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Prismacolor Colored Pencil Realism: Techniques & Tips

I've been creating and teaching art for several years and love helping new artists grow and find their own voices.

ACEO Lilacs in Prismacolor Premier on white Stonehenge paper by Robert A. Sloan

ACEO Lilacs in Prismacolor Premier on white Stonehenge paper by Robert A. Sloan

Colored Pencil Realism Techniques

ACEO Lilacs was a twenty-hour production—not counting the time it took for the lilac bush in our backyard to bloom and to take the photo reference. I did this from one of my own flower macro photographs, although I cropped it to balance the painting in a better composition than the photo.

Masterful Color by Arlene Steinberg

I used techniques based on Masterful Color by Arlene Steinberg; I used the reference in the book but changed it substantially by moving the marbles around and eliminating most of them, then enlarging some to give it a more dramatic perspective.

Once I had finished My Marbles, which is permanently in my collection and took much more than 20 hours to finish, I tried the same technique with a smaller project. The one with the marbles is 5" x 7", and it took me a couple of months to finish that carefully. For this one, I chose all the colors, used my own photo reference, and set out to do one at a manageable size—ACEO, the size of a trading card.

Getting Started

The original is 2 1/2" x 3 1/2", so I could get four of them from a 5" x 7" sheet of white Stonehenge. I suggest using a pad that size to get started in colored pencils realism. You won't be tempted to try something 12" x 16" that takes you a year to finish and may get pinned to the wall till someone pins coffee on it, destroying months of work.

Start small, and once you're used to working over something that slow and careful, gradually move up in size to reach your comfort zone for projects that take forever but come out spectacular when you do them right. Colored pencils realism in Ms. Steinberg's dry-on-dry style is a very slow, painstaking, meticulous process.

There are no shortcuts, no underpainting, no thinners, and no tricks like I found in Alyona Nickelsen's Colored Pencil Painting Bible.

Steinberg's method demands extra layers because you start out by using the right values and the complements—complete opposites—of the colors you want in the finish.

The effect in real life is indescribably beautiful. Color shimmers through all the layers with incredible richness, and things look so real you could pick them up by mistake. The one I did with the marbles drove me nuts; they looked like I'd glued them to a backing and put that in a frame.

Try it on something very small if you don't believe me—the effect is uncanny.

These first-layer darks on an onion are not the right colors for this Steinberg technique, but they are the right texture I'm talking about.

These first-layer darks on an onion are not the right colors for this Steinberg technique, but they are the right texture I'm talking about.


Derwent Coloursofts are more opaque colored pencils than Prismacolor Premier. Prismacolors are translucent—not quite transparent, not quite opaque. So they will cover their opposites but let some complementary pigment particles shine through like micro-miniature pointillism.

Masterful Color Variations

If I were to redo it in the Masterful Color technique, I would use a deep monochrome violet like Black Grape or Blue-Violet, whichever worked opposite the deep browns of the deepest darks in the photo reference, or a real reddish-gold onion.

Black Grape might have been a bit reddish, but it would be a good choice for the deepest darks I did in the Black on the Onion demo. Blue-Violet would be closest to the golden ochre sort of browns, and I'd shift toward blue and blue-green as I worked over to where the reds go on the next layer—but not put those layers over each other.

The complements layer is only one layer to establish where lights and darks are. Stonehenge is the best paper for it because if you go lightly, you can do twenty or thirty layers before getting to the point you can't add any more and ought to be burnishing to kill the last little white specks.

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The shadow would have been in a reddish dark brown, not the Indigo on the bottom.

You then need at least half a dozen layers moving toward the true color over that first layer to start getting it to be the true local color you want in the final painting. Suppose you do more layers, gradually using the colors closer and closer to the final color and glazing over dark colors with light colors to shift them closer to the true color. In that case, you get the shimmering color and unbelievable realism effect. It's beautiful, takes forever, and is worth the time, especially on something as small as an ACEO.

Now let's look at the marbles I did from the book.

My Marbles, inspired by Arlene Steinberg's book "Masterful Color" and its techniques, using a photo reference in the book

My Marbles, inspired by Arlene Steinberg's book "Masterful Color" and its techniques, using a photo reference in the book

Framed Under Glass

I've got this one framed under glass. Much more than 20 colors went into it. One of the big points I want to make with it in this article is that white objects like the white tabletop or wall are not white.

The white parts, like the sides of the teapot, will range down to surprisingly dark grays that may lean bluish or brownish but are still definitely gray. Ms. Steinberg does not stop there—and her color tricks are echoed by Deborah Secor's Painting in Pastels DVD, the beginner one where she does some clouds.

You mix gray using lavender, peach, pale green, and all the very light colors that complement each other in delicate layers, blending over and over till they all mix to what seems a neutral gray but sizzles off the paper. At the scale of Prismacolor realism, you do not see the separate specks of the different colors. They blur and mix in the eye—but the gray is lively and bright in ways that just using the Warm Gray 10% or 30% pencils aren't.

I went darker to one side on the wall behind the marbles on the left and darker to the right on the table, so there came a point at the horizon where you couldn't quite see the line. The mind fills in that line. It's there as a three-dimensional element. It's an optical trick that was definitely at least implied in the photo reference, and I enhanced it and made sure the transition didn't fall behind a marble—because I liked that weirdness in the background.

The value changes are very slight, but none of those background areas are pure white; the only pure white spots are highlights on the marbles.

Complementary underpainting is a slow technique but a joy when you get it right. I've got one more image to add to this article.

Tree Frog by Robert A. Sloan, Prismacolor realism

Tree Frog by Robert A. Sloan, Prismacolor realism

About the Tree Frog

This little guy sizzled off the Stonehenge. I spent almost as long on him as I did on the lilacs and still used the complementary underdrawing, dry-on-dry technique from Arlene Steinberg. This time, my photo reference was contributed by a friend in an eBay group.

Bright green eyes, red body, lavender belly—you can imagine how this thing looked in the first sketch. They always look silly in color negative at the sketch underdrawing stage. I created some of the foliage as abstract curves and shapes and moved some of the leaves to make the background frame the little frog. Then I went over and over and over and over him in variations of his true local colors till I had the shining true local colors of those screaming bright eyes and his muted green body and bright yellow belly.

Colorless Blender

The final stages on any of these take using a colorless blender. Prismacolor's colorless blender is a shortcut that can save you several layers; it used to be that to get that burnished, smooth painted look, you had to go over the painting with White and then darken all the colors by repeating them one more time. That still works if you don't have a colorless blender—but it's cheap and useful.

Where the White technique is handy is if all the layering darkened an area, one value step too dark beyond what you want. Then burnish with White and just leave it or touch in bright accents in light, bright colors to keep it from looking faded. I recall using White and Cream on some of his lighter areas to do just that, as they'd darkened a little in all the reworking.

It's a great technique. Doing it from scratch takes skill at sketching in graphite and controlling the value of an area you're doing by how much pressure you put on the pencil. Start with soft graphite pencils 6B or softer to get used to the feel of Prismacolors and how smudgy they are. Derwent Graphitints are good for this—just don't burnish, try for tonal drawings and get used to a little color.

Then on every successive layer, keep going that lightly till the last burnishing layers, where you go hard to blend everything together smoothly to a burnished waxy surface.

Last Important Tip

At the end, give your Prismacolor painting a light spray or two of Krylon, Blick, or some other brand of workable matte fixative. This may deepen the colors slightly, but it will prevent wax bloom—when oils within the heavy waxy layers seep to the surface to make it pale and cloudy. If it happens because you forgot, wipe the painting gently with a soft cloth and then use the fixative.

If you can't add any more layers and do need to, spraying the fixative will create a new tooth for another two or three layers, which is useful to be able to do.

Always hang Prismacolor paintings in frames protected by glass and not in the path of direct sun at any time of day. Right next to the window on the wall it's on is good; anywhere the sun patch never goes over them.

If you're concerned about lightfastness, you lose the range by this, but you can switch entirely over to using Prismacolor Premier Lightfast, which are all very good lightfastness and come in 48 colors. A decent range but nothing like the grand 132 color range. Happily, the texture is the same. So you can use them together because only three colors in that 48-color set really match—lemon yellow, white, and black.

Enjoy. They are available anywhere in the USA. For UK folks, they are called Karismacolour; also, the Derwent Inktense used dry has exactly the same texture as Prismacolor Premier and can be used in the same ways.


Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on February 18, 2013:

Another great article on one of my favorite subjects: colored pencil drawings. Nice paintings, robertsloan2.

Deborah Croft on June 25, 2011:

I was wondering if the tree frog picture was from the back of the box of prismacolor pencils if so would you also have a copy of the others that were on the box ( toucan, tree frog, butterfly, and salamander) as my daughter would really like these, she did the toucan for school and would love to finish the set thank you

Patti Ann from Florida on March 04, 2010:

Excellent! I love the frog!! You are very talented.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on November 13, 2009:

Thank you!

Priscilla Chan from Normal, Illinois on November 11, 2009:

Love, love, love your work!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 10, 2009:

These are the ones I use: although ASW has some nylon easel elastic band cases that are cheaper and Blick also has a nylon-over-cardboard version. I prefer these because the leather makes them really sturdy. I have seen internal breakage drop so low using these that it's well worth it.

Besides, it's pretty cool to have black leather jackets on my Prismacolors. Sort of fits that Art-Rebel side of me so well. Especially if I'm wearing my biker jacket when I go out using them. These cases make it very easy to bring the whole collection with me. I've got Verithins, Col-Erase, Art Stix and twelve overflow pencils in one of the cases, with 120 Premier in the other.

Art Stix fit three to a loop and stack with three in the top loop, three in the lower because they're short. Those are wonderful for filling large areas because they are the same core material as the pencils, but square 1/4" sticks about 3" long like pastels that wear down much slower.

lovebird403 on October 10, 2009:

I have just done my first sketch , and have came to the conclusion that prismacolors really do work as well as everyone says they do.

I find that the tin is very well designed, but I would refer to buy a couple cases, in order to be able to put them in my bag, instead of holding the tin on the bus. What's the URL for buying the elastic band cases online?

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 09, 2009:

Oh coolness! Glad you found that. I never thought of it, honestly, since I have had so much fun organizing them by eye that it's been a delight every time I bought a new set. Which I have done several times, sometimes I wear them all down at about the same speed and it's cheaper to get a new set than to get all the replacements individually.

Be very careful in how you handle the tin. Always keep it flat. The large 132 color tin is the best designed one, if you snap the trays together they each hold the pencils down and that clear plastic tray over the top one holds the top ones from bouncing around. But it still takes some care, as opposed to getting an easel carrier or leather case.

Unfortunately, none of the elastic band pencil cases have 132 spaces in them, you'd have to use a 120 and a second one, or two 72 color cases. I wound up using two 120 color ones but that's because in addition to my 132 Premier, I've also got 48 Art Stix, 36 Verithin and 24 Col-Erase in my second Prismacolor case.

lovebird403 on October 09, 2009:

Thanks again! I was looking to organize them by colour group, and I just realized that on the back of the brochure that came with my prismas, there is all the colours exactly how i want to organize them! Thanks :)

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 09, 2009:

Sorry, I've never seen such a link. Organizing your Prismacolors is something personal. I tend to do it by eye. Take them all out at once and spread them out. Choose a color to start the spectrum with, say, yellow or red. Then keep that pattern consistent.

One way that makes a lot of sense is to pull all the light pale colors and organize them into the spectrum -- Cream, Cloud Blue, pinks, peach, all those bright light colors by hue in the spectrum. Then repeat the spectrum with the bright chromatic colors. You'll be left with browns, grays and muted colors. I organize those by the spectrum too, with redder browns, then yellower browns, then greener browns and finally grays and blue-grays. I sort all the grays by their value though, light to dark.

These multiple repeats make it very easy to choose colors when you're looking to do highlights or deep shadows. With 132 colors you could even break it down into spectrum light, spectrum bright, spectrum dark and then the browns and grays.

Or sort all the pure chromatic (spectrum) colors by hue regardless of how light and dark they are, then repeat in the same order with all the browns and grays. I've done that too.

For some bizarre reason Prismacolor is the only major artist brand that neither presharpens its pencils nor organizes them by hue. My Polychromos set came already organized by chromatic hue, first all the colors, then the browns and grays at the end with the light and dark versions interspersed by hue.

But the nice thing about it is that you can arrange them to suit yourself. If you use certain colors most and always do certain subjects, like landscapes, you may want the browns and greens up front with the blues next and then put all the bright light warm colors to the back. If you're focused on portraits maybe having all the earth tones and browns up front is the way to go.

It's very personal.

Also the process of doing it is always, always inspirational. When they get out of order I stop and sort them out again and in the process of doing so, handle all the colors again and get inspired to do something with them. When I get any new set it's the same way. So enjoy the process. There is no official list because too much of it is subjective -- is Goldenrod a yellow-gold earth tone to go with the browns or a bright yellow-gold to go with the yellows in the spectrum?

Think of it as freedom and personal expression. It'll also make you more familiar with the range and give you ideas for what to draw.

lovebird403 on October 08, 2009:

Hi again,

Thanks to your encouragement, I am now the proud owner of prismacolors!

I now have another question. Do you happen to have a link that shows how to colour categorize a 132 set of prismas? Like, I mean ordering the dark reds to light reds to dark oranges, to light oranges, e.t.c. If you have a list, I would be most thankful is you can post the URL. Thanks again!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 08, 2009:

Thank you! Someday you will. Buying your first set of Prismacolors is a huge step toward it because they function better than cheaper colored pencils for that style of realism. The 132 set is NOT too big. Notice how much cheaper they are per pencil in the big sets, especially on sale. Absolutely snap that up, $80 for the giant set is wonderful.

You will wear down individual colors a lot slower and find out fast which specific colors you do need to get in replacements often, for me that was Indigo and Tuscan Red and most of the greens but especially Dark Green.

Then get to a library and look for a good book on colored pencils realism. Arlene Steinberg, Ann Kullberg, Alyona Nickelsen, there are lots of good authors out there who have books on it. Most of them also include projects for which the author provided a detailed sketch and directions. These can help you learn so fast. The techniques of layering and burnishing and color blending all come through.

I really recommend Alyona Nickelsen's "Colored Pencil Painting Bible" as she has a great variety of good techniques with Prismacolors, but also anything by Gary Greene.

Something else to pick up on the side -- a colorless blender pencil and if you really want ease of use, also a colorless blender MARKER. The Prismacolor Colorless Blender Marker's solvent will blend Prismacolor colored pencils dissolving them like watersolubles, it's a quick clean way to get a flat underpainting and save yourself some trouble filling in white specks. The colorless blender pencil is good for burnishing over the top. Both are individual pencil or marker so they're pretty cheap.

Also get an electric pencil sharpener or borrow one because sharpening 132 pencils is going to give you blisters and wear out more than one sharpener blade. If you can't get an electric, buy several cheap new sharpeners with clean new blades and toss it at the first sign that the wood catches on the blade. It should be very easy to turn the pencil.

Electrics are much easier. For that all you need to do is grind down a normal HB graphite pencil (the cheap No. 2 ones) every dozen pencils to clean the colored wax out of it, the grinders are self sharpening. I've taken to using the electric a lot more since I bought it. A hand crank pencil sharpener that's not electric may work the same way and I'm considering one in order to go just a hair greener, use less electricity. I'll write a hub comparing them when I do.

lovebird403 on October 07, 2009:

Wow, your artwork is AMAZING! I am just about to buy my prismas, and I hope that I can create stuff even half as amazing as yours :)

Considering the fact that you have a lot f experience with rismas, do you think the 132 set is too big? I mean, even thoguh some of the colors are repetitive, its good because you don't have to buy replacements as soo. Also, I have to pay only $80 including shipping & handling for A BRAND NEW set. Do you think its worth it? I haven't used prismas before , but i heard they are really good.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on July 19, 2009:

Thank you! I'll remember that, see if I can do some more on color. I've been exploring it a lot this year in pastels and oil pastels and it's been amazing... leaps and bounds beyond what I was doing even with this Hub.

caticorina from Italy on July 19, 2009:

Your arts are..indeed know how to work with colors..i would love to see more hubs from you about how to use color..lovely works!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on July 18, 2009:

Ashley, if you can take a decent photo, you are halfway there to being a great realist. There are professionals who work by taking a great photo, cropping it to get the design right, then enlarge and trace it and transfer to the paper, then patiently start layering with colored pencils. Don't be afraid to trace from your photo to try it!

But do get real Prismacolors or Coloursoft or other artist grade colored pencils because it's much easier with the best pencils. Children's pencils don't have the same pigment depth so it takes three times the work to get half the result.

Ashley Joy on July 18, 2009:

These are some great pieces! I have always wished I could draw or paint but it is just not there for me. I can take a decent photo so I just live with doing that.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on July 06, 2009:

Yes, you should mat colored pencils paintings and frame them under glass. They're not like oil paintings that create a hard paint film you can varnish to protect. The other important thing is that at the very end you should give it a couple of light coats of workable matte fixative to prevent wax bloom. Prismacolors are one of the brands notoriously prone to it -- wait a few months and the painting looks paler and cloudy or grayed. But wipe it off gently with a soft rag and it's gone. If you seal it with fixative it just doesn't come up again.

Prismacolors come in 132 colors now, it's great. You can get the full range set fairly reasonably if you shop online, especially if you watch for discount coupons and seasonal sale catalogs.

lynne on July 06, 2009:

Beautiful work!!! I am just starting colored pencils. Love the many colors of the Prismacolors. Can you mat colored pencils? Love your frog also marbles look like you could pick them off the paper.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on July 01, 2009:

Thank you so much, Cam! I think you'll love your Prismacolors. They are so soft and rich, there is so much layering and color possible with them that they made all the student grade pencils I used before feel like they were faded. Prismacolors stand up well with other artist grade pencils and have a unique texture all their own.

Cam Anju from Stoughton, Wisconsin on July 01, 2009:

How pretty, I love your art on this, the marbles and the tree frog are my favorites! Your simply brill with Prisma colors, I just got mine and am leaning how to use them now. ^_^

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on June 29, 2009:

Thank you! Give it a try sometime, Prismacolors aren't that expensive and if you take your time, you can get wonderful effects.

Zabbella from NJ-USA on June 29, 2009:

Beautiful artwork. I liked the frog and marbles.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on June 04, 2009:

Thanks! It helps to get some of the good books available on Prismacolor realism. Masterful Color and Colored Pencil Painting Bible are both good for being able to learn how to see highlights exactly. They differ in how to render them -- Steinberg's methods are slower -- but they both focus on how to create a careful drawing at first. That's a big part of it -- mapping out exactly where the highlights are, the color and value shifts in detail. That's a key to realism in any medium and I might do another Hub on ways of doing that sometime. Or do an article on my oil pastels site on it preparing for a serious realism painting.

My daughter gave me a fragrance diffuser that I don't even want to unpack till I've drawn and painted it. The glass pyramid shaped bottle has a round clear glass stopper like a crystal ball. It's mounted in a clear plastic box with gold backing and has a row of pale yellow reeds that when you use it get put in the jar to spread the scent.

Looking at the reeds through the glass, the distortions are easily visible and show where the liquid is, what the shape of the glass is, plus the light creates bright highlights on the glass and dark things around reflect into it. I want to set that up to do it as a still life before unwrapping it because the layer of plastic rectangular box is yet another transparent reflective surface.

If I can get that one accurate, it should do a lot for explaining how realism works -- not just how to color that but how to look at a real object or good reference and make that sketched map for something in Extreme Realism.

When it's done from life it can look better than photorealism -- photorealists faithfully copy the camera's distortions and their work is closely related to how good they are as photographers. But doing it freehand gives you the chance to visually edit -- say, reduce the number of reeds to make it a bit less complex and still get the feel of it right so that it reads as true.

marisuewrites from USA on June 04, 2009:

This is You really know this!! Every single picture draws me into it...the marbles are lovely...the light!!! so much light and I know you said how to do it but I still don't know how to do it...but you did it!!! =))

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on May 27, 2009:

Thank you!

carolynn on May 24, 2009:

Great article! You have a lot of patience -- your colored pencil art is beautiful.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on May 21, 2009:

Thank you! Oh please do! Prismacolors are too much fun, they are insanely pleasant to use, all that layering gets such rich effects and there's nothing else quite like them no matter how many others I try.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on May 21, 2009:

Nice work.... especially the marbles. I love my Prismacolor pencils... may have to dig mine out again.