how to shade with colored pencils

7 Tips On How To Shade With Colored Pencils Better

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Whether it’s with quality colored pencils or even oil paints, a nice and natural looking shade in your artwork can bring instant dimension and depth to your subject.

Shading sounds easy, but even this Deviant Art thread demonstrates how those comfortable in a medium (in the artists case it was digital), can be really tough to do.

Today we want to focus on how you can get a bit better control from your colored pencils to create seamless shades and hues.

Not only will we go over a few basic rules that you can apply immediately, but we will also teach you a few tips and tricks that professional colored pencil artists love to use (and one of the many reasons why their artwork always stands out).

So, let’s get started on exploring how you can get much better when shading with colored pencils:

Life Is Not Black & White

black and white color wheel

We have all heard the expression “life is not black & white” used in numerous applications.

However, when it comes to capturing subjects with traditional mediums such as colored pencils, this rings true.

Pure black and pure white are some of the worse colors that you can use in your drawings – simply because they can really “flatten” out a piece.

Not much in our life (other than perhaps digital screens) are things ever truly black and truly white.

Instead, if you look closely, they are subtly tinted.

When it comes to drawing with your colored pencils, you will want to respect this natural occurrence in nature.

So, when shading, don’t just take black and place it down on the paper and try to blend it in with the color you are using.

Instead, take a look at the color wheel and look for monochromatic colors when finding the right one that you should be shading with.

While the scope of today’s article isn’t talk about book recommendations, we do find that this book by Patti Mollica is great for getting a bit deeper of an understanding on color selection and theory.

Wide Set Barrel vs. Fine Tip

drawing with colored pencils

When it comes to the tip of your pencil, many novice artists simply use a standard scholastic sharpener to form a tip.

However, quality pencil sharpeners that are designed for colored pencils will contain two chambers to sharpen your pencil.

The reason for this is that you can choose between either a wide set lead core or one that will sharpen to a fine point.

As you are likely thinking – a wider set point will have much beefier strokes and will be perfect for laying down an initial base coat for shading.

Of course, this effect is amplified when you simply hold the pencil tip on its side to expose more of the lead to the paper.


One unique property about colored pencils that artists love is the ability to burnish their drawing.

Burnish is the act of polishing your piece through the use of a colorless blenders.

While we talked a bit about colorless blenders in our recent colored pencil techniques post, just know this:

Colorless blenders are simply just colored pencils that are absent of any pigment.

One important note here is that should you use a colorless blender to create additional shade in your drawing, you will want to make sure that you get one that is the same brand as your colored pencils.

Going off-brand is not advised as it will not have the same consistency of wax/oil that is found in your colored pencils and will create less than desirable results.

Just be sure that you do this on paper that was made for colored pencils as it will have a better weight and tooth to support the abuse.

Pressure Shading

One of the easiest ways to shade with colored pencils is by simply pressure shading – likely what you are doing already.

To pressure shade, just adjust the weight of the stroke to make the marks appear anywhere from super fine to super wide.

It’s recommended that when you do this type of shading, do it from your shoulder rather than just your wrist.

This will generate much neater and straight lines in your artwork (drawing from your wrist is great for the fine details but is prone to slightly curved lines happening).

Hatching & Cross Hatching

Hatching and cross hatching are two simple ways to create the appearance of shading without having to worry about doing any intense blends or gradients.

Hatches are just simply parallel lines on the surface that can be wide or fine set to emphasize shade tone.

Cross hatching, much like simple hatches, are just overlaying hatches at various angles.

This makes the shades appear much darker and is a great way to generate some contrast in your artwork.

Solvent Shading

gamsol for cleaning oil brushes

One of my favorite ways to make shades with colored pencils is through the use of solvents.

I don’t know if it was due to the fact that I had a knack for chemistry as a child, or that I just like the end results much better (perhaps a bit of both).

But when it comes to shading with colored pencils, the right solvent can quite literally dissolve the blender in your colored pencil and allow the pigment to mix harmoniously together.

Through solvents you get much smoother blends, which of course translates to much more subtle shades.

But when it comes to solvents, you really need to pay attention.

One particular solvent will not work for all colored pencils.

While its often exclaimed in some YouTube tutorials and blogs to simply use baby oil or rubbing alcohol, this always isn’t the best pick.

Depending on the type of colored pencil you have, you will want to pick the appropriate solvent.

Wax-based colored pencils (i.e. Derwent, Prismacolor, Crayola, etc.) should be used with xylene for best results.

While sure, baby and mineral oils may work – they are just simply not as effective as xylene.

For those few artists reading that have a set of Faber-Castell Polychromos, LYRA Polycolor’s or similar pencils with oil-based cores will want to use a different solvent.

If you have a background in oil pastels or oil paints, then you know that odorerless mineral spirts or turpentine will be perfect for this.

These solvents will break down the oil within the colored pencils to create beautiful shades.

Just be sure that you go with an artist grade odorless mineral spirits like Gamsol (pictured above) as it will be absent of any of the impurities or strong odors commonly found in hardware store brands.

Practice Shading

Naturally when it comes to any technique or application in art, practice is the most important factor to getting better.

To help see results, we strongly recommend that you practice regularly and with the same colored pencils and paper.

As you have learned above, colored pencil composition and paper tooth and texture can vary greatly from one brand to another.

Trying to practice how to shade with your colored pencils across a variety of surfaces will be notoriously tough to master.

When you keep all other things constant (supply speaking), you can see how your artistic abilities improve throughout time.

In addition, we also recommend that you date everything.

This can really build your confidence as an artist when you can compare your abilities in shading on a week-over-week and even month-over-month basis.

Whatever you do, just don’t let your art supplies gather dust between sessions!

If you miss a day or two – no big deal, get back in the studio and continue where you left off.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important factor, never forget to have fun while making art!

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