The secret to smoothly blending 2 colored pencils together is: layering! You don’t need to use anything other than the pencils you have. No rubbing alcohol, paint thinner, or colorless blender is needed.
Keep reading to master the simple layering technique to achieve an ultra-smooth blend with colored pencils!
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1. Map out the blend area
When you need to blend two colors you need to know when to start blending. To make things clear for yourself you´ll need to map out your techniques.
When using two colors you have 3 zones: Color 1 zone, the overlap zone and color 2 zone.
The image above speaks for itself. In the color 1 zone the color should be applied all the way through. Same goes for the color 2 zone. But, in the overlap zone, you need to fade out the colors.
Let’s say we use yellow as color 1 and orange as color 2. On the left side in the overlap zone, yellow should dominate. But there must be a hint of orange, it’s the overlap zone after all.
On the right side of the overlap zone, orange should dominate (with a hint of yellow). In the middle of the overlap zone, both colors must be applied equally.
The colors would look something like this:
As you can see above it’s best to imagine the overlap zone with 3 extra subzones:
- Left side of overlap zone
- 90% color 1 + 10% color 2
- Middle of overlap zone
- 50% color 1 + 50% color 2
- Right side of overlap zone
- 10% color 1 + 90% color 2
Now that you mapped out your shading and blending area, let’s lay down our first colors.
2. Lay down layer one of your first color in a horizontal or vertical direction
Lay down color 1 in either a vertical or horizontal direction (I went with horizontal). It doesn’t matter which direction you begin with. I recommend going in the direction that mimics the contours of the object.
Use light pressure when applying your pencil.
Only fill in color zone 1 and the overlap. Fade out accordingly. In my case, I should fade out to the right side of the overlap zone (not pictured above).
3. Lay down layer one of your second color in the same direction
Lay down your second color in the same direction as your previous color. Overlap in the overlap zone. Note how the overlap zone seems to appear darker?
That’s because of subtractive color theory! In subtractive color theory, pigment + pigment = darker pigment. Read here the difference between subtractive and additive color theory, and when to use each. (It has to do with RGB and CMY primaries!)
Use light pressure when applying the second color.
3. Lay down layer two of your first color in a perpendicular direction to your first layer
Now we go back to our first color and add a second layer. This time, we switch directions. Make sure your marks are perpendicular to the first direction.
If your first layer was vertical you now draw horizontal and vice versa. By switching directions the tooth of the paper gets filled equally.
Use light pressure.
Tip: make sure the point of your pencil is sharpened. A sharpened pencil covers the tooth of a paper more, resulting in a smoother blend.
4. Lay down layer two of your second color in a perpendicular direction to your first layer
Lay down the second layer of your second color. Use the same perpendicular direction as the previous step. Don’t forget to go into the overlap zone.
See how a gradient is starting to appear?
5. Lay down layer three of your first color in a diagonal direction
The last direction we use is the diagonal direction. Note how a lot of the paper is already covered?
Use light pressure when applying this layer.
6. Lay down layer three of your second color in a diagonal direction
Do the same thing for your second color. Lay down a layer in a diagonal direction using light pressure.
7. Repeat steps 1 through 6
Now we repeat steps 1 through 6, but this time we use a heavier hand. Use medium to hard pressure with each layer.
8. Lay down your last layer in the contour direction of your object
When you feel like your medium to hard pressured layers don’t cover any more of the paper, we can start burnishing. Burnishing simply means pressing really hard to create a buttery smooth layer.
Do this in the direction of your shape. If you are drawing a rectangle, burnish horizontally. If you have a more complex shape try to pick a direction and stick to it. Don’t use multiple directions to burnish!
Your gradient should look something like this:
That’s it! You’ve created an ultra-smooth blend with your colored pencils.
Here’s a picture of that same gradient but taken with a better camera. See how smooth it looks?
The more gradually you layer your pencils, the smoother your gradient will be. But remember that you are working with colored pencils.
Colored pencils always leave some strokes. If you really want a smooth result you might want to pick alternative materials like pastels or paints.
How to shade complex shapes with colored pencils
To shade and blend complex shapes with colored pencils, you’ll need to map out your shading and blending area. First, you need to define where your shading goes. Your shading is the entire part you fill in with one or two colors. Then, you map out your blend area. Since we’re working with complex shapes, you need to mimic the perimeter of your shading area.
In the complex shape below I first defined my shading area (outer line). Then, I mimicked the shape of the shading area to create the third zone: the overlap.
It’s up to you whether to actually draw the borders of the zones or if you just imagine it. It’ll help maintain the shape if you do draw them. Actually drawing the borders comes in handy with complex shapes like areas on a face for example.
Tip: If you sketch out your overlap zone use the lightest color of the two. This avoids harsh marks.
The blended colors would look something like this:
The direction of the fade in the overlap zone goes from the centre outwards. Imagine that it radiates out of the centre.
Also, color 2 doesn’t always have the same shape as color 1. The blend zones perimeters should mimic both the lines of the color 1 as well as color 2.
Great! Now you know how to map out your shade and blend area.
Does paper matter when it comes to smoothly blended colored pencils?
Paper does matter when it comes to smoothly blended colored pencils. First, you need a paper that is heavyweight so it can handle multiple layers. I wouldn’t go under 200 GSM.
The paper also needs to be smooth. The more texture paper has, the more difficult it becomes to fill the tooth.
The best paper for (prismacolor) colored pencils is a smooth, slightly thick acid-free paper like the Canson Bristol series. This is the paper I use for artwork I sell.
The best part is that it’s relatively cheap. I usually buy one of the biggest sizes available so I can cut the paper any size I want. This is cheaper than buying pre-cut paper.
You can use watercolor paper as well as long as it’s smooth. Smooth watercolor paper is also called hot-pressed watercolor paper. The Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper is in my opinion (and thousands of others!) the absolute best.
It’s extremely high quality and feels luxurious. As with any other paper, if you buy bigger sized paper and cut it yourself it’ll be cheaper.
I only use the Arches hot pressed watercolor paper when I use colored pencils with watercolors because it’s expensive. But yes, incredibly worth it!
Which colored pencils are best for blending colors?
Prismacolor colored pencils, Caran D’ache Luminance and Faber Castell Polychromos are the top three best colored pencils to get a smooth result. Of those three, the Prismacolor colored pencils are the cheapest ones.
Since all three of them create smooth results, I’d recommend Prismacolor because of its price. It’s the ones I use and used in this article. They are wax-based, as opposed to Caran D’ache Luminance and Polychromos. They are oil-based.
|Prisma Color Premier Colored Pencils||Faber Castel Polychromos||Caran D’ache Luminance|
|Wax or oil||Wax||Oil||Oil/wax (mainly oil)|
|Costs per pencil*||$0,81||$1,92||$3,16|
|Costs of Largest Set**||$121.55||$229.99||$316.41|
**Costs of largest set currently via Amazon
The difference is that with wax-based pencils your blends will be smoother and easier to handle, but it’s slightly harder to create tiny crisp details. But I have never encountered a situation in which I wished I had oil-based pencils.
Cheaper alternatives to Prismacolor colered pencils
Honestly, you can use whichever colored pencil brand you want. Lower end brands like Crayola work just as well, but they have a lot less pigment and more filler. Pigment is one of the things that makes a pencil expensive.
Less pigment and more filler leave a grainy texture.
But not all colors are easy to produce. Below you see a blue Prismacolor pencil (left). You can see that it looks rather grainy. Peacock Blue on the other hand (the green swatch on the right) is far less grainy.
Some pigments are just a lot harder to turn into colored pencils.
That being said, you can achieve amazing results with cheaper pencils like Crayola. Or buy a small set of high-end pencils first. I started with the Prismacolor Portrait set of 24:
Choosing the right colors matter
It’s very important to choose the right colors for a smooth blend. You need to pick colors that are as close to each other on the color wheel as possible.
It’s easy to go from a blue to a green, but it’s much harder to go from a blue to a red.
That’s because blue and red are four colors farther apart than blue and red.
If you want a smooth gradient, you need to use transition colors. Transition colors are colors that act as buffers. They help get your colors go from one color to another without getting muddy.
Transition colors are simply the colors that are located between the colors on the color wheel you want to blend.
How to avoid muddiness
The thing that creates muddiness in colors is when you mix complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors that lie opposite on the color wheel. When mixed, these colors go grey. When used in the wrong context it looks muddy.
In order to avoid muddiness, we need to make sure our pencil colors are not opposites and do not carry a color that is an opposite. For example:
A green and a red are opposites on the color wheel. When creating a gradient, it gets muddy. But if we create a gradient with green and orange, it still looks muddy, even though they are not complementaries. How so?
It’s because orange exists out of red and yellow. The red in the orange muddies the green. It’s less than when you use fully use red instead of orange, but it gets muddy nonetheless.
So it’s best to use an orange that leans towards the yellows to minimise the muddy effect. If you really want a gradient with green and red, you should add more transition colors.
Adding enough transition colors
In the image above I used 3 extra transition colors between red and green: orange, yellow and yellow-green. Note how the red, orange and yellow smoothly blend, but the yellow-green looks kind of muddy?
That’s because I had to mix the yellow-green on paper, instead of using a yellow-green pencil, which I didn’t have. Always choose an existing colored pencil over mixing on paper. This way you are sure to avoid muddines.
Read this article if you want to learn about avoiding muddiness in your artwork.
By the way, you can make the transition colors as big or as small as you like. In the example above I made the rather big for clarity sake. In real life I would make them as small as I can.
Here’s a prime example of using too few transition colors:
Can you guess which transition colors I should have used?
What tools do I need to blend colored pencils?
You do not need extra tools to smoothly blend colored pencils. With the steps above you create an ultra-smooth result without having to use any extra tools. To convince you, I’ve tested 3 common tools to show you how they compare.
Blending colored pencils without a blender
To remind you, this is a gradient using only colored pencils (with the technique used in this article):
Blending colored pencils with rubbing alcohol
The gradient below was blended using alcohol.
I accidentally used a Poppy Red instead of an orange, but the yellow was the same. The alcohol covered every part of the paper and it blended well. So well, that I had to be careful not to drag the colors into each other too much.
The downside is that if you use alcohol it’s best to work on watercolor paper so that the paper can handle the liquid.
Blending colored pencils with a blending stump
This gradient was used with a blending stump.
To be fair, during the blending I couldn’t see much of a difference. So this one is basically the same as the first one, without a blender.
All it did was smooth out the tooth of the paper and I don’t think the blending stump technique will work with less smooth pencils like oils or cheaper colored pencils.
Comparing no blender, rubbing alcohol and blending stump
Here’s a comparison of the three blend varieties:
I’d say no blend tool is the way to go!
Which coloring technique is best for smoothly blending colored pencils?
There are two main ways of laying down colored pencils: scribbling and back and forth motion which I often refer to as hatching. Scribbling is continuously drawing small circles. The back and forth motion is, simply put, how children color (but more delicately).
The gradient below was made using the technique we used in this article.
The gradient below was used using scribbles. or tiny circles.
What do you think?
I asked my Instagram followers which one they found smoother. The majority choose the hatching (back and forth) technique.
Personally, I think that the gradient transition of the scribbles is smoother but the application of the pencils itself is where the hatching technique is smoother.
The scribbling technique took me 4 times as long as the hatching technique. So I found the hatching technique to be better.
How to blend colored pencils without a blender
So, in conclusion, to achieve an ultra-smooth gradient with colored pencils without a blender you should:
- Map out your blend area
- Apply color 1 lightly and go in the overlap zone
- Apply color 2 lightly and go in the overlap zone
- Apply color 1 lightly in a perpendicular direction
- Apply color 2 lightly in a perpendicular direction
- Apply color 1 lightly in a diagonal direction
- Apply color 2 lightly in a diagonal direction
- Repeat steps 2-7 with normal to medium pressure
- Repeat steps 2-7 with medium to hard pressure
- Burnish with color 1 and 2 in the direction of your shape
The steps seem elaborated but you’ll see that if you do this it’s done so quickly. All you need to do is layer, have patience and slowly increase your pressure. All it takes is patience.
Don’t forget that even with the highest grade of colors pencils you’ll still be able to see that it’s colored pencils. If you truly want to achieve a smooth result you should consider pastel pencils.
Let me know if you’d like a tutorial on them :)
See you next time,