03 July, 2015


Z-factor technical paper no. 2: Colour Pencils in Art

Text and illustrations: Gijsbert Witkamp
Initiated: 3 July 2015
Updated: 28 August 2015

This text can also be accessed at the Z-factor Art Site at: http://www.zfactorart.com/colour-pencils-in-art.html

Colour pencil drawing is one of the graphic techniques. Contemporary Zambian graphic artists employ pen, pencil, charcoal, crayons and practice various printing techniques. Very few Zambian artists use colour pencil as an art medium. Colour pencils are associated with children’s expressive ventures rather than with professional design. Yet professional artists have picked up colour pencil as an art medium and in several countries colour pencil artists have formed associations. The rise in popularity of colour pencils or crayons as an art medium in part can be attributed to the development of high quality pencils that comply with artistic standards as regards permanence and colour fastness. Below some remarks and observations about colour pencils as an art medium.

 Illustration 1: Sketch of Rosie, the Dancing Piglet
of a children story book.
Coloured pencil and pen on paper. 2011.
I got into colour pencil drawing incidentally when I was doing a series of illustrated children’s stories. One of my sisters was so happy with these stories that she gave me a box with professional quality colour pencils. Indeed, there is an associated with child art! This fortuitous event occurred when, after years of management and consultancy work, I had the time and opportunity to return to the construction of visual imagery. Peter Gustavus, an artist based in Monze rural, invited me in 2011 to participate in the opening exhibition of his home gallery at Shazula Cultural Forum. I accepted and since then I have been making coloured drawings. Bit by bit I became familiar with the colour pencil technology and discovered to my happy surprise that the apparently simple technique of drawing with colour pencils can develop into quite a sophisticated operation. Of course you can keep things extremely simple, as you can in any technique, but what amazed me was the level of complexity that can be achieved in colour drawing – the things you can do with the pencils.
On second thought such complexity is not really surprising. A colour pencil can do the things a graphite (“black”) pencil can do as drawing in single lines, or in compositions of individually distinguishable lines, or create planes in various manners (in a singular shade or with a light-dark gradients) or do all sorts of surface patterning resulting in all sorts of textures.  A bundle of colour pencils is like a palette and the possibilities of image formation therefore are just incredible – just like in paint.

Illustration 2. "Hollandse Nieuwe." Simple application of pencils - 
a bit of blending and a bit of grading. 
Subject is the arrival in the Netherlands of the first fishing vessel
 with fresh herring ("Hollandse Nieuwe").

Illustration 3. Rupture, 2013.
Complex application of pencils by blending and layering.
The paint reference is not merely an analogy – there is also a technical resemblance. The application of one coat of pencil colour on top of another, previously applied coat is called layering. The term suggests a physical separation in distinct layers. In practice it is a combination of blending and superimposition. Both processes occur at the same time. The visual outcome depends on the manner of application of each coat or layer. A second layer can be applied merely to create surface nuances or indeed to superimpose the underlying one. Skillful blending and layering creates rich surfaces that may trigger off an enticing visual experience “in the eye of the beholder.”


What you see, or may see, to a considerable extent is determined by the material composition and construction of the object you observe. Same for art objects and this is why the subject of materials and techniques is so important for artists. Objects you see are objects that reflect or emit light; light that turns on cones and rods at the back of your eyes. The activated rods and cones send via the optic nerve channels tiny impulses to specific locations in the brain where these “stimuli” are “decoded” by brain and mind to be transformed into an image. Yes, the image you see is inside the brain though it appears to be outside of it! The image you see “corresponds” to the material construction of the pencil drawing, the object that reflects light and that you have learned to see. In colour pencil drawings light is reflected (and absorbed) by the support (paper mostly) and the pigments deposited on the paper. So let’s have a look at the materials used in colour pencil drawings, the stuff that the work of art is made of.

Colour pencil is applied to a support or base. In principle any stable material can be used that has a slightly rough surface but paper is most common. In standard art work a quality paper should be used; that is, a paper that does not change colour over time, or if it does, only to a small degree. The best papers are rag papers and the very best rags are linen. Ordinary papers are made of wood pulp; newspaper print being a typical example. These papers yellow and become brittle with age. Art paper mills make special drawing papers. Such papers are a bit thick, are white or whitish and have a slightly rough surface. The thickness renders the necessary sturdiness, the whiteness is to ensure that light striking the paper is reflected without a bias towards a specific colour and the roughness or tooth of the paper ensures that the colour particles of the pencils are filled off in drawing. Artists sometimes deliberately opt for coloured paper but care needs to be taken that these paper colours are fast to light.

The colour pencil itself is composed of a cylindrical core of coloured material which is encased in a cylindrical or hexagonal wooden frame. The composition of the coloured core varies according to quality standards and functionality. The core is composed of pigments (fine colour particles) and a binder (the material that keeps the colour particles together). There are different kinds of binders. The binder in so called aquarelle or water colour pencils is a water soluble gum such as gum Arabic.  These drawings can be washed with a brush to achieve water colour effects. The regular binder of the non-aqueous pencil is a waxy or fatty substance, or a combination of such substances. Different manufacturers employ different binders, some are hard and dry, others soft and wax like. In drawing these binders stick to the pigments as they transfer their location from the pencil core to the surface of the paper by the abrasive action of the paper. These binders adhere the pigments to paper and to themselves. The bond between pigment and paper also is in part mechanical as pigments get lodged into the interstices of the fibres that make up a sheet of paper.

In conventional Western art practice each medium is associated with a specific range of pigments. The major factor determining the suitability of pigments is their permanence: pigments are made to last and keep their original colour. The choice of pigments, however, may be restricted by specific applications such as painting on a wall, or restoration of a historical painting. The nomenclature for these basic pigments is straight forward and each artist does know a good number of them: yellow ochre, burned sienna, ultramarine blue, emerald green, ivory black, cadmium red and so on. Each of these designations relates to or should relate to a specific pigment having its unique chemical composition and physical properties. Manufacturers of pencils invent new names for mixtures of pigments (“bottle green”) or may use a generic designation (“orange”). The chemical composition of such colours may not be traceable. Some manufacturers indicate colour permanence of professional pencils on the pencil. Royal Talens, a Netherlands based manufacturer of art materials, uses a three star system to indicate permanence of its Van Gogh series, three stars being most permanent. Faber-Castell also grades permanence of its professional Polychromos pencils in stars. Luminance, the art pencils of Swiss Caran d’Ache, simply are labelled “permanent colour” without distinguishing the level of permanence. Derwent, a British make, offers no information concerning permanency on the pencil. You may, however, come across leaflets with vital information or retrieve all necessary data from websites. In any case, if you go into colour pencil drawing get the best pencils of the best makes. Even than you should keep works on display out of sunlight as certain pigments eventually do fade if exposed to sunlight.

Pigments are selected for various reasons. One is stability of the compound, another inertness (that is, it does not react with the materials in its environment) and of course, its colour. The colour we see is light reflected by the pigment particles. Light is composed of light waves. Each pigment reflects specific light waves which we perceive as green or blue &c. Colour perception is also determined by physical properties of the pigment: some are opaque, some are translucent and some are somewhere in between opaqueness and transparency. These properties matter when you blend or superimpose colours.

The quality of the wooden casing is not as important as that of paper and colouring matter – it is not part of the final product. There is, however, considerable variety between brands in the quality of the wood. Best is a fairly soft wood that does not splinter. Cedar wood is reputed to be the best. Good pencil wood is easy to sharpen.

Tools and implements
You need a good pencil knife for sharpening the pencil. I prefer a surgical blade with appropriate handle. These blades are thin, cut well, last long and are so sharp that you can easily shape the coloured core of the pencil without breaking its point. It is also practical to have sand paper around to sharpen or adjust the shape of the exposed part of the coloured core, some medium grade is fine. Erasers have limited effectiveness in removing colour pencil marks on paper, but like sandpaper and knife can be applied for special effects. Corrections sometimes can be done by a correcting liquid such as Snowpake but such corrections remain visible to the eye. You need a good ruler so as to set out the dimensions of your drawing. You also may have to cut the drawing paper to size using the ruler and the penknife mentioned above. Depending on the kind of work you do you may also need plexiglass triangles and compasses.

Colour pencils for art work are sold in art supply shops. A good shop may stock several brands thus providing you with a wide choice of colours. Different brands may also have varying drawing properties due to the binders they use: some pencils are dry, others are waxy. Quality brands having artists’ pencils have been mentioned above: Caran d’Ache with its Luminance pencils, Royal Talens with its Van Gogh series, Derwent with its artist and studio ranges, Faber-Castell has its Polychromos pencils and there are a few others that I have not tried but are good. Coloured pencils can be bought in boxes containing different numbers of pencils. A box of 24 is a good start. Pencils can also be purchased individually. This allows you to replace pencils that you have reduced to stumps and to purchase colours that are not in your set or that are produced by a different factory. Each factory has a coding system for its array of pencils, you may thus order by referring to a specific code.

Colour pencil technique, a few concluding notes

Getting started with colour pencils is relatively easy, unlike in mediums as oil paint or water colours. There is no standard recipe for design in colour pencil drawing. You may work from a preconceived idea, put down first as a sketch, or start blank and let things come as they come – or perhaps not come. You may draw a design meant to be a final work of art or test out in a sketch an idea to be executed in another medium. You can combine colour pencil with pen, as in cartoons, or with water based paint.

Colour pencil drawing, like all techniques, has specific advantages and disadvantages. Mentioned has been its facility in use. Another big plus is the accuracy with which lines and dots or other marks can be put on paper. Drawing can be done swiftly and in one go, there is no waiting for previously applied matter to dry as in paint. A drawing can be made swiftly, without interruptions.
Pencils make lines of a few mm at most. Line thickness imposes a practical restriction to the surface that can be conveniently worked. Pencil drawings therefore are small or medium sized; rarely over, let us, say 40 x 50 cm. Another material restriction is the limited possibility of modifying or correcting a drawing once you have started it. Colour pencils are not like opaque paints where you can actually redo entire sections. In colour pencil drawing underlying layers or colour remain visible beneath a coat that is applied later; and often actually blends with it, just like in water colour. Consequently the structure of your composition should be sound from the onset.

The main negative is the thinness of the colour as applied to the ground. You have to do quite a bit of work to arrive at a rich surface that saturates the mind’s eye with colour. The layering mentioned above is almost forced on you if you need a strong colour sensation; also if you are colouring a monochrome plane it is often better to go over it several times.

* The author is an artist and cultural anthropologist working in Zambia. Notably as of 2012 he developed an interest in colour pencil drawing. He is the founding director of the Choma Museum and Crafts Centre and organized several art exhibitions in Zambia. He publishes on The Net; i.e., Art in Zambia Blog, the Z-factor Art Site, Z-texts on line and www.academia.edu.