Paint Thinners and Colored Pencils
Updated by Brandon F. on July 8, 2020
Paint thinners can open up the flexibility of a set of colored pencils. However, we get a lot of questions and comments in regards to paint thinners and their relationship with colored pencils. Some (of the many) questions include:
What exactly is paint thinner?
When is paint thinner supposed to be used with colored pencils?
What is the best application technique to use?
What is the best paint thinner brand?
…and the list goes on!
We are here to help clear up some of these questions and have a general discussion of paint thinners and how they can help to bring your colored pencil blending game up to the next level. We will also go over what we feel are the best paint thinners for various applications.
What is Paint Thinner?
A paint thinner is a solvent that is designed to thin up paints. This can have both the benefit of lightening the intensity of color but also greatly aids in helping to blend one color with another. You can open up your available color palette with a given set of colored pencils through proper blending techniques.
There are a wide variety of paint thinners to choose from. While their names and appearance might differ some, they do share a common trait in that they will typically contain one of the several common solvents that give them the ability to thin paint.
These include things such as mineral spirits, acetone, toluene, turpentine, naphtha, and a few others. If you look at the ingredients section of any popular paint thinner in the store, you will likely see at least one of these ingredients.
When Do I Use Paint Thinner Instead of “Regular” Blending?
This is a bit of a complex question and it depends on the type of colored pencils you have as well as the level of blending you are after. Many people will use “traditional” blending techniques that include both pencil blending and dry blending.
Pencil blending is simply when you apply pressure from your pencil tip to add multiple layers of color. This, in turn, creates color blending. When you apply extra levels of pressure it is called burnishing, and it is a good way to further mix layers of color. However, how much blending takes place is heavily dependent on the type of colored pencils you have.
Specifically, oil-based cores with very soft materials tend to blend much easier than harder, wax-based cores. In other words, pencil blending might be all you need and for others, it will hardly have any effect.
Dry blending is where you use a dry cloth, tissue, tortillon, or other soft material to blend layers without incorporating additional color or solvents to the mix. The key difference between dry blending and pencil blending is that you are not adding additional layers of color and are simply mixing up what has already been laid down. While dry blending does have a more significant impact than pencil blending, its effects will still be limited by the type of colored pencils you use and the softness of the layers.
That brings us to the topic at hand: solvent blending. As mentioned above, solvent blending involves adding a solvent to your art piece instead of more layers of color or mixing existing layers. This solvent “breaks down” or thins the color, making it much easier to redistribute and mix.
Paint thinners work great for those times that you are trying to lighten up the color tone some as well as when you are wanting to blend two colors into a unique new color. They are also great for those colored pencil sets that don’t blend very well by themselves or in cases where you want to be able to do some blending without having to put down tons of additional layers.
Paint thinners are also good for areas where you wish to cover large areas of the page with subtle color with minimal effort. This can include things such as skies and distant valleys in landscapes, light skin tones on faces, and metal sheens on buildings in industrial settings.
What Type of Paint Thinner Do I Use?
While paint thinners might all work in similar manners, they are not all the same. They come in differing concentration levels, thicknesses, smells, etc. We have heard stories of people finding random containers tucked away behind cabinets in their garage and using them for paint thinners with success, but we recommend sticking to the basics. We also tend to avoid industrial paint thinners that are designed to work with paint you would use on a house, deck, or other more demanding settings. This is because these thinners tend to be much too strong and the fumes can be quite overwhelming.
Having said this, we recommend sticking to one of these three types of paint thinner: rubbing alcohol, turpentine, and rubber cement thinner.
Rubbing alcohol is the mildest of the three and is good for light to mild blending. While it will break the binders of the color some, you are going to need several layers of thick color to see significant results. Rubbing alcohol is also the easiest to come by since most people have a bottle lying around somewhere in their house. We do recommend sticking to lighter concentrations of it (75% or lower) as anything higher could potentially remove too much color.
Turpentine is in the middle in regards to performance. It is the most common ingredient in many of the paint thinners you will find at the store, and for good reason. The turpentine breaks down the binders used in colored pencils and allows you to easily mix the colors. You will also see more significant results with less color than you will with rubbing alcohol. However, it is easier to go overboard and remove more color than you want to so start slow.
Lastly, there is rubber cement thinner. This is the most powerful of the three paint thinners and should only be used in those times when you are looking to completely mix or remove color. There is also quite a bit of fume with rubber cement thinner so you may want to wear a mask or at least keep your face a bit farther away until things dry. With rubber cement thinner, less is more, and you want to try to avoid making more than one or two passes with it as you will simply remove color instead of blend it.
How to Use Paint Thinners on Colored Pencils
Everybody has their favorite technique and we aren’t here to proudly exclaim that we have found the perfect method for blending because there isn’t one! Instead, we encourage you to try a few different methods out and see which one works best for you and your chosen set of colored pencils. However, there are a few techniques and tips that we think everybody starting with paint thinners should follow.
First, test any new paint thinners on a separate sheet of the paper you are using. This may be a no-brainer to some, but it is worth mentioning. Don’t test new paint thinners out on your actual pieces of work! Also, it is important to have the scrap paper that you use to be the same type of paper you are using for your actual work.
Paper thickness, roughness, and material composition play huge roles in how effective thinners are. For instance, artist paper with smooth surfaces may end up losing nearly all of the color when a thinner is used since there is nothing for the color to bind to. Also, the thin paper might form wrinkles or creases when exposed to the liquid paint thinner.
Second, start small when applying to your actual work. Even when you have a grasp of how a particular kind of paint thinner will interact with your colored pencils and paper, it is best to start with small quantities to achieve your desired results. You will be surprised how far just a little paint thinner will go, particularly if you are using a more aggressive product such as turpentine.
There are a variety of ways to apply thinner. Some people prefer dabbing a bit of thinner on to a tissue or towel while others will prefer the preciseness of a tortillon. We know a few people who will also get some paper towel and wrap it around the tip of a pencil or pen and hold the paper towel in place with tape. This essentially gives them a “blending pencil” that they can use similar to a traditional colored pencil. Since the turpentine is easier to see, you can also use a paintbrush to “paint” some of it on as well.
Remember, there are no right or wrong ways to apply thinner. You simply need to try a few out and see what works for you!
Once the thinner is applied, you then softly burnish the surface to your desired results. Again, start soft and slow and see what sort of results you get. If you can’t achieve your desired blend or color then try adding a bit thinner and burnish some more. However, if you still can’t get what you are looking for after a second application, you may need to add more layers of color, try a more aggressive thinner, or have to purchase a softer set of colored pencils.
For some more general tips, this explanation on how to use paint thinners provides some more helpful information.
What is the Best Paint Thinner Brand?
The beauty of paint thinners is in their simplicity. As long as they contain one of the key ingredients listed above then they should perform similarly to the competition. As such, there aren’t any big pros or cons from one brand to another. The biggest differences will be in the level of fumes and smells, as some of the paint thinners add extra items to try to offset the somewhat pungent odor that thinners can emit.
We have listed a few of our choices of paint thinners that will work below for your convenience.
Mona Lisa Odorless Paint Thinner
This is one of our favorite paint thinners. It has very little odor and has the effectiveness of traditional turpentine, making it a happy medium for those looking to mix color but not go overboard.
Bob Ross Odorless Paint Thinner
This Bob Ross Odorless paint thinner bumps things up a notch, making it useful for those after serious color blending and it can even be used with other oil-based mediums such as oil paints and oil pastels. Also, the strong fumes common with this caliber of paint thinner is for the most part absent which makes it a lot easier to be around.
Swan Hydrogen Peroxide
For those on a tight budget or wanting something subtle in its paint thinning, you can’t go wrong with the tried and tested hydrogen peroxide. Just about every bottle is the same. Just be sure to dilute it down to 75% or less before applying to your paper.
Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine
Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine comes in a small package but it packs a serious punch! This distilled turpentine is one of the best at blending color, even if there isn’t a lot of colors out there to blend. That makes it great for spreading color over large areas such as blue skies and as an added effect it gives off an oil painting-like feel once dry. But it does have quite a smell to it so be prepared.
Still itching for more information on paint thinners and colored pencils? Youtube is loaded with great tutorials and recordings of people using them together. One of our favorite ways to learn is to watch rather than read. This is one of our favorite tutorials about how to blend colored pencils with paint thinner: