How to Choose the Right Coloring Tool for the Job

Which should you choose for your next coloring page—colored pencils, pens, or markers?

By Laura Newcomer

How to Choose the Right Coloring Tool

Consider this scenario: Your kitchen sink is on the fritz, so you start googling local plumbers. One of the first ads to pop up proudly declares, “This plumber has no idea which tools to use for different plumbing jobs.” Would you hire that plumber?

We’re willing to bet the answer to that question is a resounding “Heck no!”

But when it comes to drawing, many people set tools to paper without really knowing their best uses or limitations. That has an impact on your coloring projects because the tools you use can seriously influence the quality of the final product.

Don’t get us wrong—you should color to your heart’s content regardless of your technical know-how. But if you want to take your artistic visions to the next level, understanding the pros and cons of various drawing tools is one of the best ways to do just that. So the next time you’re wondering if a given drawing would benefit most from the use of pencils, pens, markers, or something else, turn to this handy guide.


The Best Uses for Colored Pencils

Colored Pencils in Tin

Beloved by adult coloring aficionados, trusty colored pencils boast a number of benefits and are ideal for a wide range of drawing scenarios:

  • They come in a huge variety of hues, which makes them ideal for any project that requires different pops of color.
  • When sharpened to a very fine point, they’re especially useful for drawing delicate lines or filling in tiny spaces.
  • They’re well-suited for shading and make it possible to achieve a variety of shades ranging from light to very dark.
  • They’re ideal for blending; in fact, colored pencils are by far the easiest coloring medium to blend with.
  • They’re more erasable than pens or markers, which makes them a slightly more forgiving medium.
  • They don’t bleed through paper and are relatively mess-free (as long as you have a good sharpener that holds shavings!).

But these benefits don’t make colored pencils the best tool for every occasion. For example, it can be tough to create more saturated areas of color with colored pencils without changing the texture of the drawing—when working toward a deeper color, it’s easy to end up with a distracting gloss or sheen. Pencil drawings also smudge easily, so it’s important to be mindful of how you handle the page. (Pro tip: We recommend placing an extra sheet of paper under your drawing hand to avoid smudges.) And because colored pencil tips are prone to breakage, a light touch is required (or be prepared to keep your sharpener handy!).

The pros and cons of colored pencils may vary a bit depending on the type of pencil you use, too. For starters, the hardness of the lead in your pencil will influence its abilities. Soft leads make it easier to shade and blend, while harder leads are especially great for line work.

A pencil’s core material will also have a big impact on its abilities. Oil-based pencils tend to have a harder core than many other colored pencil varieties, which makes them particularly well suited to line drawing. Wax-based pencils have a softer core than oil-based pencils, which means they tend to produce lighter tones. This makes them great for layering because you can add layer upon layer to change the depth and saturation. They’re also useful for creating a base layer over a large surface area. And watercolor pencils aren’t suitable for line work, but they are great for blending, adding finer details on top of watercolor paints, or creating darker, more vibrant shades.


The Best Uses for Pens

Colorful Pens

While pens are obviously fantastic tools for everyday writing, line drawing, and fancy lettering, when it comes to coloring they can be super handy too. On adult coloring pages, they shine when it comes to filling in small spaces and adding refined details such as fine lines, tiny dots (stippling, anyone?), and so on.

While these general qualities are true of all pens, different pen styles boast additional benefits (as well as some downsides). For example:

  • Gel pens (like this affordable set) come in a huge range of hues and offer vivid pops of color and texture (like glitter and metallics). Because most gel pens are rollerballs, they usually have relatively fine tips, which makes them generally well suited to fine line work.
  • Felt-tip pens—like Staedtler’s Triplus Fineliner Pens—come in a variety of sizes from fine-tip to broad-tip. For coloring, the fine-tip varieties work best as larger tips can sometimes cause the paper to pill (especially if you’re using basic printer paper rather than special art papers. They also come in a wide range of colors.
  • Nylon-tip pens —like the popular Tombow Dual Brush Pens or Faber Castell’s PITT Artist Brush Pens—are especially great for creating lines in a variety of thicknesses, from delicate to bold and wide. They’re also great for adding your own fancy lettering to your adult coloring pages!

As with any drawing medium, pens aren’t without their limitations. Because they are so finely tipped and the flow of ink is so controlled, working with pens can mean it takes longer to complete a drawing than it might with pencils or markers. And because the ink is permanent, mistakes can quickly derail a drawing project. The upside is that, over time, working with this unforgiving medium can seriously improve your drawing skills.


The Best Uses for Markers

Markers in Stand by Nicki Dugan Pogue on Flickr
Credit: Nicki Dugan Pogue via Flickr

Like colored pencils, markers come in a huge variety of colors, which can add serious visual interest to your drawings. Their hues tend to be more vibrant than any other medium, so they’re great for creating bold drawings. They also make it easy to create areas of highly saturated color—and the color is less likely to fade over time, too.  

Beyond these colorific benefits, markers also come in a wide range of tip sizes to facilitate a variety of drawing techniques. This means they’re useful for both creating fine lines and filling in larger sections of a coloring page.

Of course, markers also have their downsides:

  • It’s often hard to be precise with markers.
  • It’s challenging to shade and blend effectively. While there are a variety of “blender pens” on the market, they only work with certain types of markers and can be tricky to master. Even when used well, they’re still limited in the nuance of shading they provide—which means it can be difficult to achieve a depth and texture with markers.
  • They’re prone to bleeding through paper.

Just as with pens and pencils, the marker type can influence some of these benefits and downsides. Water-based markers are especially hard to layer because (surprise!) they are watery. Meanwhile, alcohol-based markers are most prone to bleeding, so the color may spread more than desired. (On the plus side, they’re easier to layer and blend than water-based markers.)


What About Mixing Mediums and Other Tools?

While pencils, pens, and markers are among the most popular drawing tools, they’re certainly not the only options out there. You could also use watercolors, crayons, chalk, pastels, even eyeshadow—basically, anything that transfers color to paper can be used for coloring.

And then there’s the option of combining different mediums, which can be an extremely effective way to add detail, depth, highlights, and other unique elements to a drawing. If you’re interested in combining media, check out these resources:

Bottom line? There are tons of ways to achieve interesting looks and textures on your coloring book pages. Don’t feel a need to confine yourself to one medium or another. Instead, be willing to try out new tools and combinations and see what happens. Experimentation is key to creativity!

Of course, if you prefer not to branch out from your trusty colored pencils, don’t fret. Ultimately, the best drawing tool for the job is the one you most enjoy using.


Tags: Tips & Techniques