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How to draw with colored pencils | Everything to know

After years of drawing with colored pencils, I am here to tell you everything you need to know about making a colored pencil drawing. Feel free to ask questions too!

I first tell you about the basics, and after that, I show you some tutorials.

Keep reading to learn how to make the colored pencil drawing of your dreams!

The basics of drawing with colored pencils

A great colored pencil drawing exists out of:

  • High-quality paper
  • High-quality colored pencils
  • The right techniques used
    • Think of the initial sketch, shading, build-up technique, perspective, etc.

We’ll talk about supplies in just a minute.

To make things easier for yourself, you should go through 5 stages when making a drawing from scratch:

  1. Ideation
  2. Sketch
  3. Base colors
  4. Shading
    • Includes shadows, mid-tones, and highlights
  5. Lighting

1. How to work out an idea for your colored pencil drawing

First, you need to work out your idea. If you work realistically you should always use reference photos. But even when doing stylized drawings it’s advisable to use reference photos as well.

In this stage, you come up with ideas. Jot down words, little drawings, color schemes + color harmonies, values, or anything that helps you visualize your idea.

For this, I use a program called PureRef which allows you to gather reference photos in one place. Once you collected reference pictures and you have an idea of what you want to draw, you start thumbnailing. This helps you visualize the aspect ratio and layout of your drawing.

2. Sketching

Once you have your thumbnail and color scheme you start to get a little more serious: sketching out your idea. Think of drawing techniques such as (body) proportions and perspective.

For this, I advise you to work on cheap (printer) paper. Once you’re done, you transfer your sketch onto your final paper. This way you avoid damage to the tooth of the paper by over-erasing and over-sketching.

If you don’t want to sketch just trace your reference photo. Tracing is a very controversial topic within the art community, but there’s nothing wrong with tracing.
Professional artists do it all the time. There’s even proof the old masters traced.

3. Base colors & lighting

Due to the nature of colored pencils, you need to think of lighting when you draw your base colors.

In real life you have an object and its base colors and after that in comes lighting. Lighting changes colors. That’s why we need to merge base colors and lighting into one stage when working with colored pencils.

You established your color scheme in your ideation phase, so you now need to tie those colors together. You need to make them look like they belong together in one scene.

You do this by changing the color temperature of your colors. If your subject is in a sunny environment, you need all of your colors to slightly shift towards yellow (warm).

If your subject is in a winter scene, you need to slightly shift all of your colors toward blue (cold).

how to draw with colored pencils

Note: the hue circle above only shows the color’s hues relative to each other, and not each color’s value and saturation. If you’re confused of what I mean I highly recommend you check out hue vs color.

Technique wise you should know how to blend colored pencils together. It’s pretty easy!

4. Shading

Shading when using colored pencils is easy. You just pick a lighter, more desaturated color than your base color to get highlights. For shadows, you pick a darker more saturated color than your base color.

You can then divide them into sub-levels of shading. The image below explains what I mean:

how to draw with colored pencils

To understand hue, value, and saturation, which is what color exists out of, I advise you to read Hue, value and saturation first.

5. Lighting

So we actually already did step 5 in step 3. But I just wanted to tell you a little more about lighting.

Lighting is something a lot of beginner artists forget. Lighting determines everything: values and hues.

But since you’re working with colored pencils and not digital or oils, you need to keep lighting in mind when you’re doing your base colors. If you were to work digitally you would:

  1. Paint your base colors
  2. Paint highlights and shadows
  3. Adjust the lighting on a different layer or use a blend mode

But since you working analog, you need to add the colors of your lighting during your base color process. You can glaze (a light layer on top of other thicker layers) afterward, but only with darker colors since it’s hard to lighten up colored pencils.

Tip: Incorporating reflective lighting takes your drawing to another level!

What paper is best for colored pencils paper

The paper that works best for colored pencils is bristol paper. Bristol paper is smooth and heavy weight which makes it ideal for colored pencils. The last thing you want is a thin paper that can’t handle layering.

I highly recommend either the Canson bristol series (which I always have a supply of) which comes in loose sheets or a sketchbook or Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper.

The Arches one isn’t specifically made for colored pencils but it’s excellent to use when you use mixed media. I often use watercolors with my colored pencils.

Arches is THE high-end brand of watercolor paper. Just be warned, once you use it you’ll never go back!

Best colored pencils (for realistic drawings)

Now the quality of your colored pencils is even more important than your paper. You can create beautiful artwork on cheap paper but you cannot create good artwork with cheap pencils on great paper.

After years of trying out different brands of colored pencils, in my opinion:

The best colored pencils (for realistic drawings) are the Prisma Color Premier colored pencils. They are ultra-rich pigmented, blend very well and are cheaper than their competitors like Polychromos and Luminance pencils.

Polychromos are great as well, but they are a little more expensive than Prisma color Premier pencils. I also find that they are a little bit harder to blend as well.

Best colored pencils for realistic drawing skin color set prisma color

If you are looking for a specific set that focuses on skin colors I recommend the Prismacolor Portrait set. This set includes 24 colors that cover all skin colors. I recommend Prismacolor over Polychromos because they blend easier.

But you don’t have to use this set. You can also mix your own skin colors. Yes, even with colored pencils! For this, you can read my how to get (dark) skin tones in any art medium or how to get skin color with 3 colored pencils.

Medium to blend colored pencils

This is optional but to get that ultra-smooth look you can opt to use a medium to blend your pencils with. For this, I have a handy trick:

Use a medium to blend your colored pencils by filling a water brush with alcohol. Alcohol ”melts” your Prismacolor pencils together. If you use Polychromos, you should fill the water brush with paraffin oil.

By using a waterbrush your alcohol won’t evaporate so quickly.

How to color with colored pencils realistically

To color with colored pencils realistically, instead of using ready-made colors, you should mix your colors yourself. So instead of using an orange pencil, you first lay down a layer of red and then you lay down a layer of yellow. This way specs of both colors will show through giving more depth to your drawing.

This takes a long time. But that’s why ultra-realistic drawings look so good!

How to draw with colored pencils stylized

To draw in a stylized, cartoon, or 2D style you should still use reference photos but you need to heavily simplify the forms and shading. This means that you should focus on shapes and not details.

Your shading should only consist of 3 values and no more. For this, you can make use of ready-made colors as stylized drawings tend to look flat anyway.

How to color a face with colored pencils

Here’s a quick tip on how to color a face with colored pencils:

To color a realistic face you should keep in mind the color zones of the face. The colors around the eyes, cheeks, and nose tend to be red. The bottom third of the face tends to be on the grayish side. The top of the face tends to be more white.

You can find more about this in this article: The ultimate guide on how to make skin color.


Frequently asked questions about how to draw with colored pencils

How to make light skin tone with colored pencils?

To make light skin tone with colored pencils you can either use colors like Peach, or you can mix your own colors using magenta, yellow and cyan. Click here to learn how to mix light skin tones.

Theory on how to make skin tones stays the same for all mediums. You just have to keep in mind how your specific medium, in this case colored pencils, work.

How to color dark skin with colored pencils

To make dark skin with colored pencils you can either use colors like Terra Cotta and Burnt Sienna, or you can mix your own colors using red, blue and yellow. Click here to learn how to mix dark skin tones.

Blue, red and yellow are darker colors than magenta, yellow and cyan which is why we use the latter for light skin tones and the former for dark skin tones.

What colored pencils are best for skin?

Prismacolor premier pencils tend to be better for skin as they produce a smoother final result. Polychromos also do a great job, but they may take a bit longer to produce the same results.

This is all based on my personal experience though.

How to color skin with colored pencils anime

If you want to color skin with colored pencils when you’re going for an anime style, you should keep your colors very simple. Take for example Peach as a base color, Light peach as a highlight, and Burnt Ochre as a shadow.

How do you color human skin?

If you’re interested in coloring skin tones you should check out the following article: the ultimate guide on how to make skin colors.

I hope this article helped you learn how to draw with colored pencils. I’m currently working on a course about this topic. I’d love to know if you’re interested in this!

Feel free to sign up for my monthly art letter to keep up with articles published on this site.

See you next time!

♡ Laura

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