Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

Complementary Under Drawing in Colored Pencil

Just what is a complementary under drawing, and how do you use it with colored pencils?

I’m glad you asked!

Let’s handle the subject in two parts.

What is a Complementary Under Drawing?

An under drawing is the first layers of the drawing. They can be in the same colors as the final drawing (what I refer to as the direct method). They can also be shades of brown (umber under drawing), complementary, or any other single color (monochromatic.)

When you use a complementary under drawing, you draw the first layers with colors opposite the final colors. If you’re drawing a red apple, for example, you’d draw the first layers using greens. Green is on the opposite side of the color wheel from red.

The complementary method—or any of the methods—works for any subject. Here are the steps I take to draw a horse using a complementary under drawing.

How To Draw the Complementary Under Drawing for a Horse

Getting Ready to Draw

I used Beach Sand Ivory Strathmore Artagain drawing paper and a technique based on the Flemish technique I normally use with oils. Instead of doing the under drawing earth tones, however, I used complementary colors.

I began the background by applying several layers of color and blending heavily with a clean tissue between each layer. The result is a look that is “watercolor-like” in appearance. To create the look of the Arabian’s native desert, I used blues at the top and blended into golds at the bottom … the look of sky and sand.

Drawing the Under Drawing

I started with Verithin Parma Violet because it’s an excellent color with a light value. I didn’t want a strong complementary color presence, so this seemed like the ideal choice.

However, it was much too light to give me the range of values I needed even after several layers. There wasn’t enough distinction between light values, middle tones, and dark values.

So I layered Verithin Violet over the darks and darker mid-tone areas. It proved to be exactly what I needed.

I worked on the under drawing for two days, reviewing the work at the beginning of each day and making necessary changes or corrections. It took about five hours to complete the complementary under drawing.

After a final review of the under drawing, I began glazing color. In previous drawings, I layered the lighter colors over every part of the horse, then working around the highlights and middle tones with the darker colors.

This time, I applied each color only into the areas where I could see it in the reference photograph or where I remembered seeing it in AL Firestorm’s coat.

Working from light to dark, I used Verithin Goldenrod, Verithin Orange, Verithin Dark Brown and Verithin Indigo Blue. With every color layer, the goal was to get as seamless and smooth a glaze as possible.

This is what the drawing looked like when I finished the Verithin layer.

Using a Complementary Under Drawing with Colored Pencil - The Finished Under Drawing

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

This is an older project, so I don’t have step-by-step photographs of either the under drawing or the glazing process. The photo shown here is the only one, in fact, and I now wish I’d taken more in-progress images (a good reminder to all that you cannot have too many in-progress photographs!).

However, you can see how the highlights were outlined and worked around with each layer of color.

You can also see how I used purples and lavenders to lay the foundation for Firestorm’s bay coat. Darker purples in the darker, blacker areas along his neck and lighter purples or lavender (or no purple at all) in the areas where he shows a more golden color.

After this point, I switched to Prismacolor Thick Lead pencils and continued layering color until the drawing was finished.

Using a Complementary Under Drawing with Colored Pencil - The Finished Drawing


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  1. Hi Carrie,

    That’s a beautiful drawing! These days I never know if drawing or painting is the correct term for CP work. :0)
    Thanks for sharing your process and at least you had one WIP shot.
    I noticed you used Artagain paper, how well does that take layering? I have a pad, but it seems fairly smooth and was wondering how it took the CP pigment?


    • John,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Thank you for the complimentary words, too.

      Drawing and painting both work. Personally, I refer to the more complex works as paintings. I use a lot of the same techniques.

      But customers expect oils, acrylics, or watercolor when they hear the word “painting”, so that’s the term I use.

      Artagain paper is pretty smooth. It’s been a while since I’ve used it (this drawing is from 2004, when Artagain is about all I used). It’s a pretty tough paper and can withstand a lot of abuse and layers. But it’s been several years since I last used it. The Artagain you can buy now may not be the same as the Artagain I was using back in 2004.

      I’ll have to get some and try it. I did love the colors!

      Thanks again for reading.


  2. Carrie,

    Thanks for the reply. I have to say there are many things about you I appreciate, your amazing artwork, Equine subject matter, and your demos and tutorials. Mostly though is that you take the time to reply when I realize that time is an important commodity. Most artists won’t take the time.


    • John,

      Thank you for the very kind words. I’m glad to be of help to you.

      One of the reasons I decided to blog many years ago was to promote conversation. One sided conversation doesn’t last very long!

      I’m always looking for subjects for tutorials and demos, so let me know if there’s something you’d like to see that I haven’t addressed recently or at all.

      Best wishes,


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