Getting Started with Coloured Pencils

I’ve seen a lot of posts online lately asking how to get started with coloured pencils, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts. I started using coloured pencils a few years ago, and I was terrible at it. I’d only really done watercolour and ink up until that point, and had no concept of layering, which is one of the key skills needed to master coloured pencils. Below are some of my tips for those just getting started with coloured pencils.  

Get good materials

Having good coloured pencils isn’t everything, but it certainly helps. My first artist-grade pencils were Prismacolor Primier pencils, and I was so excited to get them! I was brand new to coloured pencils, and thought Prismacolors were the best quality pencils you could get (oh how wrong I was!). I also had no idea what paper to use, which didn’t help. 

My current collection of Faber Castell Polychromos coloured pencils. I’ve built this up over time, buying colours as I need them, instead of purchasing a big set.

I recommend Prismacolors for beginners because they’re reasonably cheap, they’re easy to blend and have great pigments. They suffer in some other categories, but for most beginners, lightfastness isn’t much of a concern. I use mine on Strathmore Mixed Media or Bristol Vellum paper. I want to try and work up to using coloured pencils on Pastelmat, but it’s quite expensive and the smoother papers are much easier for those just starting out. 

Don’t go crazy 

I bought a set of 150 Prismacolor pencils as my first artists set. Having a broad range of colours was amazing, but really not necessary. I don’t use a lot of the colours, and now that I’m working with a smaller set of Faber Castell Polychromos pencils, I find there’s rarely a colour I can’t make by layering multiple pencils. 

I suggest starting with a small set and experimenting, to save you costs (and space!). Prismacolor and Faber Castell pencils are both available to buy individually, so if I ever run low on a pencil or need a new colour, I can just buy that one. 

Get a blending medium

If you’re like me and want your coloured pencil drawings to look smooth and realistic, with none of the paper showing through, I suggest getting some kind of blending medium. I don’t often use mine anymore, but when I was first starting blenders were a lifesaver! 

One of my first coloured pencil drawings. It’s a nice start, but I had no idea where to go from here and I definitely picked an overcomplicated subject, and left a lot of paper showing through on the springhare’s light parts.

If you have Prismacolor pencils, the Prismacolor clear marker is great for smoothing out lines and covering the tooth of the paper. 

Cover all your drawing

One of my ‘Aha!’ moments when I was first starting out was when I started filling in all parts of my drawing, not just the darker parts. So even if my paper is white, I still go over a white part of the drawing with pencil, and usually add in some other colours in there. This helps keep the drawing looking uniform and complete. 

Start Small

One of my first attempts at a coloured pencil drawing was of a springhare, a rabbit-like rodent. I had mostly drawn pets up to that point, so I thought fur would be fairly simple. It wasn’t, and the drawing did not go well. I put away my pencils in disgust. 

My pill bug drawing – this was the first time I really understood layering, and the individual segments of the bug really helped me focus on one part at a time.

A few weeks later I decided to do a smaller drawing, a pill bug curled into a ball. This drawing was the turning point for me, and it was when I discovered how to layer. I love drawing insects — they are naturally segmented which means you can focus on one small section at a time. That was huge for me. 

You don’t have to start out drawing insects, but I suggest picking subjects that are reasonably simple and are easy to break up into sections. It’s a good plan to learn how to use the pencils before tackling something complicated like fur. 

Don’t give up!

Just like any new skill, coloured pencils take time to master. I thought as soon my new pencils came in the mail I would be able to do amazing works of art like those I was seeing online. But I had no clue how to use them, and was very disappointed in my first few drawings. Over time I developed techniques like layering, blending, burnishing and indenting that helped me get to where I am today. There’s still lots I want to learn, but I can’t believe how far I’ve come. 

I’ve definitely improved over time – this is a 20×30 inch coloured pencil drawing I completed a few years ago.

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