Working with colored pencils is a lot of fun and you can create amazing drawings with this medium. One way to enhance your artwork is to learn how to blend the colors and it's relatively easy once you understand the factors at play.
There are two main areas of difficulty with blending colored pencil: your materials and the blending application. Let's explore how you can overcome these hurdles and get great blended colors.
Your Materials Affect the Blendability
The right paper makes a huge difference if you're going to be layering and blending colored pencil. The short fibers in cheaper wood pulp-based paper break off easily and don't hold pigment well. They become flattened by pressure and the paper can easily distort and tear. It's best to use a good quality paper designed for colored pencils.
You will also get varying results with different brands of pencils, as well as different pigments within each brand. Some pencils tend to look a bit chalky when blended and they are not easy to smudge. Others, such as Prismacolor, have a softer wax base that helps make them a little more transparent and malleable.
In high-quality pencils with a lot of pigment, you'll also notice that some colors blend more easily due to the type of pigment they contain. Some are noticeably drier, others may be granular, and still, others may be more opaque than others.
Since they vary so greatly from pigment and manufacturer, it's difficult to point out the qualities of every pencil. You will want to experiment with your set and see how they behave.
How to Blend Colored Pencil
You can take a few different approaches to blending colored pencils. Each will produce a slightly different look and some require a few extra supplies. Again, experimentation is key, so be sure to test out each on a scrap of the drawing paper you're working with before applying any of these to an actual drawing.
The easiest way to blend colored pencils is to use the pencils alone. However, adding a colorless blending pencil to your art box makes this method much easier.
Blend colored pencils by overlaying lightly applied layers of each color. Applying too heavy of a layer first is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, so start slow and build up the colors. When a gradual change is needed, start off with a slight overlap in the middle, then progressively overlap each layer a little further.
You can also use a colorless blending pencil to help blend colors without adding any further pigment. To do this, lay down a fine layer of colorless blender first and then add your lightest color. Dark colors can be difficult to blend once they stick to the paper fibers, so this base helps alleviate that issue.
Smudging With Paper and Tortillons
If you find that the pencil-only option is not giving you the blend you want, you can use a paper product to blend the pencils. It doesn't have to be fancy, either. A small piece of soft tissue, a paper towel, or even toilet paper can do the trick.
Tortillons (blending stumps) are commonly used for charcoal, but they're great for smudging pencils as well. They offer fine-tuned blending and can be a valuable addition to your pencil kit. For a cheaper option, cotton swabs can be used.
When using any of these dry blending tools, begin with a heavy layer of colored pencil to maximize the effect. Burnishing—adding as much pigment as your paper will hold—is often used, but you can get away with lighter layers with the right pencil-paper combination.
These methods do lift the pigment a little, giving a slightly grainier effect than a pure layered pencil. Try using it along with the layering techniques and experiment until you find the perfect blend for your drawing.
Blending With the Help of Solvents
Another option that can be used to even greater effect when blending is to employ a solvent. These are applied over top of the colored pencil and should only be done on really sturdy paper. To make sure your paper can withstand your solvent of choice, test it and let it dry. Watch for any warping or damage.
Colorless solvent markers can be used to soften and blend colored pencil and can create a watercolor-like effect. With watercolor pencils you can get the best of both worlds, using water to blend and overlaying it with burnished color. These do look very different from a straight colored pencil drawing. They saturate and fill the paper, leaving less white paper grain than more lightly applied colored pencil will.
Oil-based solvents, such as turpenoid, can be used to blend colored pencil because they dissolve the wax. It is one of the strongest blends you can get. These are toxic, however, and should be used with care, so be sure to observe safety precautions.
For a lighter blend, apply rubbing alcohol that's 70 percent or less (any stronger and you'll lose pigment). For a really deep blend that is stronger than turpenoid, you can turn to rubber cement thinner.
Whenever you use a solvent on colored pencils, work gently with a paintbrush, cotton ball, or cotton swab. It's easy to disturb the paper surface or rub off the pigment. Also, the thicker the colored pencil base you have, the better the blending effect will be and the less likely you are to damage the drawing.
Different pencils and pigments will work differently with each solvent. Always test out new combinations and keep notes if you want to remember a success. You might even consider doing swatch samples in one of your drawing books.