complementary colours at work

Check out how dark that green becomes when added to pink. So much darker then more pink or blue... that's colour theory and complementary colours at work

Before you panic and fall on the floor in a faint- i KNOW. Colour theory  is a whole lifetime of knowledge in itself and i'm not expecting you to learn everything right this second, but, spend a little time researching basic colour theory, specifically mixing colours for art and how your colour choices can effect the richness and depth of your artwork and you'll be amazed. Let me go over some basics.

You know Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours. Great.

You know about tone and contrast. Fab.

You've seen a colour wheel...

But have you heard about complementary colours? What about warm and cool colours? What if I told you that mixing red with a warm shade of blue would create a very different result to mixing the same red with a cool shade of blue? What if I told you that to make a dark black, you might be better off adding in a complementary colour rather then just more black? Yup. Its basically art alchemy. Or possibly voodoo.

Let's take it up a level.

Did you know that experienced artists structure their landscape compositions with warm colours in the foreground and cool colours in the background? It helps draw the eye in through the composition.

Bonus Tip: Have a look at layering colours like a bright yellow under a red to make it appear more vibrant and glowy. How diverse can you make a limited colour palette by just layering colours in a different order? 

layering colours with colour pencil

Colour Pencil Technique Four: Working with White

 Using the white colour pencil

Using the white colour pencil

Nobody likes the white crayon do they? Except artists. White is one of Faber-Castells most sold colours, mainly because artists use it as a neutral blender to create pale tones and to smooth out existing layers without putting down anymore pigment colour. It can also be used to add texture on the top of dark colours.

Bonus Tip: Test new colour combinations out on a similar type of paper before applying to your drawing so you can be sure you like the results.

Never underestimate the power of the white of the paper but if you know you'll be layering colours over the top anyway, starting with a layer of white and giving the paper a smooth surface to begin with can help blend colours nicely over the top, especially areas where a pale colour is required and you want to control how much pigment goes down.

There are colourless blenders available too and these work just as well but have a go with using similar pale tones such as ivory, grey, and the pale pinks can also be used for blending too.

White is also useful for working over the top of darker areas of colour and adding texture and detail. Some brands are better then others but I'm yet to find one I like. I personally don't find it very predictable or precise and if I want VERY accurate white areas such as delicate highlight I either retain the white of the paper (you can mask or emboss the page for extra precision) or use white ink and go back over my drawing.

Bonus tip: Have a go with white pencil on toned paper, like black or purple.

using white colour pencil on top of dark colours

Colour Pencil Technique Five: Shading

colour pencil technique shading and cross hatching

Line drawings, please leave the building. Today we're all about shading.

Shading is about creating that 3D look we want to some drawings, when we want to express highlights, shadows and even texture. Its the physical way we apply our pencil to the paper as we layer it.

There are three popular shading styles that I can think of, which I'll discuss in a moment, but if you really want to develop your own unique style as an artist and find what suits your individual creativity, explore different shading techniques. Invent your own. Mix them. Make a sketchbook full of pages of these scribbles exploring light, dark, texture, rhythm.

Cross Hatching

Most of us are taught this at school at some point. Its a layering technique where you draw an area of lines all going in the same direction. Then to make it darker you go over the area again with another series of lines in another direction. And so on. Try this with pen too. It can leave gaps between the lines but this can create a sketchy effect some people like. Keep your lines close together if you want a smoother finish.


Circulation is something I use rarely as I find it stressful to my wrists so I reserve it for areas where I really need flawless smooth colour such as on smooth skin or backgrounds. It involves shading in tiny circular movements building layers, similar to cross hatching.


Build up areas of tone with layers of dots. This is certainly more popular with ink based medium but you can definitely apply the technique to drawings as well.

Bonus Tip: Remember, remember, remember: The mark you leave is just as important as the image you conjure.