Art & Culture

Essential Materials For Starting Out In Coloured Pencils

Image of different types of pencils

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The immediacy and portability of coloured pencils make them a great starting point for many artists. Here I will be discussing the different types of coloured pencils and some of the essential equipment I use for my coloured pencil art and drawings.


Image of different types of pencils

What are the different types of pencils?

I use coloured pencils on a daily basis and while coloured pencils are relatively straightforward to understand, there are different types of coloured pencils that are suitable for specific styles or techniques.

Coloured pencils differ in quality as explained in one of my previous blog posts. Wax coloured pencils are much more prevalent than their counterparts which are oil based pencils. There is a school of thought that you shouldn’t use both together, but I use both together in my pet portrait commissions and I never have any issues. In fact, coloured pencils can be used in conjunction with all sorts of other media too such as acrylics, pastels and collage.

What are the differences between wax & oil pencils?

Both oil and wax pencils provide smooth, satin like finishes. As a general rule wax based pencils are usually softer in texture whereas oil based pencils tend to a harder structure.

Wax Pencils

Softer pencils mean that you can apply more layers with them and the pigment travels further across the paper. Layering is easier assuming you don’t press on too hard. You’ll find that wax based pencils burnish more naturally. Burnishing is a term to describe the tooth of the paper no longer showing through the coloured pencil layers. It brings out the shine of the pencils you’re using aka polishing. Applying your pencil work in layers will provide more depth and you can blend as you go. A good starting point for wax based pencils are Derwent Coloursoft or Derwent Chromaflow.

Image of Polychromos pencils

Oil Pencils

Oil based pencils last longer than wax based pencils and also keep a sharper point for longer. The sharp points are less likely to break. Oil based pencils are generally tougher, however, they are still prone to breakage if mishandled or dropped onto a hard surface. If they are expensive pencils, please be careful when using them especially if you make a living from your art. Broken pencils add up if not cared for. Oil based pencils tend to start to mix quicker when blending and layering. The colours tend to be much more vivid than wax based pencils. 

Most oil pencils have a degree of wax in the core. The result is that thick layers can be built up, whilst the lower ratio of wax means that the potential for ‘bloom’ is reduced. Bloom happens when the wax in a coloured pencil drawing rises to the top layer and results in what looks like a fine grey powder coating. This can happen in pencils with a high wax content. Oil based pencils include Derwent Lightfast, Caran D’Ache Luminance and Faber-Castell Polychromos which are sold as sets or individually.

In Summary

Ultimately some artists prefer wax based and others prefer oil based and artists like me prefer both. It’s up to the individual using them to decide.

The cost, availability and familiarity of wax based pencils are the main reasons why they are a good starting point. They are sold in sets usually starting at a set of 12, and some are available to buy individually. Picking colours individually sometimes works out better, for example, if you are drawing pet portraits and need a good range of browns.

Watercolour & Pastel pencils

Image of a watercolour pencil

Watercolour pencils are multi functional, use them dry like a normal coloured pencil, or wet where you have drawn to achieve watercolour effects. Usually a watercolour pencil has a brush symbol on the barrel of the pencil. Derwent Watercolour Pencils or Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer Pencils make good beginner’s sets.

Pastel pencils are a great addition to a pastel artists tool box. You are able to achieve finer details with it’s sharper point. Pastel pencils are quite fragile and care needs to be taken especially when sharpening. Specialist pastel pencil sharpeners have a shallower blade angle than normal pencil sharpeners so it’s gentler on the pencil. Some pastel pencil manufacturers do not recommend that you use a pencil sharpener and suggest the use of a blade or a stanley knife to sharpen them to a finer point.  Derwent Pastel Pencils or Faber-Castel PITT Artists’ Pastel Pencils are good options for beginners.

What is the best paper to use? 

I find paper is a tricky one to judge because this is one of the most personal things about how an artist works. I get advice on which papers I should use, or what papers other artists use, only to try it and not like it all. Paper has to be good quality, especially if you’re a professional artist and selling your work. There are a few things to look out for to understand what paper you’re getting and whether it’s right for you.

Image of different paper pads

There are so many different types, weights, smooth and rough. If you’re a coloured pencil artist you need what’s known as “tooth”. Tooth is essentially what grabs at the pigment, the more tooth then usually the rougher the paper is but also means you can layer more. You’ll find that smooth papers or ultra smooth papers known as “plate” have much less tooth and aren’t as easy to draw on unless you’re experienced. You can equate rough toothy paper to be like drawing on a type of sandpaper and the ultra smooth papers to be like drawing on glass. Usually a paper in-between these two are perfect, meaning it’s not so rough that your pencils get obliterated on them but not too smooth that you can’t layer. A good beginners choice of paper are Daler Rowney Medium Grain Drawing Pads or Strathmore Series 400 Drawing Medium Surface Paper Pad

Different paper types explained 

Rougher papers such as ‘rough’, ‘cold pressed’ or ‘not’ watercolour papers have a coarse texture to them if you glide your hand over them. Rougher paper is also ideal for pastel pencils as it holds onto the pastel pigments, meaning it’s less likely to smudge whilst you are working on it. It also enables you to add details you couldn’t achieve on smoother paper.

Smoother papers such as ‘hot pressed’ watercolour paper is the paper I use for my artwork. It’s smooth enough to draw on but has enough tooth to give me some texture and allow many details. I work on Arches Aquarelle Hot pressed. Arguably the best paper money can buy, Arches Cold Pressed paper is equally one of the best for watercolours too. Running your hand over this paper feels smooth but you can still feel the minimal amount of tooth that’s there. 

Plate or vellum papers are even smoother paper and as the name suggests it’s like drawing on a plate surface. Strathmore offer a plate paper with the Strathmore 500 line being top of the line. Running your hand over this paper is as smooth as it gets.

Image of different drawing pads

Does the weight of the paper matter?

Paper weight is measured in GSM. GSM stands for Grams per Square Metre. The larger the GSM then the thicker the paper is. For my coloured pencil work I use paper that is 300gsm. Papers can go from copier/printing paper which is usually in the 85-100 gsm range, all the way up to 1000gsm although that high a number is venturing into cardboard territory.

What does ‘archival’ mean?

Fine art papers are 100% acid free. This means that the paper won’t discolour, break down or “yellow” over time. Cheaper paper is more likely to yellow over time. Therefore, it’s vital you select the correct paper to draw/ paint on otherwise your work could be ruined.

It usually takes a long time for the paper to break down and discolour, sometimes many many years. Even acid free papers will likely break down over time without proper care. This happens over hundreds of years in contrast to cheaper papers which will break down in years. Archival papers should contain no groundwood or unbleached pulp. They need to meet strict limits on metallic content, and be free from optical brighteners used to whiten the sheet. You are able to tell if the paper is acid free as the paper will state on the cover that it is “acid free” and “archival”.

Other essential drawing materials 

A drafting brush is a fine brush which sweeps away any dust particles or pigment on the paper. Most artists use their hands to wipe away dust or pigment but this is more likely to leave a mark. Drafting brushes are designed to have ultra fine hairs to pick up the tiniest particles.

Image on a M&R pencil sharpener

Sharpeners come in many forms. A manual sharpener, such as this M&R Brass Bullet sharpener, is a good starting point. Many manufacturers now sell replacement blades for when your current blade gets blunt. Some sharpeners are also multi use where you can sharpen pencils of varying sizes such as this Jakar Trio Pencil Sharpener. Electric sharpeners are also an option but these are more expensive and not suited to everyone. Electric sharpeners have a cut off system which means they automatically stop once the pencil is sharpened.

Image of a Koh-i-noor putting rubber

Erasers also come in varying forms. Most erasers will be quite firm to the touch and require pressure to remove pencil marks or pigment from the paper. These erasers sometimes have a tendency to remove the tooth of the paper. If you are careless with them they can even dent or leave a hole in the paper. The other type of eraser is known as a knead-able eraser or putty eraser. You can mould this to any shape and it’s a beautiful tool to use if you want to remove pencil marks without removing any tooth of the paper. The kneadable eraser almost feels like a buttery and much softer version of blue tack.

You can even use blue tack as an eraser too !


Christopher Durant is a professional coloured pencil artist from South Yorkshire. He sells his prints and original artwork online. You can keep up to date with the latest updates from Christopher through his Facebook page.

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