Arts and Crafts Explained: Beginning Colored Pencils, by Apryl


Colored pencil has to be my favorite medium to work with. I love the control and the feel of using them, and I love the results.

“Emma” colored pencil portrait.



What is a colored pencil and what makes it different from regular pencils?

For an interesting look at how colored pencils are made, check out this video from “How It’s Made.

What is the best brand of colored pencil?

Although individual preference can dictate which pencil will work best for you, there are some favorites among serious artists. Most often, Prismacolor pencils come out on top for quality and color selection, followed by Faber-Castell polychromos. Personally, I would recommend Prismacolor to start out with and then experiment with a few other brands. You can usually buy colored pencils from open stock at art supply stores, so you can experiment without investing in a full set.

What is the best type of paper to use?

While you can draw with colored pencil on just about any type of paper (and even wood!) some papers perform better than others. In order to layer colors and blend without marring the paper, you need thicker paper with a little bit of tooth. (Tooth is the rough surface of the paper.) I recommend using a heavy weight paper such as Bristol. Hot press papers will have a smoother surface, while cold press will be much more rough. My personal favorite is Arches Watercolor paper, 140lb Hot Press. It is smooth, but still retains enough tooth to allow several layers of color. I buy it in large sheets at the art supply store and cut it down into the sizes I need.

What do I need to start?

For a beginning artist who wants to seriously explore colored pencils, I would recommend the following:

Prismacolor Premier Colored Woodcase Pencils, 12 Assorted Colors/set. You can often find the larger sets on sale for half price, especially around Christmas.

Prismacolor Premier Colorless Blender Pencil, 2 Pencils

Strathmore 300 Series Bristol Pad – 11-Inchx14-Inch – 20 Sheet Pad

X-Acto Home and office Electric Pencil Sharpener (19210) Yes, I do recommend an electric pencil sharpener. Don’t go all out and buy the most expensive one, as colored pencils will be hard on your sharpener. That said, I’ve had an X-Acto similar to this one for several years now and it is still going strong.

Sanford Design Kneaded Eraser

Extras that are handy, but not essential:

Mini Dusting Brush, 10in for dusting off pencil dust without smudging your drawing

• Masking tape for taping off the edges of your work for a clean edge

• Rulers



Colored pencil can be hard to erase, so laying out your drawing beforehand is recommended. I often draw a sketch entirely in pencil, and then trace it lightly onto clean paper for my final colored pencil drawing. I will usually use a light gray or brown colored pencil to trace with, and use a very light hand. For easy tracing, tape your original drawing to a window or glass door and tape your clean paper over the top. The light will shine through, making the tracing easier. You can also purchase light tables for that purpose.

As you can see in this photo, I am working on top of a lightly sketched drawing.

Laying down color:

Colored pencil drawings are slowly built up by layering the colors one over another. You nearly always want to keep each layer of color light, adding more light layers to make it darker or to modify the color. If you color with a heavy hand, the wax of the pencil will build up too quickly and you will find that you cannot add more color. It will end up looking blotchy. So, when coloring in your drawing, use light even strokes.

Keep your pencils sharp. A sharp tip will fill in all of the little hills and valleys that occur in the paper surface. This results in an even coverage and fewer white specks showing through. When your pencil is blunt, it will skip over any small valleys in the paper, allowing the paper surface to show through.

You will also want to begin with the lightest colors first, gradually building up your drawing, and finishing up with the darkest colors.

Here you can see where I have begun to gradually build up color and shading.

more gradual color building

A very handy tool when using colored pencils is a colorless blending pencil. These pencils are just wax, and can be used to blend and smooth your colors. This should be done near the end of your project because it will lay down a layer of wax that makes adding more layers difficult.

Beginning to blend the skin tones more with a colorless blending pencil. The eyes and lips are also blended.

Lifting or erasing color:

Colored pencil can be very difficult to erase, and will rarely erase completely. However, you can use a kneaded eraser to “lift” color. You do this by firmly pressing a small amount of eraser onto the area to be erased and lifting it. Do not rub it across the paper. This technique will pick up small amounts of colored pencil. Be sure to use a different area of your eraser for each lift, so that you do not smear color back onto your paper.

You can also use an electric eraser. I have read that people can get good results from them, but I have not tried it.


There are several ways to create white or “highlighted” areas in your drawing. If you are using white paper, you can leave the desired area blank. You can color it in with a white colored pencil (with no other colors beneath). You can “lift” an area of color with a kneaded eraser. Or you can use a knife or other sharp object to gently scrape the area clean of colored pencil. For very fine areas of light color (such as hair) I have used a needle or thumbtack to lightly trace the area, leaving an indentation. When you color over it with a darker color, the pencil will not hit the indented area, leaving it white.

Below I have used a combination of highlighting techniques. In the eyes, the light reflections were left uncolored until the end, and then I went over them with a white pencil. The forehead and cheekbones needed a little more highlighting to make them more rounded, so at the final stage, I went over the skin tone in those areas with a white pencil, lightening them slightly.

The finished piece. I left the background unblended.


In this project you will create a color wheel and learn how to blend colored pencils to create different colors and shades. If you would like to learn a little more about color theory, check out my previous article, “The Science of Color.

First download and print this mini poster onto paper. You can use regular copy paper, but you can also use artist paper cut to fit your printer.

For this project we will only use 3 colors: red, blue and yellow. I used Crimson Red, Ultramarine, and Canary Yellow. You can also use a blending pencil if you have one.

1. With your three pencils, color in the primary color wedges — red, yellow, and blue:

2. Color in secondary colors:

orange = yellow + red (because of the way colored pencils blend, I recommend laying down the yellow first. This will keep the orange lighter in color.)
violet = red + blue
green = blue + yellow

Remember, use a light, even hand and a sharp pencil when coloring.

3. Color in tertiary colors:

yellow-orange = yellow + yellow + red
red-orange = red + yellow + red
red-violet = red + red + blue
blue-violet = blue + red + blue
blue-green = blue + blue + yellow
yellow-green = yellow + blue + yellow

4. Now you can use these color mixing techniques to color in the pictures around the color wheel. Experiment using different combinations of the three colors to create shadows and contrasts. *

*Be sure to read “Pencil Control and Shading” for more on how to create realistic shadows and gain pencil control.

Below I have a photo showing the same image colored on two different papers. The paper on the left is just white copy paper. The paper on the right is Arches 140lb Hot Press watercolor paper. You can see the difference in vibrancy and that I was able to add more color depth. Also, if you look at the cherries in this photo vs. the cherries in the above photo, you can see where I have used the colorless blending pencil to smooth and blend the colors.

Have fun with your new colored pencil skills!


Apryl–Born and raised in Tennessee, Apryl is a southern girl at heart.  She lives out in the country with her husband and her three daughters. After having an unfulfilling public school education herself, and struggling to find peace with the education her girls were receiving in the public school system, she made the choice to homeschool.  When they began their homeschool journey, the girls were in the third and sixth grades.  Now she is happily coaching three teenaged daughters through their high school years.

Arts and Crafts Explained: Learn Pencil Control and Shading, by Apryl


One of the first things I teach in my art classes is the control of the pencil.  Mastering pencil pressure and control are essential to learning how to draw.  Here are some simple exercises that I recommend doing repeatedly until you feel you have mastered them.

1.  Practice applying pressure.


It is much easier to erase mistakes when you draw lightly.  A line drawn with a heavy hand dents the paper and will not erase completely no matter how hard you try.  When sketching and drawing, I always begin with a light outline.  Gradually, as it takes the shape I desire, I will begin to darken the lines and erase any light ones I don’t want to remain.  Don’t ever be afraid to use your eraser! Practice this until it becomes automatic for you to start lightly when you draw.

2.  Practice gradually darkening into a shadow.


The key to realistic drawing is mastery of shadows.  This cannot be learned until you are good at drawing a gradient.  A gradient is just a gradual darkening.  Draw a box and practice making it look like the one above.  I usually start by very lightly filling in the entire area.  Then, I will increase pressure and add layers, moving from the light area to the darkest area.  Continue practicing this until you can create a smooth transition from dark to light.  Then practice it in many different directions, such as top to bottom, or right to left.   The sketch above was made using a 3B pencil.

3.  Practice shading on basic shapes.


I find that a basic circle (or circular shape) is the best to practice with.  You will choose a direction for your “light source” and keep it in mind.  My arrow is the direction I want the light to come from.  This will be the side with little to no shading.  The side opposite your light source will be the darkest.  Using the gradient technique you learned above, shade your circle, following the contour of your shape.  To make it really pop from the page, add a drop shadow.  A drop shadow will begin at the outer edge of the object, opposite from your light source.  If your object is sitting on a surface (like an imagined floor or table) then it will touch the object.  Your shadow will be a stretched out version of your shape.  (Mine is a flattened circle above.) If your shadow doesn’t touch your object, it will appear to float in mid-air.  Try it!  Then practice doing this with other shapes.

6.  Practice using a pencil stump.


Finally, use a paper blending stump to further blend your shading projects.  You just gently rub the areas with the stub, just like you were using a pencil.  This is best learned with practice!

Enjoy practicing these tips until our next project!

Did you miss the article on artist pencils?  If so, read it here.

About Apryl: I am a homeschooling mother of three teenage daughters. We have been homeschooling for nearly six years after pulling our girls from the public school system. We strive to have a well-rounded education that will allow the girls to live out their lives for Christ, no matter where He leads them.

Arts and Crafts Explained: Drawing Pencils, by Apryl


“The pencil is indeed a very precious instrument after you are master of the pen and the brush, for the pencil, cunningly used, is both, and will draw a line with the precision of the one, and the gradation of the other.” — Ruskin

This installment of my “Arts and Crafts Explained” series will discuss the most basic of art supplies: the pencil.  You may be thinking, “What could she possibly have to write about this? Isn’t a pencil a pencil?” However, if you step into any art supply store, you will quickly realize there so many types and choices that you may not know where to begin.  I am going to walk you through some of the different choices you have, and what they are used for, by answering some questions.

1.  Why use drawing pencils vs. standard #2 school pencils?

Not all pencils are created equal.  We’ve all experienced the angst of trying to sharpen a cheap pencil that has an off-center core, or one in which the lead continually breaks.  When you are in the middle of creating your work of art, the last thing you want to deal with is a pencil that will not sharpen.  You’ll also find that the texture of the lead in lesser quality pencils will vary greatly, causing an unevenness in the marks it lays down.  The grit in cheap pencils can snag your paper and cause unwanted results.  Most #2 pencils that you find sold with school and office supplies are not artist grade, so you will run into these problems.  You can also find these problems in pencils sold as artist or drawing pencils if you buy off brand pencils or use those sold in low-cost, all-in-one art sets.  In my opinion, you are going to be much better off buying your pencils from open stock at an art supply store, or in a set that only contains drawing pencils.

2.  What do all those letters and numbers mean?

When you look at a pencil, you will notice that it has a number, a letter, or a combination of both marked on it.  These numbers are used to grade the graphite in the pencil.  Although commonly referred to as pencil “lead,” the core of a pencil is actually graphite mixed with clay and contains no lead.  The graphite and clay are mixed in differing proportions to create different grades of “lead.”  The grades indicate how soft or hard the core is.  The photo below shows a good range in the pencils to the right.

Basically, H pencils have a harder core and B pencils have a softer core.  So a 9H would have an extremely hard core, and a 9B would have an extremely soft core.  Typically, you would use a harder core pencil for fine detail.  It also tends to be lighter in color, as it doesn’t lay down as much graphite.  It will not blend very well.  A softer core pencil is used for shading and loose detail.  It will smudge more easily and blends very well.  It also tends to show up much darker.  Which grades of pencils you use are a personal preference.  I tend to use the 2B-4B pencils the most in my drawing, with a 6H for fine detail.

You can also purchase graphite sticks.  These have no wood casing, and are often used for covering large areas quickly, or for large, loose sketching.  They are kind of messy (they rub off on your fingers) but fun to use.

3.  What brands do I prefer to use?

Brand choice is really a personal preference.  Most of my drawing pencils are Sanford Design Drawing Pencils.  I use them mainly because I am used to them, and they are easy to find in my area.  If you get a chance, however, go to your local art supply store and talk to the sales clerks there.  They may be able to put you on to a brand they like better.  Just this week the guy at our store recommended that I try Grafwood Caran d’Ache pencils.  I bought two, and so far they are working very nicely.

4.  What kind of pencil sharpener should I use?

I highly recommend not skimping here.  I prefer electric or wall mounted (old school style) sharpeners.  Try as I might, I can never get the point I like with a handheld, and I often snap off the tip.  A decent electric sharpener will last quite a while.  If you are using colored pencils, you will go through them quicker than if you just sharpen graphite, but it is still well worth the replacement cost.  I have an X-Acto brand electric sharpener on my desk right now that I have used heavily for at least four years.  Many artists will also keep sandpaper nearby to sharpen the tip back up a bit.

5.  What are those strange paper stick things? 

You may have seen those white things that look like rolled up paper sold beside artist pencils.  Those are Blending Stumps and Tortillions.  They are very useful to blend shadows in a drawing.  While you can make your own by rolling up strips of paper into a small stick, I find the pre-made ones are much easier to use and last longer.  You use one by rubbing gently over the area you wish to blend and it smears the graphite around.  (You can also use a finger, but you risk getting oils from your hands all over your drawing and you end up with black fingers.)

6.  What about erasers?

You’ll notice that drawing pencils do not come with erasers.  There are many types to choose from, and I recommend buying several kinds and see which ones you prefer.  Personally I like to use the white Mars plastic erasers for graphite.  They lift well.  I also like to use a kneaded rubber eraser.  You can mold it into very small shapes to get into tight areas.  You don’t rub with a kneaded eraser, you tend to dab and lift.

7.  Where do I find all this stuff?

Most big box art and craft supply stores will have a decent selection to choose from, but I encourage you find a smaller artist supply store near you if possible.  These stores will often carry more varieties and more specialty items than the large craft stores.  Also, they tend to employ people who actually work with the things they sell, so they can often give you tips and advice.  I have found that nearly all larger college campuses will have a decent artist supply store somewhere nearby.  If all else fails, you can order online at several different retailers.

To try your hand at drawing, browse through these free ebooks on pencil drawing from the early 20th century:  How to Use a Pencil

Arts and Crafts Explained: Series Introduction, by Apryl

by Apryl

For many homeschoolers, one of the more intimidating subjects to teach can be hands-on art. The plethora of subjects, methods and supplies can be overwhelming to someone who doesn’t consider themselves artistic or crafty.  This series will be covering the how-to and why of some basic art techniques, with some hands-on projects laid out for you to get your feet wet.  I will start with a discussion of the basic supplies and tools, what they are typically used for, and why some types work better than others.

While my formal art training consists of one college art class that I dropped out of, I have been creating art for as long as I can remember.  I attribute my love of arts and crafts and the abilities I’ve developed to my family who encouraged me as a child and who never balked at letting me loose with art supplies.  My family gave me real paints, genuine calligraphy pens, artist grade pencils, actual oil paints and pastels, and more.  I was allowed to keep them in my room and use them at my whim.  For the most part, I’ve done the same with my children, and they have also embraced a creative life.  I believe that true art comes not from formal instruction, but through an understanding of your tools and materials and the freedom to explore.

So I encourage you to follow along as we embark on this artistic journey, and to always remember:  there isn’t a right or a wrong way to create art.