Blend Your Way to Smooth Colored Pencils

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Sure, you could make beautiful art without ever learning how to blend your colored pencils. But blending takes things to a whole other level: it lets you smooth out hues and eliminate lines so your finished work looks more like a painting. Worth it.

While you can't use paper stumps and tortillions the way you do with charcoal or graphite, there are several other tools and techniques that can achieve the same effect.

Tools for Blending Colored Pencils

Solvents

What They Are: Liquids that melt the binders in wax- and oil-based colored pencils. Solvents eliminate pencil strokes, smooth the surface of your work and let you layer colors faster. This technique works best for dark and medium shades, though you can use them with lighter hues.

How to Use 'Em: Pour the liquid in a small, resealable glass container. Dip your brush (any cheap, synthetic one will do) into a little bit of liquid and brush it over the shaded area. As a rule, use less solvent rather than more, because it may dilute the color too much. Keep paper towels nearby so you can blot any extra liquid from the brush.

Good to Know: Work in a well-ventilated area so you can limit your exposure to the chemicals (and, sometimes, the odor). Try Gamblin Gamsol Odorless Mineral Spirits or Weber Turpenoid Natural.

Colorless Pencil Blenders

What They Are: They look like like a regular pencil, but colorless pencil blenders have no pigment. While using them takes more time and effort, you get the same effect as you would with a solvent. 

How to Use 'Em: These tools are perfect for burnishing, which is a technique for layering colored pencils by applying heavy pressure. Burnishing with a pencil blender allows you to smooth out your drawing so you cut down on saturated tones and even out the colors. Colorless pencil blenders are particularly effective for mid-tones, lights and highlights. 

Good to Know: Try the Prismacolor Colorless Blender or the Caran d’Ache Full Blender Bright. While the Prismacolor pencil leaves a slightly grayish tone, the Caran d’Ache woodless oil-wax pencil glides on clear.

White and Off-White Colored Pencils

What They Are: You already have these in your colored pencil palette!

How to Use 'Em: Unlike the solvents and blenders, white and off-white colors will lighten up the surface of your picture while burnishing it. It's a foolproof way to capture the afternoon haze in a landscape, lighten up a skin tone or create transitions around the highlights.

Good to Know: For best results, use white or very light colored pencils like cream, sky blue, light peach or beige.

Icarus Art Board

What it is: Invented by artist-inventor Ester Roi, the Icarus Art Board is a glass drawing board with a heating element. It's divided into a warm and cool zone.

How to Use it: You draw on the board's cool side and blend and burnish on the warm side. The heat makes the wax melt, giving you the same ability to blend as a solvent would.

Good to Know: The board comes in two sizes and will set you back roughly $350. Too high a price? Get similar results by heating up your color pencils with a food-grade warming plate or hot glue gun.

Tips for Blending Colored Pencils

  • Blend colors from light to dark.
  • If you're using a solvent to blend, let your drawing dry before working on it again.
  • Burnish the surface gradually by changing up the pencil pressure. If the surface becomes too dark, let it dry and layer a lighter color over it.
  • Make little feathering circles to burnish highlights.
  • Remember to draw on smooth surface. A paper’s texture really affects layers of color — the more textured the sheet, the harder it is to fill in the gaps and smooth out shades. Many artists prefer Strathmore or Stonehenge paper. 

Colored Pencil Blending: The Results

Different techniques create different results. The image above shows three different colors: Prismacolor poppy red on top, indigo blue in the middle and peach at the bottom of column 1. Columns two through four show the effects of the different blending tools.

Column 1

The original colors drawn on Strathmore drawing paper.

Column 2

The outcome when you blend with Gamsol solvent.

Column 3

The result when you blend with white colored pencil.

Column 4

The effect when you blend with colorless pencil blender.

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