A Blending Conundrum

Soft core colored pencils are uniquely challenging when it comes to blending. Smudging and mixing are not an option, so what it is a colored pencil artist to do? It helps to understand a little bit more about these waxy, vibrant pencils and requires a shift in thinking from other mediums.

The most important thing to understand is that applying colored pencil is all about layering. The first step is familiarizing yourself with all of the colors you have. It can be very helpful to create a color swatch chart, so you can see how each pencil looks on paper at a glance. Eventually, reaching for the right color becomes second nature. I will often apply six or seven layers of pencil, because I want my finished piece to look like a painting. By applying many layers, I’m visually blending the colors and eliminating any visible pencil strokes.

Layering, or visual blending, is the primary colored pencil technique, but there are a couple of methods by which you can physically blend the pencil. With these methods, you are actually moving the wax around on the paper. In some cases, when you’ve added as many layers of pencil as possible, a colorless blending pencil (such as one made by Prismacolor) can be useful in pulling the colors together a little more. I sharpen mine in a pencil sharpener and then rub the tip on artist’s sandpaper to flatten it. Then I hold the flat tip against the paper and move it around in a circular motion. This method works well in small areas but isn’t very efficient for blending larger areas.

When I have a large area to blend, such as a background, I use odorless mineral spirits (OMS) to dissolve the wax and physically move it around. I dip a cotton swab in the OMS and apply it in a circular motion. The cotton swab should not be too saturated. You can blot it on a paper towel before putting it on the paper. It takes a minimum of 30 minutes for the OMS to dry. The great thing about this technique is that once the OMS is dry, you can continue to layer the pencil and even erase it as usual. I’ve even repeated the OMS after adding subsequent layers of pencil. It’s a lot of fun and a huge time saver.

Blending can be a little puzzling and even intimidating when you’re new to colored pencils. However, once you learn these techniques, the true beauty of the medium begins to unfold.

Colored Pencils 101

One of the things I like best about colored pencils is their simplicity. Unlike other mediums, they are portable and require virtually no clean up. Very few materials are needed to get started, and none of these items are particularly expensive. I recommend the same tried and true list of materials to my students that I use myself.

I discovered Prismacolor Premier Soft Core Colored Pencils when I was a high school art student 35 years ago, and I am still loyal to them today. They work perfectly for my colored pencil painting techniques and I’ve never had a reason to switch. A great starter pack is a set of 72 pencils, which includes a well rounded selection of colors. Larger sets are available, but you can always buy individual pencils in a wide array of colors to supplement any set. Inevitably, certain colors get a lot more use, so they can be replaced periodically with new individual pencils.

My short list of other basic materials includes a battery powered eraser (Derwent makes a great one for under $10), drawing paper for colored pencils (Strathmore 100 lb. colored pencil paper is excellent and inexpensive), and a pencil sharpener. Other colored pencil artists might disagree with me on this one, but I never use a manual pencil sharpener. I keep my pencils extremely sharp, which requires continuous sharpening while I am drawing. I’ve never found a manual sharpener that does the job. Instead, I use a good quality electric pencil sharpener intended for heavy office use, which you can buy at an office supply store. Since soft core colored pencils are waxy and can build up inside the pencil sharpener, a great trick is to occasionally sharpen a graphite pencil. This will clean the blades and keep the sharpener running perfectly.

While you won’t need an art studio to work in, it’s great to have a designated work space to leave your project and materials set up. It should be in a well lit area where you have control over the lighting situation. Also, it’s a good idea to organize your pencils. There are many ways to do this, but I prefer to stand them up in cups, categorized by color. This way, I can always see what I have, and they are quickly and easily accessible. It also prevents the pencils from rolling and falling on the floor, which inevitably results in broken tips.

I like to work with my paper upright and slanted, rather than sitting flat on a table. To me, it’s very difficult to sit over a flat drawing and see it from the correct perspective. This can be accomplished by using a tabletop easel or a drawing board, which you can rest on your lap leaning against the edge of the table. Finally, it’s best to work on a cushion for soft core colored pencils to go on properly. I clip a large sketch pad to my drawing board or easel and then attach my project to the pad using removable artist’s tape. This also gives me a “scratch area” along the side of my drawing to swatch color combinations.

With a fairly small investment in materials and these organizational tips, soft core colored pencils are an easy medium to get started in. Despite their simplicity, they can produce drawings that will easily rival any painting.

It’s Never Black or White

Drawing pet portraits has made me an expert in rendering fur, none of which is ever entirely black or white. If you met my sister’s dog Emily, chances are you would say she’s a black poodle. However, if you look at her coat closely, you’ll see more than just black. Depending on the lighting, black fur can take on shades of gray, brown, blue, or even purple. Similarly, white fur is reflective of light and other colors. I often use neutrals, peach, light blue, lilac or light pink when rendering white fur. In either case, the fur is never pure black or white.

My colored pencil process begins with a blank “canvas” or single base layer of pencil, to which I add many subsequent layers. Most of these layers are different colors, which add a multidimensional quality to the drawing. I usually begin drawing black fur with a base layer of light gray colored pencil. I then add multiple darker shades of gray and finally, black, to represent darker values. I’ll then add blue, purple, brown or other colors as highlights. I never start with black, because that would leave me with a dark, flat canvas and nowhere to go from there.

I try to train my colored pencil students to see through an artist’s eye. When you study your subject, you begin to see color in a much more complex way. I sometimes overemphasize subtle colors that I see in photographs, because I think it makes my drawing more interesting. Occasionally, I’ll even use a color that isn’t there at all, just because I like the effect. While I’m a realist, I never want my artwork to look like a copy of the photo I’m working from. It’s my interpretation of black and white and everything in between.

Highlights, Not Mistakes

Soft core colored pencil is a medium that doesn’t require many additional materials, but one essential tool is the battery operated eraser. These pencils are highly pigmented and waxy, so when you build up multiple layers, your drawing will take on a lustrous, painting-like quality. The downside is that soft core colored pencils are a bit unforgiving in terms of erasing. You can never erase completely, and manual erasers tend to smudge the pencil, rather than lifting it off the paper. This is where the battery operated eraser becomes so important, because it will effortlessly lift off multiple layers of pencil.

That being said, a hint of color will always remain on the paper, and erasing becomes a different process with soft core colored pencils. Rather than eliminating or correcting mistakes, erasing is a step in refining your drawing. It removes material that will later need to be replaced with new layers of pencil. In some cases, there is no way around having to start over completely. Some errant marks simply cannot be covered.

This can definitely be a little frustrating, especially if you’re new to colored pencils. It requires a bit more planning ahead in your initial sketches. I’ve gotten used to the limitations of erasing mistakes and instead rely more on my battery operated eraser as a drawing tool. While the pencils add material and create values, the eraser removes material and creates highlights. This is an invaluable technique for making a bounce of light. Once the darker values are in place, you can erase and then fill in with a white or a light colored pencil to create a dramatic highlight.

Battery operated erasers come with removable eraser heads that are easily replaced when they wear down. A useful trick I’ve discovered is that I can shape the tip of the eraser by holding it at an angle and buzzing it against a piece of artist’s sandpaper. This creates a finer eraser point for creating tiny highlights, such as a bounce of light on an eye.

Once you accept and overcome the limitations of erasing soft core colored pencils, your battery operated eraser will become your best friend. It’s a super drawing tool, and quite frankly, a lot of fun to use!

A Great Photo is King

I rely on photos rather than drawing from life, so a great photo is king. My commissioned portrait clients supply me with their own photos, which can sometimes be challenging. I strive for hyperrealism, so I really need to see every detail in the photo. These days, most of us take pictures with our smart phones (myself included), but with a few tips in mind, you can take a clear, well-posed shot of your pet. This high resolution photo of my dog, Toby, taken on my iPhone, is the type of photo I look for.

First, lighting is very important to achieve a high resolution photo. If you were to expand the photo on a screen, the details would become more visible. In the case of a low resolution photo, you lose detail as you expand the photo, and it becomes fuzzy or grainy. A lot of natural light is key. If you take an indoor photo, make sure a lot of sunlight is flooding into the room. Outdoor photos can often be a better alternative. If the file size is at least 1 MB, you can be sure the photo is a high enough resolution.

Let’s face it, pets aren’t always the easiest to photograph, because they don’t always cooperate. Sometimes it takes a little persistence and patience. The best way to capture a great pose is to get down to their level. I receive so many photos that are taken while standing and looking down at the pet. This doesn’t make for a good pose. You need to get down and see them at eye level in order to capture their personality. The dog or cat can be lying down, sitting or standing. It’s really a matter of personal preference.

Finally, choose a photo that best represents your pet and try to picture it as a portrait hanging on the wall. Some dogs naturally show their tongues and pant or “smile,” while others don’t. Certain breeds have very distinctive faces and work well close up, while others look better showing the full head and body. In some cases, large dogs look better as a “head shot,” and smaller dogs are better suited to a full portrait.

A perfect colored pencil portrait starts with a great reference photo. Follow these tips, and you’ll capture your pet’s image like a pro.