No Really, That's How I Do It

Colored Pencil Painting

By Libby Kyer

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist – Volume 15, Issue 3 


The basic tenets of art apply to all botanical art. Observe carefully. Start with a great drawing. Develop form fully. Add color and texture and detail. The essential differences we encounter in creating botanical art are our own unique point of view and our choices of media. My favorite color medium is colored pencils. They have huge color range, are transparent so allow for excellent light effects, are neatly portable for use in the field, and are relatively inexpensive. For those of you who have not worked in colored pencil, this is a little primer of things you’ll want to know to create effective colored pencil artworks. 

Let’s take a quick overview of essential materials: _

Sharpener – electric and metal-bladed hand held sharpener. Select a sharpener with smooth action and auto-stop, as it stops as soon as a good point is set. I like Panasonic sharpeners. _

  • Kneaded eraser – used primarily to lift color. _
  • Click white plastic eraser – erase with whole tip or create sharp edges for controlled lifting. _
  • Feather– large flight feather _
  • Paper – Artistico #140 hot-pressed watercolor paper. _
  • Colored pencils: All colored pencils are pigments in a medium that allows you to shape a point and apply the pigment. There are 4 common types of pencils. For each colored pencil medium, I’ve listed two pencil brands I use often.
    • Wax (PrismaColor, van Gogh); medium soft, creamy laydown, broad color ranges. Wax bloom can occur with any wax medium pencil, but is manageable if it occurs. 
    • Oil (Faber Castell Polychromos, Lyra Rembrandts); oil pencils are generally in the medium hard range. I use Polychromos. They are addictive! They have a creamy laydown, and blend well with all other colored pencil media. 
    • Gum Arabic: (Prismacolor Watercolors, Derwent InkTense); Every CP artist can benefit from a watercolor pencil. I like Derwent’s InkTense WC pencils. The colors are intense although limited hues are available. PrismaColor also makes a good WC pencil in a broader color range. In dry mode, these pencils are medium hardness, and have a pleasant thick laydown. 
    • Chalk (Stabilo Carbothello, Koh-I-Noor Giaconda); Pastel pencils pigments are mounted like any other pastel, in chalk, but come in a handy pencil wrapper! Carbothello’s are hard, Giacondas are a bit softer. 

All types of colored pencils can be combined, however, light colored oil and wax mixes can get sludgy; pastel pencils may resist over coloring with wax or oil pencils, and all combinations should be tested on the appropriate paper prior to starting your painting. Pencils should be lightfast, provide a large range of colors and have good quality control. Check that leads are centered and make sure both halves of the wood wrappers are the same color. Straight pencils last forever, crooked ones don’t! It’s important to know the absolute basics in colored pencil, or you won’t get the results you hope for. Let’s start with holding and sharpening the pencil: 

How to hold the pencil:

On the side: Use full point on side to produce washes, especially in large areas.

Functional oval: Knock off a bit of the point by taking a stroke or two on scrap paper. Then, hold the pencil in a comfortable writing position, using gentle pressure.

On point: Loose grip, almost vertical for use of fine tip. Sharpen frequently. 

Sharpening measures: While using pencil, turn frequently to get sharpest part of point. Sharpen frequently. A quick hit into an electric sharpener resets the point, or you can use the metal hand held sharpener to hone the point. 

Basic Strokes: Several ways of making marks combine to provide a large spectrum of application methods. 

Wash: use the side of the pencil point to create light, large washes. 

Line: single lines placed close together are useful for very smooth linear specimens, such as tulip leaves. Strokes should follow the surface contour. 

Scumbling/Circular: Small (1/4” diameter) circular strokes provide dappled coverage and are handy to start interesting textures. 

Oval: tiny (1/8” or less) flattened ovals are the workhorses of controlled colored pencil management. They allow you to cover a large area or small area in absolutely smooth color. 

Pressure Scale: Too much pressure creates wax build up, wax bloom, or paper tooth destruction making further layering impossible. Let’s create an imaginary pressure scale from 0 to 5. Zero is a whisper; 2 is ordinary writing pressure when you use a graphite pencil, making no grooves in the paper. Most CP work is done starting at 1, topping out at 2.5, except for areas which require extreme burnishing (overlaying with pencil all over an area of local color, to blend color without white paper exposed). 

Color craft: Learning to use colored pencils 

Colored pencils are transparent. Since they’re semi-liquid, the pigments cannot combine the way they do in a liquid medium. To create hues, layer one color on top of another. Visual mixing occurs as the grains of pigments lie side by side and the eye blends them - like pointillism on a pigment grain scale. The important things to remember are: 

  • The color on top trumps the color beneath. 
  • Lighter colors may be used on top to tint or modify local color. 
  • Dark colors may be used as underpainting to good effect. 

Dark colors may be used on top to tone or modify local color. 

Need more intense hue? Change pencil position from using the functional oval to on point to get greater color deposition. If you’re pushing harder, sharpen up! Remember to use significant pressure extremely sparingly to allow you full benefit of the tooth below. 

Keep It Clean: Colored pencil creates grit that can actually color the white areas of your paper. Feather light whisking is easiest with, well, a … feather! Don’t chase down the local geese for this, just pick up a package of white flight feathers at Hobby Lobby or Michaels. Use the flight edge, flick up and away. 

Building a palette: Why do we have so many colors in colored pencil sets? Perhaps because we need them! I have about 700 pencils on my studio table at any one time. With so many choices, how do you start your palette? Try my MAGiC® process. 

M=Match the local color with a pencil from your kit. Lay the tip of the sharpened pencil against the color. If they look close, call it good. 

A=Analogous colors: choose a deep analogous color for shading/ tonal changes 

G=Gray; Choose a gray that is the same tonal value as your deep analogous. 

C=Complement; choose a deep complement to your local color, for shading/tonal changes

Keep the pencils you’ve selected for each local color separate from your kit now, to make it easy to work. You may want to make some of the studies shown here on the paper you like to use to get comfortable to the feel and process of working with colored pencils. Once you try it, I think you’re going to love painting with colored pencils! 

You can contact Libby at for a color wheel and color exercise sheet that she will email to you. Print it on 140# hot-pressed WC paper before you start your exercises. Once you are comfortable with creating th colors you want, practice strokes, then try a specimen in colored pencil.

  • Materials include cut/uncut erasers, feather, kneaded eraser, sharpeners, and a few pencil colors in Faber Castell Polychromos pencils.
  • On the side position for good washes
  • Functional oval position puts smaller lead area in contact
  • On point position allows point to interact with paper more completely
  • From L: Side position deposits color only on tallest tips of the paper, leaving valleys to shine through white; Functional oval position slips part way into valleys, still leaving whites; On point position can get right into the valleys in the paper, eliminating most white sparkle.
  • Hue intensity using side, functional oval and on point positions.
  • Strokes, shown large on left if pairs so you can see how they work. 1. (left) Side-by-side linear strokes that follow surface contours are great for very smooth surfaces, especially if they are striated, like tulip leaves. 2. (middle) Scumble stroke: Overlapping curlicue strokes are a good beginning for rough textures, like an avocado. 3. (right) The elliptical stroke makes seamless washes!
  • Clematis columbiana (Nutt.) Torr. & Gray var. tenuiloba, was created in colored pencil on 140# hot-pressed watercolor paper, using Polychromos, Prismacolor, and graphite pencil, embossing, and solvent liquid techniques, 7x8”, ©Libby Kyer 2008