Want to improve your colored pencil coloring?
Ok, so you’ve tried a few colored pencil projects and you can’t quite seem to get the hang of it.
It looked so simple, it’s a pencil after all.
Pencils? You’ve been using ‘em since preschool!
You’ve got this! Right?
And yet your colored pencil coloring looks gritty, grainy, and pale as heck.
So you buy some of that magic solvent stuff and blend the heck out of your project with a paper stumpy thing. But that just makes a slightly greasy smear and it’s paler than the original.
It’s smoother but it’s definitely not vibrant. In fact, it’s less vibrant.
So you try pressing harder but that breaks the pencil lead. It also makes weird shiny glazed doughnut looking surface. Not kidding, all of a sudden the pencil layers got glassy smooth and slightly opaque. And man, once that shiny layer happens, you can’t seem to fix it. Nothing sticks when it’s slick!
Again, this is a pencil….why is it so darned hard?
Relax. It’s not you.
Well, it’s kinda you but it’s not your fault.
Colored pencil is deceiving.
Colored pencils are sneaky.
Because you write with pens and pencils every day, you assume it will be easy to jump into this colored pencil stuff and master it in a minute.
A little like how you’ve seen lots of airplanes on television, so you hopped into the cockpit and started stunt flying for the Blue Angels yesterday?
Or how you’ve been eating french fries since you were a kid, so you’re interviewing for the head chef position at a nearby bistro tomorrow?
Pencils look super-duper easy.
But that doesn’t mean they are super-duper easy.
“Colored pencils are a slow medium” is something colored pencil people tell each other all the time.
We never say the slow medium thing with a smile. It’s always prefaced with a sigh and punctuated with a gigantic eye-roll. We say it in solidarity and commiseration. We’re reminding each other that yes, it takes forever to complete the latest project, but that’s normal and it’s okay. We’re normal and we’re okay.
But “colored pencils are a slow medium” also applies to the learning curve. This isn’t an art supply you can master in a day, a month, or a dozen projects. It takes time, patience, and a heck of a lot of experimentation to make colored pencils work the way you want them to.
So today, let’s start you out fresh.
Let’s erase your memory cache, clear your cookies, and reboot your brain.
Forget all the failed colored pencil attempts you’ve had before.
If I were to introduce you to a brand new, never-before-seen art supply called a colored pencil, how would I teach you to use it?
Simple. I’d start by teaching you how to hold the darned thing.
Because it doesn’t matter what brand of colored pencil you’ve purchased. It doesn’t matter what color you choose. It doesn’t matter what kind of paper you’re coloring on…
And it doesn’t matter whether you’re coloring a stamped image or your own fancy-pants perfect hand-drawn illustration.
If you hold the pencil like a pencil, you are doomed.
It all starts with your grip.
So let’s start there.
But before we start, go sharpen your pencil!
The point of this article is to learn how to hold the colored pencil correctly. A better grip will definitely improve the look of your coloring.
But it’s all for naught if you’re using a dull pencil!
Opening a brand new box of colored pencils is a little slice of heaven. Pretty colors all lined up in a perfect row… and the smell of fresh pencils? Oh be still my flip-floppin’ heart!
The problem is that colored pencils are only a little bit sharpened at the factory. The sharpen they give you is weird too.
Factory sharpening is designed to improve your box opening experience, not your coloring experience.
Factory points are useless for art!
Factories give their pencils just enough of a point to survive the shipping process without breaking. It’s short and shallow so that you don’t see a bunch of chipped off leads when you open the box.
They’re sharpened, but not really.
If you try using that nubby bit of point on paper, it gives you a fat chalky looking stroke.
Dull points = grainy coloring
And yet you’ll read on the internet how to replicate a perfect factory point at home. You’ll see recommendations for awesome shallow sharpeners. You’ll find tips for sanding down too-pointy points with sandpaper blocks.
You’ll also read 900 complaints about “why does my coloring look gritty and grainy?”
Duh. Go sharpen your pencil!
You can’t function properly with a dull point.
Just read that sentence again. See the contradiction? What in the heck is a dull point? A dull point is literally self-defeating. Don’t do it!
“But Amy, when I sharpen my pencils nice and sharp, they break!”
Uhm no. That’s not the sharpener; that’s your messed-up grip!
See how this stuff is interconnected?
Sharpen your pencil and hold it right. Problem solved.
If you want more info on pencil sharpeners, I’ve got an article here. But let’s get back to the subject now, let’s learn how to hold a colored pencil correctly.
Improve your grip, improve your coloring
It’s just that simple. Let’s learn how.
Tip #1: We are not writing
There’s your new mantra. Say it over and over.
We are not writing. We are not writing. We are not writing.
Writing is a complex micro-task.
Think about it, the average height of your handwriting is about .25 of an inch. You use a pen that’s scientifically designed to make a mark that is 0.5mm wide.
Consider how small a period or a comma is!
In writing, you make lots of teeny tiny precise movements. You’re constantly reversing direction according to strict rules, looping up or down in specific sizes, stopping at regular intervals to meticulously dot and slash selected strokes.
Does that sound anything like coloring?
Coloring is macro: Big movements on a grand scale.
Coloring is all about broad and generous fills of big areas. We layer several coats of color on top of each other with organic, loose, and purposefully random strokes.
Coloring is nothing like writing and yet there you are, all hunched down over the paper, shoulders curling inward, arms glued to the tabletop. wrists locked, nose to the paper, beady eyed and sweaty browed.
Are you coloring or doing your taxes?
I’ve got more on the subject in this article (and no, it’s not just for left handers) but the moral of the story is that colored pencils are for coloring, not for writing.
So the first tip for grip is actually about your body.
Get your body out of writing position.
Straighten your neck and spine. Roll your shoulders back. Scoot back a bit from the table. Peel your forearms off the desk. Push your paper away from the edge.
And most importantly, float your elbows in the space you’ve created between you and your project.
You need to be able to move.
To get your body ready to color you must open the body wide rather than shrink in small.
You can’t color blue skies, sweeping vistas, or blazing sparklers when your posture is set to dot the semicolon on line three of subsection 4, paragraph 12.
Stop writing and start coloring!
Tip #2: Don’t choke
This tip almost falls under the “stop writing” category but I want to break it down even more.
The precise movements and control required for good penmanship determine where you hold a pencil.
A writer’s grip places the thumb and index finger down very close to the point of the pencil. The secondary fingers curl under to brace the index finger and stabilize the pencil.
You then drive the pencil with finger movement.
The result is a pencil held very upright, almost at a 90 degree angle, perpendicular to the paper.
That doesn’t work well for coloring because you’re driving all your force and pressure straight down into the paper.
Psssttt… when you’re in writing position, that’s usually when your lead breaks.
Coloring position moves the fingers away from the point.
A coloring position is a stretched index finger with a moving thumb. The secondary fingers don’t support the index finger. Instead, they stretch out and brace the entire hand.
Look at the difference a stretch makes in the angle of the pencil to the paper.
Instead of riding perpendicular, the pencil lays lower at what might be a 20 degree angle. In coloring position, the pencil is closer to horizontal than vertical!
Notice where the barrel of the pencil rests against my hand. For writing, the pencil sits between my first and second knuckle. For coloring, it’s braced in the fleshy corner at the base of the thumb.
Coloring position makes for softer, more subtle coloring because it’s hard to press hard from coloring position.
Grab a pencil right now but deliberately pull your fingers back from the point, just try it right now.
It feels a little weird right? Like you’re out of control?
BINGO! That is exactly what we want!
When you try to drive your pencil as if you’re writing, you’ll get tight little constipated pencil strokes. You’ll break your lead with excessive downward force and maybe carve little valleys into your paper. You’ll make jagged lines and your swishes will have sharp bends. This is all because choked-up writing position with your fingers down near the point is designed to make teeny-tiny marks.
You’re trying to work large from a small position.
And you wonder why you can’t draw a straight line?
Move your fingers back from the point, stretch out those fingers, uncurl your wrist and hand, decrease the angle of the pencil to the paper.
Your lines will be straighter, your swishes swishier, and your strokes more organic.
Tip #3: Vary your grip spot
This tip always stuns my students when they first hear it.
I’ve gotten to the point now that I deliberately look the student in the eye when I say it. It’s fun to watch their gaze glaze over and their mouth fall open
“You know, you can change where you hold the pencil, right?”
I know my students are not dumb. I’ve got mad respect for anyone who decides to get off the couch and learn something completely new.
But as adults, we get used to doing things one way. When we find something that works, we stick to it. This is how fortunes are made and civilizations are built.
Crafters sometimes take this ethic to extremes, seeking out the one best brand of pencils, the one best type of paper, the one best way to do something…
But there isn’t a one best anything. Especially not in colored pencil world.
You don’t have to do everything the same way all the time.
You don’t have to hold the pencil the same way all the time.
I’m giving you officially official permission to change how and where you hold the pencil. You can change your grip any time, even mid-stroke. It’s okay, your cranium won’t implode if you make adjustments.
Adapt your stroke as your needs change.
If you’re filling in the center of a large teacup, move back on the barrel and stretch those fingers long for a generous treatment that is easier to blend and smooth.
But if you’re coloring around a small polkadot on that same teacup, tighten up, closer to writing position.
Students are always apologizing in class for coloring outside the lines. They think it means they’re sloppy when in fact, it just means they were holding the pencil or marker too far away from the point. It’s really hard to drive a car from the backseat!
Other students will lament how hard they’re pressing, they know they’re putting down way too much color with every stroke. They feel powerless to change it. All it takes is moving their hand back. It’s hard to color hard from farther up the barrel.
Change where you hold the pencil to best suit the area you’re coloring.
Sometimes you need stretch. Sometimes you need control.
There’s no trophy for coloring everything with the same grip!
Tip #4: Loosen up
Okay, I get it. You’re coloring and darn-it-all, you’re concentrating.
You’re thinking. Hard.
And you’ve got six mental notes about what to do, what not to do, what not to forget, and what not to do while you’re not thinking about not forgetting about not doing it!
Someday you’ll be able to ride no-handed but for right now, you’re leaning really heavily on that left training wheel and praying not to fall off.
But seriously folks, you need to loosen your grip.
White knuckles do not make good art.
My student LeslieDiana summed it up best:
“Sorry, but I’ve got the Hand of Thor when it comes to colored pencils…”
Look, the pencil isn’t going to get up and run away from you. Holding on for dear life serves no purpose.
If you’re Thor-ing the pencil, your coloring looks, well… it just looks bad.
Sometimes we don’t even know what you did or how you got that look, all we know is somethin’ ain’t right.
Using the might of ten thousand men doesn’t just look weird, it’s actually a health hazard. A hard hold puts you on the fast train to Carpal Tunnel Town.
I tend to drop my pencils. A lot.
I know, I know- it’s not good for them. I have a nice rug below my desk so that they’re not rolling off to Kalamazoo before I can catch ‘em.
But I don’t drop pencils because I’m clumsy. It’s because I barely hold on to them. If you bump me at the right moment, my pencil will go flying.
And that’s a good thing.
I can color longer because I’m not exhausting my hands
I’ll have a longer coloring career because I’m not stressing my joints and musculature
I’m able to create dynamic and bouncier strokes with nice tapering points because the pencil moves naturally in my hand
Loose holds use less pressure which means I never dig valleys or dent the paper surface
Erasing is easier when you’re not perma-bonding the wrong color to the paper with all your might
My soft touch allows for greater layering - an important key to developing mature color depth and vibrancy
Control is good.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not so good.
Check out Amy’s favorite art supplies, click above.
Tip #5: Try alternative holds
WARNING: Can we please have all the early elementary teachers get up and leave right now?
Yep. You folks just head on down to tip number 6. Move along, move along.
Teachers are not going to like this tip. It’s going to drive ‘em nuts.
When my kids were young, they brought home a nice little diagram on how to officially hold a pencil. It was something weird about making a hungry baby bird with the thumb and index finger, then you put the pencil in the bird’s beak and fold the wing around it…
Don’t ask me. New learning and all that jazz.
“Hey kid, just pinch the pencil and get your other fingers out of the way” seemed pretty clear to me back in the 70’s but I’m not trained in modern educational Jedi arts.
Here’s what I do know: take any life drawing class and you’re going to use willow charcoal and conte crayon. Charcoal and crayon don’t like to be held in a beak and swaddled by a wing.
They simply don’t work that way.
When you do a lot of drawing with featherweight crumbly things, and if you pay attention as you move back and forth between mediums, you’ll notice that colored pencils don’t always want to be baby birded either.
Baby Bird pretty much stinks for art.
But you can get some really awesome results if you use the Alligator in a Bathrobe technique where you pinch the pencil from the top and let the other fingers waggle in the wind.
The Polite Narwhale works for me too. Cup your hand around the far end of the pencil in a 3 or four finger pinch. Be sure to pop the pinkie finger upwards to keep it classy.
Note: I don’t really know the technical terms for these untraditional grips. But you have to admit, now you’re dying to try narwhaling something, aren’t you?
Maybe Hipster on a Train is the right grip for you. Try a Southern Moon or do the Sanskrit Chicken.
The point is that old Mrs. Pickering is not here to frown at your Classic Copperplate or D’Nealian anymore.
Nobody cares how you grasp the pencil.
Experiment to find the hold that makes the kind of lines you want to make.
Line quality and coverage are the only things that matter, so do what works best for you.
Ditch the traditional Baby Bird pinch if it’s not working for you.
And never stop experimenting with new grips and pinches because you might find something better.
Tip #6: Rotate your lead
I’ve saved the best one for last.
This grip tip will make you look like a pro, even before you can color like one.
You’ll be whipping this trick out at backyard barbecues, business meetings, and listing it on your Luv-Match dating profile. Okay, maybe not the business meeting part, but it does save on lead and certainly that’s worth bragging about.
I mentioned earlier about the importance of a sharply pointed pencil lead. The problem is that a few dozen strokes into coloring, your pencil isn’t so sharp anymore.
Time to sharpen it?
No matter how you hold your pencil, it’s a good idea to develop a pivot or a rolling move.
I do a thumb roll which spins the pencil about 10 minutes counterclockwise.
Voila! Instant new point.
(Note: I’m left handed. A righty would develop a roll that rotates the pencil 10 minutes clockwise.)
Pivoting the pencil as you color ensures that you’re always coloring with a fresh corner, even as the point begins to wear down.
My pivot routine is something like 15 strokes and then a quick little pivot. Another 10 - 15 strokes and then another pivot. You don’t have to constantly roll the pencil, you just pivot a little whenever the point you’re using wears down.
It’s a subtle movement but you can see it in some of my classes and videos. Watch the label on my pencil as it rolls out of view or back into view. Round and round it goes, with my thumb propelling a wee bit of a turn every ten seconds or so.
True story: I never realized I was doing it until a student asked me how often I rolled my pencil. Then I had to watch myself to see what she was talking about and of course, I couldn’t do it when I was thinking about it.
Yes, I’m blonde.
Anyway, I make fewer trips to the pencil sharpener than the average Joe and I’ve always got a crisp edge to color from.
Roll your pencil periodically. It improves the quality and crispness of your stroke.
Hey! We’ll call this technique the Rolling Blonde. I can now die a happy girl knowing I’ve altered the course of art history with that fine nugget.
Stop writing and start coloring!
Art is about breaking the rules right? So stop trying to color with neat and tidy penmanship.
Writing and coloring are two different tasks, exact opposites in fact.
When you start holding the pencil less like Shakespeare, you’ll start coloring more like Rembrandt.
6 tips to improve your colored pencil technique:
1. It’s not really a pencil
Stop hunching over your projects. Straighten up and lean back for better posture and perspective.
2. No 90 degree angles
Pull your fingers away from the pencil point to decrease the angle your pencil approaches the paper. You’ll instantly make smoother strokes and better blends.
3. Change your grip location as needed
Move up and down the barrel of the pencil. Change your pressure, smoothness, and control as needed to suit the area you’re coloring.
4. Hold it loosey-goosey
This isn’t Titanic. You can let go, Jack.
5. Explore alternative holds
We’re not in kindergarten anymore. Hold it how you’ve always wanted to!
6. Spin it, baby!
Fresh edges and crisp corners make for bold and vibrant color.
Want to know more about coloring with colored pencils?
Join me for Cupcake Blast, a lesson on creating bold and vibrant colors on deep dark paper.
This isn’t your momma’s kind of project, we’re going Velvet Elvis this month and you’ll love it!
We’re going dark!
Join me for a fun Colored Pencil lesson at Patreon!
Cupcake Blast using Power Poppy's “Cuppa Cupcake”
Vanilla Livestream is held monthly at Patreon.
Live Broadcast on Saturday, July 13 at 11am EDT
Recording available at Patreon until December 2019
Subscribe at Patreon for immediate access to Cupcake Blast when it goes live plus more challenge level projects!
Note: Patreon class details change each month. “Cupcake Blast” info is available on the website until late July 2019 when it will be updated with new class info. Full project info + Cupcake Blast demonstration videos are kept in our archives for your use until December 2019.
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Project inspiration references
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