The ultimate guide to colouring pencils

Colouring pencils are a colourist’s bread and butter. They’re affordable, incredibly versatile and varied, and easy to get hold of in most craft shops and online. So it’s important for us to understand this colouring tool, how we can use it, and all the different options, which is what we explore in this ultimate guide to colouring pencils!

What is a colouring pencil?

A colouring pencil is made up of two parts, the pigmented core and the wood casing. The pigmented core is the most important part as this is the actual ‘colour’ that you will colour with.

The pigmented core is at the centre of the pencil and is held together by a binder. This binder has an effect on the finish of your colouring. The three different types of binders in a coloured pencil are wax-based binders, gum-based binders or oil-based. Wax binders are the most common in coloured pencils and can be layered on your paper easily. Blending and mixing colours is also achievable with a wax-binder. One thing to be careful of is that the core of wax-based pencils is easily broken, so make sure you don’t drop them!

Oil-based pencils are usually more resistant to breaking than wax-based, and they’re water-resistant. You are still able to blend and mix colours with an oil-based pencil, but it may be easier with a wax-based pencil.

Gum-based binders are only found in watercolour pencils, which is a completely different type of pencil to a wax-based or oil-based pencil. The colour of a gum-based pencil is activated when it comes into contact with water. This means that the techniques for using these pencils are completely different to those used with wax-based and oil-based pencils.

Colouring pencils


Other colouring supplies you’ll use with colouring pencils

Colouring pencils often need to be used alongside other colouring supplies. Specifically, you’ll definitely need a good pencil sharpener! You may also want to invest in a high quality rubber or eraser, which can help with reversing mistakes and using more complex colouring techniques.

What are watercolour pencils?

Watercolour pencils contain a water-soluble binder that allows them to replicate a beautiful watercolour textures with added detail, and the extra control of using a pencil over brushes. They work very differently to other types of colouring pencils, so if you’re interested in learning more, read our ultimate guide to watercolour pencils.

What is a wax bloom?

If you’ve ever coloured a design and come back to it a few days later to find a white, waxy film over it, that’s wax bloom (also known as efflorescence). Wax bloom isn’t down to incorrect technique or poor quality pencils and thankfully is easy to fix.

It happens because of the wax binder in the pencils. The material in the pencils settles on the surface and the wax binder rises to the surface of the drawing. It’s most common in heavily layered drawings and some brands of coloured pencils are more wax-heavy than others which will make them more likely to have a wax bloom.

How to remove wax bloom

Removing a wax bloom is easy, using a soft cloth will usually do the job just make sure you don’t press down too hard (you could remove some of the pigment too). Use a light swiping motion to remove the wax bloom, you may also use a q-tip instead of a cloth if you’re particularly worried about removing pigment.

Rather than removing the wax bloom, you can prevent it from happening in the first place. Using a coloured pencil fixative will stop the wax bloom from appearing. They come in an aerosol can and you apply it to your colouring using quick sweeping sprays. Make sure to do a test spray before you apply to your colouring. It is also recommended that you do a test sheet with the colours used in your colouring and spray the fixative on that before your colouring. This makes sure that the colours aren’t altered in a way that you don’t like.

Colouring pencils

How to use colouring pencils

If you are looking to improve your colouring pencil skills, let’s take a little look at some techniques you can use!

Applying colour

Colour using small circles, long ovals or zigzag lines (which create a more uneven finish). Colour in different directions to create a smooth, flat finish so the strokes don’t show. Start with long ovals, then a final layer of short circles if necessary. For hair or fur, use directional strokes.


This is how hard you press the pencil onto the paper. Use more pressure to create more saturated tones, and less pressure for lighter tones. You can also create a medium tone by using light pressure to add several layers. Light pressure is the best way to start off for your base when layering colours.


This is colouring the same or different colours on top of each other. Use a light pressure and build up your colours gradually, combining pressure with layering get a creating realistic shading and vibrant colours.


This is the transition of one colour to another. Use a mixture of layering and pressure to blend colours.


This is when you rub over the top of a finished area of colouring with a colourless burnishing pencil to push the colour into the grain of the paper, removing the visible texture. It also reduces smudging. You can also blend using a blending pencil, paper stumps, a colourless solvent, a solvent pen or one of the lighter shades you have used for that area. Don’t use a light coloured pencil over the darker shadows though as it affects the colour, making it milky-looking and less vibrant. Instead switch to the mid-colour pencil you’ve used in that area to burnish the shadow areas.

Choosing a light source

Choose a light source and keep it consistent through your design – imagine how that light would effect each element of the design when colouring it. In doing so, it helps you determine where to add your highlights and shadows to create a realistic look. Dark purples, blues, greens, browns or greys all create effective shadows, giving slightly different affects, so do experiment.

There are lots more colouring pencil techniques you can learn about with our how to colour tutorials and the video tutorials on our YouTube channel.

Enjoyed this guide about how to use colouring pencils? You’ll love our other how to colour guides about paper for colouring and pencil sharpeners.

You might also enjoy our article on the top 10 best colouring pencils, and our deep dive into the differences between colouring pens and pencils and which one is right for you!

Coloured a beautiful page and want to share it with your friends and family? Take a look at this article about how to photograph colouring pages.

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