Coloured pencil - the ideal medium?

Coloured pencil - artist material or childrens crayon?

Barn Owl in coloured pencil on drafting filmBarn Owl worked in coloured pencil

"That was drawn with coloured pencil? Wow!" This may have been your first response when shown an artwork in this medium. You were probaby not expecting to see such depth of colour, detail and realism created with the humble 'pencil crayon' of your schooldays.

Perhaps the secret lays in the words "artist quality coloured pencil".

These are serious art materials, made with the best pigments and binders that are more than capable of producing works of art that can stand up there with oil paintings or watercolours, depending on the techniques you use. 

Wax or oil?

Although pencil manufacturers guard their 'recipes' closely, the coloured pencil tends to fall into the description of being wax-based or oil-based. This isn't entirely accurate as all pencils contain a combination of these ingredients, but most are biased towards one or the other.

There is a potential for wax bloom with the wax based pencils.

The pencil core

More important, is whether a brand of pencil is considered to have a soft or hard core. This will affect the way they are sharpened, how much pigment they deposit onto the paper and how easy they are to blend and layer.

Those pencils of your schooldays needed a heavy hand in order to get any pigment down, and even then it was almost impossible to get dark values. They sometimes had pieces of grit in them which, due to the pressure put upon them, could rip the paper and destroy your work. 


For professional coloured pencil artists, the lightfastness of each brand is important. After all you don't want to spend hours over a piece of artwork only to find it fades in double quick time!

Artist quality coloured pencils are graded according to how long they should last under museum conditions. Of course if your work is hung in full sunshine for most of the year then it will fade more quickly!

Fixative spray

Will a fixative spray help? Read this page to find out the results of our experimentations and possible problems that could be caused by using a fixative on your project. 

Coloured pencil solvent

Solvent is a product that can be used for blending colours together - some love it, some never use it. Ultimately it is your decision, but do check it out. 

Drawing or Painting?

I say project, as there is some debate as to whether a work done in coloured pencil should be considered 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 its way into a frame, a ‘Painting’.

Changing mediums?

Perhaps you are already an artist, but are coming to coloured pencil after using a different medium?

If you are used to pastels and pastel pencils, you will find coloured pencil gives a more secure painted surface with finer detail. However, using pencil normally takes a lot longer.

It is a dry media so is no possibility of it drying lighter, as can happen with gouache.

Coloured pencil is also slower than working in watercolour. Larger passages of colour are not as easy as with a brush, but there are ways around that, such as using watercolour pencils or pan pastels for backgrounds such as skies

Benefits of coloured pencil 

Coloured pencil is clean to work with. 

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

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

You can get away with just paper and pencil, but there are other tools that could make your life easier, although they are not essential. Even if you get all of them, they won't take up much room to store!

Have I convinced you to give the 'not so humble' coloured pencil a try? Excellent!

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