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Why can’t I erase colored pencil?

Colored pencils can seem impossible to erase cleanly once they have been applied to paper. The vibrant pigments cling stubbornly to fibers, leaving behind ghostly shadows even after vigorous erasing. Understanding why colored pencil is so hard to erase can help you embrace the medium’s permanence or troubleshoot techniques to lighten your strokes.

The Colorful Composition of Colored Pencil Pigments

Colored pencils contain concentrated pigments that are finely ground and mixed with binding agents to create dense, opaque color. Here are some key ingredients commonly used in colored pencil leads:

Ingredient Purpose
Pigments Provide rich, opaque color
Clay Creates hardness and texture
Wax Binds pigments and allows for smooth laydown
Gum arabic Improves adhesion to paper

These dense, heavily pigmented leads result in vibrant artwork. But they also mean the color is stubborn to lift once applied.

Colored Pencil Lead Deposits Pigment Deep in Paper Fibers

When you draw with colored pencil, the lead abrades onto the paper’s surface. Unlike graphite that simply coats the top of the paper, colored pencil pigments work their way down into the fibers:

  • The clay content causes the lead to have a coarser, abrasive texture that scratches pigment deeper.
  • Wax allows the pigment to flow smoothly into indentations cut by clay particles.
  • Added binders help the pigment particles adhere within the scratches.

This means the color becomes enmeshed with the paper itself. The pigments penetrate deeper than graphite and bond more tenaciously within the fibers.

Erasing Mechanically Works Against Colored Pencil’s Permanence

Erasing colored pencil goes against the medium’s inherent permanence. Here’s why erasers struggle to remove it:

  • Erasers work by abrasion, scratching away at the surface to lift deposited material.
  • But colored pencil pigments penetrate below the surface where abrasion can’t fully reach.
  • The eraser ends up only disturbing the surface fibers, pushing pigments deeper while leaving color behind.

No eraser can effectively scratch pigments out from within the paper itself. At best, erasing colored pencil will lighten and dull the color rather than removing it completely.

Certain Papers Hold Onto Color Tenaciously

The texture and composition of your drawing paper impacts how deeply color penetrates and how readily it erases. Rougher, more textured papers offer crevices for pigments to settle into, making them harder to erase. Papers with more natural fiber content like cotton embed pigment within the fibers, while slippery surfaces like vellum resist absorption so colors erase cleaner.

Here is an overview of how pencil adheres to different paper surfaces:

Paper Type Texture Pigment Adhesion Erasability
Newsprint Smooth Low High
Printer Paper Moderately smooth Medium Moderate
Drawing Paper Lightly textured Medium-high Low-moderate
Watercolor Paper Heavily textured High Low
Pastel Paper Sanded texture Very high Very low
Vellum Smooth, slick surface Low High

Aim for smoother, tighter surfaces if you want your colored pencil work to be more erasable.

Traditional Erasers Have Limited Effectiveness

Standard rubber erasers can lighten and blend colored pencil, but fall short of truly erasing. Here’s how the two most common types interact with colored pencil:

  • Vinyl erasers: These stiff, crumbly erasers are abrasive for scratching off graphite and charcoal. But they typically just disturb colored pencil’s waxy surface without extracting pigment from the paper.
  • Kneaded erasers: These pliable putty erasers lift graphite by absorbing it into their pores. They can be gently pressed against colored pencil to pick up some surface wax and pigment. But they leave behind stubborn color in the paper’s fibers.

Neither effectively removes pigment adhered within the paper itself. Using excessive force causes damage by tearing up the paper’s surface.

Plastic Erasers Offer Superior Lifting Ability

Plastic erasers, like those by Staedtler or Factis, work better than rubber for lightening colored pencil while minimizing paper damage. They have improved ability to lift pigment for several reasons:

  • Smoother texture avoids tearing paper fibers.
  • Firm composition lifts pigment more effectively than rubber.
  • Non-abrasive formulation extracts pigment instead of just spreading it around.

Still, no eraser can completely remove all traces of color. But plastic erasers come closest to extracting pigment from paper’s fibers rather than just disturbing the surface.

Abrasive Erasers Are Effective But Risky

For removing heavy colored pencil buildup, abrasive erasers quickly lift color but can damage the paper:

  • Sandpaper erasers use fine grit paper for heavy-duty abrasion. These erase powerfully but shred paper fibers in the process.
  • Electric erasers use motor-spun pads for fast abrasive erasing. They excel at erasing large areas but can easily catch and tear through paper.

Used carefully in small areas, abrasive erasers lift even heavy accumulations of color. But they require cautious handling to avoid ruining the drawing surface.

Blenders Soften and Lighten More Safely Than Erasers

Blending colored pencils with lighter shades or an oily blender pencil can reduce their prominence without aggressive erasing. Blenders like Zest-Its or a colorless pencil work by:

  • Pressing down and spreading wax to fill paper’s texture
  • Mixing layers of colors for muted tones
  • Gently lifting some pigment from fibers

This more gradually lightens color while keeping the paper’s surface intact. With a delicate touch, blenders safely minimize harsh or heavy strokes.

Embracing the Medium’s Permanence Has Artistic Advantages

While frustrating at first, colored pencil’s resistance to erasing has some creative benefits:

  • Permanence encourages confidence and directness, producing lively, fresh marks.
  • Irrevocability trains instinctive refinements rather than heavy revisions.
  • Indelible colors can convey raw, uncensored expression.
  • Staying qualities allow for layered depth and dimension.

Rather than fight it, embrace colored pencil’s permanence to enhance vibrancy, spontaneity, and boldness in your artwork.

Careful Planning and Technique Keep Revisions Minimal

Some strategies can reduce the need for extensive erasing when working in colored pencil:

  • Plan compositions thoughtfully so colors harmonize as intended.
  • Start lightly then reinforce to slowly build colors.
  • Use minimal layers for areas meant to stay light.
  • Choose colors purposefully or make quick studies to audition hues.
  • Burnish then erase to lift excess wax before it penetrates paper.

Forethought and restraint while applying color keeps unwanted overworking and heavy-handedness to a minimum.


The vibrant permanence of colored pencil presents unique rewards and challenges. While hardly erasable, colored pencil’s deeply embedding pigments produce wonderfully luminous, archival artwork full of body and radiance. Learning to work with the medium’s tenacious qualities allows embracing its uninhibited, tactile appeal.