There seems to be a misunderstanding about colored pencils with a lot of people. They associate the term with crayola and work that appears to have been done with crayon. Certainly that is a look that some get with colored pencils, but like with any medium, skill and practice will take the artist a long way in what they can create. Using the right methods will give your finished piece the look of a painting instead of crayon.
Colored pencil does not blend like graphite. Your finer will not smudge the colors together. Instead you have to work in a series of VERY light layers to create depth, then blend with your choice of several methods. The main two methods used are either with a solvent of sorts (I use Mona Lisa Odorless paint thinner), or by burnishing.
I personally choose to blend my work with paint thinner. One thing to note is that while the brand I use is odorless, it is still toxic. I recommend leaving the lid on your pant thinner jar whenever you’re not actually using it to blend. I do have to add though that I am quite sensitive to all things toxic and that paint thinner has never caused any issue for me. I blend my paint thinner with a small amount on a synthetic brush. Usually a taklon filbert but occasionally I do use other types of brushes. I lay several layers of colored pencil down, then blend with the paint thinner, then add more layers. Rinse and repeat as needed. One of the added bonuses of using this method is that I’m not damaging my paper like I would were I to burnish. If you use much pressure with the pencil you will flatten out the paper tooth, making it more difficult (if not impossible depending on the severity of the damage) to continue layering. With the paint thinner I can layer endlessly. More layers equal more depth in most cases, so this is a great thing. If you’re working with a wax based pencil like prismacolor that gets the dreaded wax bloom, the paint thinner will lift much of this up allowing for more layering than you might have otherwise gotten.
Another method is to burnish. This is just a fancy word for applying a lot of pressure with either your pencil, or a colorless blender of some sort to get the colored pencil to blend. The main issues I have with this method are that it is REALLY hard on my hand and wrist. Especially when working large. It also flattens out the paper when you add that pressure so you limit yourself on how many layers you can do once you start to burnish. Burnishing is typically saved for the last step, but because of the way I work I like to go back and continue working after I’ve blended, so this isn’t ideal for me. That said, I usually do burnish my smaller and final details of each piece, especially when I want to lighten an area with white, but those are not usually very large.
I’ve made a video showing you exactly how I use these two methods and comparing the Prismacolor colorless blender, the Derwent colorless blender, the Derwent burnisher, and my preferred method of blending with odorless paint thinner. I’ve used both a wax based colored pencil, prismacolor premier, and the oil based Faber-Castell Polychromos for this tutorial.
One quick note, just because I get asked this a LOT. No, you can not blend wax or oil based colored pencils with water. Water does not mix with wax or oil 🙂