Linda Livingston writes:  I am new to colored pencil. My first love has always been graphite, so adding color is challenging me. I need some help. I’ve been reading some books, watching youTube videos, downloaded some tutorials, craftsy classes, etc., but some of that depends on who you watch and what materials they’re using. So I could use some advice. I have a good understanding of color and color theory, what I need is practical application help. Are Polychromos and Prismacolors laid down differently? I know that Poly’s are oil and Prisma’s are wax, and I’ve read that it’s best to use the Poly’s first and then finish with the Prisma’s. True? Do any of you mix them? What about working dark to light versus light to dark? I’ve read about using greys, browns, or complementary colors for shadow areas versus some using just a darker shade of the color and gradually building up shadows that way. It seems to me that when I use a lighter color of the Poly’s first, that they act as a resist to the darker color. For example, yellow and then green. I don’t notice this as much with the Prisma’s, but it does the same thing. Sorry for the long post, but I don’t want to give up on colored pencil. I appreciate any help/guidance you all can give me. Thank you!

Today’s question came from a colored pencil group. I started to answer there and realized it would make for a great Q&A video because I think Linda’s questions are ones many artists new to colored pencil have.

I wan’t to start off by saying that videos and classes are great, but for most artists, it’s going to be better if you spend more time drawing than you do watching videos and lessons. That’s not to say that you should stop those things, not at all…but don’t swamp yourself. Every artist is going to have a different way of doing things. That doesn’t mean one is right or wrong, you just have to figure out what works best for you. The problem is, if you’re not spending enough time drawing yourself and you have all of these tips from 20 different artists flying in at you at once when you do sit down to create, you will get overwhelmed.

I recommend focusing on one artist’s way of working at a time. Once you complete a project using their methods, THEN try another artist’s tutorial or tips. Some don’t work well with each other. Once you try a project and really focus on how that artist is teaching you, don’t feel you always have to do things that way. You can take the parts you liked from each artist and apply it to your own way of working, but trying to combine them all at once while you’re still new will be a very frustrating experience.

Polychromos Mixed with Prismacolor 

While everyone knows I no longer use prismacolor, they are going to be similar to how I use Luminance. They are wax based and more opaque than the Polychromos. Deciding which to use first and how to lay them down depends on a few factors.

  1. Color  Sometimes I choose one pencil over another based purely on which color I need. One set may have the perfect brown that the other doesn’t for example. In that case, it makes little difference to me if it’s wax or oil based, I’m going to use the color I need.
  2. Opacity Polychromos are oil based, they are more translucent than their wax based counterparts. This is great for layering and getting a lot of depth. I like the polychromos best for dark areas because of this. When I need a lighter color to show up over a dark area I will always reach for my wax based Luminance (prismacolor in your case). I almost never use my polychromos white or cream colors. They are just too translucent and don’t show up like a Luminance or Prisma in the same color will.
  3. Detail When I want very fine detail and the above situations do not apply, I will reach for my Polychromos. These have a harder lead that sharpen to a super fine point without breaking. I can get such amazing sharp detail with them. Luminance gets better detail in comparison to Prismacolor (prismas break and crumble if you sharpen them to too fine of a point), but still I lean towards my Polychromos either way.

This may seem like a lot of factors to consider when you just want to sit down and draw, but after completing a few pieces which you choose will start to come naturally. You wont even have to think about it. They all play very nicely together…as long as you aren’t burnishing too soon (pushing hard with the pencil and flattening the tooth of the paper). Prismacolor having the wax bloom will make it especially difficult to get layers on top, no matter which type of pencil you’re using with them, if you’ve got too many layers or if you’re burnishing. Other than that, you can play around with them to see how it looks when you put one over the other. You will get different effects but it’s not a “one is right and one is wrong” situation.

Dark to Light or Light to Dark

This is a totally situational thing. More often than not I work light to dark…but there are times when it makes more sense for what I’m working on to do the opposite. If I want my whites to be super white, I’m going to apply white with my wax based pencil to that area first. This protects the paper from the darks taking over that area.

There are times when I’m drawing feathers that are black and grey where I will put the darks down first, then go over them with one of my lighter wax based pencils for the highlights or details. This works especially well for me because of how I blend. Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits allows me to maintain the tooth of my paper so that the lighter colors have something to stick to. If I used a smoother paper like Bristol Vellum, that technique wouldn’t work as well. There would be nothing for the lighter colors to stick to enough for them to really show up.


Every artist has their favorite tools. I don’t recommend trying them all at once. Pick an artist who is creating work in a style that you want yours to look like. Find out what materials they are using. Use JUST those for a project or two before trying other tools.

When I was about ready to give up on colored pencil because I was sick of breaking prismas, I contacted artist Alan Woollett. He was drawing these amazing flamingos (and we all know my obsession with flamingos) that were exactly what I wanted to achieve. Sure, a LOT of that was skill (I suspect he could make an awesome flamingo piece with sugar and food coloring), but I wanted to at least try the tools he was using. I knew I wasn’t getting that look with my prismas.

After buying the Polychromos and Fabriano Artistico HP watercolor paper that Allan uses, I completed a few projects using those tools. I found that I still wanted my opaque colors from Prisma so I ordered a white Luminance to try out. I would not have known that this was something I really wanted if I hadn’t used the polychromos by themselves first. I had to experience that to know that I needed something else. I liked my white Luminance so much that I then got a few more, then the full set. Clearly I did not stick with just the tools Allan uses. I use different pencils, paper and blending methods, but this gave me a foundation to start with.

When I got the full set of Luminance I did a project with those alone. This gave me a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. If I had just jumped in and started mixing them with my other pencils, I wouldn’t have really known which I liked better for which effect. I had to experience it. Try those shoes on and walk around in them before you decide if you need new insoles or special socks to go with them. If you don’t experience it, you won’t know what will work best for you.

Paper is the same thing. I started with Bristol Vellum, so I knew very well what I did and didn’t like about that paper. When I moved to Fabriano Artistico HP watercolor paper the difference was quite obvious to me. Had I not had so much experience with the Bristol Vellum, I wouldn’t have noticed the difference so much. I worked on the Fabriano for quite a while before I gave the Stonehenge a try. Now, because of all of my experience with the Fabriano, I was clearly able to see what I liked and disliked about the Stonehenge. This allowed me to be able to choose which paper was going to work best for which project. If I was bouncing all over the place from paper to paper it would have been a lot harder for me to really see the differences and decide which I truly liked best for which project.


When you’re starting, limit what advice you are trying to absorb. Take a little here and there but not all at once or it will make you feel like you’re drowning in information!