Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods

In the past, I’ve talked a lot about the two methods of drawing with colored pencils that I use most often.

I’ve showed you how to draw horses and landscapes with the complementary under drawing method and I’ve shown you how I draw horses and landscapes with the umber under drawing method. I’ve even written a couple of demonstrations describing the direct method.

But in writing a Start Here page and the pages that go with it this week, I realized that I’ve never compared these methods in a single article.

Today’s post will correct that oversight.

Comparing  Colored Pencil Drawng Methods

Before we get started, let me briefly explain terms.

Regardless of the way you draw, you’re likely to work in two basic phases.

The first phase is what I call an under drawing. It’s the first layer or two of color you put on the paper no matter what method of drawing you use. The under drawing may consist of just a couple of layers or it may involve as many as six to ten layers.

The second phase is what I call the over drawing. In this phase, you’re developing the colors, values, and details you established in the first phase.

It doesn’t matter what colors you use in the under drawing. It’s still an under drawing.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be comparing different methods for drawing the under drawing, since the over drawing is fairly consistent no matter which method you prefer.

Comparing Methods of Drawing with Colored Pencils

Basic Drawing Methods

There is no easy way to categorize drawing methods because the methods I’m about to describe are not isolated one from the others. You can combine various aspects of them as you like, so they’re more like points on a line.

To keep the discussion brief and clear, I’m limiting it to the four methods I use most often: Complementary, direct, monochromatic, and umber under drawing method. As mentioned above, these names refer to the way I draw the under drawing. Once I have a complete under drawing, the over drawing is pretty much the same from one method to the next.

Complementary Drawing Method

Complements on a Color WheelWith this method, the under drawing is drawn in colors that are opposite the colors in the over drawing on the color wheel. In the color wheel shown here, orange and blue are complementary colors. If you wanted to draw something blue using this method of drawing, you’d begin by drawing the under drawing in shades of orange.

Green Pastures - Complementary Under DrawingThe drawing, Green Pastures, was drawn with a complementary under drawing. This is the finished under drawing. The under drawing looks almost like a finished drawing, but in complementary colors.

Green Pastures Finished DrawingThis is the finished drawing.

Tips for Using the Complementary Drawing Method

Download my free color wheel template and make your own color wheel. Not only will this exercise give you a good feel for how complementary colors relate to one another; you’ll end up with a reference tool you can use for future drawings. Instructions are included.

If you’re unsure what colors to use for a complementary under drawing, reverse the colors on your digital photo. You can do this in most photo processing programs. You won’t be able to exactly duplicate the colors, but this “negative” image should give you a good idea where to begin.

Direct Color Drawing Method

Direct drawing is probably the most popular method of drawing with colored pencils because it’s where most artists begin. It’s natural. You draw the under drawing with the same colors with which you draw the over drawing. There usually isn’t a moment when you say to yourself, “The under drawing is done.” Instead, you continue to layer color until the drawing is complete.

Fire & Ice Filly Under Drawing

This  illustration shows the early stages of a drawing in which I used the direct method.

The illustration below shows the finished drawing. The primary differences between it and the finished drawing is that the colors and contrast are not as well developed in the under drawing.

Fire & Ice Filly Over Drawing

Tips for Using the Direct Drawing Method

Start with light colors and light pressure.

Build color and value slowly. It’s easier to increase color saturation and value range than it is to decrease it.

Monochromatic Drawing Method

Morgan in Western Indigo Blue Under DrawingWith the monochromatic drawing method, you use one color for the under drawing, but the color you chose is entirely up to you.

I have used this method with Indigo Blue, as shown here. I don’t use it very often because the colors I choose tend to be either complementary colors or earth tones (browns).

Morgan in WesternThe color you use for the under drawing will affect the final look of the drawing. As you can see with the finished drawing here, the chestnut is quite dark. Some of that darkness is due to the colors I used in the over drawing, but most of it is the result of drawing the under drawing in indigo blue.

If you like to experiment and want to see how colors influence each other, do a simple drawing with a monochromatic under drawing, but do several versions of the same drawing with different colors as the under drawing.

Tips for Using the Monochromatic Drawing Method

Chose a color that’s medium value. Use light pressure to draw the lighter values. Increase pressure or number of layers to draw darks.

Umber Under Drawing Method

Landscape Umber Under Drawing 2

This method is similar to the monochromatic method in that you use only one color. In this case, however, the color you use is an earth tone—a shade of brown.  As shown in this landscape, the entire drawing is developed in browns.

Landscape Study Flint Hills Spring

Color is layered over the finished under drawing.

While I use this method for most of my drawings, it’s the most effective for landscape drawings. The browns in the under drawing help keep your landscape greens from getting too bright or artificial looking.

Tips for Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

Use an earth tone that’s either neutral in color (not too blue or too yellow) or that is the complement of the final color. I use Prismacolor Light Umber most of the time, because it’s a light brown that’s still dark enough to draw nice dark values. But it’s a little on the warm side, so if I’m drawing a subject that will feature warm colors in the over drawing, I might switch to Dark Brown, which is slightly bluer in color.

General Under Drawing Tips

Begin with light pressure and build value slowly, layer by layer.

Choose middle value colors. The color needs to be dark enough to impact the over drawing, but light enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the over drawing.

Work around the highlights. It’s much easier to preserve the highlights than to restore them.


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  1. Pat Wessels

    Hi Carrie. Thank you so much for another invaluable tutorial. You are such a star to share your considerable knowledge so generously. Please know your efforts are deeply appreciated and you posts keenly awaited.
    From an ardent fan.

    • Pat,

      Thank you! I’m happy this post was of help to you. I was amazed I hadn’t written about this before, so I’m glad it was helpful to you.


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