Coloured pencil layering technique

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

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. 

Pencil sharpness and paper type

Assuming that you are using a paper surface which is fairly smooth, but has some ‘grip’ on the pencil point, you will be able to put down a smooth, fine, line without too much difficulty.

If you do have any problems it may be due to the dryness or the roughness of the paper - or the degree of sharpness of the pencil (or how it was sharpened).  

A dry paper in a dry atmosphere will take a fine line from a wax pencil better than paper which is not dry in a damp atmosphere.  A hard ‘leaded’ colour pencil with a sharp point, will put down a better line than a soft leaded pencil with an imperfectly sharpened point.

Sharpening with a knife can have advantages for choices of different edges on the point, but for sheer consistency, a grinding mechanism sharpener with a spiral cutter has no equal.   Some coloured pencil artists also use a sandpaper block or pad to keep the point fine tuned.

What pencil strokes will you use?

Before we look at the layering technique in full, first consider what pencil stroke style (or mark making) you plan to use. 

  • Will you add even shading layers to the surface so that no pencil lines show?
  • Or will you work cross hatching lines with spaces in between? 

Your first layer of colour will have the strongest influence, particularly if your pencil strokes are close together and leave no gaps. Additional layers will have less grip  as they are going down over a wax layer, and therefore will leave less colour behind 

If your image is to be constructed from a series of crossed lines of different colours with white space between, some of the subsequent layers will still hit uncovered paper and the resulting colour mix will behave differently. 

Either way, the order you use the colours is important to the finished work. 

Achieving light tones in your work

Colours in wax type pencils are usually translucent but some are more opaque and contain body colour to produce a paler result. These opaque colours do not layer as well as the more transparent ones.

However, if you are working to achieve light areas in your drawing, begin with the lightest colours of the correct colour temperature (warm or cool). Then progressively add layers until you achieve the tone required. 

The light toned pencil will prevent the paper from absorbing darker tones, keeping the area lighter throughout.

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

Later we will look at a way of discerning which pencils in your collection are more translucent than others., but for now let's look at an example.

Creating a light coloured pencil sky

One of the problems with creating a landscape in coloured pencil is the need to get evenly coloured skies which remain light in tone. 

When using pure coloured pencil (i.e. not adding an underpainting in watercolour pencil) you have two main layering techniques you could employ.

  1. Put down an even layer of white to protect the surface first, then add your light blue (or chosen sky colour) on top
  2. Scribble with hard pressure on a scrap piece of paper, then pick up that pigment on a felt pad or makeup sponge and rub that onto your sky area

This second layering technique is ideal for skies as it can easily be erased to add clouds. A grey could then be used in the same manner to add shading to the bottom of the clouds.

If you prefer you can scrape the pigment from the pencil point into a small container and work from that instead. A sharp knife can be used but I prefer a small metal tea strainer for this purpose, as it is safer and produces evenly sized pencil particles. It also reduces the risk of accidentally shaving the pencil wood into your pigment.

We will look at this further on the backgrounds page. 

Blending layers

Wax pencil does offer you the opportunity of blending two layers of colour by firmly adding a third, with an even shading stroke. If you want to lighten the area a white or cream pencil is ideal, but if you wish to keep the colour and tone the same a clear wax blender pencil will do the job. 

The pressure will slightly move the pigment and smooth the layers together. Too heavy a pressure, however, will make it more difficult for subsequent layers of wax pencil to stick to the paper. 

Should you use black coloured pencils?

You will read in many books an instruction to avoid the black pencil like the plague! 

It is true that if you layer black on top of other colours it can 'deaden' them and make that area of your painting lifeless looking. 

Instead reserve black, if you are going to use it, for the early layers and the darkest areas. Then modify it by adding suitable colours on top. 

You can also layer a deep dark tone without the use of a black coloured pencil. Alternate layers of dark blues, greens, purples and reds can produce a more natural effect that many coloured pencil artists prefer. 

If you just want a dark tone, try the layering technique that uses complementary colours on top of each other. These are colours from the opposite side of the colour wheel, such as red and green as shown in this example using Faber Castell Polychromos pencils.

Firm layers applied here in each swatch show that adding the red has a much more dramatic effect that just adding a dark green to the mixture. The final layer of green brings back the overall appearance to green from a brownish tint while retaining the dark value.

A layering technique for leaves

Let's now look at this in practice, when creating a leaf that is part in shadow and part in sunlight. 

You might want to start by...

  1. Picking a base colour for the mid green of the leaf
  2. A dark complimentary colour to darken the shadow areas
  3. and a cream or light yellow to adjust the mid tone for areas of sunlight

First apply your base colour to establish the colour choice. 

Then apply the lightening or darkening layer in the required positions. 

Finally add another layer of the mid tone to return the overall colour to the original one chosen. 

You may need to test out a number of colours, on a scrap piece of the same paper that you are using for your project, before making your final choice for each layer. There is no 'magic' formula, only practice and keeping a record of your results will work here. 

Adding a note of the final colour choices to the margin or back of you work will enable you to create the same effect elsewhere in the same (or other) artwork. 

Creating a colour matrix

Creating a matrix with coloured pencils will help with both your colour pencil layering technique and for seeing how they work on a coloured paper. 

This technique is taught by at least two botanical artists - namely Susan Rubin and Ann Swan in their courses. 

In the illustration below, Peter created a grid of squares on cartridge paper. He then selected colours and completed rows and columns with even layers of colour. He worked the columns first and then the rows going across. 

The position of each mix in the grid does not really matter, what is important is being able to see which colours were applied over others so that the layers can be accurately repeated.

The colour pencil reference numbers are shown top and bottom for columns and either side for rows. The end mix achieved through this layering technique is shown in each filled in square. 

The diagonal line, from bottom left to top right in each larger square, shows two layers of the same colour on top of each other. 

Layering technique - blue over blue

The "blue' larger square at the top left, uses five blue pencils from the Caran d'Ache Pablo box. Each colour was first used to colour downwards each column. This was followed by shading (in reverse order) the same colours across the five squares of the grid. 

This shows the slight differences that result from the layering technique in different orders of laying down the colour.

Layering technique - blue and yellow

The bottom right hand segment of the scan shows the layering of two different hues - blue and yellow. The scan does not pick up the slight differences in the yellow on yellow mixtures as this is not a strongly saturated hue - as distinct from blue, which is.

Remember that if you mix a highly saturated colour, such as blue, with a colour which has low saturation, such as yellow, the highly saturated one will quickly overpower the other. You can see this in the way that the yellow makes very little impact on the blue (above in columns 1 to 3) but the blue makes a major difference to the yellow. 

The exercise also show that yellow 021 has a fair amount of white, which obscures the lower layer. This does not matter where we use it as the base colour (in row 5). 

Yellow 010, on the other hand, is far more translucent and gives a much more effective set of greens when applied over blue in the third row down. 

We stopped shading the blue 170 in row five to show you how the original task was worked, but you can easily see that the best green so far is the layering of blue 170 over the yellow 010 in that last completed box.

It is also worth noting that the lower matrix shows up the lightening effect of using a lighter colour underneath. Applying yellow 240 over blue 370 produces a darker green on the first row of the lower matrix, than using the same blue over the same yellow in the fourth row down. 

Keep in mind

A single pencil can contain a mix of more than one pigment. This makes the layering technique 'interesting'. 

For example if you take yellow and blue paints then mix them, you should get a green. This is not always the case with coloured pencils.

A yellow pencil may have a greenish tinge as may a blue. Mix these together and you will get a brighter green than if you mix a yellow pencil that has a touch of orange in it and a blue with a hint of red. This latter mix is likely to result in a dull green. Of course a dull green may be just what you need so don't write this combination off!

If you want bright colours choose pencils that already lean towards the hue you are trying to achieve.

  • For example if you want a bright orange pick a yellow that already leans in that direction, along with an orangey red. 
  • For a clear purple end result, pick a blueish red and a blue without a green tinge. 

If you want a darker, duller result, pick colours that lean towards the opposite hue on the colour wheel.

  • A greenish blue mixed with an orangey yellow will produce a dull, muddy green
  • A violet red mixed with a greenish blue with produce a muddy brownish shade. 

The above example shows the difference between a bright purple mix and the dark muddy result from mixing pencils which lean towards the complementaries. This shows that blue and red do not always make purple despite what you learned in your early years!

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