What Is Colored Pencil?
Colored pencils are just what they sound like. A thin outer layer of wood makes a stylus with a pigmented core that leaves a mark when dragged along the surface of a paper. Pigment is what gives the pencil its color, but additional ingredients like wax, oil, or other binding agents influence the line quality. School-quality colored pencils have a hard tip, which makes clear lines. Wax-based colored pencils (most famously, Prismacolor brand), are much softer and can be blended to greater degrees.
Colored pencils can only make lines. To fill in larger areas, many lines must be layered on top of each other. Straight lines are the easiest to see, but artists also use circular lines and irregular scribbles to fill in space. You can’t mix colored pencil colors like you can mix paint. Each pencil only produces one color. However, blending effects can be achieved by layering different colors. Pressing hard will produce a vibrant line, while very light handling can produce a more even layer of color.
A telltale sign of colored pencil is its line texture. Most paper has some sort of surface texture, even if it looks smooth. A liquid medium, like an ink pen or marker, can fill in those tiny textures, which results in a line that looks solid. But a colored pencil is just being dragged over the surface, and it leaves bits of the surface visible through the line. This is especially true of harder colored pencils. Wax-based pencils conceal more of those microscopic gaps.
This is a detail from the cover of My Hero by Brian Biggs. Can you see the pebbly paper texture in the blue background beams? Can you see how he layered at least four colors in the cat’s ears?
The alligator on the left (below) is on the cover of Judy Sierra’s Make Way for Readers, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. Look carefully at the alligator’s nose and foot. How many different colors did Karas layer? The “grill mark” lines on the alligator’s nose are called cross hatching, a common way to apply colored pencil over a larger area.
On the right is a detail from the cover of Pearl by Molly Idle. She uses Prismacolor colored pencils on vellum, which has an especially smooth surface. This is how she can achieve such delicate blending and rich colors. You can see that the darker parts of the shell behind the figure’s head have been layered on top of the lighter areas. Molly Idle won a Caldecott Honor for Flora and the Flamingo (available through SearchOhio). She is one of the few illustrators to work solely in colored pencil, with no other added medium.
On a large scale, filling in areas with colored pencils is incredibly time consuming, so that job is often left to watercolor or gouache. The colored pencils are used for figures and foreground details. Conversely, on a smaller scale, colored pencil lines aren’t crisp enough for linework. A fine-tip pen is good for clean outlining, while colored pencil adds visual interest with its layers and textures.
Browse our collection and see if you can recognize a colored pencil illustration! (Bonus points if you can tell when it’s being used with something else like a pen or a watercolor wash.) Look in the book’s fine print under the copyright to check your guess!