10 tips for drawing with coloured pencils

Sonja Stangl tells us her 10 favourite coloured pencil techniques – to help artists currently using the medium and inspire those who haven't picked up a coloured pencil since childhood.

Illustrator Sonja Stangl started experimenting with the often-mocked medium of coloured pencils about five years ago – and since then they have became a big part of her work, and a constant companion wherever she go.

Sonja says that they have gone through a long period of being unduly under-appreciated – thought of as a child's medium or only capable of producing a tweet look – so here she wants to advocate the greatness of coloured pencils through a little collection of tips, techniques and ways I use them.

Since I discovered the beauty of Frottage – rubbing your pencil on paper over the top of a surface to pick up its texture – I walk through the world a little bit differently. I need to touch every surface, imagine what it would look like as a texture and often just take a quick test in my sketchbook straight away.

I love incorporating the surface I am drawing on. Most of the time I use it in a very subtle way – so that the underground is not instantly recognisable – but still makes a huge difference to the overall feel of the piece and brings variety to the texture.

Cardboard packaging can be really interesting, as it produces nice lines and patterns due to their structure.

I also like to use Frottage to underline the materiality of certain objects in a drawing, like wood or a stone wall. 

In this picture I used the surface of my notebook as it has a linen fabric-like feel, which I thought would look nice in her trousers. The lines in the jellyfish come from my cutting matte.

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I do like to put some thought into the paper I am going to use. It’s not just the surface under the paper which makes a big impact on the way coloured pencils turn out. The choice of paper is as much part of the aesthetic as the tools used.

I often hear that it’s better to use smooth papers with coloured pencils because they blend and flow into each other easily. But personally I think avoiding grainy paper is missing out on a whole lot of character and charm that can go into a drawing.

For comparison, the red sketch shown here was done on smooth paper, while the others were on grainy paper. Although I like the softness of the red sketch, there is a very different mood than in the other drawings. In the end, it really comes down to the kind of energy and feeling I want to achieve.

Indenting is a way to make white parts with coloured pencils. I use it when I want to make highlights or lines which should stay paper-only, but have a stronger edge than just leaving them out.

Put some tracing paper over the drawing and trace the lines you want to appear white with a good amount of pressure. Then put away the tracing paper and softy go over the area with a coloured pencil. It works best when you hold the pencil tilted and use the broad side of the tip.

As the paper is indented in the parts where the highlight should be, it will stay relatively clean.

Often I don’t want my highlights to be just white, and that is where bright pencils come in to play. As it is impossible to draw over a darker area with a bright pencil, some of you might have wondered why manufacturers include them in a box of pencils. But they are very useful.

The key with highlighting using coloured pencils is to draw the light areas first. When I start on my drawing I think about where I want the light areas to be and draw them out, again with a good amount of pressure so the paper fills with the bright pigment.

Then I softly go over the drawing again with a darker pencil, until highlights start to pop out. They won’t stay 100% clean, but I do think that this is what gives them their character.

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Before I will go deeper into blending, I should briefly touch the subject of different brands and kinds of coloured pencils. 

First of all: When you think coloured pencils as an illustrator, don’t think about the ones you used as a child. The difference in quality is immense. Coloured pencils for professional artists have a much higher ratio of pigments to the binder.

There are wax-based and oil-based coloured pencils, depending on what is used as a binder. Wax-based pencils are more common, softer and easier to erase. Oil-based pencils are hardier and don't suffer from 'wax bloom'.

The pencils I use are Polychromos by Faber Castell. They are oil-based and give a very smooth and dry line.

When I want to give my drawing a more painterly touch, I blend the colours into each other. There’s a lot of ways to do that – and you can buy special blenders for different types of coloured pencils.

As I use oil-based pencils, I found a turpentine substitute as used for oil painting works really good. The one I use is by Schmincke and I would just brush it over the drawing in the end.

I like to be careful with the turpentine substitute and only use it over a thick layer of coloured pencils, otherwise the paper gets oily and it makes the drawing look muddy.

Also, if your highlights get a bit lost after you've layered lots of dark pencil over them, they can be revived by using the blender. The white dots on the whale are much more visible again after blending.

This is something I discovered when I really wanted to make a softer, watercolour-ish drawing but only had coloured pencils, a brush and some water:

It is possible to take the pigment directly from the tip of the coloured pencil with a wet brush. It needs a bite of soaking in the water, but once the tip is wet, the pigments come off nicely (with most hues, at least). When I find it hard to get the pigment out, making little cuts into the tip helps.

To be fair, this will ruin the tip of the pencil and I have to sharpen away a bit afterwards. So it’s not the most careful way to go about, but for me it works. And it spares me having to mix the exact hue with watercolours or ink.

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Coloured pencils can be mixed easily with other media. And as might be obvious by now: I am really into texture and rough, grungy areas. One good technique to create a great effect is to apply coloured pencils over acrylic paint.

Make the basic shapes with acrylics and then use your pencils to add depth and texture. I am such a big fan of how this brings out the pencil strokes!

If I want to get a thick layer of colour over a large area without layering away endlessly, apply some warmth. A higher temperature softens the binder in the pencil and therefore makes it yield more.

I made these quick demonstrative sketches using the same paper. The green one was done at a normal temperature, while for the red one I used a hot surface under the paper.

For the green sketch, I tried to get a thicker layer purely using pressure. For the red one, I only used a single layer of orange pencil, topped offer with a bit of a darker red in places. Comparing the two, the difference is really visible – the red one looks almost as if it was done with oil pastels.

For heat, I use cheap light-tables – which grow hot far too quickly. Buying poor-quality devices can have some advantages it seems.

As my textures come from frottage or the paper itself, I don’t do a lot of stippling or hatching – but stick with scumbling. This means I hold my pencil tilted, and very softly apply the layer with a circling motion. This way my areas become evenly coloured and the pencil lines are not visible. Using this, I add layer after layer until the drawing gets the desired level of depth and luminosity.

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