Return of the Colored Pencil

Artists are no longer restricting themselves to charcoal, pen, ink, and graphite pencils. It’s about time. The return of the colored pencil has been long-awaited.

Unlike any other medium, the colored pencil provides the control we lack with a brush and conveys the expressiveness we find in paintings. Color can be layered and blended. Textures can be created with ease. It’s the drawing artist’s brush without bristles.

Three basic types of colored pencils, (wax-based, water-soluble, and oil-based) can offer you the control of graphite pencils, with the brilliant hues of paints.

Wax-Based Pencils

These are the most commonly used pencils and the most widely available.

The pigment is held together by wax; bearing thick, soft leads. It’s suitable for a variety of techniques. Thin-leaded wax pencils are great for detail drawing, and cleaning up ragged edges left by softer thick-leaded pencils.

Oil-Based Pencils

These pencils have just recently arrived to the art community! There are quite a few similarities between oil-based pencils and wax-based pencils, however, the oil-based pencils are slightly harder than wax pencils and the pigment is bound with a vegetable oil medium – eliminating filmy residues that appear over heavy applications of wax-based pencil pigment.

Water-Soluble Pencils

These pencils are not as soft as the wax and oil pencils when applied dry. Due to their versatility, they’ve received more attention from artists. Unlike the wax-based and oil-based pencils, these pencils only require water for thinning – whereas the other two types can only be thinned with solvents, such as turpentine and rubber cement thinner.

Pencil crayons have typically been looked down upon by critics and galleries, but are now being recognized as an acceptable medium due to their increasing popularity among artists. My prediction for the future? Pencil crayon art work will be accepted and displayed throughout galleries, receiving the same appreciation viewers possess for paintings and other media. Why? What makes the colored pencil such a useful tool?

The Technique

Colored pencils let the artist carry out a variety of techniques to create textural effects; including layering, blending, and underpainting.


Hues can be applied on top of one another with light pressure to create complex hues and value gradations.


Wax or oil-based pencils can be layered and blended. Layer lighter values over darker values then use a light colored pencil to blend the colors together. This process can be repeated until the paper surface is completely covered.


Adding solvent to colored areas is an alternate way to create an essence of blending without having to go through the lengthy process of layering, blending, layering and blending. Underpainting results in the same effect and creates a wash for future layers.

Pencil strokes don’t have to be blended though! One of the greatest things about colored pencils is the textural effects created from applying pencils to various surfaces. The control of the pencil is also great for line techniques such as cross-hatching.