10 top tips for coloured pencil artists, whether you're new to the medium or a seasoned pro.
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- Invest in good materials to avoid disappointment. Ensure the paper you use is ‘hot pressed’ or ‘satin’ which has a nice smooth surface, and 300gsm in weight or more. Personally I use Fabriano Artistico hot press. Pencil-wise, I recommend Faber-Castell Polychromos to all beginner and experienced artists as they are superb quality, keep an excellent sharp point and are great value for money. The other brands I use daily are Caran d'Ache Luminance, Caran d'Ache Pablos and Derwent Lightfast. They all have unique colours and interact with the paper slightly differently. These are all more expensive than Polychromos however and you absolutely DO NOT need every pencil under the sun to produce beautiful coloured pencil work - Polychromos alone are awesome.
- Whatever paper brand you are using, please please make sure you are drawing on the right side. Most brands will have a smooth, lightly deckled front side for drawing on, whilst the back of the paper has a gridded pattern (received from the manufacturing process). Whilst many papers are stamped on the front side to help you, it’s not always reliable when buying large sheets to cut down. It can sometimes be super tricky to tell the difference between the sides, so look closely in good lighting, compare different sheets to one another, and even when you’ve started drawing, don’t be afraid to stop and double check if it doesn’t feel right. Some brands, *cough* Fabriano *cough*, will vary in texture from batch to batch, so use your intuition. Pencil won’t layer as easily on the gridded surface so it’s often worth starting over if you have used the back side by accident.
Spend some time studying your reference before you put pencil to paper. Observe the colours you will be recreating and save some time later by picking out the pencils you’ll need in advance. Most importantly, figure out the general tone and temperature of the piece. Are the colours bright and punchy or soft and desaturated? Are they generally cool (more blue) or warm looking (more red)? This will help decide what your base layers will be.
- Base layers! Unless you are drawing a VERY white highlight, use base layers to gently fill in the tooth of the paper. Even if you’re drawing a white animal - use those base layers. It helps give your subject presence on the page, laying down the colour foundations and that first layer of wax or oil for you to smoothly add detail later. This is what I think really helps drawings to look ‘real’. Your Polychromos cool greys and warm greys I-VI are your real workhorses here for 80% of animals, alongside the occasional Ivory or Luminance Buff Titanium for light areas, and of course there are exceptions and other colours that only you can decide from looking at your reference.
- Talking of layers, make sure that you are layering REALLY SOFTLY (in general). You do not need much pressure. Your pencil should be delicate on the page, as if you’re stroking a mouse. Too much pressure will flatten the tooth of the paper and prevent you from adding any more pigment. I say in general, because there will definitely be times that you WILL need to use heavy pressure, such as for very fine detail or to burnish the paper and add shine. But remember that you can always add more pressure later if you need it - you can’t take it away once it’s down.
- Well, you can. Sort of. Whilst coloured pencil will never erase right back to the white of the paper, some erasers are better than others. I recommend the Tombow Mono Zero mini eraser which has a 3mm tip, ideal for precision work. For larger areas I use the derwent electric eraser. Regardless of which you use, get into the habit of ALWAYS running over it a scrap piece of paper every time you pick it up and before using it on your piece. I rest my hand on scrap paper so I always use that. An eraser will pick up pigment from your drawing every time you use it, and this pigment layer is not wiped off before using again it will helpfully deposit the pigment in streaks across your portrait which are impossible to erase. This is not something you want to find out drawing a white animal 😅 Dust your paper to remove eraser scraps and loose pigment with a Faber Castell ‘dusting brush’.
Don’t draw what you ‘think’ you see - just draw what you see. Focus on tonal values (how light or dark the area is) and the shapes you see in your reference. For example: when drawing an eye, don’t think about the fact you’re drawing an eye. If you do, your brain will fill in extra details or adjust the shapes to what it thinks an eye ‘should’ look like, and it won’t look realistic. Just concentrate on replicating the right shapes. Even if you think it looks weird, TRUST THE PROCESS. This is hard! I’m still learning.
- If you’re finding step 7 hard, do what I do and rotate both your paper and your reference and draw it sideways or even upside down if you want! This breaks the connection in your brain between what you see in your reference and what it thinks you should be drawing, allowing you to focus on putting down just the abstract shapes you see. For things like curly fur, wavy windswept manes and intricate patterning that fry my brain this is a particular lifesaver.
Familiarise yourself with COPYRIGHT. There are millions of photos on the internet but you aren’t allowed to draw whatever you want - you need permission from the photographer of the photo before you can use it for art. Things can get quite sticky if you don’t have permission and then share or try to sell the drawing you’ve made from someone else’s pic. The best option is to take your own photos, as then you own the rights to use it as you wish. If you can’t take your own reference photos, sites like Pixabay, Morguefile and Unsplash are fantastic places to find free images. Getty, Shutterstock and Wildlife Reference Photos all provide high quality paid images (select the ‘personal use’ option for artist reference). Alternatively, build connections with the thousands of amazing photographers online and politely ask if they would mind you using their photo. Many will be happy to help and will say yes. Some may want to be paid or to receive a print of your artwork. Remember to credit them when you post your work!
- Comparison is the thief of joy. Social media makes it harder than ever to find happiness and contentment in our own art as we are being bombarded by everyone else’s work all day, every day and internally judging ourselves against what we see. Don’t. Instagram isn’t real life, just polished snippets. Refresh this app and you’ll immediately get hundreds of new posts to scroll through from incredibly talented artists. Refresh again, and hundreds more pop up, all seemingly doing much better than you. This can be inspirational but it can also be SOUL DESTROYING, not just for new artists but professionals too. Don’t compare yourself to someone else. You usually just see the good bits of someone’s work on Instagram, not the hours of labour, erased mistakes, scrapped pieces and frustration. Your reality will never beat the polished highlights of someone else’s life and it’ll drive you screwy trying to live up to it. You are your only competition. Compare your new work to your old work and if you’re improving, you’re golden 😘
Let me know what you think in the comments and please share with anyone who’d benefit from this. Don't forget to follow me at @annahowlettartwork for more tips along the way.