Sunday, December 31, 2017

Artist’s colored pencils for modeling

Many model railroad authors, including me, have long used and advocated use of artist’s colored pencils for a variety of modeling tasks. In this post I want to provide some specifics.
     First, brand names. There are numerous brands in any art store, from Neocolor, Polycolor, and others, to the brand I and others have consistently found best, Prismacolor. Prices also vary; Prismacolor is around the middle of the range of prices. I personally think buying something like this purely on price is very false economy, but that is your call. Some pencil brands are very hard and difficult to use for modeling; others, sometimes called “watercolor”pencils, are very soft and again, not as easy to use effectively. But I should hasten to say, if you don’t find that Priamacolor pencils suit you, try other brands until you find what you like.
     Small comment on buying these: a small art store, or any store with limited amounts of art supplies, may offer these colored pencils only in sets. The same goes for at least some internet sellers. These sets are not only pricey but naturally contain lots of colors you can’t use. Find a good art store, including chains like Michael’s or Blick. They will have these pencils in bulk and you can choose exactly what you want.
     My pencils, in a way, fall into two sets. One set is the lighter colors, and these are shown below.

Listed from bottom to top, these are as follows: white, canary yellow, lemon yellow; and a range of grays, warm gray 30%, French gray 30% (two pencils), and warm gray 30%.
     The pencils shown above are used for chalk marks (the white, the yellow, and the lighter grays). A gray chalk mark looks like one that is older and has gotten weathered with time. Such marks are common on the prototype. A second use, for the full range of grays, is to represent weathered, exposed wood that will have tones of gray, such as running boards. I prefer a warm gray tone for this (as you can see from the color names), but Prismacolor also has a range of “cool gray” tones if you prefer that.
     In the “boxcar red” range, used on the obvious color of freight cars, my set looks like this:

Again, from bottom to top, these are as follows: pale vermilion, henna, chestnut, burnt ochre, sienna brown, chocolate, light umber, terra cotta, and tuscan red. Some these color names do not match traditional oil or acrylic tube colors, but no matter, just think of them as arbitrary designations.
     These too can be used for running board variations, and also for wood-sheathed cars or for wood flooring of flat cars or gondolas. An earlier post contains illustrations of using both the grays and the reddish colors to improve running boards (see it at: ).
    It may strike you that the pale vermilion color does not lie in the range of brown and reddish-brown colors of all the other pencils in the photo above. You are right. The pale vermilion, actually, is used for highlighting, along raised edges such as boxcar doors, or superstructure framing, or even individual rivets,I learned this technique from Michael Gross, and it is impressively effective.
     When these pencils are used for general overall weathering, as opposed to selective coloring of running boards or other individual boards, you need a way to diffuse and blend each pencil stroke. (The stroke should be made with the side of a pencil point, not the tip, to avoid a stroke that is too narrow and intense). Again as I learned from Michael Gross, an excellent tool for this blending is an old brush, with its remaining bristles cut very short, less than 1/8 inch long. This can be used to scrub and blend your pencil strokes. As an example, the photo below shows an old no. 12 brush, cut down so it can be used as a scrubber. The penny is to show scale.

     This introduction should suffice to get started in choosing and using artist’s pencils for your modeling needs. As with many techniques in weathering, you need to try things out, both to get the hang of any particular method and also to find out what works best for your individual style. So get out there and try these pencils!
Tony Thompson


  1. I second the motion on Prismacolor! Surgical application of accents is possible and I especially like shading individual boards on wood sided cars. Not all boards took paint the same, and they aged differently. Look at any stock car.

  2. I had not thought to use colored pencils (or, as we say in Canada, pencil crayons) for modelling applications, but I can see how they would be tremendously useful for board by board work. Thank you!