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How to do realistic coloring with colored pencils?

Colored pencils can produce incredibly realistic results if used correctly. With the right techniques, materials and practice, you can create colored pencil drawings that look like photographs. In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about achieving realism with colored pencils, from selecting the right supplies to mastering essential techniques. Whether you’re a beginner looking to improve your skills or an experienced artist wanting to take your work to the next level, read on for tips on how to make your colored pencil drawings pop with realism.

Choosing the Right Colored Pencils

Not all colored pencils are created equal when it comes to producing realistic results. Here are some factors to consider when selecting colored pencils for realistic coloring:

Pigment Concentration

Higher pigment concentration results in richer, more vibrant colors. Professional grade colored pencils contain more concentrated pigments than student grade.


This refers to how resistant the pigments are to fading over time. Look for pencils rated excellent to outstanding for lightfastness.

Color Range

A wide range of colors will allow you to mix and match shades to achieve realism. Aim for at least 50-100 colors.

Wax-Based vs. Oil-Based

Wax-Based Oil-Based
Softer leads Harder leads
Easy to blend More resistant to blending
Produce opaque coverage Translucent, layered effect

Oil-based pencils are ideal for building up colors with multiple layers, while wax-based are better for blending and smoothing. Using both creates interesting effects.

Individual Pencils vs. Sets

Individual pencils allow you to hand pick specific colors, while sets provide an assortment at a lower cost per pencil. Consider your unique coloring needs when deciding between the two.

Some top-quality colored pencil brands to look for include Prismacolor, Faber-Castell Polychromos, and Caran d’Ache Luminance. Investing in professional grade pencils with high pigmentation is well worth it for creating vivid, realistic effects.

Choosing the Right Paper for Realism

Paper texture and tooth (roughness) play a big role in how colored pencil strokes appear. Here are some paper characteristics to look for:

Fine Tooth

A paper with slight texture will grip the pencil pigments well for sharp, crisp strokes. Avoid papers that are too smooth, which cause pencils to slide and skip.


Thick paper prevents indentation as you layer colors. Lightweight paper tends to get damaged and warped.


Acid-free paper ensures artwork longevity by resisting yellowing and deterioration over time.


Cream, tan or grey tinted paper provides a soft, natural base layer for building colors on top.

Single- vs. Double-Sided

Single-sided textured paper is ideal for realistic coloring. Double-sided is more suitable for student grade pencils.

Some recommended colored pencil papers include Canson Mi-Teintes, Strathmore 400 Series, and Stonehenge. Experiment with different papers to see which you prefer for achieving realism in your work.

Mastering Colored Pencil Techniques

Here are some key colored pencil techniques for creating realistic effects:


Slowly building up colors from light to dark in thin overlapping layers mimics how color appears in real life. Take your time and allow previous layers to fully dry before adding new ones.


Blending combines and softens pencil strokes for smooth transitions between colors. Try gently rubbing colors together with a colorless blender pencil, cotton swab, or specialty blending tool.


Intensely layering and pressing a sharp pencil tip back and forth to mix colors and build up glossy tones. Great for making objects appear shiny or reflective.


Creating layers using a criss-cross stroke pattern. Build up varying directions of cross-hatching to add texture and form to objects.


Using tiny dots of color to create realistic textures like dappled light, rough surfaces, foliage, or feathers. Vary pressure for depth and dimension.


Pressing harder with the pencil tip to indent the paper slightly and increase pigment deposit in a specific area. This can enhance realism in small details.


Lightly erasing or lifting color with a kneaded eraser to reveal lighter tones or white of the paper. This removes just enough color for a faded effect.

Practice and refine your colored pencil techniques to develop artistic mastery. Blend, lift, impress, stipple – experiment with different effects to convey realism.

Essential Colored Pencil Shading Techniques

Shading is key for creating the illusion of form, depth and light source. Here are some shading techniques to practice:


Shading using parallel pencil strokes in the same direction, with varying pressure to darken tone.

Cross-Contour Hatching

Hatching that follows the curves and contours of an object to convey rounded, 3D form.


Building up shading with layers of loose, circular scribbling motions. Creates soft, mottled texture.


Blending shaded areas with a paper stump to soften edges and gradations.


Creating strong contrast between light and shadows to infuse dramatic realism. Use very dark shades next to white highlights.

Directional Strokes

Making pencil strokes follow the direction of the light source for convincing realism and dimensionality.

Lost and Found Edges

Allowing some edges to blend softly into the background while keeping others crisp and defined. Mimics real life.

Mastering shading gives you the ability to recreate almost any shape, texture and form in colored pencil. Refine your shading techniques through mindful practice and observation.

Achieving Realistic Colors

Observing and replicating colors accurately is critical for realism. Here are some tips:

Study Color Theory

Learn color mixing principles like complementary colors, warm/cool tones, and the color wheel. This provides a foundation for combining colors.

Analyze Light Effects

Notice how color is affected by light source and intensity. Colors often appear muted in shadow and take on warmer or cooler casts in different lighting.

Use Neutral Tones

Grays, browns and blacks dull down hues for a more natural, realistic effect. Avoid colors straight from the pencil.

Add Layers

Build up multiple thin layers of colored pencil rather than applying heavy pressure. Mimics translucent quality of real life color.

Compare Values

Frequently compare your colors to photo references to ensure proper value (lightness/darkness). This trains your eye over time.

Check Color Balance

Step back periodically and check that colors look balanced. It’s easy to get “color blind” when working up close.

Meticulous observation and color analysis will help train your eye to perceive and transcribe colors realistically. Use photo references and color value scales to aid you.

Incorporating Realistic Details

Subtle details bring colored pencil drawings to life. Here are techniques for recreating realistic details:

Fine Hairs & Fuzz

Use sharp, precise strokes and dotting to draw individual hairs. Soften with gentle blending for realism.

Textured Surfaces

Build up layers of cross-hatching, stippling, scumbling or blends to recreate the look of rough, irregular textures.

Sparkle & Sheen

Use white or metallic colored pencils to add spots of glimmer and shine to suggest reflective surfaces. Apply sparingly.

Translucent Objects

Dull down intense colors with grayish hues. Leave areas of white paper showing through for see-through effects.

Cast Shadows

Softly blur darker colors beneath objects to create a shadow. Vary tone based on surface and light source.

Background Details

Lightly incorporate textures, patterns and objects in the background to create an immersive scene and enhanced realism.

It’s the tiny details that make a colored pencil drawing pop with realism. Take the time to slowly render even the smallest elements.

Achieving Dimension Through Values

Rendering subtle variations in values (the lightness and darkness of colors) brings realism and dimension to colored pencil work. Here are some tips for mastering values:

Focus on Shade, Not Just Hue

Think in terms of light and dark values first rather than simply color. Practice value scales.

Observe Light Direction

Note where light is hitting an object and dark shadows are cast to recreate convincing form.

Use a Full Range

Use very dark, medium and very light values. Most beginners focus too much on middle values.

Compare Relative Values

Assess how objects compare value-wise to their surroundings. Establish proper tonal relationships.

Watch for Tangents

Avoid tones merging together without separation. This results in a flat, unrealistic look.

Create Bold Contrasts

Don’t be afraid to go very dark and very light. Strong value contrasts add drama and visual impact.

Mastering values gives colored pencil work convincing volume and form. Train your eye to think in terms of abstract values before colors.

Reference Photos for Realism

Using reference photos is invaluable when rendering realistic colored pencil drawings. Here are some tips for making the most of photo references:

Take Your Own Photos

Photos you shoot specifically for reference provide accurate colors, lighting, and details.

Multiple References

Use several reference photos (different angles, lighting, etc.) to fully understand a subject.

Check Proportions

Use a grid method to transfer correct proportions from a photo to your drawing.

Observe Details

Zoom in tight to analyze small elements that add realism: textures, shadows, patterns, etc.

Note Color Nuances

Compare colors side-by-side to identify subtle hue variations in the photo.

Study Value Range

Determine the lightest lights and darkest darks to recreate a full range of values.

Combine Sources

Use diverse references as needed. For example, a texture photo, lighting photo and portrait for a face drawing.

Letting quality reference photos guide your colored pencil work is one of the most direct paths to achieving realism. Learn to extract information accurately from photo sources.

Common Realism Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common errors that create a flat, unrealistic look in colored pencil drawings:

Insufficient Layers

Failing to build up adequate thin layers of color for richness and depth.


Excessive blending that removes tooth and creates muddy, dull colors.

Flat Lighting

No value range from light to dark. Caused by fear of going too dark.

Contour Lines

Outlining shapes with dark lines flattens the image. Avoid strong outlines.

Unbalanced Background

A background lacking details to balance the foreground can appear unrealistic and detached.

Incorrect Proportions

Even slightly off proportions distort the image and make it less true to life.

Merging Values

Allowing areas of similar color and value to bleed together without separation.

Being mindful to avoid these common mistakes will enhance the realism of your colored pencil drawings. Analyze your work to pinpoint areas for improvement.

Putting it All Together

Creating realistic colored pencil drawings requires patience, practice and persistence. Follow this process to take your skills to the next level:

Pick an Inspiring Subject

Choose a subject that intrigues you – portraits, flowers, textures, still life objects, etc.

Take Reference Photos

Shoot quality photos under ideal lighting conditions to guide your work.

Begin With an Outline

Lightly sketch the outline in pencil. Focus intensely on capturing accurate proportions.

Start Applying Color

Lay down thin layers of color, beginning lighter and slowly building up intensity.

Develop Details

Add realistic textures, hairs, shadows, highlights, background elements. Observe photo references closely.

Refine and Adjust

Critically evaluate your work as you go, lifting color or adjusting tones as needed.

Add Accent Details

Incorporate final details like catchlights in eyes, specular highlights on objects, etc.

With persistence and the right approach, your colored pencil skills will improve dramatically. Let realism be your goal, but enjoy the artistic journey.


Realistic colored pencil drawing requires dedication, but the breathtaking results are well worth the effort. By studying color theory, mastering shading techniques, using proper materials and referencing quality photos, you can develop the skills needed to bring your artwork to life. Remember that progress takes time and practice. Stay motivated by surrounding yourself with artworks that inspire you, and maintain realistic expectations for yourself. With patience and perseverance, you’ll be amazed by how incredibly lifelike your colored pencil drawings can eventually become. Let this guide set you on the path to creating realistic colored pencil masterpieces.