Today, let’s talk about the basics of drawing iridescent color in response to a reader question. The question comes from a bird watcher who loves drawing birds, but the basic principles that will help him draw more accurate iridescence on birds will also help you draw iridescence on other objects.
Let’s begin with the question.
I am a bird watcher and my main subject to paint are birds. Being relatively new to colored pencil painting, I am still feeling my way.
Many birds … show an iridescent glow. I have tried to replicate that but my result is usually mud.
Could you suggest how I can proceed to obtain that iridescent glow in birds (or any other subject)?
This is the first time I’ve ever thought about drawing iridescent colors. Mostly, I suppose, because they don’t appear often on horses or in landscapes, which are my favorite subjects. So thank you to this reader for asking such a unique question!
Basics of Drawing Iridescent Color
The first step in answering this question was research. I wanted to see what other artists were doing and recommending. It was surprising to find so few videos or articles on the subject.
Amie Howard, who draws a lot of birds, had a couple of videos on drawing feathers that included iridescent colors. Since many insects are iridescent, I looked for videos on that topic. That was no more successful.
So I finally resorted to my old stand-by principles for drawing anything. Are you ready? Here they are.
Four Stand-By Principles
Study Your Reference Photo
The first step is using a good reference photo. Your own reference photos are preferable, but you can also use photos from websites like Pixabay.
Just make sure you have permission to use the photo before you put a lot of time into your artwork.
Create an Accurate Line Drawing
Colored pencils aren’t always forgiving. If you start with an inaccurate line drawing, you usually end up with an inaccurate finished piece. It’s not like oil painting, where you can paint over mistakes or correct inaccuracies in drawing.
Whatever method you use to make a line drawing, make sure it’s as accurate as you can make it.
Think of Your Subject as an Abstract
Stop looking at your subject as a bird, an insect or a soap bubble. Instead, look at it as a collection of abstract shapes, values, and colors. This is especially helpful with complex subjects like water or clouds, but it’s also helpful with simpler subjects.
Along with this, you can also break your subject down into sections and work on one section at a time.
More than once, I’ve masked a drawing so I could see only a small part of it. Why? Because being able to see the entire drawing was distracting and sometimes confusing.
With a subject like this hummingbird, seeing the entire composition can also become overwhelming, as well as distracting. Do your drawing one section at a time to avoid being distracted or overwhelmed.
Draw what You See
Here’s the hard part. Draw what you see.
Don’t draw what you think you see. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what you see in the reference photo.
In order to do this, you have to look at the reference photo a lot as you draw. I’ve watched many painters who spend more time looking at their subject (whether a live model or a reference photo) than they spend drawing. One fellow I know and follow usually makes a mark or two, then studies his subject, then makes another mark or two. His oil paintings are absolutely breathtaking.
Three Specific Tips for Drawing Iridescent Colors
Draw Saturated Color
Take a look at these iridescent feathers. There are a couple of color shifts from vivid purple to purple-blue.
Draw vibrant color like this by using only the colors in the color family. Don’t mix complementary colors or earth tones because they tone down colors. When drawing iridescent colors, toned down color is the last thing you want.
Also, preserve the white of the paper for the areas where you see iridescent color. That’s another excellent way to avoid muddy color.
Include Lots of Light Values
Start with a very light (in value) base layer, then make sure you have lots of light values in the iridescent area.
Iridescence is the result of light striking the surface of the feather, bubble, insect, shell or other surface. There should be no dark values or shadows in that area.
Yes, there are shadows, but they are in the openings between the feathers. When you draw an actual bird, like the hummingbird above, there will be even fewer shadows.
The iridescent “glow” happens when you shift colors without shifting value. All light. No shadows.
So start with a light color, then add the slightly darker values in the yellow-green feathers by starting with a very light yellow-green base layer, then adding yellow-greens that are a little bit darker.
Watch the Color Transitions
Here’s another iridescent object, a shell. The iridescent colors include yellow, pink, green and blue.
In some places, one color transitions into another color. That’s part of the beauty (and difficulty) of drawing iridescence.
But if you blend some of those colors together, you’ll end up with muddy color. That’s because complementary colors make each other less vivid.
So keep the edges soft and the transitions rather abrupt. You don’t want hard edges most of the time, but you also don’t want muddy color.
Basics of Drawing Iridescent Color
As you can see from the samples in this post (all from Pixabay, by the way,) iridescent colors appear on many different objects and in many different forms. It’s impossible to give specific instructions for every type of iridescent color, even if I limited myself to feathers.
But the basics of drawing iridescent color that I’ve described here should give you a good start.