Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

Today’s post is a quick beginner’s guide to under drawings, and it’s prompted by a reader question. Here’s the question to get us started.

I am a beginner to the art of colored pencils. You may have covered my question in a previous post but I could not find it.

My question: What do you mean by under drawing? An example would be helpful as well as I learn best by observation.


This is a great question. When you’ve been doing art for as long as I have (over 50 years,) it’s easy to take for granted that everyone knows what I know. That is so not true, and I thank this reader for bringing the question to my attention.

Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

In it’s most basic form, an under drawing is the first layers of color you put on the paper. The under drawing is also sometimes called “base layers.” This illustration shows the under drawing or base layers for a recent landscape.

This is an example of an under drawing using the same colors at the beginning that will be used at the end.

To further complicate matters, some artists work over all of their drawing at each phase, while others finish one section at a time.

Whichever way you work, you most often probably start with the same colors that you’ll finish with, as I did in the sample above. Blues for a sky, greens for grass, and so on. That’s the way I worked when I first began using colored pencils back in the 1990s.

But I was also oil painting at the time and learning a painting process that involved starting with an umber under painting. With that method, I roughed in the painting with brown tones, followed by gray tones, and ending with color glazes.

When I got serious about colored pencils, I adapted that method to colored pencils.

So when I speak of an under drawing, I’m talking about a method of drawing that begins with a color other than the final colors of the piece.

Different Kinds of Under Drawings

There are different ways to do under drawings, so let me share the two I use most often.

Umber Under Drawings

An umber under drawing is an under drawing done in shades of brown. I do a lot of landscape art and brown tones are natural for landscapes.

I also like browns of all sorts, so starting with an umber (or brown) under drawing is my favorite way to begin many drawings.

This is an umber under drawing for a landscape.

I used Prismacolor Light Umber for this under drawing. Light Umber is a nice, medium-value, warmish brown that produces fairly dark values and extremely light values.

As you can see, there’s already a good sense of distance in the drawing because of the difference in values and details.

This is also a good way to double-check a composition before getting too far into a project. If I find mistakes at this stage, it’s easier to correct them. Then I can layer more browns or start glazing colors.

Here’s the finished landscape.

I did this piece as a demo piece for the first article I wrote for EmptyEasel, so you can start reading the step-by-step here if you’re interested. It’s a two-part series. I’ve linked to the second article, which contains a link to the first article.

Complementary Under Drawings

I have also used complementary under drawings, also usually for landscapes. With a complementary under drawing, I choose a color that’s opposite the final color on the color wheel. For greens, the under drawing would be some shade of red, for example.

Here’s a landscape started with a complementary under drawing.

I used a couple of shades of red for this under drawing; darker red on the main group of trees, and lighter red everywhere else.

But I used the same basic under drawing method for this piece that I used for the umber under drawing sample above. I drew a little bit more detail and darker values in the center of interest, and fewer details in the other parts of the landscape. Even though the colors look “odd” to us, there is still a feel of distance in the drawing.

I could also see the composition was working quite well, though I did make one change at the end of the project.

This is the finished landscape.

Beginner's Guide to Under Drawings

I described the drawing process in depth in a three-part tutorial for EmptyEasel. You can reach the third part here, and link to the other two parts from that article.

Tips for Under Drawing

The following tips work for me and I offer them with the hope that they may work for you, too. They are not absolute by any means. Merely suggestions.

Start with Harder Pencils

Before I bought Polychromos pencils, I used Prismacolor Verithin pencils for under drawings. Verithin pencils are harder than Prismacolor Soft Core pencils. They contain less wax, so they’re ideal for under drawings because they leave less wax on the paper. It’s easier to layer softer, waxier pencils over them.

They also are less pigmented. It’s very difficult to get too dark when you use a Verithin pencil, though it is possible.

And they also erase much more easily than waxier pencils. If you find a mistake in the under drawing, it’s easier to remove or correct, and then cover.

Now I use Polychromos pencils for under drawings, and for all the same reasons. They don’t erase quite as a well as Verithin pencils, but they do lift more easily than waxier pencils.

Plus they have many more colors: 150 colors compared to 36 colors in the Verithin line.

Use Light Pressure

Light pressure is always important. It’s even more important at the under drawing phase. Color applied with light pressure is easier to correct than color applied with heavy pressure, no matter what type of pencil you use.

You also have more control over values with light pressure. You may still get too dark, but drawing dark values bit by bit helps avoid that.

Evaluate the Under Drawing Before You Glaze Color

I’ve found it helpful to let a drawing sit overnight when I think the under drawing is complete. I can evaluate it with fresh eyes the next day. If I see things to improve or change, I make those adjustments before starting color glazes.

Of course you can make adjustments throughout the color glazing phase, but getting the under drawing as accurate as possible before you start color glazing makes color glazing that much easier.

Why I Start with Under Drawings

I often start with an under drawing for landscapes, because I can work out the shapes, values, and even some of the details without also having to make color decisions.

The earth tones or complementary colors also keep the greens in the landscape from getting too bright or artificial looking.

And I simply find it easier to develop a drawing without also making color choices in the early phase.

That’s my Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

There is much more to under drawings than that, but it would take a couple more posts (or a very long one!) to cover everything.

If you’re interested in trying any of the under drawing methods, I encourage you to do so. Start with something small and fun. Maybe even just drawing a series of balls with the same final color glazed over several different colors. That’s the best way to see whether any of these methods work for you or not!

For more information on layering color, read Layering Colors with Colored Pencils.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

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  1. Carrie,
    Your landscapes are phenomenal! If you don’t mind me asking, what is the approximate size of these beautiful drawings? The subtle detail present in them, especially the foreground, really sets them off. I will definitely have to employ this technique in future projects. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    1. Kim,

      Thank you!

      The first one is about 4″ x 6″ and is the first one I did seriously. It’s from 2012.

      The second one, with the red under drawing, is 8″ x 10″ and it’s from 2013.

      Most of my work these days is 9″ x 12″ or smaller. That’s because I have to work on art around other things and I don’t have a place to keep larger works when I’m not working on them. Time is also a factor. I like to finish things on a fairly regular basis, so that means working small.

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