The first recorded use of colored wax mediums, similar to colored pencils, dates back to the Golden Age of the Greeks: 500 to 300 B.C. While these Greek inventions were used as marking tools rather than for artistic purposes, their descendants—colored pencils—have stood the test of time, boasting a longer shelf-life than any other medium. There have been stories of 100-year-old colored pencils performing without breaking as if they were brand new.
To know how to keep your colored pencils from breaking, you need to understand the variables that come into play that cause colored pencils to break. By learning how important the type of pencil is, how you maintain them, and how to work with them, colored pencils can provide limitless creativity and enjoyment.
Wax-Based or Oil-Based
The first thing to consider when determining why your colored pencil keeps breaking is the type of colored pencil you have. Wax-based colored pencils come in a range of core hardness which affects how likely it is that the colored pencil will break. While all colored pencils have some amount of wax in the cores, oil-based colored pencils have a harder core that makes them less likely to break than wax-based colored pencils.
In addition to the difference in core strength, wax-based colored pencils are easier to make and therefore are mass-produced. These low-cost production practices often mean the quality of the colored pencil is lower and more susceptible to core damage and colored pencil breakage. Oil-based colored pencils require complicated manufacturing processes at higher production costs. This slower process means fewer colored pencils are being made at a time and the quality can be monitored and maintained much more easily than in mass-produced wax-based pencils. Another unique feature of the more expensive line of oil-based colored pencils is how some brands glue the core to the barrel of the pencil giving it additional strength.
When shopping for either type of colored pencil, be sure to take a look at the colored pencil’s flat end and see if the core is centered. Colored pencils that have an off-center core will tend to break more often than ones with centered cores. This extra fragility is likely due to the lack of equal protection provided by the pencil’s barrel.
Handling and Care of Colored Pencils
Every artist should take great care with the tools of their trade and colored pencil artists are no exception. Regardless of whether you work with wax-based or oil-based colored pencils, proper handling of the pencils is essential to their longevity. Being careful with your colored pencils begins with keeping them in a protective pencil case.
The main purpose of a colored pencil case is to keep your pencils from banging into one another. Well-designed colored pencil cases will have a way to secure each pencil into its spot within the case. This not only keeps your colored pencils safe from damage but also makes it easier to keep your pencils organized so you always know where your favorite colors are located.
Finding a high-quality colored pencil case is essential if you will be traveling often with your colored pencils. Whether you’re an art student, a professional artist, or just a colored pencil enthusiast who takes your hobby on the go, a good case is worth the investment. While colored pencils are not as susceptible to extreme temperatures as some media, a well-designed colored pencil case will protect your pencils from direct sunlight which can cause the pencil color to fade.
It is important to note here that extreme heat can cause the wax-based pencil cores to soften. This heating up of the core can result in a gloppy, uneven application of color. If your colored pencils get left in a hot car or are exposed to direct sunlight for a long period, allow the colored pencils to cool down to room temperature before trying to use them.
Since colored pencils are more fragile than other mediums like graphite pencils, it is necessary to be extra careful when handling them. Dropping a colored pencil on the floor will almost certainly result in shattering the core. This is especially true if it falls from a great height onto the hard surface of a tile floor.
For the colored pencil artist who doesn’t want or need a colored pencil case for storage, keep your pencils safe by storing them vertically in a caddy or other containers you have handy. When using the vertical storage method, place the colored pencils with the tips pointing upward. This helps prevent the points from breaking and makes it easier to spot the color you’re looking for. Consider creating a color-coded caddy for keeping your colored pencil hues organized in matching groups on the color wheel.
Proper Coloring Techniques and Colored Pencil Tools
Your colored pencils are less likely to become damaged or broken if you make sure to use proper coloring techniques. It is equally important to be certain you are using the right colored pencil or colored pencil tool for the job. From the way you hold your pencil to the kind of sharpener you use, technique and proper equipment are essential to maintaining your colored pencils.
Working with colored pencils requires the ability to keep a firm yet relaxed grip on the pencil and use light pressure when applying color to the canvas. Colored pencils are less likely to break if you use a gentle touch when coloring large areas or working on fine details. Learn how to work in layers of color application to create bold hues instead of pressing hard to lay color on thickly.
Along with proper technique, using the correct colored pencil for the job will aid in the prevention of colored pencil breakage. Working on highly detailed areas requires a pencil with a fine point and frequent sharpening, an ideal job for colored pencils with a harder core. Meanwhile, putting down large swatches of color in an area is well-suited for a softer-core colored pencil.
Tools of the Trade
There comes a point during your coloring when the colored pencil you are using needs to be sharpened. Knowing the right way to sharpen your colored pencil is just as important to its longevity as how to use the colored pencil. Choosing the right sharpening method for the right pencil boils down to the tip you want to achieve and the type of pencil you are sharpening.
Colored pencil artists have four options when it comes to tools for sharpening colored pencils: handheld manual sharpeners, electric sharpeners, sandpaper, and a knife. Each method of sharpening has its limitations so it’s important to choose the right tool for the pencil you are using and the point you are trying to achieve.
Soft colored pencils are best suited for manual pencil sharpeners or can be sharpened with a knife. The best way to use a handheld sharpener is to hold the pencil still and rotate the sharpener with the other hand. This gives you better control by not moving the colored pencil thus reducing the risk of breaking off the tip. When using a knife, the blade needs to be razor-sharp to smoothly shave off the end of the pencil. This method requires a steady hand and rotating the pencil to get an even point.
Colored pencils with a hard core will require a more aggressive method of sharpening than manual sharpeners and knives. Slower methods like those will cause your harder colored pencil tips to crack and break prematurely. These types of colored pencils work well with electric sharpeners.
Be aware, however, that wax-based colored pencils will leave residue on the blades of electric sharpeners which will dull the blades. The best way to clean and sharpen an electric pencil sharpener is to alternately sharpen a graphite pencil after every 10-15 colored pencil sharpenings.
A helpful tip when sharpening your colored pencils is to use a fine-haired paintbrush to sweep away any pencil-shaving debris that may have stuck to the pencil’s freshly sharpened tip. This will prevent the tiny bits of the core or pencil barrel from falling onto your canvas and reduce any accidental color mishaps on your project.
The final sharpening tool to keep on hand when working with colored pencils is sandpaper. Available in sheets or blocks, using coarse-grain sandpaper is great for sharpening stubborn or brittle colored pencils. It is also an ideal tool for shaping the colored pencil’s tip to aid in creating unique pencil marks for texture effect and marking techniques.
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