How To Draw With Colored Pencils

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How to Draw with colored pencils reference photo

Learning how to draw with colored pencils is an easy and fun way to pass the time. In this art lesson, I go over some of the basic steps for beginners to some more advanced techniques that are used by professional artists. Follow along as I draw a realistic bluebird from start to finish.

How To Draw With Colored Pencils – Equipment And Tips

Below you will find the art equipment I used to complete the colored pencil drawing of a bluebird. Having all the tools ready before you begin will help you to stay better organized and more focused on your artwork.

There are some basic techniques you should practice before starting if this is your first time working with this art medium. If done correctly, colored pencils can produce some very realistic effects. My hope is to show you how to use this art medium to its highest potential.

Bluebird drawing with 9 colored pencils


  1. Graphite pencil: I used an HB pencil for my initial sketch.
  2. Colored Pencils: Faber Castell Polychromos and Derwent Watercolour were my pencils of choice. If you are unsure about the different qualities of colored pencils then read my reviews on some of the best colored pencils and best watercolor pencils.
  3. Fine paintbrush: I only used this one brush for blending the watercolor pencil since I needed finer lines and highlights.
  4. Eraser: Just a basic artist block eraser was used to lighten the graphite sketch. You may find that a kneaded eraser works best for this.
  5. Paper: My wife just bought me some Strathmore cold-pressed watercolor paper designed for wet media so I am trying it for the first time. There is plenty of other paper that is well suited for colored pencils which is why I wrote some reviews about some of the best paper for colored pencils. Be sure to check them out as they will help you get the correct paper.
  6. Drawing Surface: I taped my paper to a 14” drawing board. It is somewhat important to secure your paper to a smooth surface as this will prevent it from moving around and provide a solid backer when more pressure is needed. I found and reviewed some of the best drawing boards here.
  7. Pencil Sharpener: I have an electric pencil sharpener I use to get the lead exposed then refine my lead on some fine-grit sandpaper or handheld sharpener till I get a sharp point. See my reviews on some of the best pencil sharpeners for colored pencils for more details.

Practice Using The Pencil

Before starting a project I always test my pencils to get a feel of how well the color lays down and how durable the lead is.

When drawing hold your pencil higher up on the barrel and use the side of the pencil tip for a lighter stroke. This will also help to keep your lead sharp. Working lightly saves the tooth of the paper and allows you to add more layers to the paper.

The opposite is true when holding your pencil lower on the barrel. Holding the pencil closer to the lead “kind of” automatically causes you to add more pressure when drawing. You will find that layering colors well will require more pressure as you progress through your drawing.

Staying Organized

When approaching a project you may find that some initial planning helps in completing a project in a more timely fashion.

Working from photos is a good place to start since your subject is suspended in time allowing you to study the subject more. When using a photo reference you should place it beside your work so it can be referenced often.

Using a photo as a guide also helps you to better plan your colors and pencil strokes. There are techniques used to create things such as hair, feathers, and grass that can help you to achieve a realistic effect quickly. Once learned they can be used on other pieces of art at a faster pace.

I like using photos displayed on my laptop as this allows me to zoom in on some of those finer details.

After choosing your pencils, create swatches of each color. Start by scribbling lightly while slowly adding more pressure, going from light to dark. This lets you see the actual pigment color and ensures a better color scheme matches the reference photo. Many colored pencil brands’ pigment colors may not match perfectly with the labeling. You may want to do this with all your pencils so you can have a color chart for future reference.

Colored pencil drawing of a bluebird standing on a limb

How To Draw A Bluebird With Colored Pencils

I chose the bluebird because of the contrasting blues and browns. I believe this is a female bluebird as she has less blue. The goal here is to try and capture the delicate almost fragile appearance of this bird. I have already chosen my color scheme for this drawing and applied my paper to my board.

Though I made many mistakes while working on this project I was able to correct some of them as I went. By using water-soluble pencils to lay down the base color and then adding water with a fine brush I was able to create a wash that blends your colors. After it dries you can add more light layers over the darker areas with a standard color pencil.

 Make sure all your pencils are sharp and your supplies are in reach because it’s time to get this party started!

Graphite pencil sketch of a bluebird
Step 1: Detailed Sketch

Step 1 – Basic Outline

This is where the fun starts. Before beginning take note that I use the basic shape method to get the general outline then tweak it to look like my reference photo or as close as possible. If you are new and would like to learn this technique then you can check out my lesson on How To Draw A Bear Using Basic Shapes here.

With an HB graphite pencil, I blocked in the general shape of the body and then added the neck and head. Drawing extra light and free in the beginning. As the outline progressed I made changes to the proportions plus added some minor details. Try to outline your shaded areas as you will be starting with them first. The more detail you add the easier it will be to capture things such as the light source and shading. In the end, you should have a fair amount of the details added in before starting the next phase.

Once you are happy with the drawing then erase the lines so they do not show through your color, especially in the lighter areas. Be gentle on the paper with the eraser to avoid messing up the tooth of the paper. I erased just the head portion first as this was where I chose to start. The goal here is to lighten the pencil marks just enough to still see them so they can be used as a guide when applying your colors.

Colored pencil strokes on the head of a bluebird
Step 2: Colored Pencil Stroke Composition

Step 2 – Adding Base Color

In this step, we want to start with the darker shadow areas of the drawing first. Holding the pencil higher up the barrel and working with the side of the pencil tip, start filling in all of the different shaded areas. Continue to add light layers, building them up until you reach the desired shade you are looking for. 

Once the shadow areas are done then start working from light to dark. As a general rule always try to start with your lightest colors first but note when using solvents you are going to blend it all together anyways. Don’t sweat the details just yet because this is the foundation you will use to add textures and details on top.

In the blue areas I used a light blue softly over the entire wing and tail, the brown or tan areas were done in the same manner with a light reddish-brown color. The white areas were covered with white as the base.

Remember we need to be saving on the tooth of the paper in order to build our layers up so be sure to use light pressure. Adding multiple layers and some minor details here and there will help to ensure good color saturation for blending with a solvent or water. You want enough color on the paper to get rid of any grainy white areas with the brush. Another quick tip is to use a broader brush for larger areas as this will help to save some time. I only used a fine detail brush on the bluebird since most of it was small delicate feathers.

Blended underpainting of a bluebirds head
Step 2: Blend with Brush and Solvent

I tried to follow the flow of feathers with each pencil and brushstroke as this will also act as a guide when adding in the details later. I focused on the head first bringing it as close to finished as possible. I then moved to the wing and tail feathers before the white feathers on the breast then the feet and tree limb. Each section was brought to a finished appearance before moving to the next section of the bluebird.

Example: When drawing long hair pick one patch and use a long flowing line and for short hair use shorter lines while paying attention to the direction of each stroke compared to the reference. This same concept was used in the feathers.

One last thing is to keep your pencil sharp in all phases of your drawing. This is not as important for underpainting unless you have smaller areas of detail. You need a sharp tip not only to show finer details but for adding layers. This is where testing the pencils beforehand helps to determine how strong the lead is.

colored pencil drawing of a bluebirds head.
Step 3: Add Details With Sharp Colored Pencils

Step 3 – Adding The Details

By far this step takes the most time and if you are not careful you may find you are rushing. This is the time to slow down and really use your reference material to get things correct. If you find yourself in this situation the best thing to do is get up and move around before getting back to it. This can also help to catch mistakes and make improvements by giving you a fresh look at your handiwork.

1st Layer

When building layers always try to stay light-handed from the start. I began adding white to my highlighted areas paying close attention to each pencil stroke and the direction of the feathers. I then went to light blue, dark blue, and black. Following the same process with each colored pencil. I then went over my blacks with the dark blue to tone it down which helps to create a more vibrant shadow area. This gives a more realistic-looking shadow area as most things are not pure black. The same thing goes for whites. This technique is called glazing.

1st and 2nd Color Pencil Layers

2nd Layer

The main focus here is highlights and shadows. I had to apply more pressure to get the white pencil to stand out the way I wanted it to. One thing to note here is that a white wax-based pencil is softer than oil-based colored pencils and will apply over dark colors easier. Caran De Ache is a good choice for a softer lead. Faber Castell colored pencils seem to be harder and I had to use quite a bit of pressure which caused the tip to break off a few times. A white gel pen can achieve an even more brilliant white if needed.

Sharp pencils are a must to get the most realistic effects. I found myself sharpening my pencil quite often in this step.

Remembering to follow the flow of the feathers, I first focused on the brightest areas with the white colored pencil and worked all the way into some of the shadow areas. Since light bounces off of surfaces and causes shadows some feathers climb out of the shadow and some get reflected light which becomes a highlighted shadow area. This helps give the illusion of a three-dimensional shape and enhances realism.

A good pencil-style eraser with a good tip can be used to lift color for highlights as well.

I then came in with the black pencil to deepen the shadows on the beak, eye, wings, and feet. With very light pressure I added some finer shadows in each area of the bird. Though it sounds like I worked the entire bird, I actually started with the eye and head, then moved to the wings, and so on. Bringing each section to a relatively finished state.

Colored pencil drawing of a bluebird standing on a limb
Finished Bluebird Drawing with Colored Pencils

Step 4 – Final Touches

In the final phase of the bluebird, I used a standard block eraser to remove unwanted marks and to help clean up some of the lines. I also noticed I got too happy with the feathers and caused the head and eye to be too large for the rest of the bird.

The white and black pencil was all I used in this final step. I lightened the entire colored pencil drawing with the white and just a few light strokes with the black.

I also added a few more highlights in some of the shaded areas and some stray feathers here and there until I had to make myself stop and call it finished. 

Congratulations for making it through this article and I hope this art lesson was helpful. Be sure to visit again for more content like this and improvements to come. Thanks for reading.

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