I want to try a monochrome under drawing for colored pencil. What colors can I use?

The short answer is that you can use any color you want. That’s one of the great things about being an artist.

But you need to be careful in choosing, because the color you use will effect the look of the final drawing. Believe it or not, it is possible to ruin a drawing in the under drawing phase. I know; I’ve done it.

Tips For Using a Monochrome Under Drawing

Two guidelines you should pay special attention to are

  • don’t use very light colors
  • don’t use very dark colors

Why You Shouldn’t Use Light Colors

Monochrome Under Drawing Morgan in Western 01 Under DrawingLight colors might seem like a natural choice, but they aren’t. Why? They’ll disappear under color glazes.

I chose colors opposite the color wheel from a deep chestnut for this under drawing. Apple Green for the horse and Grass Green for the tack. I soon learned they were too light to make an impact on the final drawing.

So be wary of using lighter colors. They simply may not be bold enough to make much difference to the finished drawing.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Dark Colors

You can get away with dark colors more easily than light colors, but you also run the risk of getting the under drawing so dark, color glazes will be ineffective. If you are able to apply color with very light pressure–whisper soft pressure–then colors like Indigo Blue, Dark Brown, Dark Green and other dark colors can produce excellent under drawings.

But if you’re a bit heavy-handed or just aren’t confident in your ability to produce light pressure, you’re better off steering clear of dark colors.

Watch Your Complements

color-wheelComplementary under drawings are great for drawing almost anything. For primary, secondary, and even tertiary colors, finding the complement is easy. Mark the local color on the wheel. The complementary color is on the opposite side of the color wheel. That’s the color for your under drawing.

When you’re drawing something like a horse, though, finding an exact complementary color is more difficult. There are so many shades of chestnut, how do you know the best color for a complementary under drawing?

I first determine whether the chestnut tends more toward orange or brown. If I’m drawing a bright chestnut, I’ll use some shade of medium blue (the complement to orange). If the chestnut is darker and more brown, a medium range green or blue-green might work better.

Any number of colors would work equally well. If you’re not sure which color to use, do a few samples on scrap paper. The time you spend on this exercise will be well spent; especially if you make a guess and get it wrong enough to have to do the drawing over again.

The Sentinel Complementary Under DrawingWhat about a landscape?

The complement to green is red. That’s easy enough, but what about all those variations in greens? Light, dark, medium; yellow green, blue green. Olive green. Decisions, decisions, decisions!

The method I described for a chestnut horse works just as well for a landscape. Take a close look at each of the greens. If it’s a yellow green, then you’ll want a bluish red for the complement. If it’s a blue green, then look to the red-orange section of the color wheel.

The under drawing above began with reds and finished up with earth tones. You can see how the colors I used in the complementary under drawing reflect the different greens in the finished drawing. To see how it turned out, check out How to Draw a Complementary Underpainting for your Green Landscape on EmptyEasel.

Earth Tones

Mare and Foal Step 2My favorite color for under drawing is light umber. For drawings with a wide range of values, such as this mare and foal, I use dark umber for the dark areas and light umber everywhere else. To see how the drawing progressed, read the mini clinic, How to Draw a Mare and Foal in Colored Pencil.

Other earth tones also work very well for under drawings. Burnt sienna is ideal for landscape greens. When you layer the greens over a burnt sienna under drawing, the colors mix visually to tone down the greens, producing more natural looking color.

ee-landscape-2012-03-part-1This landscape was the demonstration piece for my first ever article on EmptyEasel.com, How to Create a Colored Pencil Landscape Underpainting.


As I stated at the beginning, you can use pretty much any color you want to draw a monochromatic under drawing. Some colors will hinder you more than help you, though, so take time to experiment before you start the drawing. You’ll be glad you did.

If you have a question, leave a comment below.

Want to know if the monochromatic drawing method is the best method for you? Read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.