The next installment of my new coloured pencil tips series is out! If you are hard of hearing or prefer to read I have also included the transcript for this video below. It’s something I’d like to do more often in my videos but it can be pretty time consuming. I’ll try to do it when and where I can. I hope you find these tips helpful!
4 More Beginner Tips for Coloured Pencil Artists
Hi everyone, Wild Portrait Artist here! A while ago I did a video on four beginner tips for coloured pencil artists. This time around I’ll be bringing you 4 more tips, but be sure to check out the previous video if you haven’t already. Let’s get started!
Tip #1: Start with an accurate rough sketch
Without an accurate sketch, no matter how skilled you are with coloured pencils, your end result is going to end up looking wonky.
If you’re drawing freehand, be sure to use helpful tools like proportional dividers or a grid to better judge distances between lines and areas of the subject being drawn.
For even greater accuracy, use methods such as tracing. This is especially important when doing pet portraits, where clients expect an accurate painting or drawing of their pet. This is also a massive time-saver and something that I use often. If I freehand my work it can take me up to 8 hours just to get my rough sketch down, depending on complexity. Tracing cuts a massive chunk of time out of this process and allows me to get straight into the nitty gritty.
Whether you’re tracing or free-handing, do your rough sketch on a separate piece of paper first, then transfer it using graphite paper onto the surface you’re going to be working on. This keeps the surface you’re working on nice and clean, and free of graphite smears and eraser marks. You can also use this to keep checking your drawing against your original sketch to make sure no features have accidently shifted or gotten larger or smaller as you’re working on them And if you mess up, it’s far easier to start over because you still have your rough sketch to hand!
You can make your own graphite transfer paper at home using tracing paper and a 9B pencil. Simply cover the entire surface of the tracing paper with graphite, and then blend it smooth using a paper blending stump. Apply two to three more layers in the same way, and hey presto! Homemade graphite paper. It lasts a good while and you can reuse the same sheet over and over again. It just needs topping up with graphite again every once in a while.
Tip #2: Use reference photos
Reference photos are a great way to supplement your artwork, no matter whether you’re drawing illustration work, people or wildlife. As a wildlife artist, I often find myself drawing animals I can’t easily draw from life. I use reference photos to help me understand my subject better. They’re especially important in pet portraits where you need to be as accurate as possible. You can use them to get an idea of a pose or composition, or to help you get a better idea of how fur flows around a subject, for example.
Be careful when selecting reference photos to directly draw from, though! Don’t use photos without seeking permission from the original photographer first or you’ll end up breaking copyright law. There are many websites and groups out there that offer royalty-free photographs that you don’t have to ask permission for in order to use in your artwork. Here are just a few of those websites to get you started:
Make sure when using reference photos that it’s a good quality photo. You don’t want to use a blurry or badly-lit photo to draw from, because it’s really hard to see details and ultimately it will result in an inaccurate artwork. However, if you’re a little more experienced, you can also incorporate other reference photos to help supplement a bad reference photo.
This is a reference photo I took last year of a great crested grebe. It’s really blurry, but I really liked the pose and wanted to make something with it. I brought in other reference photos to help me better understand what the beak and the brown crest on its head look like from close up even though most of that detail was lost in my reference photo.
In a future Art Tips video I’ll give you a more in-depth discussion on how to use and “read” reference photos and incorporate them into your artwork. Keep your eyes peeled for that video by subscribing to my channel!
I’ve seen many people (most often not artists or artists lacking in experience) try to argue that tracing your reference photo, or even using a reference photo at all, is cheating, and that there’s no point in “copying” off a photo because the photo itself already exists. I disagree. Please don’t feel guilty using tracing or reference photos for your artwork. Nothing in art is “cheating” – this is not a video game or a school exam! As artists, we use whatever tools we have available to us to create. Even the old masters used a projection technique called ‘camera obscura’ to allow them to trace images onto their canvas.
As artists it’s our job to take the reference we’re working from and make it look even better than the photos we work off. For the grebe drawing I just showed you, I took a blurry photo and improved it by making a highly detailed drawing from it. Many pet portrait artists, for example, do much the same very frequently – they take often poorly-taken photographs from their clients, and turn them into beautiful fine art portraits of the clients’ pets. At the end of the day, the client wants a beautiful, accurate portrait of their pet. They’re not going to care what techniques were used, as long as the end result is good!
While I’m on this mini-rant, don’t let anyone tell you that your style of art isn’t art. Just because someone doesn’t like a particular style of art or the methods used to get there, it doesn’t mean that they get to decide what is and what isn’t art. Create what you love to create, not what other people tell you to. Okay, so that was kind of off topic. On to the next tip!
Tip #3: Keep your pencils sharp and don’t use a blunt sharpener
When using coloured pencils it’s especially important to keep the points of your pencils nice and sharp. By having a sharp pencil, it’s easier to get into all the nooks and crannies of the tooth of the paper and it prevents all the little gaps of the original colour of the paper from showing through. What this means is that you get much better coverage with your pencils, and consequently you won’t need to burnish out – allowing you to fit many more layers in before running out of the tooth of the paper.
While we’re on the topic of pencil sharpeners, let’s talk about breakages. This is more often than not down to the quality of the pencils that you’re using, but your sharpener may also be the partner in crime for breakages too. When a pencil sharpener blade goes dull it is much more likely to cause the core inside your pencils to snap because there is greater friction between the blade and the pencil as it turns in the barrel. You can tell when a pencil sharpener is blunt when the wood from the pencil sharpens off into small flakes rather than one long curl of wood. When it starts doing this, it’s time to bin that sharpener
Now, I’m not going to get into the whole manual sharpener vs. electronic sharpener vs. hand-crank sharpener debate. You can waste a whole lot of money on an expensive sharpener that does exactly the same job as a cheap one. Personally, I prefer manual sharpeners, as long as the blade is of good quality and not dull. I use just a cheap, 2-hole sharpener called the KUM Magnesium for sharpening my pencils. This pencil sharpener costs me just £1 and lasts me a good few months. When the blade goes dull, I throw it away and buy a new one. With some brands of sharpener you can even just buy replacement blades instead of having to replace the entire thing, which works out even cheaper still.
When sharpening lots of coloured pencils, this can result in the blade getting clogged with coloured pencil binder. Keep your pencil sharpener in tip-top condition and make it last longer by sharpening it with a graphite pencil every so often. Graphite acts as a lubricant, making it easier for the pencils to swivel around in the hole more smoothly. Doing this keeps the blade sharper for longer, and your pencils sharp as well!
Tip #4: Values are more important than hues
Before I really get into the crux of this tip, I’ll just quickly go over the essentials of what values and hues are. This explanation is very brief and I strongly recommend looking at more in-depth tutorials relating to colour theory to get a better understanding of this topic if you don’t have one already.
Hue explains whether a colour is more red than yellow, or more blue than green, et cetera. What it doesn’t tell you is how close to black or how close to white a colour is – that is where value comes in.
The term “value” explains how light or how dark a colour is – in other words its closeness to black or white. A darker shade of a colour will be closer to black than it will be to white, and vice versa for a light colour.
Getting the values in your drawing right is arguably just as important as having an accurate rough sketch. If your drawing doesn’t have enough depth it’s going to end up looking flat, boring and ultimately not realistic or believable. It’s very easy to want to rush straight into getting the details down on your artwork but it’s really important that you get the values of your drawing properly balanced first. You can very easily create a beautiful piece of artwork that doesn’t have much detail in it, as long as you get all the shadows and highlights in the right place.
One example of my own that comes to mind is my Hyacinth Macaw drawing. In this artwork I ran out of the tooth of the paper too early, and consequently wasn’t able to get it as detailed as I would have liked. But because I had taken the time to get all of my shadows dark enough and my mid-tones and highlights properly balanced before worrying about the details, it meant that I was still able to produce a piece that still looked realistic even without those tiny details.
Another key thing to do is to get the very darkest areas of your drawing in first, and that way it makes it much easier to judge how light or dark you need the rest of the piece to be. Look for the deepest shadows on your reference photo, work on those first. Don’t be afraid of going in really dark with your pencils. Be careful not to burnish too soon though – you still need to be able to adjust and tinker with those areas later on when you’ll be working on finalising and refining your drawing.
A super easy way to better judge the values of your piece and whether or not you need to go darker or lighter in areas is to take a photo of your artwork with your phone, and then turn it greyscale in a photo editor. This completely gets rid of all the colours in your work allowing you to just see the values.
It’s much easier to see how light or how dark something is when colour is removed. You can also do this on your reference photos when working off them for the same reason. With a bit of practice you’ll soon easily be able to see where the darkest shadows and brightest highlights in a photo are without needing to do this.
And those are my four beginner tips this time around! I have quite a large list of beginner tips lined up now so keep your eyes peeled for the next instalment of my coloured pencil beginner tips series. If you have any suggestions for what to include in the next video of this series I would love to hear them. Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments section below!
If you’re hungry for more coloured pencil tips and tutorials why don’t check out my other videos? You can also click that subscribe button for more future art tips, tutorials and art product reviews. I also have a Patreon, where you can pledge in order to get extended, fully voiced-over art tutorials, royalty-free reference photos taken by me, signed prints and posters, and occasional bonus content.
Thanks so much for reading. The support in the previous beginner tips video has been unreal and I hope you found this one just as helpful. Until next time!