One of my favorite sketching techniques is roughly painting with gouache first, refining it, and adding textures with colored pencils. After doing a few workshops and creating my first two Skillshare classes on this technique, "Working with Gouache & Colored Pencils: Let's Draw Some Homes!" and "Draw with Me: Expressive Sketching with Gouache & Colored Pencils", I noticed that my students also loved it and wanted to learn more about it. And, of course, there will be more classes where we will explore these two beautiful mediums and how to combine them in the most beautiful and engaging way.
But now I want to answer the question that I've got so many times from my students that I thought, I need to explain everything well once and forever! The question is about my favorite colored pencils or colored pencils that I would suggest using with gouache.
So, let's talk about it...
First, I have to say that choosing colored pencils for sketching is something different from choosing them for techniques colored pencils artists use. Sketching requires a smaller amount of pencils because we don't need to create complicated gradients and blendings, which is, of course, good news! At the same time, it is still essential that you understand what characteristics are important for pencils. So that they really make a valuable contribution to your sketches.
Cheap or Expensive
I think that the price of drawing materials matters to most of us. Especially if you are a beginning artist, you don't want to spend a lot of money on the materials if you don't even know drawing is something you do. So, what you need to know about colored pencils regarding the price is that there are three groups - budget pencils (made for children and non-artistic purposes like coloring books, etc.), student-grade, and professional-grade pencils. They all have their own price range (from cheapest to the most expensive), quality, and usability.
As a professional artist, I prefer to buy expensive tools and materials. Caran d'Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast are my favorites at this moment. It doesn't mean you should buy them too, but I want to explain the difference between cheap and expensive pencils so you can make a better choice.
First, a lot of budget and some of the student-grade pencils are made from poor quality wood, which makes them very vulnerable to breaking. They are difficult to sharpen, and once they roll off your desk, the entire pencil lead might be broken inside, so you have to throw the pencil away. Not that cheap at all in the end.
Second, professional-grade pencils have more pigment and less binder, which makes them appear more vibrant.
And third, less evident for a beginning artist is that professional-grade pencils have richer and more unusual colors. You maybe wouldn't notice the difference when you look at pencils in an art store or on a web page where they all look like candies, but it gets obvious when you test them next to each other.
Now, I don't have all the brands in the world to compare and tell you what the best pencils are and what you should absolutely avoid. So, before I started to write this article, I'd done research on the internet. And what I noticed is that some brands label their student-grade as professional-grade pencils. Probably it sells better then. Usually, they are cheaper than real professional-grade pencils. Still, it makes it impossible to compare student- and professional-grade, so I will do something different. I will demonstrate the difference between a few ones I have and frequently use in my sketches in the examples below. All of them are great for their own use. So, this is not a comparison of different brands, grades, and qualities but a demonstration of the characteristics that you need to keep in mind when buying new pencils.
Color intensity (the brightness or dullness of a color): If you want to make bright and cheerful sketches, you need to use bright and cheerful colors. In this example, we can clearly see that the colors on the right look quite pretty, but they are a bit dull. It doesn't mean these are bad colors, and we can't use them in our drawings, but they wouldn't pop as much as the ones on the left. However, they can work great as additional colors.
Color intensity on gouache: what is also important to keep in mind is how colors appear on gouache depending on their intensity. In the example below, you can see that the green on the left is much more intense, especially on darker colors than the green on the left. The more intense green makes the underlying color shine, while the less intense green makes it look dull and boring. It's especially evident with dark blue.
Color richness: I don't know if it's the right word to describe what I mean, but if you look at the artworks of your favorite artist and you wonder why their colors and artworks look so pretty, lively, and bright, it's probably because they use rich colors. These colors are more complex, subtle, and deep. And while color intensity has less to do with the price (there are a lot of very bright student-grade pencils), the more expensive professional-grade pencils have richer colors. My favorite Caran d'Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast are pretty pricy, but I've never seen such unique colors like theirs cheaper.
Textures: I don't have very hard colored pencils, only graphite pencils, but it works the same. The rule is: the softer the pencils, the more texture they create on paper. So, harder pencils are great for very subtle and detailed sketching with hatching and many delicate lines. But are not suited to loose, rough, colorful sketches where textures play a prominent role.
I would almost say the softer, the better, but I've tried to use pastel pencils in my sketches and found them a bit too soft, especially when I wanted to draw a firm line. Another disadvantage of pastel pencils is that they smudge very quickly, so you need to use a hair spray or a fixative to keep them in place. I frequently draw on location and prefer to bring along as little as possible. If this is not an issue, it might be a good idea to try them, keeping in mind that most pastel pencils have pale colors. At the same time, they appear the best on a dark gouache layer.
Another thing I noticed is that some pencils create a lovely texture on paper but get quite flat on gouache, like this green on the left.
How to choose colors?
You can buy a set. The larger the set, the more likely it will contain all the colors you need. But it will also contain a lot of colors you will never use, which is for me the main reason to buy individual pencils instead of sets. Yes, you need some time to do the research and to think about what you need, but in the end, you buy only colors that you will use. It can save you a lot of money, and if you know why you bought certain colors, you will use them much more consciously and create better artworks.
So, the question is: how to choose individual colors? Before you even start to google or go to your art store, ask yourself three questions:
1. What is your drawing style, or what colors do you like the most?
Imagine you like pastel gouache colors, subtle details, and not too much contrast in your sketches. Then less intense colors will be a better choice, while the color richness might play a more significant role. From the pencils I have, I would choose Faber-Castell's Polychromos. They have really lovely colors. At the same time, they barely pop on dark gouache, but it doesn't matter if you use soft gouache colors.
If you like bright, vivid, and eye-catching colors, as I do, it's essential to choose intense colors. If you're a beginning artist and you don't care that much about the richness of colors, you can buy a set of student-grade (watercolor) pencils from Winsor & Newton. These are quite intense and inexpensive colored pencils (you can only buy them in sets, by the way). The watercolor version is a bit softer, allowing you to create beautiful textures, but they don't pop on gouache that much. Caran d'Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast are very bright and vivid, have gorgeous colors, and appear perfectly on gouache, making the underlying color look more beautiful too.
2. What colors are you going to use the most?
This is about the colors of objects you're planning to draw. For instance, if you're an urban sketcher who lives in a big city with many skyscrapers made of concrete, you need another color palette than someone who lives and draws in a small town somewhere in Italy surrounded by old yellow and orange houses with red roofs. If you draw people, you need different tones for the skin. If you draw landscapes, you need a few different greens to make your greenery lively and engaging. This is something you need to research, think about, and decide for yourself.
3. How extensive do you want your palette to be?
For instance, you can choose just one, two, or three lovely colors only to refine your sketch and make it more special. This is a great way to try out a new brand or collection.
Another option is to choose a few colors you love the most and buy them in pairs or sets of three.
How does it work in practice? For instance, I want to have three blue tones - one for light parts, one for mid-tones, and one for shadows. I can buy three random blues I like and hope they would suit each other in the most fantastic way, but there is a big chance they wouldn't. I often see beginner artists make poor choices, which results in less harmonious and, therefore, less engaging artworks.
Okay, but how to make the right choice? Here is my way of choosing colors for the technique I love the most and demonstrate in my classes. It's difficult to talk about the temperature (cool and warm colors) between variants of the same color without explaining the whole Color Theory, but I will try.
Watch my class, "Drawing With a Limited Palette: Color Theory in Practice" if you want to know how it works or just google "warm and cool undertones in art."
Imagine, I like Cobalt Blue on the right and want it in my color range. It's a neutral color with just a subtle warm undertone (if you look very carefully at the picture below, you will see a bit of purple in it). So, I choose three blues with the most similar undertone - light, medium, and dark. Or only light and dark tones, for instance. If these pencils represent all your blues, it will be more than enough in the beginning.
If you look at the next example, you can clearly see that the third blue suit the first two much better than the fourth one (with a greenish undertone) and the fifth one (with a much harder purple undertone). It's a safe choice that will make your artworks look pretty. It doesn't mean we can't use blues with different undertones in our sketches. I do it all the time. But if you're a beginning artist, make it easier for yourself. Later, when you get the hang of the color theory and start seeing beautiful combinations yourself, buying matching colors will be a piece of cake.
The same is for yellow, orange, and red. But here, it's a bit more complicated because we have warm and cool yellows - the warm looks like the sun and the cool like a lemon. We also have warm and cool reds - warm orange-red and cool magenta, but there is no such thing as cool orange. This is why I often put the warm colors in one group and make separate groups for cool yellows and reds.
And if you're wondering where is the yellow row here, it's the first one. The cool green represents its medium and dark tones. It becomes very obvious if you think of colors you will choose for drawing a lemon.
The last thing I want to explain is about choosing greens. I also get a lot of questions on that and see beginners use it in the wrong way. So, I would suggest using exactly the same method as I explained before for drawing green objects. Try to make (imaginary) rows of cool and warm greens.
In this example, even if you have no idea what warm and cool colors are, you can clearly see that greens in the second row look a bit blueish and create a good harmony with each other. The greens from the first row suit each other a little bit less in the photograph, but in reality, they are also a good combination because they all have a warm undertone.
But I wouldn't use this method very strictly for drawing greenery because every tree, bush, and plant has its own color palette. And especially when we draw a few of them next to each other, we need to use a variety of greens to prevent our drawing from looking boring. The only tip I want to give you about greenery: don't use cool greens as your main greenery colors. Depending on where you live, of course, most of the greenery you draw has the colors from the first row - fresh and lively. Coniferous trees and some plants are cool green, but not grass, for example. Use the colors from the second row only as additional colors for greenery, for shadows, or if you're sure that the greenery you draw really has that cool color. You can make it look livelier by adding cool yellow on light parts.
Summary and Tips:
I wrote this article to help you make your own choices, not tell you what colors you should buy exactly because I'm convinced that choosing colors for your sketches is a personal thing, something that makes your artworks so unique. It depends on what style you have or like, what colors do you think to use the most, and how extensive do you want your palette to be. I think you now know enough to make your choices.
Still, if you're a complete beginner or you find this all too complicated, just buy a good set of student-grade colored pencils like Winsor & Newton's watercolor or colored pencils (not expensive, lovely colors) or more fancy Faber-Castell's Polychromos (wonderful colors, not very intense, but really great for exploring colored pencil sketching).
If you already have some experience with colored pencils, you know you will use them a lot, and you want to enrich your artworks, I would recommend you buy individual colors of more expensive brands. Caran d'Ache Luminance and Derwent Lightfast are quite similar and are fantastic for more rough sketching, especially in combination with gouache (you can also combine them with markers or watercolor, by the way). No matter what brand you choose, I recommend starting with a small collection and building it out. For instance, buy only warm tones of yellow, red, blue, green, and brown. Next time you want to buy some pencils, you will know what you miss.
Also, note that you can combine different brands in your sketches. For example, some student-grade pencils have great vibrant colors. Maybe these colors are less rich, or their textures are less present, but in combination with more expensive colors, you will be able to create great artworks.
So, this is all I wanted to share with you about colored pencils for sketching. It's my first article about materials, so I'll be happy to hear what you think. Let me know in the comments below if you liked it, if you have any suggestions and if you'd like to see more of this kind of article with other materials.
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