Layering coloured pencils

Learning the technique of layering coloured pencils will ensure the best results in your art.

By a "layer" we are referring to an application of colour from one pencil in an area. This is rarely a covering of the whole paper surface, but normally just a section. Even in this section, the pressure used to lay down the colour can be varied giving lighter and darker areas. 

Because wax type pencils are designed to build colour on the paper in layers is it essential to understand why we need to take care over how those layers are constructed. 

This page looks in more detail at how the final colour is influenced by the WAY the pencil line is put down, and also by the ORDER in which colours are applied. 

The paper you use has a bearing on how the layers of pigment behave, as does the sharpness of your pencil point, so let's look at this first.  

Paper and pencil sharpness in the layering technique

Blunt pencils used for top section, sharper pencils for bottom

The paper surface needs some grip, or tooth, so that the coloured pencil pigment sticks to it.

However, if there is too MUCH tooth then the pencil will skip across the raised surface and miss out the dips. In coloured pencil books you will likely see these referred to as mountains and valleys. The result of this can be an uneven covering of colour.

This is not necessarily an issue - it depends on what surface you are trying to render. For example the representation of silk cloth would suffer if the layers are uneven, whereas leaves on a tree might benefit and look more natural.

Even if your paper is smoother (for example a hot pressed watercolour paper), the layering technique can be affected if you use a blunt pencil. Unless your pencil point is really sharp, it won't be able to travel down into those valleys in the paper and will still leave gaps.

The type of pencil will determine how sharp a point you can achieve, and how long it will stay sharp. Pencils with a hard core will sharpen better and keep that point longer than a soft cored pencil.

For more on sharpening your pencil click on the link. 

How your pencil strokes affect the layering technique

Hang around the art field for any length of time and you will come across the term mark making.

When you make a mark on your paper you have two options - to use the pointed tip, or lay that tip on its side to get a broader stroke.

The gap between each application of the pencil can vary, either accidentally or intentionally.

If you lay your strokes further apart and then cross them at a different angle on your second journey over that area, you are inevitably going to end up with some uncovered paper.

If, on the other hand, your strokes are very close together, very little paper will be left bare. Additional layers will have less grip as they are going down over a wax layer and will leave less colour on the surface.

Smoothing uneven layers

All is not lost if you find your first layers are not as even as you wanted them to be. There are some options you can turn to...

1. Use a soft wax pencil over the top, in a light shade, to meld the colours already on the surface together. A clear wax blender can also be used for this purpose. However, this can limit the number of additional layers that can be placed over the top.

2. Coloured pencil solvent can be used to dissolve the pigment and move it around on the surface to mix the colours and even out the layer. In this instance you can work further layers over the area with no issues. 

The layering technique for light tones

Coloured pencils tend to be translucent in nature. This allows the bottom layer to show through subsequent layers.

Beginning with the palest tones will protect the paper from ending up too dark in areas you want to remain light as you continue to layer.

You will never get a true dense dark over a light first coat so avoid those areas when you put your light tones in place.

Instead of using the pencil point directly on the paper in light areas of your drawing, for example skies, you could try a different method. Take a piece of scrap paper and scribble with firm pressure using the colour required. Then take a soft make up sponge or a felt pad, and pick up the colour from the scrap paper. Gently wipe this over your sky (or other light area of your drawing) to add a light, even tone. We will look at this layering technique in more detail when we discuss creating backgrounds

Layering coloured pencils to create dark tones

Beginners to the art of coloured pencil often avoid dense, dark tones - perhaps being afraid that if they put them in the wrong place it will be difficult to erase.

This can result in wishy washy artwork where everything in the picture is light or mid toned and therefore there is no contrast. Dark tones are important to make your painting pop!

But have you ever tried to get a really dark area by using just a black coloured pencil? It is not as easy as it may sound. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't use that pencil - just use it in combination.

Take a moment to virtually look through your wardrobe. If you have a collection of black garments are they all the exact same colour? Probably not! Some with have a greenish tint to them, whilst others lean more towards blue or a brownish-red, for example.

To get this effect you might prefer not to use the black pencil for your last layer. Instead, sandwich it between others, to get a more natural affect that doesn't look flat and boring.

You might also like to look into the use of complementary colours to create deep darks without the use of the black pencil. 

Layering coloured pencils successfully can depend on the pigment

When using paint, you can mix a blue and a yellow and the result is a type of green. The same is not necessarily the case with coloured pencils.

This is because a single pencil can contain a mix of more than one pigment.

Your blue pencil may contain a smidgeon of red in it for example, and when you mix this with a yellow you won't get a clean fresh green, but instead, something nearing a brown.

There is something to be said for having a limited range of pencils that you are well acquainted with, so that you can learn which work well together. But if you are like many other coloured pencil artists, collecting pencil brands is as much as hobby as using them!

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