Let’s pencil that in

I’m doing a personal project using colour pencils and thought I’d share my process. I’m no expert with colour pencils and hardly use them, in fact these are the same ones I’ve had since I was twelve. But there are a few things you might find interesting or handy to know. And as always, I would love to hear other people’s processes and tips using colour pencils.

The design series I’m working on has a circus theme and there are twelve designs all up. Before I started I wanted to work out the colours combinations, so I printed out little thumbnails and used my watercolours to do a dummy run. Then when I was ready to start I used them as a reference guide. I also wrote the names of the pencils and the order in which I used them in just in case I had to finish it over a few days or wanted to use the same combination for another design.

Rather than commit it to memory I scribbled notes on a thumbnail to use as a reference guide.

Eventually I will get them professionally printed, more specifically digitally printed. With that in mind it was important for me to test out my materials because what looks great on the original, when reproduced the colours can shift.

I was made aware of this when I reprinted some watercolour art and found all my yellow tones looked the same. Some of the lighter tints were completely “bleached” out so I wanted to home test my colour pencils before starting.

I drew up little swatches of each pencil on the same paper I was using for my artwork. I then scanned them as hi-resolution images and printed them out on my desktop inkjet printer. It’s not a completely accurate representation as inkjet printers produce different quality from a laser printer, but I felt that it was adequate enough.

My little sketchbook where I keep all my ideas and working out. Left side is print out, right side are original swatches.
Comparison – Although this is a bad photograph you can see that with some colours there is only a slight difference, but others are quite varied.


I dont want to go into too much detail but when you’re setting up artwork for professional printing, especially on paper or a hard surface, its important to convert RGB (Red, Green, Blue) images to CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black). If you’ve ever printed out an RGB image and noticed colour shifts or a lack of intensity compared to what you see on your computer screen, it’s because your printer uses CMYK toner. You are printing out an image made up of 3 colours through a machine that reads images through 4 colours.

Scanners and cameras are getting better at reducing the differences between RGB and CMYK colour modes, but as you can see the vibrancy is missing in the cmyk version.

In a nutshell, RGB images are meant to be viewed through a light source like a computer screen, cinema screen, tv, phone, etc (dont ask me to explain, its a combination of colours, a light source and mixing them optically) and CMYK is traditionally the preferred format for printing, eg. posters, business cards, brochures, magazines and so on. I say traditionally only because these days if you drop a document down to your local 24hr print-copy shop they are happy to print jobs containing RGB files.


What I remember being taught in my graphic design course is to not be too heavy handed when colouring in large areas of one colour, or even when blending in multiple colours. Colour pencils, as well as graphite drawing pencils, are very soft and wear down quickly.

Even colouring in a 1″x 1″ square, a sharp pencil can become blunt halfway through and you end up with assorted thick and thin lines. The rule of thumb is to always draw and colour with a sharp pencil in this regard. (I was also taught to hold the pencil at a 90˚ angle, but that feels a bit unnatural to me).

Filling in a small square without re-sharpening the pencil shows the difference between the top corner and towards the end.


The only time I use a pencil sharpener is if it is a HB or 2B graphite pencil, anything softer I use a stanley knife (I think in the U.S they are called boxcutters). Again, it might be me, but the angle in which a pencil goes into most sharpeners is at an acute angle where the softer leads tend to break while sharpening.

There is a technique, however, to using a stanley knife as a pencil sharpener. Some might think it’s like wittling wood, but you need to apply a bit more control otherwise you’ll end up with a two inch pencil before you’ve even started.

There are two stages to this, the first, is reducing the wood around the lead.

Holding the pencil in one hand and the knife in the other, place the knife blade against the area you wish to remove. Then using your thumb on the hand that is HOLDING the pencil, push the knife down into the wood to remove it. Try to finish the move before reaching the lead as you dont want to get rid of this. Slowly rotate the pencil around until you have evenly removed the same amount of wood.

The hand holding the knife isn’t doing any of the work, it is the hand (or the thumb) holding the pencil that is cutting away the wood.

Next is the lead itself. Using the knife lightly scratch away the lead to create a point, like you were gently sanding or polishing something, you dont want to be cutting off large chunks of lead. If you have cut away enough wood then for the next few uses you’ll only have to sharpen the point.

You might notice the difference in residue – the lead shavings are fine and powdery, and the wood shaving are large.
Voila! The sharpened pencil.


So now onto my work… Before I start colouring, or do any finished artwork, I always rest my hand on a piece of paper, any type is fine. It stops my hand from smudging the work underneath as well as not “soiling” the paper with the natural oils of my hand, or whatever grit, food crumb and paint marks I might be accommodating.

Like cross hatching, I think it’s important that your lines run with the plane of the shape. So in this case it’s better to colour in long vertical lines rather than horizontal.

This type of colouring in requires layered treatment, which is the better option than trying to nail it in one go. Although it calls for some patience and time, you have more control. It also doesn’t wear down the tooth of the paper, and if you are blending in other colours it’s the only approach. It’s very much like the shading principal, which is shade in your light areas first, then build up to the darker tones. Therefore, start light then build up the intensity.

The first layer of Scarlet Lake
Adding the second layer
Adding Venetian Red as a second colour to give it some more depth.
The finished piece

I hope that was helpful to you, if anyone has any questions I am happy to answer them as best as I can. And as mentioned earlier, I would love for others to post comments on their experiences/tips/feelings, etc on this medium.

Thanks for your time,

22 thoughts on “Let’s pencil that in

  1. Thank you for sharing. I like your approach for planning your series. It reminds me of my design background and that I should sometimes slow down and plan ahead when doing series work as well.

  2. i like this tutorial type post. I was also taught to sharpen pencils that way and like you, never really use them. But the idea of making a pallete of the colours is certainly brilliant (never thought about doing that with pencils) so thank you!

    I think the properties I do like about pencils is the smudging and the softness you can create, as you can cover as much as you want of the paper/colour underneath.

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Meegan. I too like to work in “layers” when I use colored pencil. However, I found that depending on the paper and the pencil there are limitations: i.e. some pencils give a very smooth surface (especially when applied with more pressure) on which it is almost impossible to add another (even) layer. Do you have any recommendations? Better pencils? Other tricks?
    Also, I was just wondering why you don’t use a regular sharpener. Is it simply because you find they break a lot if you do or does using a knife give you a better tip?
    Thanks in advance! <3

    1. Hi E*phi, thanks for stopping by.

      In answer to your questions. I guess that is one of the negatives of wanting to layer colours with pencils or even watercolours, there is only so much give certain papers will handle. In my course we were always told to buy Fabriano paper, ie large sheets of it rather than sketchbooks. If you do buy sheets – only one side is the “drawing side”.If you hold the paper up to the light you will (should) see a watermark. The right side is the side you can read the watermark, ie it’s not backwards.

      And yes, sadly it is because I constantly break the lead in sharpeners. Especially the softer pencils. I’ve tried several and no luck. But I do prefer the knife because it gets tedious constantly grinding away with a pencil sharpener when all i want is a sharp point.

      Hope that was helpful.

  4. Hi Megan – I’ve just found your work ( from EDM) – and really enjoyed visiting this morning!
    I agree with you about the pencil sharpening… I have a small set of prismacolour pencils, and with any kind of sharpener they just brake so easily and I got completely sick at watching the leads fall off, or sharpening to just get a point and seeing all that colour wasted. A knife is really easy to use – I find I just needed to practice, take it slow to start, and now it is easy.
    One thing I discovered online (somewhere) is that many artists sharpen for a point by rubbing the pencil on an angle on some scrap paper. I tried it and it does work. I also found you have more control about what type of point you want.

    1. Hi Linda,

      Thank you for both your comments. I’m glad to find more people struggle with pencil sharpeners like me. Yes that is another way of creating a point on a pencil – will keep that one in mind next time I’m colouring.


  5. OMG, Meegan, I am so excited. A confession: I have had conte’ pencil, charcoal pencils, lead pencils, etc., sitting in drawers because I could not sharpen them. I’d tried with exacto knives, but kept breaking the leads; and pencil sharpeners, of course, were useless. It never ever occurred to me to ask how to do it – I just thought I was a klutz, I guess. Now I have embarked on a marathon sharpening campaign. And now I say, like you say, “Voila!” with each one. Thank you!

    1. woohoo, go dan!!

      i’m glad you found it helpful. You never know what people “know” or “dont know”. I think that’s why I like doing these kinds of posts, because I look at other people’s work and get curious on how they created this or how they use a certain medium.

      So… bravo!!

  6. What a great post! I can’t tell you how much lead I’ve lost in my pencil sharpener. I’m going to start practicing, that’s for sure. Thank you so much! nancy

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