Why coloured pencil illustrations are on trend right now

Four artists who've mastered the medium of coloured pencils tell us why brands are digging their illustration style.


We’ve noticed brands and mainstream editorials are choosing illustrations created using coloured pencils over a clean, stream-lined digital style. This may reflect a wider societal preference towards textured, hand-crafted aesthetics over vector-based artworks.

Although many of us probably used coloured pencils as a child (if we weren’t trying to break or eat them) before disregarding them, artists David Sparshott, Sonja Stangl, Lucinda Rogers and Josie Portillo continued to use and perfect the craft, some even creating their entire style - and subsequent artistic career - around coloured pencils.

The benefits of the humble yet effective coloured pencil are immense - simplicity, portability, tactility and freedom - something valued in a modern world when time is precious. Simply pack a few pencils and a sketchbook wherever you go, and when a brilliant idea springs to mind you can sketch out ideas straight away - no chalky mess, no clean-up required. And there's something unique about the basic pencil-to-paper process that digital applications just can't mimic.

The four artists tell us some of their favourite techniques and mediums to mix coloured pencils with, how colour pencils fit their style and what sketchy aesthetic offers brands right now.

Image: An illustration from Sonja Stangl's Full Of series

Sonja Stangl

Vienna-based illustrator and designer Sonja started using coloured pencils wherever she went - on trains, in lectures and at the nearest park. They were her medium of choice since graduating college, and have formed the basis of her whimsical, child-like style. She says they’re easy to transport, let her be as messy as she wants without smearing the drawing, and let her layer after layer with no delay. On a more honest note, Sonja (perhaps somewhat obsessively) loves to layer different coloured pencils beside each other, turning her entire floor into “little bundles of nice colour matches” - something she calls a meditative process.

Sonja’s last illustration series Full Of was almost solely created using coloured pencils on paper, and she’s recently started using coloured pencils for pattern designs - something she says is not yet an aesthetic often seen on products or fabrics. One of her latest projects was an illustration for an organic chicken farm, and a current commission is the redesign of a restaurant, using the imperfection of sketchiness on illustrations for menus, interior images and packaging.

This image is from a project based on the ‘feeling of Europe’ which will be seen on the streets of Brussels soon. Sonja used coloured pencils to bring out the vibrance of the European Patchwork Quilt.


Sonja Stangl

What are the benefits of coloured pencils over other mediums?

“Aesthetically I think coloured pencils shouldn’t be underestimated. They mix very well with other media and can be used in a wide range of ways. Layering them can produce a stunning luminescence and depth in a drawing. They can be used for a sketchy children’s book illustration as well as photo realistic images. And since I discovered how easy it is to make a wash with coloured pencils by brushing alcohol over them, I am even more of a fan.”

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Sonja Stangl

What does working in coloured pencils offer editorials and brands right now?

"Coloured pencils offer a very handmade and personal feel and that makes them a good medium of choice at the moment. It feels like the trend is still moving further away from clean vector graphics and towards imperfection and sketchiness. Looking around, there is a huge increase of coloured pencil drawings and I think editorials and brands will be quick to jump on that trend.”


Sonja Stangl

Do you use coloured pencils by hand or create a similar aesthetic digitally?

“I do use coloured pencils by hand most of the time. Probably I am a bit of a romantic when it comes to that. I love the feel of paper and the sound of scratching pencils. My drawings are often related to emotions and feelings, which will also be very present in me while I am drawing. I feel like I need a connection to the materials and let the pencils meet the paper with full force it fits the mood.

"But I am also doing drawings digitally. For certain projects it’s just quicker and better to draw it all in Photoshop. Especially when it comes to animation and GIF art. Although there is a really good range of Photoshop brushes imitating coloured pencils out there at the moment, there is only so much you can do digitally.”


Sonja Stangl

What are some of your favourite techniques?

"I love to incorporate the surface I am drawing on and use rubbing or frottage. Putting the paper onto an uneven surface makes its texture visible and I find that adds a whole lot of character to the illustration. In my drawings it’s quite subtle and not like you would instantly recognise what the underground was, but it still makes a huge difference in the overall feel of the piece.

"As my textures come from the background or the paper I don’t do a lot of stippling or hatching, but stick with scumbling. When I want to combine coloured pencil lines with smooth and ink-like areas I use a wet brush and get the colour directly from the tip of the pencil.”

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Sonja Stangl

Talk us through your creative process.

"When I start a new project I pick some thoughts and words and make a brainstorm, maybe even trying to write little stories with what I am going to do. At the same time I am also researching the topic and collecting ideas. I make little thumbnail sketches with pencil to get the form and composition right.

"Then I scan them and blow them up to the size I need. After that there is a crossroads in my process depending on where I want to head: whether I want to combine the coloured pencils with drawing ink or if I want to stay coloured pencils only. In one case I outline the drawing with graphite pencils, go over it with ink, erase the pencil lines and then colour it. In the other case I would sketch the drawing with very fine and light lines in coloured pencils, so it’s still correctable to some degree. Then go layer after layer until the piece is finished.”


Sonja Stangl

Is there an image problem surrounding artists’ use of coloured pencils?

"Coloured pencils didn’t have a very good reputation for a long time. They were considered something to be used by children for colouring books or in school. I suppose most of us have been in touch with coloured pencils as a child. We have been breaking them, almost eating them, sticking them somewhere and in some cases we did even try to draw with them. Therefore they may not be as mysterious or magic as oil paints for example.

"I had some moments in which I felt a person being somewhat disappointed after asking me about the medium I use. But I think the trend of using coloured pencils at the moment will help it a good deal in its reputation and they have already come a long way, with outstanding artists showing what wonderful work can be done using coloured pencils."


David Sparshott

David Sparshott has illustrated using coloured pencils for as long as he can remember, and mixed it with graphite since he began art school 15 years ago.

Based in Suffolk, David creates reportage and observational drawings through his detailed line-work. He enjoys the simplicity and texture that coloured pencils create, and the tactile sense of drawing without too much refinement.

He's recently worked on a series of three new prints for Magma Books, a selection of illustrations of famous Formula 1 cars, taxis from around the world, and a range of cultural masks from many countries.

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David Sparshott

What does working in coloured pencils offer editorials and brands right now?
"Coloured pencil gives a hand crafted feel and is very accessible, easy to imagine drawing it for yourself. I assume this is something that brands hope consumers can identify with - a DIY feel without the glossiness."

Do you use coloured pencils by hand or create a similar aesthetic digitally?
"I draw directly on paper using coloured pencils and graphite. This is how I’ve always done it and wouldn’t really know where to start in creating the same aesthetic digitally. I really like being able to work in low-tech way, this is a drawing method that comes naturally and I feel very comfortable working with - I can take a pencil case with a few basic colours and some pencils and pretty much work anywhere."


David Sparshott

Talk us through your creative process.
"My work is very simple; I use a mechanical pencil with either HB or 2B lead and really standard colouring pencils. I either create my work all in one, almost a colour-between-the-lines technique or use areas of colour and scribbles layered on top of pencil which is scanned and composed digitally."

Is there an image problem surrounding artists’ use of coloured pencils?
"I’m not really aware of any image problem to be honest. However I would say that if an illustrator is being true to their own methods and not just chasing trends or intentionally trying to achieve a certain aesthetic then there really shouldn’t be any issues."


Josie Portillo

Josie has taken a pack of coloured pencils with her since she was a kid, and still uses them to sketch an illustration as a freelancer based in Los Angeles. Josie has recently created greeting cards for Red Cap Cards using coloured pencils, who usually give her a lot of free reign. She experimented with coloured pencils mixed on top or below gouache layers, as seen here.

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Josie Portillo

What are the benefits of coloured pencils over other mediums?
"They feel comfortable in my hands and I don’t have to worry about making a mess as I do with paints plus I like that I can create layered textures with them.

"I love that I can take coloured pencils with me wherever I go, they’re so practical. I love to paint with gouache for example, but coloured pencils are much easier to use when I want to sketch out a quick idea and I’m out and about."


Josie Portillo

What does working in coloured pencils offer editorials and brands right now?
"Lately, I’ve noticed there’s a trend in illustration shifting from very clean streamlined digital looking to a more rough, sort of hand drawn traditional looking quality. Even if an illustration is completely digitally illustrated giving it a hand made quality makes it feel more unique and nostalgic. Coloured pencils do a good job at that."


Josie Portillo

Do you use coloured pencils by hand or create a similar aesthetic digitally?
"Both. When I work on a traditional illustration I always use coloured pencils to map out my sketch, when I’m finally done painting an illustration with gouache I go back and add a little texture using coloured pencils to areas that feel a bit too clean and flat. And When I’m painting completely digitally I always love to use the brushes with pencil textures. I’m always going for texture."

Talk us through your creative process.
"I love mixing coloured pencils on top of gouache to give the painting a little more texture. I love playing with a lot of textures in my illustrations and coloured pencils can blend nicely on top of gouache to get those results. I’ll usually start off a sketch using coloured pencils - or even just pencils. I then paint with gouache or digitally and then lightly brush on a few more coloured pencil textures on top."

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Josie Portillo

How does using coloured pencils fit your style?
"My illustrations rely heavily on line work and I often get asked by art directors I work with to include my lines work in my illustrations. I go back and forth a lot between traditional and digital mediums but I do like that coloured pencils are a constant for me. Weather it’s physical coloured pencils or digital pencil brushes."


Lucinda Rogers

Lucinda Rogers uses her keen eye to detail to create illustrations of the environment she’s immersed in, giving her drawings a particular spontaneity. Her work records the changing landscape of her home city, London, and other such as New York and Marrakech. Alongside this she creates illustrations for mainstream press, such as The Guardian, The Independent, The New Yorker and The Daily Telegraph.

For this illustration for The Guardian, Lucinda used a yellow coloured pencil as the starting point, and worked it together with black ink and lines.


Lucinda Rogers

Although Lucinda doesn’t use coloured pencils as her principal medium, she uses them to make the first marks on a drawing to put down the initial composition.

"I use different colours according to the paper colour and the feeling of the piece of work. When I add stronger lines in ink and brush, the coloured pencil lines remain there and act alongside the ink lines." Occasionally I use coloured pencils to add more specific colour in larger areas, as seen in this illustration.

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