As I work I often wing it, fly by the seat of my pants if you will and as I do this I inadvertently discover little tricks that help me on a given piece.   But there are some things that are constant and for anyone just starting out using colored pencil, these are important tips to remember.


1. Study and Understand Values

You might say, ” I just want to do my art, not study!”  That was my mantra for a long time but I discovered that I was spending a lot of time working very hard on a piece but discovering in the end that there really was something missing and that was the well established values.  Yes, there are low-key value paintings and there are high-key value paintings and they are beautiful but they are well thought out and designed.  Some of the most stunning artworks in the world are those that capture light and shadow by the well-placed use of values.  I am still learning so much about values and I try to consciously look for and apply a good range of them in my work and perhaps one day I will instinctively know how to do that.


2. Have a plan

I know I just said that I usually fly by the seat of my pants and that’s true when it comes to much of my color choices, but I do plan my pieces to a point beginning with choosing the right reference photo.  I have hundreds, perhaps thousands of images to choose from and I’m always taking more but I receive inspiration from the world around me and it helps me choose on a given day what type of piece I’m going to do.  On being inspired it’s important to plan out in your head what it is you are trying to portray.  Is it tranquility, strength, sadness, joy, a feeling of space and freedom, time of day etc., etc., etc.  How do I create that?  Is it through colors, light or dark or through soft or hard edges?  These are just some of the questions you may want to ask yourself and even write down.  Once I have the inspiration, I go through my images and choose a few.  Then I open them up in Photoshop Elements and take a closer look.  Do they have the right angle, color, concept?  If they don’t I can make changes and adjust what I like and don’t like.  Then I do a “save as” so I leave the original image alone.  From there I create my line drawing either through use of transfer paper, grid method or freehand.  It’s important to have a good line drawing because once you get started it hard to try and improvise unless you’re good at it.  Values – this is where you plan them out on the paper based on the adjusted reference photo and your ideas.  You need to plan them so you don’t cover an area too dark that should have been either the white of the paper or a light color and so that they are placed where they have the greatest effect.


3. Learn how to use your photo-editing software

I mentioned that I use Photoshop Elements and I love it but there are plenty of free photo-editing software packages online – just google it and you’ll come up with a lot.  Check with others to see which one works for them.  I have only used Photoshop Elements so I can’t recommend which others to use but I have heard good things about Lightroom, Gimp, Picasa and others.  It’s important that once you have the software to learn how to use it properly especially in terms of knowing how to re-size your images for display.  There are various requirements for different modes like simple sharing, web pages, and printing.  If you have Photoshop Elements, I recommend you subscribe to Rick Peterson’s Essential Photoshop Elements Newsletter at  Rick is awesome and everything he writes is written in layman’s terms not geekspeak so even I can understand it.


4. Have the right tools

I know this is a tough one for some folks for a number of reasons.  Maybe you can’t afford a lot of pencils or you live where access to good supplies is difficult at best.  If you are one of these  my best advice is to do your homework and try to find out through online communities or websites where you might be able to purchase your supplies and have then shipped to you or even to someone you could connect with to have them purchase and ship to you.   If you can’t afford 120 pencils, don’t fret.  Purchase a set of 12 of a good quality brand and work with those.  The benefit to this is you will become very proficient at working with a few colors and learning how to create other colors with them instead of being dependent on using that one specific color you’ll probably never use again.  My personal brand choice is Faber Castell Polychromos pencils because they keep a sharp point longer and rarely break.  They are oil-based so do not create wax bloom.  Having said that, I always recommend that people purchase one or two of another brand when they go out for supplies so they can try them out.  Different brands produce different results and you may find that what works for one person doesn’t work for you.  Sharpeners – another question many ask about.  I also would suggest getting feedback from different CP users to see what they like and do not like about different ones.  There are even sites where they are compared in terms of price, quality etc.  I have a Royal P60 electric sharpener which I use only to initially sharpen my new pencils.  After that I have a box beside me filled with shavings and I use a KUM hand-held sharpener (with lots of replacement blades on hand) to sharpen my pencils as I work.  I know this can be time-consuming but for me it seems to be the only way to get needle-point sharp pencils.  Have a very soft large brush on hand to lightly brush away any pencil dust or eraser waste off your page as well.  I also have a small one on hand for small areas and to distribute the color into the valleys of the paper when I need to.  Do not use your hand or fingers to do this.  The warmth of your hand can smear the dust and ruin a piece.  Paper or support for your art can be almost anything but in terms of paper you need to try different brands to see what works best for your style but again do not compromise on quality even it it costs a bit more.  Cheap quality products produce poor quality results no matter how good an artist you are.  With paper it’s important to be acid-free to protect your work.  Erasers are another tool that are invaluable for CP work.  I personally use a Derwent battery operated unit.  It has become as important in my toolbox as my sharpener as I use it zap small errors or to create highlights or simply lighten areas I need a bit lighter.


5. Good Lighting

I can’t over-emphasize the importance of good lighting, especially if you wear glasses.  A good quality full-spectrum lamp is perfect, especially if you work in the evenings or if you don’t have access to some natural northern exposure daylight.  My work station is situated right beside a large north facing window which sheds plenty of light for me for most of the day in spring and summer.  Then the days get a little shorter but that’s where a full-spectrum lamp fills in.


6. Keep your pencils sharp

I mentioned about keeping my pencil needle-point sharp and for me this is very important and it’s easy to get lazy and use a duller pencil.   Some folks have asked how sharp is sharp?  Well again, I say needle-point!  The reason for this being is first of all – control.  With a very sharp point I can control much better how much pencil I am laying down and I can get crisp, hard edges where I need them and I can get those soft-focus looks as well using a form of pointellism.  Using a pencil that is less than sharp often deposits more pencil than is required for good layering and often creates that coloring book look because it tends to deposit too much color.  It will only deposit color on the hills of the paper as well increasing the look of the white showing through which a lot of users don’t want.  The only time I use a duller pencil is when I am laying down my first layers, my road map to where I’m going.


7. Use a light to moderate touch

In their haste to create a piece in 40 hours or less, some users will press harder to create more color or to achieve a darker color.  This will defeat the purpose of colored pencil which is to not look like it was a coloring book job.  To create an even, balanced color it is far better to accept that color pencil work is time-consuming.  No getting away from that.  The object is to create layers like watercolor that are transparent.  If you want to create a dark, solid color then you would begin with a darker color and layer to achieve the depth you want.   There are others ways to do this as well such as using paper that can withstand it, paint a watercolor wash first, or use pastels or use paper that is already colored.  At any rate to create luminous, transparent layers it is important to use a light to moderate touch for control and effect.


8. Keep a blank piece of paper between your hand and your work

The human hand has a much warmer temperature than you’d think and especially if you’re using wax based pencils it can create issues such as melting of tiny bits of the colored wax onto your paper that can be difficult to remove.  We also often use hand lotions or soaps that leave a film – any of these things can cause problems for your work if they come in direct contact with your paper and the best way to avoid them is to always keep a plain, white sheet of paper between your hand and your work.


9. Signing your work

There are many ways to sign your work and some say there is a certain etiquette for doing it.  Personally, I have always signed my work in much the same manner and it’s my way, but there are some unique ways of doing it.  One can “scribe” with a narrow tool such as a knitting needle, one’s name into the paper before your work has begun and then once your painting begins the color will not deposit itself into the valleys of the scribe leaving a white or whatever undercolor you have, version of your signature.  This is excellent if your background is going to be dark and you don’t have a white pen to sign with.  Some people simply leave their initials and some add the date or the year.  These are all a personal choice but you can look to other artists to see what they do for ideas.


10. Be part of a community

There are many, many art communities out there and they bring talent, inspiration and support for those who join them.  We learn from each other and many of these communities provide opportunities to show your work and get feedback as well as information on competitions, where to buy supplies and DVD’s as well as online and in-person workshops.  Some of the online communities I am a part of are Wet Canvas, Darrel Tank’s 5 Pencil Community, the Art Colony to name a few.


I hope you have enjoyed reading these tips and they have been helpful.  If you need further elaboration on any of these points feel free to contact me at or leave a comment here.


Have a great day!

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