How do I know when a colored pencil drawing is finished? I thought my drawing was done, but the more I look at it, the more I think it needs more work. Am I seeing things? How can I finish it if it isn’t finished?

This week, I’ll be using one of my older drawings as the subject for a crit. Here is my reference photo.

How to Know When a Drawing is Finished - The Reference Photo

Aeropostale, Michigan Standardbred photographed at Midland County Fairgrounds.

Here is the finished drawing.
How to Know When a Drawing is Finished - The Finished Drawing

How to Know When a Drawing is Finished

The question is posed in two parts: How do I know when a drawing is finished; and how do I finish this drawing?

The next section deals with the first question. Following will be suggestions on how to finish the drawing.

Let me begin by saying I really like this drawing overall. I like the way the horse is drawn. The mouth and muzzle are especially pleasing. The background is also one of the best tonal backgrounds I’ve ever drawn (in my opinion).

But there are problems, too. Let’s take a look at them.

The Crit – Is The Drawing Finished?

The short answer to the first question is no; the drawing is not finished. As I mentioned in the question, every time I look at it, I see things that could be done to make it more complete. The portrait is old enough that I don’t remember why I didn’t push the drawing further, so I’m basing this crit solely on a side-by-side comparison of the reference photo and drawing.

The first thing I see is that the color of the horse in the drawing does not match the color of the horse in the reference photo. It is, in brief, not even close. The eye is the most “finished” part of the drawing. Everything else looks half done.

Nor is the drawing as richly saturated in color as it could be. The background and subject do not fit well together because the background is so saturated (no paper holes are showing) and the horse is not (lots of paper holes). If there were to be differences, it would be better to have the horse deeply saturated and the background left vague. That would emphasize the subject (the horse) by pushing the background into the distance. As it is, the horse looks cut out of the background.

The reference photo also shows flat light, but the highlights in the drawing have been enhanced to create the appearance of brighter light. The rest of the drawing doesn’t support that attempt, so there is a further imbalance.

I love the mouth and the muzzle. The details there are well drawn and are my favorite part of the drawing. But they need to be developed more fully.

The eye is also good, but looks too dry to be convincing. The reflections in the eye should have sharp edges—sharp edges in a highlight of this type denotes wetness. Eyes are wet, therefore the edges of the highlight should be sharp.

So although well developed, the horse needs additional work. A good start has been made. Here’s how I suggest building on that foundation.

How Do I Finish It?

What can be done to make the drawing more complete?

Color & Saturation

Add more layers and mix colors to get the rich brown shown in the reference. Add at least one more round of the original colors. I’d suggest at least two rounds. Start with light to medium-light pressure in the first round. For the second round (if you do one), increase to medium pressure. If the color saturation is still not satisfactory, add a third round of colors.

Since the drawing is too yellow, focus on the browns and red-browns in each layer, but use other dark colors such as black grape, indigo blue, and dark green to increase the darkness of the deepest shadows (see red arrows).

A blend with a solvent stronger than rubbing alcohol would also improve color and saturation. Turpentine or rubber cement thinner would work. Make sure the support will stand up to the wetness. Also use either of these solvents in a well-ventilated area.

How to Know When a Drawing is Finished - What Could be Improved

Reflected Light

The areas marked by the light blue arrows (#2) need to show reflected light. The light in the reference photo is pretty flat, but it does show reflected light. Adding blue reflected light to the areas marked with the blue arrow would give the drawing a brighter look. Use Sky Blue Light and Light Umber mixed, then burnish with white.

Adding golden reflected light to the areas indicated by the yellow arrows would further enhance the look and feel of a bright day and bring the overall drawing into better balance.

The Muzzle

Develop the details further with more layers of color. Increase the difference between light values and dark values, especially in and around the nostril and the line of the mouth.

The Eye

Sharpen the edges of the highlight to create the appearance of a wet, curved surface. There should also be reflected light from the sky near the brightest highlight. Use the same blue reflected light in other areas. You probably won’t need light umber to tone down the blue.

Darken the lower lids and add a highlight to the lower lid near the front corner of the eye, then add a subdued reflected light from that highlight. This will improve the three-dimensionality of the eye and give it a more life-like appearance.

My suggestion is to work slowly. After each round of layering and/or blending, step back and review the drawing again. Since it’s often easier to accurately judge whether or not a drawing is finished by looking at a digital image, you might photograph it and review it on the computer.

Would You Like a Crit?

If you enjoyed this crit and would like to have one of your drawings critiqued, send me an email, along with the reference photo and an image of your drawing. Images should be between 500 and 720 pixels on the long side and set between 72 and 96 dpi.

If you have specific questions or problems with the drawing you submit, include those with your submission.

If a professional photographer took your reference photo, get written permission so you can legally to use it and have it posted online in this fashion.