Wax pencils

Wax pencils, often just known as coloured pencils (or colored pencils in the USA), may be manufactured with just wax or a mixture of wax and oils. This combination of ingredients give each brand a unique feel depending on the formula used by the maker.  The exact content is not published for very good competitive reasons. The most important thing is to know whether a brand has a Hard or Soft feel. 

I explain more on the wax or oil composition here,  and the difference this can make, but all these pencils can be used together whether they are wax or oil and whichever manufacturer makes them. 

Wax pencils can have a layer of wood to support and protect the core of pigment which can be quite soft. Or they can be without any wood and merely have a paper or varnish cover (when they are commonly referred to by the French word ‘crayon’).

Coloured wax pencils produce a line or mark of coloured pigment on the paper. That line is secured by the wax or oil ingredients that are included in the formula of the core. The core is strong enough to be sharpened to a point for a controlled result. It is also soft enough to leave a layer of colour behind.

One thing to be aware of is that using pencils with a higher wax content can lead to wax bloom, which can temporarily hide the full brilliance of the colours used in a piece of work. This is often more apparent in hot and humid climates.

Another type of pencil is water soluble and we cover those in a different area of the site. These aquarelles (as they are also known) have a different composition to the normal wax coloured pencil. 

Whereas water is used with the aquarelles to dissolve the pigment, a solvent can be used for the same purpose with the wax pencils. Another option is to use heat to blend them, but more on that later. 

Surfaces that can be used

Results can depend as much on your choice of paper as the coloured pencil brand chosen.

Hot pressed watercolour paper of a weight of around 300gsm ( 140lb ) is good, as are smooth papers manufactured for print making.

Print papers have less surface size ( the paper ingredient that stops watercolour spreading out on the surface ) and print papers have a good grip on the wax/oil/pigment enabling more layers of pigment to be applied for stronger colour.

Rougher papers can also give stronger colour more quickly, but leave areas of white paper where the wax colour misses the valleys in the paper surface.

Check out the drawing papers section for comparisons between different brands. 

Did you know that wax pencils can also be used on wood and fired, unglazed, ceramics?

Methods of applying wax pencils to the surface

How much pressure should I use?

For most coloured pencil work, we will need to apply colour with a light touch to build up the layers. 

Try out your ability to apply different pressure on the pencil point by doing a test strip.

Level 1 would be  where you rest the pencil on the paper’ and move it with no actual hand pressure and making virtually no mark.

At the other extreme (say level 10) you would apply maximum pressure to the pencil point up to the level where the point would break if any more was applied. 

It should be possible for you to change the level of pressure for 8 steps in between.

However, I would suggest that you should hardly ever be in the top half of that range - certainly not until the very end of the picture when the surface is fully polished and is taking virtually no more pigment

Working in layers

Colored pencils are excellent for finely detailed images but it is a slow process.

Coloured Pencils (often shortened to the initials ‘CP’) depend upon putting colour down in layers. 

We don’t blend pigment as we do with pastels. We add layers of translucent and semi translucent colour to develop the exact shade and tone we require. It can be a slow process, but it can produce photographic detail and is excellent for pictures involving fur and feather and where fine lines are required and can produce highly detailed images. 

We can use other pencil media such as watercolour and pastel pencils in combination with wax pencils, to speed up the process.

When we layer colour, we build up successive thin layers on the paper and apply as little pressure as possible. Layered colour will produce lighter colour tones and delicate shading - think of a peach skin.  On the other hand burnished wax pigment will produce stronger colour with a more polished finish - think of plum skins. We will cover burnishing further down this page and in more detail on the main burnishing page of the site.

The colour from a wax pencil is semi-translucent so successive layers of thin colour will build up and each layer will act as a filter on the colours beneath.

It is important to remember that the first layer that hits the paper is the most important.  This foundation layer will set up the general overall colour of an area. If you apply a green to the surface all other layers placed on top will merely adjust that green, so that adding yellow will make it a yellowish green and adding blue will make it a more bluish green. Adding red, the complimentary colour to green, will darken and dull the colour underneath. 

If we reverse the order of the colours we will get a different effect. If you put a blue down first then add a green on top, the result will be bluer than the other way around.

This means that you don't necessarily need hundreds of colours in order to complete a coloured pencil painting.  Where you would mix pigment to get the right shade with watercolour, you will build layers of colours to reach the correct shade with coloured pencils. 

The example shown above illustrates how the addition of various layers of colour changes the appearance of the foundation layer.

Faber Castell Polychromos pencils were used on Daler Rowney 300gsm hot pressed paper. 

We start with a light layer of Pine Green and layer Grass Green on top to get the colour shown in the second swatch. As we continue layering each colour shown the result gets darker., however it remains "green". Even adding two layers of sepia at the end does not totally kill the green, it merely makes it a very dark green. 

It is important to get the right colour density when layering wax pencils. 

Burnishing wax pencils

When we apply more pressure in laying down colours, and then apply a further ‘polishing’ layer using greater pressure to bed the colour down and blend the earlier pigment layers together, this is called burnishing. 

This technique requires enough layers below the final burnishing layer to allow all the colours to meld together. 

For the purpose of a simple illustration in this introduction to wax pencils page, the images below show the stages of creating a burnished effect. The pencils used for the example are from the Caran d'Ache Luminance range. The paper used was cartridge paper. 

The image above shows the initial colours that are then layered on the sphere in the same order. 

Next we add some layers of stronger colour, still with a light hand. 

Start the burnishing with a lighter, brighter colour with a heavier pressure. 

Reapply the deeper colour over the burnished piece to bring back the colour. 

The softer wax pencils work best for burnishing, so look at the Prismacolor Premier, Derwent pencils such as Coloursoft and Caran d'Ache Luminance brands for this technique. Although the harder pencils can also be used. 

Sharpening your wax pencils

This section of the site also includes a page on pencil sharpeners. After all, to layer successfully you need the sharpest wax pencil points. 

If you allow your point to get blunt, you may well find that the lines you draw become less accurate. It is also more difficult to apply the exact pressure on the point that you need.

I use a power sharpener which keeps the point at a good standard of accuracy. It might seem at first sight that an electric sharpener would be expensive on pencils, but in fact it is no more wasteful than any other sharpening system. Once the point is sharpened to the angle set by the machine, re-sharpening takes very little material off the pencil each time.

If you are buying a sharpener, you have a basic choice between a low cost one with a blade that removes a long thin strip of wood and pigment from the pencil, or a more expensive model which uses a spiral cutter which takes off very fine shavings.

The bladed type is cheap and works very well whilst the blade is fresh and sharp. Once the blade becomes blunt, you have to go out and buy another sharpener - replace the blade - or put up with the sharpener breaking off the point as it stresses the pencil.

The spiral cutter sharpener pulls the material off the pencil in the direction the pencil was made, so there is no stress. You can find manual spiral cutters (with a handle) on the Internet for under £10 and sometimes (if you call on the right week) in places like Lidl or Aldi supermarkets for around £5.

A top quality electric mains sharpener (Jakar} will cost up to £30 - and some of the more exotic ones around £100, if you really try to spend money, but there is no need to spend much more than £25.

I have heard good reports of a number of brands, and bad reports of others. There seems to be no pattern in identifying the poor ones so I will not name names as I have people who find one brand poor and others who say that the same brand is excellent. It may be down to poor manufacturing standards, but if you do spend good money on a sharpener that doesn’t work, complain to the retailer/manufacturer. If it is a reputable brand, they will usually replace it.

There is a wide variety of powered sharpeners about but I would suggest steering clear of battery models unless you have shares in Duracell. Even using re-chargeable batteries tends to have problems and the small battery motors have a short working life.

Once sharped, it is a good idea to keep rotating the wax pencil as you work, so that you keep the fine point refreshed.

Mark making

Once you have your desired wax pencil point you need to decide which type of marks, or strokes, you want to apply to your drawing or painting. 

This depends on the surface you are trying to depict. Directional lines may be perfect for fur on an animal, but may give the wrong effect if you are trying to give the impression of smooth glass or china.  

The colored pencil strokes page will explain the difference between these.

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