This picture only used four pencils—the colors swatched above.
|Fruit still life. The subject used three pencils, the table used another.|
This was neither difficult nor over-challenging, as long as you know color theory in terms of color mixing, especially complements. The shading here was rarely achieved by only changing pressure, much less the different tones.
The following picture used only two pencils: ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, with burnishing provided by a white pencil and a truly colorless blender:
|Crashing waves from two colors.|
And for those who say that skin tones can only be achieved through buying portrait pencils or pencils within skin tone ranges: this is not true either. Figuring out the right color mix can be challenging, but since every person and lighting situation brings a variety of unique shade mixes, this is the only way to capture what is actually there—whether or not you weigh value before color.
Here is a very light skin tone using only the 18-color set:
|Very light skin tone achieved by careful layering of light olive, orange, yellow, and purple; then burnished with white.|
Skin tones, even for a pure value study and/or dark skin, are complex. Layering is necessary to add depth—look closely at your face in a well-lit selfie, or your hand against a window. The complexity of color layering for skin is the result of subsurface scattering—layers of tissue and the light bouncing around them.
Experimentation and play are vital stages in learning to mix colors—no matter the medium. The masters of dry media in the past never depended on 100+ color sets.
In particular, mix both tertiaries (orange, violet, green) and complements (browns and grays), even if shades of each come with your set. A lime green resulting from layering yellow and green in alternation will have more depth than a single lime green pencil.
Alter how many layers of each color are in a mix. Try two, three, even more colors. Learn how to use complement logic to soften the brightness of a color.
Record your results for future reference—and with further projects you will find your personal favorite go-to mixes.
Yes, this experimentation is play and not working towards a specific finished piece—most of art is about play. This is the unseen underpinning of knowing art deeply.
How many pencils is decent for a minimal color pencil set? Above 12, usually, and below 36. Go for quality, not quantity—in other words, transparent colors that layer well. Faber-Castell Polychromos or Caran d'Ache Pablo are good to start with.
A white pencil to burnish is recommended for a final stage that lightens your base layers. A truly colorless blender (like the Caran d'Ache bright) is helpful to deepen base layer colors. Other color pencils may burnish as well, for different effects.
As well, pressure control is as vital for colored pencil as moisture control is for watercolors.
Finally, learn patience. Using colored pencils with a goal towards depth of color will always take time, whether you have 10 pencils or 1000, because layering needs care and consideration.
Excellent art takes time, no matter the medium: digital, ink, paints, pencils. Persevere through failure and effort, and you will be rewarded with knowledge and satisfaction of a job well done.
Ava Jarvis is an ink and watercolor artist with a portfolio site at avajarvisart.com. If you found this post useful, consider a one-time tip or supporting Ava on Patreon.