Realism in Colored Pencil Drawings: An Overview
This article is a step-by-step demonstration of colored pencil realism. Once regarded as a children's or illustrator's medium, colored pencil has gained a reputation as a fine art medium rivaling oil painting. Galleries love to see large colored pencil realism paintings. Since this kind of realism takes time and skill; they don't get as many of them as they'd like. So if you learn this style of realism, your work may gain a lot of recognition!
Colored pencil is a slow medium. This project took several hours and it's only 4" x 5"—to complete a painting 22" x 30" on a full sheet of watercolor paper would take weeks of work, even for the most skilled artist. Like some other hobbies, it will give you hours and hours of pleasure as the image gradually takes shape layer after layer, until it looks so real you could pick it up off the paper.
Note: You may copy the above drawing if you credit my tutorial and link to it when you post it online. Each stage will be shown and described in detail, then I'll post the finished image again at the end for comparison. So let's get started!
- White paper with some tooth
- 12 or larger watercolor pencils set
- 24 or larger artist-grade colored pencils set (or substitute cheaper ones but work longer)
- Colorless blender pencil (Prismacolor, Lyra, or Derwent)
- Water brush or sable or synthetic sable round watercolor brush and water
- Sketching pencil HB or Col-erase pencils in green and orange
- Electric sharpener or hand-crank sharpener or brand new pencil sharpener
To complete this project, you'll need a sketchbook with toothy white paper. The best paper to use for colored pencil realism that I've ever found is Rising Stonehenge, but Bristol works well, and so does hot press watercolor paper (smooth texture, but still toothy) and other good papers.
What I used for the original is a 5 1/2" x 8 1/2" hardbound sketchbook from Dick Blick. Any brand will work—Basic, Canson, ProArt, nor does yours need to be hardbound. Mine is because that's what I bought, but many good wire-bound or tape-bound sketchbooks are available. Choose a paper that has a good vellum surface, feels toothy, and holds a pencil mark well. Test your paper by sketching a line on it with an ordinary HB pencil—if you get a faint mark, your paper is too smooth and glossy to take multiple layers of colored pencil.
For a lot of lightweight, acid-free drawing paper for less, consider getting a ream of archival printer paper. It's designed for documents that need to be preserved and does cost more than normal printer paper, but it's lightweight, and compared to the price of white drawing paper per sheet, it's so cheap you can do tons of sketches. If you like, hole-punch the sheets and turn a three-ring binder into your sketchbook.
You'll also need artist-grade watercolor pencils and/or colored pencils. Some brands of watercolor pencils are soft enough that you can use them dry for the same good results as artist-grade colored pencils. Derwent Watercolour Pencils, Prismacolor Watercolor Pencils, Supracolor Soft, and other artist-grade watercolor pencils are soft and pigment-rich enough that you can do these techniques entirely with one set of pencils.
For convenience, I use a water brush like the Niji Water Brush, Sakura Water Brush, or Aqua Flow water brush when I'm using watercolor pencils. This is a synthetic watercolor brush, usually a round brush comparable to sizes 6 through 8, with a plastic water reservoir in the handle. Fill it and you can paint anywhere without bothering to rinse the brush off between colors—just swipe it on a rag or napkin till it's clean and pick up the next color.
If you don't have one of those, any watercolor round brush and a cup of water will do. It's just easier to use a water brush. Sable or synthetic sable like Golden Taklon or brown nylon is the type of brush to use. Don't try to use a stiff bristle brush or white synthetic bristle one; it should be a soft brush like you'd use with watercolor and have a good point.
Be warned that while you can use cheap children's pencils or student-grade colored pencils, it takes extra layers and more patience.
I would recommend at least a set of 24 artist-grade colored pencils for the dry layers though. Look for good sets of colored pencils online to get the best prices or check out clearance bins at art stores. Prismacolor, Derwent Coloursoft, and Blick Artists' colored pencils are the price leaders among artist-grade colored pencils.
I used a 72-color set of Blick Artists' colored pencils to do the project, so if you want to use exactly the ones I did, that's what to order online. They're currently $12 less than Prismacolor, the next bargain brand for a 72-color set—which is a good big set that has enough variety for any beginner.
You'll need an HB or No. 2 graphite pencil for your initial sketch and a kneaded eraser or white vinyl eraser for corrections. Kneaded erasers are better. You can also use "blue tack" or tacking putty as a kneaded eraser for colored pencils, it's even better at lightening color. I didn't have to do any lightening on mine, but I've got lots of practice. If you get an area too dark, squish the eraser around till it's the shape of the area you want lightened. Press down hard and then peel it up.
It's just like doing transfers with Silly Putty—color will come up on the eraser. Clean it by stretching and kneading it again and repeat 'til the area's as light as you want it. So it's always good to have a kneaded eraser around to retrieve lost highlights when drawing with colored pencils.
You can also use Sanford Col-Erase colored pencils or Crayola Erasable colored pencils for your initial sketch if you want to be able to remove all the color. If you have any trouble sketching, that can give you sketch lines in more or less the same colors as you're going over them with rather than having graphite lines under your drawing. If you use a regular pencil, just lighten the lines with your kneaded eraser till you can barely see them before doing the first stage.
Last, you'll need a colorless blender. This is a colored pencil without any pigment. Prismacolor Colorless Blender is inexpensive and easily available in the USA. Derwent makes both a Blender and a Burnisher, both colorless, the Blender is the soft one and would work better for this project. Finally, there's the Lyra Splender Blender, which has the same core material as oil-based Lyra Rembrandt colored pencils. Any of those will work fine. If you don't have one, use the white pencil in your set to burnish, then go over it again with the same colors after the burnishing.
Be sure you have a good pencil sharpener handy with a fresh new blade. You can also use a hand crank or electric sharpener for colored pencils, this can save wear on your hands if you buy a big Prismacolor set. Just be sure to keep the shavings container emptied frequently and run a normal No. 2 pencil into it every dozen pencils or so in order to keep the grinder from getting gummed up with the softer colored pencils shavings.
Spread out all of your supplies, and let's get to the sketching part!
Step 1. Sketch With Watercolor Pencils
Trace the outlines of the tangerine lightly from a printout onto your drawing paper. You can put the printout up against a window on a sunny day or on a light box and trace it directly with your orange, brown, and green watercolor pencils. Once you have the outlines of the leaves and fruits and stems, shade them lightly with the watercolor pencil.
Notice that I'm not really trying for a smooth tonal layer at this stage. My sketching is much looser, almost scribbly. I'm mostly concerned with placing some of the major shadows when I sketch them in darker, knowing I'm going to wash over this stage. Go very light. You don't need to press hard at all, and it's okay if you can barely see it.
This stage with watercolor pencils is just an underpainting. Minor mistakes don't matter at all here, though they're easier to rub out with the kneaded eraser if you go lightly. The important thing is to pay attention to where the shadows are and where the highlights are. Because the fruit isn't that shiny, I went lightly, even over the highlights. If I wanted a bright white highlight as an apple gets, I'd have left that completely white.
Texture doesn't matter at this stage at all; it's just coloring by tone. Don't go outside the lines, and don't worry about any white specks inside the lines. They'll smooth out in the water wash stage, which is next.
Step 2. Wash the Sketch
If you're using a regular watercolor brush, dip it in your water cup and then squeeze some of the water out of it. You want it damp but not dripping. It's important not to use so much water that it'll puddle or run down the page. If you're not using watercolor paper, less is more. If you have a water brush, squeeze it to get the point wet but then wipe it with your fingers the same way.
You will see the paper cockle and bubble up where you've washed it. Don't worry about that; it does flatten out as you work on it later with the dry pencils. But that's a lot of why not to use too much water. An actual water brush has a flow regulator valve inside it that keeps it from dripping unless you squeeze it hard, but it's possible to get it too wet.
If you're not sure if you're doing this right, test it on a piece of scrap paper. Just scribble with the pencils you used and paint over them with the clear water. If the color dissolves, but you don't get puddles of water on the paper, you have it exactly right.
Do all of the leaves first using contour strokes. Follow the edges of the leaves and then work inward from them, swiping across the lines of the ribs. Wash over the lightest areas first and then move to darker ones after the edge is done so that you don't drag too much color into your highlights.
If you do get too much color into your highlights, all is not lost. Most watercolor pencils will reactivate if wetted again. The big exceptions are Faber Castell Albrecht Durer and Derwent Inktense. If you're using either of those, blot it quickly with a tissue or cloth while it's still wet to take up as much color as possible. With other watercolor pencils, wait till it dries, get just the highlight wet again, and blot it to lift some of the color.
You can see even in my scan why I did the underdrawing so lightly. Watercolor pencils darken as they get activated, and the color flows into all the little valleys in the paper texture. The results are very dramatic, so be sure to keep your highlights pale and only get strong color in the shadows.
Now let this stage dry. Some of the crinkles in the paper will flatten out as it's drying. The rest will flatten more when you add layers of dry colored pencil over them.
Step 3. Add Dry Layers
Now take a good long look at my example. Where are all the darkest areas in the leaves? Using your darkest green, sketch those in with light to medium pressure. The more light layers you add to build up your colors, the richer the result. You can bring in dark blues and browns layered over each other to get a very dark green if you don't have dark green in your set, or you can use those colors with your dark green for a richer effect. Shade the leaves with that dark green, going over all but the very lightest highlights.
Establish tone with pressure. By starting with the darkest color in the area and doing a tonal drawing, you know where all the medium and lighter colors will go. Don't press hard on this stage at all; we won't be pressing hard till the very end. Heavy pressure will indent the paper and break the texture of what you're doing.
When you press lightly and go in little circles or short strokes over the paper, you can get a very smooth gradient. This shading is lovely. I also pressed medium pressure where I wanted stronger color, but it takes practice, so you're better off using two light layers than one heavier one.
Once you have the tonal drawing of the leaves done, sketch in the stems lightly with brown. Get their outlines and streak a few loose strokes up the direction of the stems for bark texture. Most of it will be lost in the final burnishing, but a little will remain to give a more barklike look.
Then choosing a reddish-orange, shade the tangerines the same way. Don't even bring the reddish-orange into the highlights. I used the Beige pencil in my Blick 72 color set, a light peach hue for the lightest parts of the highlights. I got those in directly and worked around them with a yellow-orange, then a couple of mid-oranges, then blended those lighter orange colors over the red-orange that I used to establish the darks.
Then go over the tangerine again, blending those colors together. Because the tangerine has little pits on its surface like an orange peel, I used small circular strokes to lay down all of that color. Any directional strokes would give unintended veining, but the little circular strokes create a texture a lot like a citrus fruit's pitted surface. So instead of doing circles so tiny that I wouldn't see them, I made them a good sixteenth of an inch wide and overlapped them constantly, going lightly. The result is a pleasing nubble texture that contrasts with the smoother leaves where all the strokes follow the shape of the leaf.
Using various shades of light and medium green, shade in your leaves with short strokes back and forth between the ribs. This will keep unintended rib shapes from forming if your stops and starts are all hidden in the dark patches. Use yellower light greens in some areas and mint greens in others to liven up the color. Feel free to go over some leaves with yellow ochre or a light brown, or even a bright yellow. I put a little deep violet into the deepest darks to darken them still more and make them richer.
I also went over the stem with more than one different brown, just to make it a bit richer. The more colored pencils you have, the more nuances of hue you can get into something like this. At this stage, that's where you'll want to use them all. Experiment! Maybe a light touch of Magenta with some yellow over it will make a better red-orange than just using the orange pencil.
Test your experiments on scrap paper that you keep nearby, or if you're using a sketchbook, leave some space on the page for color mixing experiments. You may want to use very different colors. You could even decide one of your tangerines isn't ripe and shade it from green through yellow-green to orange—it's all up to you. Have fun using all the colors!
Keep layering different hues over each other to make it richer, especially in the dark and mid-tone areas. Keep the lightest lights simple; they're accents, and the purer the color in them, the better. Using complements (blue over the orange, red over the green) or near complements (violet, for example) will mute your colors.
Don't forget the earth colors in your range. I used three different red browns to bring down the darkest shadows on the tangerines, including a very deep dark red-brown, a lot like the Prismacolor Tuscan Red. Pay attention to the value (how dark it is) as well as the hue (what color it is) when choosing your pencils. It's more important to be accurate in value—people will believe a well-shaded turquoise tangerine easier than they will a flat orange circle as one.
Step 4. Burnishing
When your dry layers are as good as you can get them, stand back and take a long look at where the highlights are. Then choose your white pencil.
Go over the highlight areas quite heavily with the white pencil. This will lighten them a little along with what's right next to them if you go outside the soft edges of the highlights. This will also help you adjust the shape of the highlights—if they need to be a little larger, just push the edge with the white pencil, and they'll expand slightly and gradually.
Then using the colorless blender, start going over the entire drawing with medium to heavy pressure. Use short, smooth strokes following the contours of the leaf on the leaves, doing one section at a time. You'll see a dramatic difference in the burnished sections! They're darker and smoother, and the last white specks vanish from them. Go over lighter areas carefully so they don't get too dark since you'll drag color with the blender the same as with the water brush.
On the tangerines themselves, switch to small circular motions again to keep the feeling of that texture and directionless strokes. Long strokes would look like cuts or bruises on the fruit, so don't do them. If you want bruises or cuts, sketch those in with a light brown pencil and follow them with the burnishing process. Burnish all of the drawings except the white background. Use your kneaded eraser to pick up any specks or crumbs, or streaks of color in the white background.
Last, for a finishing touch, over the burnished drawing, choose places where you want to liven up the colors with their opposites. I put some of the green from the leaves reflecting onto the fruits where they were closest and some of the orange from the tangerines reflecting onto the leaves. It's subtle, but as soon as I did that, the colors looked much more unified, and the whole drawing was richer.
For colored pencils realism, this is a fairly simple subject. Two main color masses, fairly simple shapes with lots of shading and value contrast to give them depth. You can get much more elaborate with color mixing and layering—in fact, if you're using a very small set of pencils or mixing your colors, you may have to on this one.
It's not about exactly what colors you use to get which effects. It's more about experimenting with your own mixtures, your own cool textures, and your own designs.
Now that you have all those colored pencils and some practice, enjoy!
william from Califonia on April 19, 2015:
Great hub, robert
RoadMonkey on April 19, 2015:
I never thought coloured pencils could do this! lovely.
Thelma Alberts from Germany on April 19, 2015:
Congratulations on the HOTD! Wow! After more than 4 years, this hub has received its well deserved award. Voted up and useful.
Geof Awunyo from London on April 19, 2015:
its beautiful fresh fruits
Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on April 19, 2015:
Beautiful art! You have quite a gift, not just for doing it but for teaching it. Congratulations on your HOTD honors!
robertsloan2 lm on April 19, 2015:
Wow, thank you for all of your comments! And big thanks for winding up on the front page. I'd forgotten I wrote this or how well it came out. Very glad all of you are enjoying it!
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on April 19, 2015:
What a great hub on how to draw tangerines, step by step. Congrats on HOTD!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 19, 2015:
Beautiful and definitely worthy of Hub of the Day! Congrats!
vasantha T k on April 19, 2015:
Voted Up, useful.Tangerines, neatly explained step by step.
Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on April 19, 2015:
Wow! You are an expert artist with such deep knowledge of using colour pencils to produce amazing images.
Voted up and awesome.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on April 19, 2015:
you are really good at color pencils, talented indeed
Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on April 19, 2015:
Gorgeous...my mind can envision a completed work such as yours but alas the ability to retrieve it from there and onto a canvas or paper is often not the fruit you have shown us here. thank you for the sketches and the lovely finished work...I want to pluck it from the screen and enjoy the tangy, juicy goodness
Angels are on the way to you this morning ps
voted up++++ shared and Pinned to Awesome HubPages Congrats on HOTD...
Didge from Southern England on June 12, 2012:
Great hub, robertsloan2!
Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on August 12, 2010:
Robert, I am so glad that you visited one of my hubs. I am one of your followers but don't always get around to checking people out. So glad that I did. Seems like it's worth it to buy the quality stuff. I was just wondering how to make an acrylic painting of mine look richer so did some research on that and of course, you know the answer. Don't use the cheap crap!
Don on August 12, 2010:
Robert, great tangerine tutorial. I recently purchased a set of Derwent Inktense pencils and I'm going to try to adapt this tutorial for those. I've already finished your tutorials for the Inktense pencils, they were fantastic, took me through each step.
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on August 10, 2010:
Terrific hub, thank you!
Wayne Tully from United Kingdom on August 10, 2010:
That's a great tangerine colored drawing you have there and I do the same with colored pencils last of all and a white colored pencil does the job of picking those highlights out and sometimes is a good blender too for certain colors.
There was a time when I used to over white pencil everything, until I stopped, found it blends reds,greens,blues and purples brilliantly as it smooths out some of the pencils marks somewhat.
Great hub drawing tutorial....
I'm currently drawing a zombie santa for my Zazzle store and am documenting it in a Hubpage....soon!