A few thoughts about pencils, blending and burnishing

Hi all, and happy Thursday! I thought I would share some thoughts I had while responding to a friend through Etsy about colored pencils recently. Because who doesn’t like a few tips when it comes to working with colored pencils? Keep in mind that I am not an expert by any stretch, but these are a few tools and techniques that work well for me. And to illustrate my thoughts, I colored my Rocky Raccoon design (available on Etsy).

My friend is one of those lucky owners of the Holbein colored pencils. I have a few and it’s so tempting to order the complete set, however I desperately need new eye glasses so the Holbeins will have to wait. She reached out to me because she wanted to learn more about the Caran d’Ache Luminance pencils. In short, I love them! They are highly pigmented and opaque, and lay down on most types of paper very nicely.

Working on more toothy paper can make ‘white speckles’ appear in your coloring. Basically, it’s simply your pencil skipping over the little divots in the paper while sticking to the more raised bumps with textured paper. You can feel a paper’s texture with your fingers, and if you look at it with a magnifying lens, you can see all the little peaks and valleys of the paper’s fibers. You’ll see more of them in highly textured watercolor paper, and less in more smooth papers like certain Bristols and card stocks. A Prismacolor colorless blender pencil can help further blend your colors and get rid of those white spots that appear on more textured papers, and I also do a lot of burnishing with the Caran d’Ache Blender Bright stick (but more on that shortly).

Only the raccoon face and the right side of the limb is blended here (with the Prismacolor blender and a Blender Bright stick). You can see the white speckles from the tooth in the paper in some of the darker areas I colored, especially the tail and feet.

I have found that the Luminance pencils, combined with the Derwent Lightfast and the Derwent Drawing pencils, is a perfect combo. They work so nicely together, and the color range is gorgeous. They are all fairly earthy colors (which I tend to gravitate toward) and some brighter colors, too. These pencils are what I would call soft and highly responsive, though you can get a nice point on them for tighter areas and details. I typically use them for my base layers, then use the Tombow Irojiten pencils (which are quite hard and can be sharpened to a really sharp point) to add little details, extra color, and even burnish.

The few Holbeins I do have (thanks to another friend who sent me a lovely set of 12 pastels) work well with my Polychromos pencils (another perfect combo in my humble opinion) and I use the Irojitens with them for fine details and burnishing, too.

It’s taken me awhile to refine my approach to coloring and mixing pencils brands, but I think I have it down pretty well now for my tastes and coloring habits. Basically, I either use my Luminance, Lightfast and Drawing pencils together, or I use my Polychromos and Holbeins together. Do I prefer one grouping over the other? Difficult to say. I think the group I choose depends on my mood, though when working on black paper, I do prefer the Luminance, Lightfast and Drawing grouping because they are a bit softer and color over black paper more readily. And of course I still mix in other pencil brands as well including my tried and true Prismacolors and Pablos.

I know I have mentioned this before in other posts, but I find that smooth card stock sometimes needs a layer of watercolor pencils to give me a little extra tooth. I pick a few colors that will work well for my base layer, use a water brush to blend, let it dry thoroughly, then work with my colored pencils on top of the dried watercolor pencils. My favorites are the Faber-Castell Albrecht Durer and the Caran d’Ache Museums, though I love working with the Caran d’Ache Neocolor IIs, too. Lots of steps for coloring a design, I know, but I truly enjoy the process and am always pushing myself for better results.

Buying a set of the the Luminance pencils or the Derwent Lightfast pencils can be a bit daunting (for the old wallet) so if you think you would like to try any of these, order a few of your favorite (or most used) colors from Blick or Cult Pens first to see if you really like them before investing in the whole set. There are also a few places that carry single Holbein pencils, but buyer beware. I had emailed Holbein back in May with a few questions about their colors, color names, and where to find individual pencils and they responded with the following:

"The Holbein Colored Pencils are not available in North America yet as they currently present serious health concerns. A few of the colors can cause severe Chronic and Acute issues. They have been sold illegally by off shore retailers with no regard for Health labeling. The US and Canada have very strict regulations and these have been blatantly disregarded. We have advised those who write to return the pencils to the retailer who sold the pencils to them ....
The good news ... We will be launching the North American edition of the pencils by the end of the year. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the launch. You will be able to find them at all large US retailers in the months to come. For the record, your pastel set does not contain any of the invasive colors ... Rest easy!

So there you have it – Holbeins are coming to America! Not sure how they will compare to the pencils made in Japan, or if they will be available as singles, but I am very excited to find out and am saving my nickles.

UPDATE! Blick now carries the official Holbein pencils here in the USA!

As with any pencil brand, it takes time to get used to how it behaves on paper. Some pencils will feel natural and easy to use right away, while others require more time to adjust–and this is different for everyone. If you get new pencils and are not sure if you like them right away, play with them a while! It took me months to get a real feel for the Polychromos pencils after using only Prismacolors for years, and I had a similar experience with the Luminance. It took time, trial and error to really understand how to use them.

My three must haves? The Caran d’Ache Blender Bright stick, the Prismacolor Colorless Blender pencil, and the Caran d’Ache Buff Titanium pencil.

Luminance Buff Titanium, Blender Bright and Prismacolor Colourless Blender

I use the Buff Titanium to blend and soften my colors, the Prismacolor Blender to simply blend, and the Blender Bright to do a final burnish of my work. All three pencils work differently and will give you different results, though they can be hard to distinguish at first.

Raccoon drawn and colored by S. Carlson (Ruby Charm Colors) © 2020

To illustrate my thoughts on these blenders, here is a sneak peek at a raccoon I recently drew and colored. This little guy will be in the 2021 Creative Companion (and is now on Etsy as a downloadable PDF for coloring), but I used all three types of blenders to achieve the results I wanted.

First, I started with Luminance, Drawing and Lightfast pencils for my layers, then Irojiten pencils to draw in the additional background details (the little cloud shapes in the top half, the scribbles on the tree bark, and the green vines for the bottom half).

Once I had all my colors down, I used the Prismacolor Blender pencil to fine-tune areas that needed blending. This pencil “squishes” or rubs the pigments together on the paper without creating a sheen. In fact, it’s sort of like using super-super-fine sandpaper and retains a matte appearance. Don’t overdo it, though–blend with this pencil too forcefully and you can lose some of the pigment on your paper or rip a hole in it.

For the sun and the clouds, I used the Buff Titanium pencil (which is not technically a blender but I like to use it as such) because it has a faint yellowish cast (almost antique) and it really softens my colors.

For everything else, I used the Caran d’Ache Blender Bright which is a grayish, solid stick of high quality wax. It can be sharpened with any old pencil sharpener or blade so you have a fine point, or you can turn it sideways and use one of the flat sides to burnish large areas since there is no casing around the stick. One of the big reasons I love the Blender Bright is because in addition to intensifying my colors, it also creates a bit of a sheen and protects my art from UV light and water. It’s not necessary for a lot of colorings done just for fun, but since I sell some of my original colored pencil artworks, I want to be sure those pieces won’t fade.

Burnishing with the Blender Bright brings up the saturation level of the colors and essentially ‘locks them in’ under a smooth layer of wax. This is ideal for me because I use a lot of gel pens for embellishments. Because of that nice, impermeable burnished surface, the gel pens stay on top of the art and don’t soak into the paper so I get cleaner, sharper dots, lines and squiggles. This also means it takes a little longer for the gel to dry (because it essentially floats on the surface), but if you have a heat gun, just run it over your work on low for a minute and that usually does the trick. Just don’t let the heat get too close to your work or you can burn it. And that can be heart-breaking.

Don’t burnish anything until you have all your colors down–once burnished, it’s nearly impossible to add any more pencil layers because burnishing literally smashes all the tooth of your paper–compresses it down to a slick, flat surface. That’s why the colors look more saturated. Once burnished, the only thing I can add is gel pens, acrylic paint and Pitt pen (or other fine, opaque pens).

If you are anxious to burnish certain areas of your coloring (I get ahead of myself all to often), be especially careful when burnishing colors next to empty spaces that you plan to color (or add more color to). Especially with the Blender Bright because it lays down a layer of wax that is nearly impossible to color over. In theory, you could use a workable fixative spray over the burnished areas to add more pencil layers, but I have not tried that myself. I rarely use sprays since my studio is very small and am not too keen on asphyxiating myself.

When you have a little time, grab some scrap paper and give these techniques a try to get a feel for how they will work for you. I messed up a lot at first, but once I realized the steps (basic pencil base layers first, blending, finer details, burnishing, then gels if you like) I started to have so much fun and started to see much better results in my coloring. Burnishing is not for everyone (it is especially hard on your hands) but it can be very helpful to use a blender.

Hope this helps a bit, and as always, happy coloring! I am off to watch my daughter play some volleyball!