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Information, Choices, Techniques and Advice on all Pencil Matters


Over 150 detailed pages of information for beginners and improvers to help you develop your skills


OCTOBER 2017    


This is the OLD version of the topics web site.

It has been archived here at

as it contains old tutorials and charts no longer included in the new build of the site. This site is no longer updated

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils

On Daler Rowney 300gsm hot pressed paper

Using two layers of colour at each level.

Total 16 layers

Even adding two layers of sepia at the end does not totally kill the green -

it merely makes it a very dark green

Faber-Castell Polychromos

Permanent Green Olive (167)

used on Fabriano 5 HP 300gsm paper

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1/ the initial lightly layered colour - defines shape and areas of shadow

 2/ the first additions of stronger colour - builds the layers of pigment to give depth of colour

 3/ the burnished result after a lighter colour has been laid down on top under pressure - this step adds the bright colour which is bedded into the earlier stages

4/ the addition of further layers of deeper colour over the earlier burnish. - We now have a strongly defined colour

More similar to a painting than a drawing


First of all you need to keep your pencil sharp (unless you are doing delicate background shading and wish to avoid all lines at all costs).  

I use a power sharpener which keeps the point at a good standard of accuracy.  It might seem at first sight that an electric sharpener would be expensive on pencils, but in fact it is no more wasteful than any other sharpening system. Once the point is sharpened to the angle set by the machine, re-sharpening takes very little material off the pencil each time.

If you allow your point to get blunt, you may well find that the lines you draw become less accurate.  A good tip is keep rotating the pencil as you work so that you keep the fine point refreshed.  

If you are buying a sharpener, you have a basic choice between a low cost one with a blade that removes a thin strip of wood and pigment from the pencil,  or a more expensive model which uses a spiral cutter which takes off very fine shavings.  

The bladed one is cheap and works very well whilst the blade is fresh and sharp.  

Once the blade becomes blunt, you have to go out and buy another sharpener - replace the blade - or put up with the sharpener  breaking off the point as it stresses the pencil.  

The spiral cutter sharpener pulls the material off the pencil in the direction the pencil was made so there is no stress.  

You can find manual spiral cutters ( with a handle) on the Internet for under £10 and sometimes ( if you call on the right week ) in places like Lidl or Aldi for around £5

A top quality electric mains sharpener ( Jakar ) will cost up to £30 - and around £100 if you really try to spend money, but there is no need to spend much more than £25.  I have heard good reports of a number of brands, and bad reports of others.  

There seems to be no pattern in identifying the poor ones so I will not name names as I have people who find one brand poor and others who say that the same brand is excellent.  It may be down to poor manufacturing standards, but if you do spend good money on a sharpener that doesn’t work, complain to the retailer/manufacturer. If it is a reputable brand, they will usually replace it.

There are a wide variety of powered sharpeners about but I would suggest steering clear of battery models unless you have shares in Duracell.  Even using re-chargeable batteries tends to have problems and the small battery motors have a short working life as well

There is a more detailed look at sharpeners and sharpening pencils

in General Techniques   and a further set of notes in the Accessories section


For most coloured pencil work, we will need to apply colour with a light touch to build up the layers

Try out your ability to apply different pressure on the pencil point by doing a test strip.  

If you consider the first of - say - 10 levels is ‘just resting the pencil on the paper’ and moving it with no actual hand pressure and making virtually no mark, is level 1  ........ and applying maximum pressure on the point up to the level where the point would break if any more was applied, is 10, then it should be possible for you to grade the 8 stages in between.  I would suggest that you should hardly ever be in the top half of that range - certainly not until the very end of the picture when the surface is  fully polished and is taking virtually no more pigment


As I noted at the top of this page, the other technique we need to know about is ‘burnishing’

This is a method of pressure blending the colours on the paper by applying a further series of layers of a lighter colour. In effect we are pressing the pigment and wax layers together and producing a smooth polished effect.  This will rely, first of all, on the amount of pigment already on the paper.

Burnishing works best if there is a good amount of earlier colour to work with.

There is a whole Topic in the ‘Working the surface’ section of this site which looks at Burnishing, Burnishers and Blenders, but for the purpose of providing a simple illustration in this introduction, I show below four images giving the stages of 1/ the initial lightly layered colour  2/ the first additions of stronger colour, 3/ the burnished result after a lighter colour has been laid down on top under pressure and 4/ the addition of further layers of deeper colour over the earlier burnish.

For the illustration I have used cartridge paper ( ideal for wax type pencils used entirely dry ) and a selection of colours from Caran d’Ache Luminance.

I have used a softer pencil for this to make to result more obvious, but burnishing can be used with most coloured pencil types.  

Soft wax works best for burnishing so it is best to look at pencils from Prismacolor Premier . Derwent Coloursoft, or Caran d’Ache Luminance - as all three are wax based and among the softest pencils.


Which look in more detail at particular areas of technique

such as

The Application of colour,

Density of Colour,

Choice of Pencil Mark,

There are also other places on the site to look.  

Separate sections entitled General CP TECHNIQUES and  Landscape Techniques

which cover a wider range of general technique topics.

The CP Techniques includes  


Colour Matching,


and Complementary colours

The Landscape section includes  

Clouds and Skies,


and Brick and stone

among other topics

This short  explanation of burnishing

Is repeated

with larger illustrations

In the topic on Burnishing and Burnishers

In the ‘Working The Surface’  section and there are further examples of this technique in the topic

‘Results on different papers’

which appears later in this section

You may be interested in a set of printable notes in PDF format

Wax Type Pencil Basics

Note :  these notes are an older version of the notes on this page

This section includes several Topics

You can reach them using the links below

A Coloured Pencil is a convenient medium for producing a work of art.

Coloured Pencils can have a layer of wood to support and protect the core of pigment which can be quite soft,  

or they can be without any wood and merely have a paper or varnish cover (when it is commonly referred to by the French word ‘crayon’).  

It is a linear medium, and as such is at its best when showing lines.

Subjects involving fur and hair are where it excels, so animal studies are natural territory.  Some brilliant work is to be seen, though, from skilled artists showing subjects of all types

Why use coloured pencil rather than any other medium?

For the artist working in short spells in a home environment, pencil offers the ability to pick up the thread and continue from a previous work session with a minimum of trouble.   

There is no problem over waiting for something to dry, or conversely answering the phone and returning to find that part of the picture has dried when you needed it to stay wet.

The medium is clean and immediately available.

If you work from a box of pencils and start your picture with every pencil in the box facing the same way, you can return each worked pencil to the box the ‘wrong way round’ and then, once you have packed up for the day, your worked pencils are there, already identified, waiting to be picked out and up next time you open the lid.

Fine detail is possible and near photographic realism…if that is what you want

The pigment goes down in a reliable way and there are very few surprises

.................. Pictures do tend to take longer than other media though !

The Coloured Pencil Societies ( UKCPS in the UK,  and CPSA in USA ) hold exhibitions each year for ‘Pure Coloured Pencil’ works,

and specify quite strict conditions for the exact types of media that can be used.  

This is not out of a wish to be ‘difficult’ but merely as an effort to push the boundaries on what can be achieved with a special medium.

Both Societies also hold other exhibitions where mixed media pictures - which include Coloured Pencil as a majority ingredient - can be shown

Why are different makes of pencil so different?

Making pencils is more complex than making watercolour or acrylic paint

( though that might be something to set up a debate on with representatives of the different manufacturers ! ).  

Pencils need to be hard enough to sharpen, soft enough to transfer colour to the paper,

have pigment that is long lasting on the paper and as lightfast as possible, have non poisonous pigments that are bright and strong,

and be manufactured in a premium wood surround that sharpens evenly and protects the pigment core from shocks when you drop the pencil on the floor.  

The combination of all these variables then meets the accountants,

who say the product must be made at a low enough cost to sell at a good enough profit to keep the shareholders happy.  

And you thought juggling was difficult !

So each manufacturer tries to find a balance - and a niche in the market which they can fill with a reliable, efficient and profitable product.  

Enter the Coloured Pencil buyer -  He or she will have their own agenda.  

They may be botanical artists and want colour in a fine sharp point that enables great precision.  

They may be looking for transparent colours, or very soft pencils that lay down lots of colour quickly.  

They may regard lightfastness as a priority and be prepared to pay for the privilege -

or be looking for the lowest cost pencils they can find …………

I think you may be getting the point !

What is a PURE coloured pencil? Personal use is not the same as competition entry

Pure Coloured Pencil always used to be considered by the Societies to be any  wax or oil based Pencil, soluble or not, but since 2011 the UKCPS in the UK have no longer accepted watercolour pencils (where water is used), as being the same as wax based crayons

( nor do the Societies accept pastel pencils or coloured graphite as ‘Pure Coloured Pencil).

For competition, these pencils may be used on a purchased surface,  so surfaces pre-coloured by the artist with other media such as traditional watercolour, acrylic paint or ink are excluded, as are Coloured Pencils worked over collage etc.  

More precise details of the entry conditions to these International Pencil Societies are available from the Society Exhibition Directors.   

There is debate over how a ‘purchased surface’ is defined and surfaces prepared with a layer of gesso or primer in a single colour can be permitted as a base.  This is so in the UK but I have no information about the USA Society ruling.

Since 2012, The UKCPS has stated that all other pencil media ( including watercolour pencil worked with water ) may be used in pictures exhibited in Society Exhibitions - provided they are entered in the Mixed Media section.

From 2013 all pencil media will be accepted by the UKCPS provided at least 50% of the media is ‘Pure Coloured Pencil’.

For the traditionalists, there is an additional section of awards  for pure CP alone.

Why are we concerned about these rules?

We are concerned about definitions and entry terms because the two societies uphold the banner for Coloured Pencil as a Fine Art Medium, and promote the use of pencils. There are a number of other graphic based societies, but they all take a wider view and do not specialise in Coloured Pencil.   By  the dedicated Societies laying down strict rules, the development of Coloured Pencil techniques is encouraged.

BUT NOTE CAREFULLY ……….These rules apply only to competitive exhibition entry

The fact that the two Societies apply strict control on what is allowed for Pure Coloured Pencil Exhibition does not in any way hold back developments in the handling and use of Coloured Pencil - either alone or with other media.  

There are some very interesting ideas circulating and you should not be discouraged from trying out new ideas and techniques with other media.  

This site shows some images which are from professional artists who use Coloured Pencil (CP) with a variety of other media,

and this site also covers Watercolour Pencil used with water,

and also Pastel Pencils, which are not admissible by the two societies as a media on its own.

‘PencilTopics’ tries to provide a base of information for the new and fairly new user.  

The site is regularly updated to take account of new products which are tested when they are available on the retail market ( and sometimes earlier).  Any opinion expressed on the site is an entirely personal one and any contradicting opinions are welcomed and will be posted here if made available.

Is it a Drawing or a painting ?

Drawing with a pencil or pen produces a line.  

A drawing is an image made up of lines and is a representation of the subject which may - or may not - be photo-realistic.

Painting is the laying down of blocks or layers of colour to produce a more realistic interpretation than a drawing.  

Work in Coloured Pencil can be either, but most work that is exhibited fits readily into the category of ‘painting’.

Does it matter what we call it ?   I don’t think so, but I call most of my own work that finds it’s way into a frame, a ‘Painting’.

Plaything or serious medium ? in a word, ‘Both’.  

As an introduction to the world of art, coloured pencils offer an unrivalled medium for children.  

If young people can be taught the modern techniques which have been developed over the last 15 or so years for applying colour from a pencil, , those children will be the artists of tomorrow.  

As for the artists of today, Coloured Pencil has every right to be taken seriously as a professional medium.

The pencil has for far too long been referred to as ‘humble’.  

It is time for the Coloured Pencil to stand up, wave, and be noticed.

If you want to see a selection of the latest international exhibited CP pictures, then take a look at the website for the CPSA in America where USA based exhibition images are shown in a gallery of images.  

In the UK, the two annual shows mounted by the UKCPS are pictured on the UKCPS website exhibition galleries

It is not so simple! there are some very light fast pigments on the Market,  some of the quinacridones are excellent; manganese

is superb, although not terribly bright.  If we were making paint, then those pigments would retain their lightfastness no bother, as paint is just a clear acrylic resin with a few binders etc and it can be loaded with high percentages of pigment.

However, pencils are very different!

Yes, we use binders and instead of the resin we use clay or a similar material. But we are limited in the amount of pigment we can add to those materials.

Firstly, we have to make a product that will be strong and hard enough to extrude into a pencil core. So we have to use chemical hardeners or less pigment!   If we loaded the cores full of pigment, then the cores would simply crumble during extrusion.

Then there is the problem of getting the pencil to write.     

With paint, the pigment is held in a wet state in its binder, which then dries after use.

In pencils, we have to dry the binders before use, as it's a dry medium.  Pigments in their dry state can often be very, very hard in texture.

Remember Derwent Signature pencils?  the pigment in those were of the highest lightfastness you can get, but in order to retain the high ratings, we had to load too much in the cores and the texture was far too hard!

An additional problem with pencils, as opposed to paint, is that we have to simulate the 'wet state' that paint is in so that the pencils will

write. That means that we have to add waxes or oils to the mix to transfer the colour onto the paper. Unfortunately, most of the waxes and/or oils that exist - even the more natural ones - have a detrimental effect on lightfastness. and that is especially true of their effect on bright pinks, violets and reds…  ….  ….

I was talking to Barbara Murray of Derwent on the subject of pigments and the various chemical compounds used in pencils, and asked why do not manufacturers use only lightfast ingrediants

Barbara told me:




WHAT IS ‘PURE’ COLOURED PENCIL and why are we bothered ?


Are they CHILDREN’s Playthings or ARTIST’s Media ?



those Non soluble pencils are often referred to as WAX PENCILS -  though many brands are actually  OIL BASED PENCILS.  

Referring to them as ‘Wax  type’ saves having to explain every time what they are

THESE ARE NOT WATERCOLOUR PENCILS, sometimes known as ‘Aquarelles’

Oils & Waxes are used in the manufacture which give each brand a unique feel depending on the formula used by the maker.

The exact content is not published ( for very good competitive reasons).

It is, I believe, sufficient just to know whether a brand has a Hard or Soft feel,

but in hot and humid climate conditions pictures created from softer varieties of wax based pencils

may suffer from a grey powder coating called Wax bloom.

If you want to know more about the technical side ( as much as I can discover ! )

Look at the topic on Wax Bloom

If you are in the USA these non soluble pencils will simply be called ‘COLORED PENCILS’ (USA spelling)

and most books in the States which refer to colored pencils will be talking about this type

It is possible

 to use solvents with these pencils to dissolve the pigment binder, and also to use heat to blend, but we will come to that later.

We will discuss the particular techniques for using watercolour pencils and pastel pencils in other sections of the site here.

In this initial page we will quickly summarise the most important features of using this type of pencil

The techniques for using coloured pencils rely on two main techniques,

Layering and Burnishing

When we layer colour, we build up successive thin layers on the paper and apply as little pressure as possible

When we apply more pressure in laying down colour, and then apply a further ‘polishing’ layer using greater pressure to bed the colour down and blend the earlier pigment layers together, this is called burnishing.

Layered colour will produce lighter colour tones and delicate shading - think of a peach fruit skin

Burnished colour will produce stronger colour with a more polished blended finish - think plum fruit skin


The trick in getting a satisfactory finish with coloured pencils is to use a very light touch and build up a number of layers of colour on the paper.  The colour from Dry Point pencils is frequently transparent and at the least will be semi transparent, so successive layers of thin colour will build up and each layer will act as a filter on the colours beneath.

You need to remember that the first layer that hits the paper is the most important. I don’t think we can be sure of an accurate figure, but I often say 70% of the finish colour is determined by the first colour to hit the paper.  This first coat will be a foundation layer and will set the general overall colour.

If you apply green to the dry fresh paper surface, that will be the majority shareholder in the company, all other layers placed on top will merely adjust that green, so that adding yellow will make it a yellowish green and adding blue will make it a blueish green.   

However, if we reverse the order and use blue as our foundation, we lay down the blue colour and then put the same green over the top of the same blue, we will get a slightly different result as the first (blue) layer will be the majority of the resulting colour.  Our resulting colour will be more blue.

It follows that you don’t need to have every colour in your box that you will require for the painting.  Where you would mix pigment to get the right shade with watercolour, you will build layers of colours to reach the correct shade with Coloured Pencils.

See Dry Point Techniques 2 - Application of colour - for fuller details

The example shown here shows how the addition of various layers of colour changes the appearance of the worked colour


These are the Wax or Oil based pencils which do not dissolve in water.

We look at how colour is applied, different ways to shade colour

and provide a good depth of colour,

different pencil marks for different purposes

and Wax ‘Bloom’

Latest revision July 2016