10 Reasons to Sketch with Coloured Pencils by Katherine Tyrrell – March 2011


Left: The Courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House by Katherine Tyrrell.  11.5″ x 17″ pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils in large Moleskine Sketchbook






We asked Katherine Tyrrell to guest blog for us; here’s her 10 Reasons to Sketch with Coloured Pencils!

1. Not a lot to carry!

2. As many colours as you want

3. Go where other artists cannot go

4. Scope for mixed media

5. Get a true record of colours and tones

6. Work small – and large

7. Impervious to rain

8. If you make a mistake….

9. Coloured pencils don’t run

10. No waiting for the paint to dry!

This article focuses on sketching with coloured pencils – a topic that I feel passionate about, as I’ve been using coloured pencils for sketching for very nearly twenty years.

It’s also a topic that very often gets too little coverage in coloured pencil circles.

1. Not a lot to carry 

If you want to be able to sketch plein air – but don’t want to carry a lot – try taking a pocket sized sketchbook and a small pencil case.  Often it’s possible to use a sketching kit that you can slip in your pocket or a small bag.

Right: Derwent Pencil Wrap and Coloursoft pencils

A pencil wrap is also a very suitable alternative to carry your coloured pencils and is easy to accommodate.

Mixing the colours optically on the paper means you can do a lot with just a small number of coloured pencils.


2. As many colours as you want

Many coloured pencil artists work from complete sets of coloured pencils and would probably never ever contemplate taking their large wooden boxes or tins to sketch plein air.

However there are lots of ways in which you can take LOTS of different coloured pencils on a trip without crashing through weight limits!  In fact there’s no limit to how many you can easily take away with you.

First you can create a collection of smaller pencils.

I find I can take lots of colours out sketching with me just by picking out the stubby smaller pencils that I’ve used a lot and transferring these to my sketching kit.

Below: Colour sets in pencil wraps – because Venice means walking everywhere with your art kit



You can also take coloured sets of full size pencils abroad very easily if you use a pencil wrap for set of colours.

I went to Venice one year with all these pencils!  A little OTT but it was a very lightweight way of carrying pencils and also made me happier!

3. Go where other artists cannot go

Coloured pencils have a major advantage over all other forms of coloured art media – because coloured pencil artists can take them places no other artists can go!

Few, if any of art galleries and museums will allow artists to bring art materials which involve water or solvents or dust into a gallery without prior application and special permission.  However dry media is usually acceptable e.g. graphite or coloured pencils and pen and ink (if contained within pen).

Permission to paint is typically only given to serious art students wanting to make a copy of a painting.  You see them now and again in galleries with an easel making studious copies.

However I have sketched with coloured pencils in virtually all the major London art galleries!  Sketching paintings by the masters is a great way of understanding how they work.

Here’s my latest sketch of a John Constable painting “Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill” which I drew while visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Below: John Constable’s “Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill” – sketched in the Victoria and Albert Museum

11.5” x 16” – double page spread in A4 Moleskine Sketchbook


4. Scope for mixed media

There’s lots of scope to mix coloured pencils with other media.  They work very well over quick watercolour or acrylic washes – which can be pre-prepared as underpaintings if you so wish. They also work well with pastel pencils.

I very frequently sketch using both pen and ink and coloured pencils.  I find that the paper used in Moleskine sketchbooks is absolutely perfect for both and enables me to create the sort of work I want to do.  It’s like the very best Hot Press paper; it creates a lovely rich colour and takes any amount of punishment in terms of layering and scribble.

5. Get a true record of the colours and tones you see

Sketching is an invaluable activity for people who want to develop their landscape work. Photographs rarely record colours and lighting faithfully.

I started to use coloured pencils for sketching in 1993 because I was so fed up with reference photos that didn’t look like the scenes I remembered. I needed a better record of the things I saw on my travels and followed a tip from a professional artist who used them all the time.

Coloured pencil sketches now provide me with invaluable information for developing work done at home in the studio. As a result I can paint landscapes that look like what I saw – and not what the photo looks like.

• Use your photos with incorrect colours and/or values as references for the architecture, shapes and relative proportions only.

• Use your coloured pencil sketch for the colours and values you actually saw.

6. Work small AND large

Although most people working outdoors tend to work in smaller sizes there’s no reason in principle why you can’t work large.  It’s essentially a question of experience, technique and the aides you use to help.  Plus of course a sketch does not aim to have the level of finish of a work in the studio.  This sketch of the blossom and scene in Smithfield took under two hours.

Below: Spring in West Smithfield by Katherine Tyrrell 

11.5″ x 17″ pen and ink and coloured pencils in large Moleskine sketchbook


7. Impervious to rain

If it starts to rain you don’t need to mutter expletives under your breath.  Unlike watercolours your work is not now ruined!

Ordinary artists’ pencils are impervious to water – although you will obviously get a response if water mixes with watercolour pencils.

8. If you make a mistake…

You don’t need to worry – as you can erase coloured pencils!  I find one of the few essential pieces of kit I take out with me when sketching is my battery powered eraser as it enables me to create highlights and lowlights through erasing.

Below: Charing Cross Bridge & Parliament from Cleopatra’s Needle, on the Embankment.  11.5″ x 17″, pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils in Large Moleskine Sketchbook 


9. Coloured pencils don’t run

Sketching does not require an easel.  If you’re working with your support at an odd angle you don’t need to worry that your watercolour paint will run the wrong way!

The sketch of the River Thames was done in about 90 minutes while perched above steps and on the base of Cleopatra’s Needle on the Embankment in London!

10. No waiting for the paint to dry!

Unlike those working with paints of any variety, if you work in coloured pencils you can get up and walk away as soon as you’ve finished.  There’s no need to wait for the painting to dry or to have suitable equipment for carrying your work while in a wet state.

Advice about sketching

You can find advice about how to sketch – and how to sketch using coloured pencils – on my Making A Mark website.  See How to Sketch – advice and information by Katherine Tyrrell 

View more sketches

If you’ve liked the sketches in this article, you can see more in the Travels with a Sketchbook page on Katherine’s portfolio website.  Plus you can see new ones on a regular basis on her sketchblog – Travels with a Sketchbook

Plus you can see new ones on a regular basis on my sketchblog – Travels with a Sketchbook.

Note about the Author

Katherine Tyrrell is a writer and very popular art blogger.  Her main blog Making A Mark is ranked at #3 in the top 25 Arts blogs in the UK.  She is also a contemporary artist who uses coloured pencils on a regular basis for sketching and fine art drawings.  Her artwork has been regularly exhibited in juried exhibitions in the UK – by the UKCPS and the Society for Botanical Artists – and in group exhibitions overseas.  Her Travels with a Sketchbook blog and information and advice about “how to sketch” were recently highlighted and recommended by “The Times” newspaper.

All images and text copyright Katherine Tyrrell