Mark making with coloured pencils

What is meant by mark making? Read on...

When you are using wax type coloured pencils you are relying on the colour being built up on the paper in layers. Just 'colouring in" the drawing you have made won't cut it! The art is in using the pencil to build up layering strokes - usually in the direction of the surface you are portraying. 

A smooth surface on a subject will require light layers of colours being built up in the way light hits it, with no pencil lines apparent. 

A rippled or bumpy surface (such as a orange skin) will need a totally different approach so that the viewer sees the broken rippled surface. 

This page on mark making gives you some ideas of the many ways the pencil can used to depict the illusion of a surface.  There are many ways you can make marks which are not shown here. You will develop your own style with practice and time. This page is simply to introduce the idea of changing your marks to suit the subject. 

The pencil mark you make will transfer more or less colour to the paper dependant on the sharpness of the point and the pressure with which it is applied. It will also have very different effects depending on the way you make your mark.

Creating lines

The combination of pencil and paper

Assuming that you are using a cartridge 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 with your mark making 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.

The flow of your lines

Your pencil line can also impart a feeling of motion to your image.  

  • Evenly applied shading is a static part of the image.  
  • Short stabbing lines have an effect of vigour
  • Lines applied in different directions give the effect of turmoil and activity
  • Lines which start strongly and then tail off give the feeling of action 
  • Gentle flowing lines give an impression of peace.  
  • Converging and diverging lines also have messages to tell.

The materials used for these mark making samples

These examples have all been prepared on a slightly ribbed cartridge paper, using a Prismacolor pencil which is quite soft and waxy. A harder pencil would have left finer lines and more precise shading but would have taken longer to lay down and the colour would have been less intense.

The mark making samples have all been given names, but these are not "official", they are merely a means of remembering each one. 

Simple Hatching

Firstly we have simple hatching where the mark is made by a series of lines, all made in the same direction and close together. You can see that by pressing harder, or going back over with a second layer, it is easy to show a darker area

Cross Hatching

By applying a second level of lines at right angles to the first, we get cross hatching, which is useful where we wish to avoid shading in a single direction.

Often this is used with a second colour on the second layer to blend two colours together visibly

Tonal Shading

It is one step from here to tonal shading, where the pencil moves back and forwards across the area with a light touch and carefully trying not to overlap the strokes too much. More pressure gives more colour, and this technique is probably the most used single marking method.

This is often used for colouring over indented lines in the paper - as shown here, to leave light or white marks showing.

Vertical Shading

Vertical ( or linear) shading is another version of the single line marking.

Here a succession of strokes are made in the same direction but leaving spaces as required. The closer and the heavier the marks are made, the darker the effect.

You can see the advantage of this mark for tree trunks, bark, and water

Tick Shading

I call this ‘Tick’ shading as the mark making comprises a single stroke going from fairly high pressure on the point, fading away to nothing.

This, in one way or another, is ideal for hair and fur as well as grass

Circular Shading

Here the pencil forms a series of small circles or ovals of different sizes.

Sometimes these overlap sometimes they are made heavier.

These marks have a use when detailing foliage representing leaves of various types. Successive layers in shades of the same or similar colours result in a broken network of tones which represent leaves on a tree quite well.


And stipple, which is made up of small marks, usually of a random nature, which enable a more controlled image of a rough surface such as stone to be made.

Aeroplane mark making

We have ‘Aeroplane’ which is where the pencil lightly touches the paper and leaves again, like a plane coming into land and immediately taking off.

This is often used to represent shine or shadow on a surface


And finally, Scumble, which is a scribble action but with the aim of producing an even surface which will work accurately up to an edge if required.

To Sum Up

Experiment with the different kinds of mark making in your sketchbook. This will then act as a reference library when you need to reproduce a specific texture in a future drawing.

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