The Basics of Reflected Light

Let’s talk a little bit about reflected light basics today. You’ve probably heard me mention reflected light in various tutorials and maybe even in a class if you’ve taken one of those. It’s time to define what I’m talking about.

The Basics of Reflected Light

What is Reflected Light?

Reflected light is light that comes from a source other than the primary light source. The light of the moon is sunlight reflecting off the moon and back to us.

Reflected light in art is the light that bounces off one object and strikes another object.

No matter what subjects you draw or paint or how you draw or paint them, you’re working with light. How well you draw light determines how three-dimensional your drawing turns out.

How well you draw reflected light determines how strong the illusion of three-dimensions is.

So it’s important to know and understand just how reflected light works.

The Basics of Reflected Light

Inanimate Objects

A natural light source (the sun) in an outdoor setting, illuminates these books and their surroundings. The light source is strong and direct.

Reflected Light on Books

The light source is from the upper right and almost directly to the right of the books.

The Merck Manual gets the most direct light, but since the brightest light is on a side that isn’t visible, you can’t see the brightest highlights anywhere but along the edge where the spine curves around to meet the front cover.

But there is plenty of reflected light. The black arrows below mark light reflected onto the books from other books or from the floor.

But do you see the red-tinted area on the white bricks? That’s light bouncing off the front of the Merck Manual, and illuminating the wall. In other words, reflected light.

Reflected Light on Books 2

If the light source is strong enough and the object off which light is being reflected is close enough to the object onto which light is being reflected, the second object reflects color as well as light.

Horses and Other Animals

Reflected light affects more than smooth or shiny objects. It affects all subjects, animate and inanimate. Take a look at this photo, for example.

Reflected light and animate objects.

The primary light source is the sun, and comes from the upper right. The cast shadow is directly beneath the horse and stretches out behind. The shadows are all exactly where you expect them to be.

But note that his belly and the downward facing planes of the chest are light. The darkest part of the shadows is not on those surfaces—where you expected them—but partway up the horse’s side and chest.

Light bounces off the sandy ground and illuminates the underside of the horse. The affect is especially noticeable because the primary light source is so strong, the horse’s coat is smooth, and the ground is flat, bare, and reflective.

Reflected light on a wet horse is also quite noticeable. That’s what makes “bath shots” so appealing.

Dimmer primary light (as in a cloudy day or indoor light) creates less reflected light. Longer hair also produces less reflected light, as would mud or grassy ground cover.

Also take a look at the top slope of the horse’s rump. The rump is well lighted even though it doesn’t face the light source. Compare it to the shadow on the ground.

The light across the top of the rump is another form of reflected light. This time, the reflect light comes from the sky, hence the bluish tint.

Just to show you reflected light does appear on long haired animals, here’s Max. Asleep in a patch of sun falling on a pink towel.

Pink reflects up onto Max between his eyes, on the underside of his outstretched paw, and in the fur around his neck. It appears in shadows and in mid-tones.


Not drawing or painting reflected won’t make your art bad. I painted portraits for years without understanding or using reflected light.

But a good understanding of the basics of reflected light, and knowing how to draw or paint it will make the subjects you paint or draw look more three-dimensional. It is a valuable addition in your art toolbox no matter what your preferred subject.

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Drawing Studies For a Large Portrait

Master artists and others have been drawing studies to work out more complex compositions for centuries. It’s one of the most basic, most important, and most often neglected tool in the artist’s toolbox.

I should know, because it’s the tool I ignore more often. Why?

Because it takes time to draw studies, studies usually focused on parts of the composition I didn’t want to draw, and because I never thought I was that good at drawing studies.

NOTE: This post is based on my experiences with one of the last portraits in oils I did, but the lessons I learned apply to all mediums. In the years since, I’ve learned to draw from life, which improves my artwork at all levels.

It will yours, too. So read on!

Drawing Studies for Large Portraits

But you know what? It turns out drawing studies aren’t all that difficult.

What’s even better? The more studies you draw, the better you get (and the faster.)

Why I Started Drawing Studies Again

Some time ago, I did something I never thought I’d do: Accept a commission of a personal portrait in oils. A large portrait.

It was a full figure portrait that included lots of flowers, an outdoor setting, and, well, a real live human being. Nary a horse in sight.

Like I said, something I never thought I’d do.

Because it was a long distance portrait, I worked from photographs. The photographs were high-resolution, and the work of a professional photographer. In other words, excellent references.

But that didn’t diminish the scale or scope of the portrait. Or the Fright Factor. (The Fright Factor, by the way, was huge!)

To prepare, I looked online for anything I could find relative to doing human portraits in oils. Among the things I found were a series of videos that were not only very helpful, but also motivating.

One of them was a Russian artist, Igor Kazarin. He works in oils and one of his videos features a head and shoulders portrait.

I’ve also found the tutorial videos of David Gray. He uses a technique similar to mine, so watching his videos was also helpful, and encouraging.

I watched at least one video every work day I had the time. Especially the drawing videos as I worked my way through the new commission.

Drawing Studies Help You Get Familiar With Your Subject

Those videos motivated me to start drawing studies of my subject. My hope was to get comfortable drawing these parts of the portrait, and gain confidence in my drawing skills. I wanted to get familiar enough to be able to paint with confidence.

So I started drawing some of the less scary things.

I chose this study of the subject’s handbag because I’ve discovered I can draw almost anything that’s organic, but give me something man-made and it’s a nightmare!

Drawing Studies - Handbag Study

Once I got comfortable with the handbag, I also drew studies of the subjects eyes, and of other parts of the portrait.

Drawing Studies - Eyes

Drawing studies came into play at all phases of this project, and even while I worked out the overall composition on gridded paper. If I had doubts about an area, I developed it as a more complete study.

Drawing Studies - Foot & Sandal

Most of the studies involved unusual parts of the composition, such as the foot and sandal above. But I also worked out the details of more familiar, but complex areas, such as the palm fronds shown below.

Drawing Studies - Palm Leaves Study

Most of the studies were drawn while I was working on the line drawing, but I also did a few studies during the painting process.

You Can Do Drawing Studies to Improve Your Drawing Skills and Confidence

It’s not that difficult to get started drawing studies, as you’ve seen in my example.

Are you working on a drawing that has some difficult parts? Draw a few studies of those areas before you tackle them on the finished piece. You can do graphite studies like I did, or use colored pencils.

Maybe your next project is a portrait or commissioned piece that has you worried. Identify the parts that have you most concerned, and draw a few studies.

You don’t need to do large studies, or get fancy. The study of the eyes I shared above were all drawn on the same sheet of paper. And you don’t even need a lot of expensive supplies. A small sketch pad or inexpensive paper is sufficient. After all, these studies don’t need to be archival.

“But I’m not working on a complex drawing right now,” you say.

That’s okay.  Do a few life studies instead. The drawing will do you good. If you need a little motivation, you might check out the plein air drawing in colored pencil group on Facebook.

So how did the portrait turn out? Here’s the finished painting. All 24 by 36 inches of it!

Drawing Studies - Finished Portrait

Taking the time to draw studies of the parts I wasn’t sure about took a lot of time at the beginning of the process, but ended up saving time overall. The details I’d drawn studies for proved easier to paint than other areas.

It all contributes to improving your drawing skills, and that increases your confidence.

Both prepare you for the next big challenge on your colored pencil journey.

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How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Knowing how to draw vibrant shadows is key to realistic art. It doesn’t matter what medium you prefer, if your shadows are weak, contrast is weak.

Weak contrast makes for flat artwork, and we all know flat artwork doesn’t usually look very realistic.

So how to do you get strong contrast? Push those dark values as far as you can with strong, vibrant shadows!

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Value is the most important thing to get right in your art.  You need to have strong highlights and strong shadows.

But shadows can be so difficult to get right, as a recent reader question proved. There are so many different ways to draw shadows, the reader wanted to know the best way.

There really isn’t a “best way” that works with every drawing. You style of work, your subjects, and the colors you have available all play a role in how you draw shadows.

Five Ways to Draw Vibrant Shadows

There are as many different ways to draw shadows as there are artists. Sooner or later, every artist develops their own way of doing things.

Lets start with five red balls. I’ve drawn them all with the same color (Scarlet Lake) and to the same degree. There’s a decent range of values, but nothing stunning.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - 1

Use darker values of the same colors to draw shadows.

I “finished” the first ball with the same color simply by adding more layers of Scarlet Lake. The darker the values, the more layers.

The darkest values are burnished with Scarlet Lake to fill in the paper tooth and make the shadow darker.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Local Color

Use darker versions of the local colors to draw shadows.

From this point on, there are two important things to remember.

First, don’t add the new colors only to the shadows. Shade them over most of the middle values, too. Fade them out just like you fade the base (local) color, or you may end up with a shadow that looks “stuck on.”

Second, alternate layers of the new color and the local color. You should almost always finish with a layer of local color, too. That gives the shadow the look of being a darker version of the local color, rather than an entirely different color.

The shadow and darker middle values in the second ball are Crimson Lake. Crimson Lake is a darker red with a hint of blue. The resulting shadow is darker than the rest of the red, but still not very vibrant.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Darker Local Color

Add Black to dark versions of the local colors.

Black was layered over the shadow in the third ball. You might think this is the logical choice for darkening shadows, but as you can see, it didn’t really make the shadow very vibrant. Instead, the shadow looks more gray. That may work for some drawings.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Black

Add a complementary color to draw shadows.

I layered Grass Green into the shadow on the fourth ball. Green is the complement of red, so you could add red to the shadow of a green ball. Any complement naturally darkens and tones down the color it’s added to.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Complementary Color

Mix a dark brown and dark blue to draw shadows.

The best way to draw shadows is by mixing other colors. My favorite colors for shadows are dark brown and dark blue. Combined in alternating layers, they create lively dark values that rival black. That combination works with most medium to dark-colored objects and I’ve used them with great success on horses and landscapes.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Indigo and Dark Brown

For lighter colored objects, you’ll want to replace these colors with lighter shades.

Those are five ways to draw vibrant shadows.

There are other ways, too, so the best advice is to experiment. Do like I did with a series of balls or any other shape. The drawings don’t need to be polished pieces of fine art to help you find the best way to draw vibrant shadows in your own work.

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Drawing from Life: Get Started The 3-Step Way

Most artists know there’s value in drawing from life. Many understand that value. But there are a lot of us who simply don’t do it for one reason or another.

The apparent complexity of drawing from life is what kept me from practicing this particular art form for so long.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be difficult or complex. 

Drawing from Life in 3 Steps

In a recent email drawing class, I broke the drawing process down to three basic elements. Elements that apply to every form of drawing, but are especially helpful in life drawing.

Even if you’ve never drawn from life before.


The most basic element is the mark you make on the paper with each pencil stroke: otherwise known as a line.

When you begin a drawing, you start with lines, which are also known as “strokes.”

Drawing from Life - Lines are the most basic drawing element

Lines can be straight or curved, long or short, thick or thin. No matter what type of line you draw, they all have one thing in common.

They’re one-dimensional. That means they have a beginning and an end. They have only length.

And yet the line is the foundation on which all art is built, especially two dimensional art—also known as flat art. Paintings, sketches, prints, and drawings are all forms of two-dimensional art, and they all begin with a simple line.

“Even the most complex drawings?” you ask.

Yes. Even the most complex drawings. Here’s how it works.


Everything around you—living or not, naturally occurring or man-made—can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes.

Drawing from Life - Lines combine to make shapes

That’s right. Circles, squares, and triangles.

Take a look at the things around you. Chairs. Tables. A cup of coffee or glass of soft drink. An apple, orange, or bunch of grapes. What shapes to do you see?

Even complex things like animals and people can be reduced to these basic


Lines are one-dimensional (they have only length.) Circles, squares and triangles are two dimensional. They have width and height.

The paper you draw on is also two-dimensional.

Almost everything you draw is three-dimensional. It not only has
width and height, but it has depth. It takes up space.

How do you draw something that looks three-dimensional on something with only two dimensions? The answer is shading.

Shading is the process of adding shades of gray (or any color if you’re working with color) to the shape you’ve drawn. These “shades” are known as values.

Shading is what turns this…

Drawing from Life - A line drawing without shading

…into this.

Drawing from Life - A line drawing with shading

When you shade a shape, you make it look like light is striking different parts of it to different degrees, and that creates the illusion that the object has form or mass; that it takes up space.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

One of the biggest challenges for most of us is getting rid of paper holes in our color layers. No matter what the subject, we’re always looking for better ways to get smooth color with colored pencils.

That’s especially important if your subject includes a sky. Unless they’re filled with clouds, most skies move seamlessly from one shade of blue to another, and from light to dark. You simply can’t afford to have edges between those shades. Nor are paper holes acceptable.

“But aren’t solvents or complex techniques necessary for absolutely smooth color?” you ask.

No. Let me share two ways I use to get smooth color, and you already have the tools!

The first sample is on 140lb hot press watercolor paper, which is fairly smooth.

The second sample is on Canson Mi-Teintes, which is not so smooth. These two methods can be used on most papers suitable for colored pencil.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils

Get smooth color by careful layering.

The best way to get smooth color with colored pencils is by careful layering. It doesn’t matter what you’re drawing, or what pencils or paper you use. Draw each layer so carefully that the color needs little or no blending.

For the smoothest color, use light pressure through several layers. Each layer you add fills in the tooth of the paper more, creating steadily smoother color.

You can use heavy pressure to get smooth color. The darkest stripe in the sample below was drawn with very heavy pressure. The other values are multiple layers of repeating strokes applied with light pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Layering

Layer multiple colors to create new colors or subtle variations, as well as create smooth color.

Keep your pencils sharp, so they reach down into the tooth of the paper. Small strokes are also best for layering smooth color. Many artists also recommend circular strokes because they don’t leave edges. If you’re new to colored pencil and learning how to draw, then it is better to learn circular stroking.

But if you’re an established artist, you may already have developed other strokes that produce the desired results. Continue to use those strokes.

Get smooth color by blending with paper towel.

The second way to get smooth color with colored pencils is to blend it with paper towel. This method works especially well on Canson Mi-Teintes and other toothier papers.

Let me show you how to blend with paper towel.

Fold a piece of paper towel into quarters or smaller, depending on your hand size and the size of the area you want to blend. The paper should be small enough to hold firmly, but large enough to blend effectively. I usually fold a sheet of paper towel three times.

Rub the paper towel against the drawing. It’s next to impossible to cause damage (other than by blending over the edges,) so don’t be afraid to use heavy pressure.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 1

Some color will come off on the paper towel. That’s okay. You can continue to blend with this paper, but be aware that if you begin blending an area of a different color, the first color will come off on the new color, especially if the second color is lighter than the first color.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils- Paper Towel Step 2

The illustration below shows blending on the left side, but not on the right. It doesn’t seem like it would do very much, but on Canson Mi-Teintes, it’s very productive.

Two Ways to Get Smooth Color with Colored Pencils - Blended Sample

I have blended with paper towel on just about every type of paper I use regularly. That includes Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, and 140lb hot press watercolor paper.

If getting smooth color with colored pencils is one one of your big challenges, give these two methods a try.

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

Can you use graphite under colored pencil? Does graphite work as an under drawing for colored pencil work?

There are a lot of ways to draw an under drawing for colored pencils. Umber under drawings. Complementary under drawings. Monochromatic under drawings. The fact of the matter is that you can use any of these or combine them almost any way you want.

But what about using graphite for the under drawing?

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil

The most obvious reason many artists think graphite and colored pencils are compatible is that they’re both pencils. They’re also both dry mediums and you apply them in many of the same ways.

But you really mix them with success?

Can You Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil?

The short answer is, yes, you can. But there are some unique qualities to each that make them not entirely compatible.

The biggest difference is that colored pencils are made by mixing pigment with wax and/or oil and a small amount of clay so the pigment can be formed into a core.

Wax and/or oil holds the color together within the pencil, and also allows it to be put onto paper. It’s fairly resistant to smearing or erasing.

The core of a graphite pencil is made by mixing graphite powder with a clay-based binder. This binder holds the graphite together inside the pencil, and also allows the graphite to be easily transferred to paper.

However, it is not permanent, and is easily erased or smeared (blended.)

So if you plan to try graphite with colored pencil, you need to observe two very important things.

Always use graphite first, then colored pencil.

Always, always, always use the graphite first and the colored pencil second. Colored pencil will stick to paper that has graphite on it, but it will be very difficult to get graphite to stick to colored pencil. The heavier the layers of colored pencil, the less likely graphite will stick to it.

Even if you used oil-based colored pencils.

Consider sealing the graphite before adding colored pencil.

Graphite muddies colored pencil if you don’t seal it before adding the colored pencils. This may not be a concern if you’re making a dark background, but it will damage or darken lighter colors immediately. Once that happens, it’s difficult to correct the problem.

Graphite also gets shiny if you apply it too heavily. Since the purpose for using graphite is creating a dark value, and since you achieve dark values with lots of layers, or heavier pressure, you may very well have to deal with a shiny surface by the time you get to the colored pencil stage.

One way to seal a graphite under drawing before adding colored pencil.

The easiest way to prepare a graphite drawing for colored pencil work is to seal it with a couple of layers of fixative. You may have to try more than one brand to find one that works best for your uses.

Spray the drawing at least twice, by holding the can upright and about twelve inches from the drawing.

Start at one side of the drawing and move across the drawing to the other side. Begin and end off the edge of the paper to avoid excess fixative along the edges of the drawing.

If the paper is very large, move down and repeat.

NOTE: I always spray a drawing the same way I read a page, starting at the upper left corner and moving left to right, and down. You don’t have to do it this way if another process is more comfortable.

Let the paper dry for at least 30 minutes, then repeat.

WARNING: Work in a well-ventilated area. I prefer to do this kind of work outside, but any room with good ventilation is acceptable. You may also want to consider using some kind of respiratory protection.

How to Use Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step-by-Step

An Optional First Step

Use masking film or masking fluid to protect the subject. They both work by covering the parts of the paper you want to be white, but each one works best in different ways.

Masking fluid is a liquid mask you brush onto the paper. When it dries, you can work over it carefully, then peel it off. Just make sure not to leave it on the paper too long, or it may discolor the paper.

Fluid is good for protecting small areas or details because you can apply it with a brush. You will ruin the brush, so don’t use expensive brushes.

Masking film comes in sheets, which you can cut to shape, then press onto your paper. It’s ideal for larger areas or for shapes that have smooth edges.

You can use both forms together.

Since my demo drawing was small, I didn’t mask out the main subject.

Step 1: Shade the background with graphite

This step will take several layers, even if you use a very soft graphite pencil. I used a 6B pencil to shade this drawing on Stonehenge paper.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step 1

TIP: Graphite pencils are graded by softness. HB is about in the middle. Harder pencils are labeled with an H; softer pencils with a B. The higher the number, the harder or softer the pencil. 6B is softer than 2B. 6H is harder than 2H, and so on.

After shading, blend the graphite with a tortillion, paper towel, bath tissue or cotton ball. The fact of the matter is that you can blend with almost anything soft. Brushes are even good blending tools.

Here’s the previous layer of graphite blended.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step 2

Continue to layer and blend until the background is as dark as you want it (and can get it with graphite.) I did three rounds of layering and blending to get the result below.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil Step 3

Step 2: Seal the graphite

When the background is finished to your satisfaction, seal it as described above.

Step 3: Add Color

Start layering color over the background.

You may need to adjust the amount of pressure you use when you work over graphite. I ordinarily begin with very light pressure, but that made no impact at all on the graphite background. So I increased pressure until I was almost burnishing.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil - Adding Color

You will probably want to add more than one color. I used only a dark green for this demonstration and it worked, but adding blue, brown, or even red makes for a much richer dark value.

For comparison, I also shaded the tree with the same green. I used a variety of pressures, including heavy pressure, so you could see how much darker the graphite made the background.

Graphite Under Colored Pencil - Adding More Color


Personally, I very rarely mix graphite and colored pencil. This method didn’t produce the results I hoped for, nor was it any faster than drawing a background with colored pencils alone.

For the ways I work, simply layering colored pencil and blending with sovlent produce better results more quickly.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. Graphite can produce some very interesting and unique effects if used properly. And you can lift highlights with an eraser or sticky stuff, so long as you do it before sealing the drawing.

So if you’re looking for a different way or a different look, give graphite and colored pencil a try.

For information on using graphite under colored pencil, read How to Use Graphite Under a Colored Pencil Drawing, which I wrote for EmptyEasel.

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Let’s talk about something most artists don’t appear to give much thought to these days: the importance of drawing from life.

I know this topic is put on a back burner for most artists because I gave it little or no thought for most of my artistic life. My focus for nearly 40 years was portrait work, and I had a full-time job, drawing time was dedicated to portrait work. It never seemed important that I draw from life or do any art that wasn’t directly related to whatever portrait I was working on at the time.

The Importance of Drawing from Life

But I was in error thinking that way. I short-changed myself by focusing so tightly on art for business, and may have actually hindered my progress as an artist.

Then came the acceptance of a large portrait in which the subject is human in 2013.

With a lot of flowers (hundreds of white roses.)

And a lot of palm fronds.

And a beautiful porcelain vase, a banner, bows, and…. (You get the idea.)

I did a lot of study sketches for that portrait. Mostly facial features, which had to be spot-on accurate. Those studies are all from reference photographs provided for the project, and they were invaluable (a topic for another post.)

But they didn’t quite get the job done. I needed something more. Something that stretched my ability to see what I wanted to draw, and to draw it more accurately.

So I turned to drawing from life.

The Importance of Drawing From Life

Since the portrait subject lived hundreds of miles away, I found other things for life drawing. Things not related directly to the portrait, but that would improve my ability to see, as well as my eye-hand coordination.

I learned valuable lessons through that experience. Here are a few of them.

Drawing from life develops observation skills.

This drawing is a life drawing. It’s not complete because I was walking the cat when I drew it (yes, on a leash). Thomas decided to lie in the shade, so I took advantage of the half hour to draw.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Leaf Study

This particular drawing shows the growth end of one of the branches of a Mock Apple. I’d never before noticed the leaflets at the base of each leaf. Now I notice them all the time.

And that’s part of the reason for doing life drawings. Observation. You can see things in life—little details like leaflets, or color gradations—that are often vague or missing in photographs.

Learning to see and accurately draw values is also a reason to draw from life.

I drew the Mock Apple in strong light. I drew many other things in strong light, too, as well as in filtered and flat light.

If your subject is in strong light, it’s easy to see not only highlights and shadows, but middle values and reflected light. We all know about drawing accurate shadows and highlights, but the middle values and reflected light really bring a subject to life.

There is no better way to view how light illuminates objects than in real life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Value Studies

But you don’t have to go outside to see strong light. I drew this egg indoors. I arranged it under a single bulb lamp and positioned it on a white cloth, so there was plenty of light bouncing around.  Not only was it a great study of drawing white objects on white paper; it was an ideal light study.

It gets you out of your usual art routine.

Drawing from life is perfect for forcing you out of your usual art habits.

Some of you know that I’ve been an equine portrait artist since high school. Suffice it to say a long time. Since art time was such a premium most of those decades, I did very little art that wasn’t equine in nature.

I live in a residential area where dogs and cats are the most common animals, followed by birds and other small wildlife.

So when I started drawing from life, I was forced to draw something other than horses. Things like utility flags, the end of the porch railing, wood planks, and a loop of orange extension cord lying on the ground.

Here’s a bonus for many of us. Drawing from life means getting outside. Away from technology and into the fresh air and sunshine. I don’t know about you, but that’s reason enough for a 20 to 30-minute break most days.

How to Fit Drawing from Life into Your Art Routine

Draw outside once a week (or as often as possible)

Now that you know why I think drawing from life is so important, let me share a few ways I’ve found to fit it into my art routine.

A couple of autumns ago, I started a plein drawing challenge. I took myself outside each week for two months to draw. The goal was to produce one plein drawing a week.

I did it again last year, and I plan to do it this year.

After last year’s challenge ended, I decided to continue through the end of the year.

I’ve fallen down on the plein air challenge this year, but I do still draw outdoor subjects as often as possible. Even when I have to do it through a window!

Importance of Drawing from Life - Plein Air

Even when I haven’t been able to get outside every week, the motivation still exists. The fact of the matter is, I now see potential drawings almost everywhere I look!

Do small studies whenever (and wherever) you can

At the beginning of this year, I decided to finish one small piece every week this year. Most of those pieces have been smaller than the maximum of 4 x 6 inches I set for myself. The fact is, most of them have been ACEOs (3-1/2 x 2-1/2 inches.)

But most of them have also been life drawings.

The personal challenge and the small size make it easy to dash off a drawing—even a detailed drawing—in 30 minutes or less.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Small Drawings

Collect interesting potential subjects

A reader asking how to draw wet stones led me to collecting stones. I had to have a subject for that post, after all.

Once I got started, I looked for stones every time I went out walking. I even went out a time or two just to look for stones.

As I write this, I have a collection of seven stones of various sizes, shapes, colors, and textures to one side of my drawing desk. So now I don’t need to leave the house or the drawing desk in order to draw something from life.

Importance of Drawing from Life - Collect Interesting Objects

But I still do. I’ve found several places around the neighborhood where there are plenty of stones to pick up! I would never have noticed them in the past.

Look for interesting subjects all around you.

You don’t have to leave the house to find interesting subjects. You don’t even have to start a collection.

Just look around you!

For instance, I look around where I sit at this moment and I see my pencils (some in interesting containers) and the old crank sharpener I use. There’s the computer mouse, a brick (yes, an actual brick,) a coffee cup with a spoon in it, those stones, a piece of cloth, a power strip, the modem and router for the computer, the computer itself, some paper, and some power cords and internet cables on the floor.

The Importance of Drawing From Life - New Subjects

In other words, I don’t have to go anywhere, or even move out of this chair, to draw something from life.


Drawing from life is an important part of the artist’s life. Or it should be. It’s perfect for honing skills, exploring new or potential subjects, and just having fun.

And as you’ve seen, it’s easy to fit into your schedule whether you’re a full- or part-time artist.

What are you going to draw from life this week?

For more tips, read Three Ways to Draw Plein Air on EmptyEasel.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s a question I’ll bet every colored pencil artist—beginner and advanced—has asked at one time or another. Why do every layer if you draw over them anyway? What’s the point?

Am I right?

Colored pencils are such a slow medium to begin with. Yes, there are ways to speed up the process. Blending with solvent, using watercolor pencils, drawing on colored papers, or sanded art paper, for example. But no matter what methods you use, it still takes time to finish a colored pencil piece.

Wouldn’t it be faster to just put down one or two layers and be done with it?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway

We’ve all heard about the layering process. Even if your “main thing” is adult coloring books, you’ve read countless articles on the importance of layering colored pencils. Still, you sometimes wonder.

Are all those layers really necessary?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s the truth.

Colored pencils are a translucent medium. Because so few of them are truly opaque, every color you put on the paper affects the colors you layer over it. They all influence each other.

So if you drew the same painting once with many layers of different colors and drew another version of it skipping or combining some layers, there would be differences. Even if the end result was similar, the two paintings would not be identical.

What’s more, most people would most likely prefer the layered version, even if they didn’t know why.

Yes, you can leave layers out or combine them to finish faster, but you will lose something in the process. In some cases, the trade-off may be worth it, but the best paintings are usually created without shortcuts.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Color

Remember I said most colored pencils are translucent? That means you can layer five different colors, one over another, and all five will influence the look of the last color. They all contribute something to the final color.

Let me show you what I mean.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending Colors

From left to right, I layered Canary Yellow, Limepeel, Grass Green, Peacock Blue, and Light Umber, then a second layer of Canary Yellow, and Grass Green.

I used light pressure for each of the first five layers, and medium pressure for the last two.

On the far right is only Grass Green, applied with heavy pressure and two or three layers.

Layering the grass green with heavy pressure was faster, but the green created by using five colors is a more realistic green. If your subjects are landscapes or florals, this blended green is the one you want.

Does that mean it’s never good to do a single color with just a few layers? Not at all. There are times when that’s your best choice. A clear blue sky is often best drawn with a few layers of one or two shades of blue.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Blending

The illustration above also shows how layering colors lets you create new colors. Every color layered over existing color changed the existing color in some way. Sometimes subtly; sometimes dramatically.

In the sample below, I layered pink and blue with very light pressure to create a shade of purple.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending

You can create even more subtle color gradations by changing the order in which you layer. Blue over pink produces a blue-ish purple, while pink over blue creates a purple that’s a little more pink.

What this means is that even if you’re limited by cost to a small set of colored pencils, you’re not limited to the number of colors you can create.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Value

The same principle applies for drawing values. You can choose a darker color or press harder on your pencil to get a darker value, but building value layer-by-layer is the preferred method. Even if you don’t use different colors and even if you use light pressure for every layer, every layer you add makes the value darker.

I shaded each of these squares with the same color. The square on the extreme right was shaded with one or two layers applied with heavy pressure. The others were shaded with multiple layers applied with light or medium pressure.

Why does that matter?

Not everything you draw will be equally dark. Let’s say you want to draw this blue jar. Look at all the values! They range from almost white in the brightest highlights, to very dark.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Values

Even though the blue is the same all over the jar, there’s a full range of values.

You can draw the shadows with a layer or two applied with heavy pressure, but you need many layers applied with lighter pressure to draw all the gradations between the lightest light and the darkest dark.

Using light and dark blue pencils may help you, but not as much as multiple layers of the right blue (or the closest blue you have.)

Why All Those Layers Matter in Finishing Pieces

This is Afternoon Graze on the day before it was finished (top) and on the day it was finished.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Afternoon Graze

It’s not difficult to see the difference, especially in the horses.

What did I do to get from the top sample to the bottom one? Added more layers over the horses and parts of the background.

Was that necessary? That depends. When I first started doing colored pencil work, I probably would have been content with the piece the day before it was finished.

But I’ve learned the hard way that skipping the last few layers decreases color vibrancy, value depth, and generally results a flat-looking piece.

Most of the time, I now give a piece I think is finished one more day’s worth of work. Very rarely do I regret that extra day.

Does the Order in Which I Add Colors Matter?

Now that I’ve explained why you should do all those layers, let me address another issue. The order in which you put color on the paper.

It does matter what order you add colors. The color with the most influence will be the last color you use. Layer yellow over green, for example, and bright, yellow-green is the result. Layer green over yellow, and you’ll get a green that’s more green than yellow.

Burnishing with a color changes the final look even more, but even burnishing (which is applying color with the heaviest possible pressure) doesn’t completely cover up what’s underneath.

That’s why it’s important to consider the last color you use.

In the following illustration, I’ve drawn six boxes with a medium value red, then layered other colors over most of them. The first box (on the left) is just red.

I burnished the rest of the boxes as follows:

A colorless blender in the second box

Yellow in the third box

Dark blue in the fourth box

White in the fifth box

Red in the sixth box


Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Order

It’s easy to see the differences wit burnishing. Layering with light or medium pressure also produces differences in color and value.


And that’s why you have to draw every layer even though you draw over them. They all matter!

If you’ve been creating work with just a few layers, try doing a small piece with more layers. Even if you layer the same selection of colors the second time around that you used the first time, I guarantee you will see a difference.

As I mentioned before, it is possible to create beautiful art with just a few layers. Many artists do it.

But for most of us, the more careful layering we do, the better our work is. At least, that’s been my experience.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

Let’s take a look at something that scares the wits out of a lot of us: How to sketch a composition directly on paper. (And no, I don’t mean a preliminary sketch on any old sheet of paper: I mean sketching on good drawing paper!)

I know it’s scary, because it was years before I started doing it.

Want to know the truth? I didn’t start sketching directly on good drawing paper until I started doing landscapes a year or two ago, and I’ve been an artist for fifty years!

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper

Landscapes are ideal subjects to begin with because you don’t need to get every detail correct in order to draw an accurate representation.

I’m using sanded art paper for this tutorial because it’s so easy to remove color and make changes. The goal is to reach the point at which you don’t need to make changes to your sketch, but it’s nice to have that option.

Don’t worry! If this is the first time you’ve ever sketched directly on good drawing paper, it’s not that difficult. Just focus on the big shapes and don’t worry about getting everything exactly right! If it looks too difficult, do a couple of practice sketches first. That’s always a good way to improve drawing skills, anyway, so the time will not be wasted.

I also recommend starting small. This project is 6 inches by 8 inches. Large enough to give you plenty of wiggle room, but small enough to keep it from being too intimidating.

And choose a relatively simple landscape to begin with.

Step 1: Draw compositional guidelines by dividing the paper into thirds horizontally and vertically.

Divide the paper into thirds, as shown below. You can also divide the long side into thirds if you wish. I didn’t because this composition is so horizontal, but in hindsight, I could have saved myself a little time by dividing the long sides into thirds, too.

TIP: Most landscape drawings are best if they are divided roughly into thirds. A composition that’s divided into thirds is generally more interesting that one that’s divided into halves, especially if the halves are nearly equal. If, for example, the horizon line is right in the middle of the drawing, the composition may look more like two compositions cobbled together, than one unified composition.

This illustration shows my paper with the short sides divided into thirds.

You don’t need to draw lines all the way across the paper (though you can if you want to.) Marks along the edges are sufficient. If you taped your paper to a rigid support, mark the tape and not the drawing.

If you do draw lines on the paper, draw them lightly and with a color that fits the final color scheme, so the lines disappear into the drawing.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 1

NOTE: The red lines shown above were added to point out the marks I made on my paper. I didn’t draw lines all the way across the paper, though you may if that helps you.

Step 2: Decide where the horizon line should be.

The horizon line is the line between the land and sky. It should be at or near the the top mark you made in Step 1.

Use a light touch, and keep the strokes loose. Your lines should be dark enough to see through a couple of layers of color, but not so dark that it’s difficult to cover them.

It also doesn’t matter what color you use to sketch, so long as it fits into the color scheme of the drawing. I used a gray-green because that’s the of the most distant hills. It’s also a good base color for the rest of the greens.

I could also have used a sky color had I wanted to.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 2

Step 3: Draw the big shapes first.

Draw the large shapes that make up the “thirds” of the drawing. The horizon line marks the sky and the lower line, which swoops down in the center, defines the foreground.

While it is a good idea to divide your composition into thirds, it’s not absolutely vital that the thirds be precise or equal. As you can see in this illustration, the horizon line peeks over the red line that marks the top third of my drawing.

It also dips below the line. Most of it is below the line.

The same holds true for the sloping line at the bottom.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 3

The rule of thirds—and most other art rules—are only guidelines. Follow them strictly every time and all your drawings may begin to look the same. Like all art rules, the rule of thirds is a good place to begin and a good guideline, but there are times when a subject benefits from ignoring or adjusting the guidelines.

Step 4: Add more details and begin drawing smaller shapes.

Draw the rest of the details within the larger shapes using slightly lighter than normal handwriting pressure.

You can either draw from the background forward, or start in the foreground and work back. I usually work from both directions, though it can be easier to draw foreground shapes first. If you do, the shapes and lines behind them can be drawn around them.

Whichever way you draw the landscape, remember it’s not necessary to draw a  lot of detail. The basic shapes and placement of trees and hills are sufficient to provide guidelines for layering color.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 4

Step 5: Add any additional details

Finish the line drawing by adding any other details that may be necessary. Some of the final details I added were the small tree right of the three trees near the center, and a few lightly sketched lines indicating the slope of the hill below and to the left of those trees.

This is also a good time to make changes to the composition if that becomes necessary. For example, after I finished the line drawing, I realized the composition in the photo is too static. The horizontal lines are well placed, with the horizon about 2/3 of the way up the composition, and the trees a little bit below that.

But the pair of small trees in closest to the foreground are too much in the center, so I added a third tree to the grouping, and placed it to the left of the original two. I also thought about placing other, rounder trees either further to the left or the right, but decided against that for the time being.

How to Sketch a Composition Directly on Paper Step 5

NOTE: This where my drawing would have benefited had I divided the paper into thirds along the long sides. That just shows you that you should always be learning as an artist!


And that’s how I sketch a composition directly on paper.

If you don’t feel comfortable making a line drawing directly on sanded art paper, that’s okay! It took me a while to get comfortable beginning a drawing this way. Make a few practice drawings to familiarize yourself with the composition. You may also want to try rearranging the parts of the landscape a little while you’re at it.

When you’re ready, put your drawing on the sanded paper.

And remember, if you don’t like the sketch once you’ve drawn it, it’s very easy to remove and start over. Sanded art paper is very forgiving that way. So take your courage in hand, and start sketching!

Four Colored Pencil Lessons I’ve Learned

Today, I want share four colored pencil lessons I’ve learned over the years (some of them the hard way.)

Don’t worry.

This isn’t going to a long technical article. Instead, I want to share a few things I had to learn through experience with the thought that it might help you avoid those same pitfalls.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons I've Learned (the hard way)

When I first began doing art, I was a toddler drawing on brown paper grocery bags with Crayola crayons. The big ones. Anyone else remember those?

Then I graduated to paint-by-number sets and started learning oil painting. I painted every set involving a horse, and painted some of them twice.

For many years, oils were my only medium. Then I started going to horse shows and trade shows with my art. Three days away from the studio seemed like a vacation at first, but the more shows I attended, the more I realized I needed something to work on during the slow times. Enter colored pencils.

4 Colored Pencil Lessons I Had to Learn the Hard Way

In my naivete, I thought colored pencil work would be the same as oil painting. Just drier.

Did I have a lot to learn!

Following are the four lessons that made the most difference in my attitude toward colored pencils, and in the quality of my work.

Hopefully, they’ll help you, too.

Colored pencils are a very deliberate medium.

Colored pencils are not very much like oil paints. Yes, there are some similarities, but the differences are many.

The main difference is that colored pencils are a slow, deliberate medium. Not like oil painting, where you can thin paint to a transparent glaze, brush it on in ten or twenty minutes and be done. No. Glazes are possible, but if the drawing is very big, it can take a day or two to do one glaze.

I gave up on colored pencils as a medium many times before finally learning there are very few shortcuts that also produce the kind of drawings I wanted to draw. If I wanted to do colored pencils, I had to work with them the way they are, rather than try to make them behave like oil paints.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Colored Pencils

TIP: If you’re interested in producing a lot of work fast, find a medium other than colored pencils. If you really want to create great colored pencil art, slow down and take your time.

It’s more difficult to cover up mistakes with colored pencils than almost any other medium.

It’s easy to cover up mistakes with oil paints. If the paint is still wet, just wipe the mistake off and repaint. If the paint has dried, paint over it with an opaque color, and keep painting.

You can’t do that with colored pencils. Nope. Most colored pencils are translucent. You see whatever is under the top layers even through several layers.

They also tend to “stain” paper. Once you’ve put color on paper, it’s next to impossible to “wipe it off” and get back to the color of the paper.

Especially if you layer with heavy pressure.

This old drawing is from my early years. I drew the neck incorrectly, and tried to erase the mistake, then cover it over. Nothing doing (at least not then.)

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Covering Up Mistakes

I could fix this mistake now. I’ve learned how to do that. But I’ve learned it’s better to avoid mistakes whenever possible.


Working slowly and carefully with colored pencils results in fewer mistakes (usually) and more finished pieces.

I’m one of those painters who dashes the first layers of color onto the canvas, then refines the painting layer by layer.

I can’t do that with colored pencil because it’s so difficult to cover up mistakes.

It’s far better to take my time from the start to avoid as many mistakes as possible. That begins with a drawing that’s as accurate as possible, even if that means working on the line drawing a week instead of a day.

Then a careful transfer to the drawing paper, followed by careful stroking throughout color application.

Yes, I have to make an effort to slow myself down. Repeatedly. It’s my nature to want to finish things quickly, and I still wrestle with the fact that I’m drawing with a pencil, not painting with a brush.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Slow and Steady Drawing

One way I’ve learned to do that is to make very deliberate strokes, such as those shown above. When I catch myself hurrying, or stroking carelessly, I force myself to slow down.

Is it easy? Nope.

Is it necessary? Absolutely. I’ve spent too much time fixing errors that could have been avoided with a little more carefulness. It really is faster to work slowly.

TIP: Draw even color from the very start of each drawing and each layer will be the best it can be. When you find yourself rushing, take a break. Or at least a deep breath.

You don’t have to draw every hair or every blade of grass .

One of the reasons I decided to try colored pencils in the first place was that I thought they’d be great for details. I love drawing details, especially the long manes and tails of horses.

And since I started drawing landscapes, there’s all that grass to draw.

But I eventually learned, you don’t have to draw every hair or every blade of grass to create a believable drawing.

This drawing from 2005 would have looked just as believable had I started the foreground with a base layer of green, then added directional, grass-like strokes in a few places. Instead, I drew every blade of grass. An unnecessary expense of pencil and time!

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - West of Bazaar

I’m the first to admit this is still a struggle. I want to draw every blade of grass and every hair in a horse’s mane. It’s so much fun!

But it’s also unnecessary when you can get excellent results without drawing every detail.

Besides, it’s far too easy to turn your drawing into a maze of details that distracts from your art, rather than making it better.

Four Colored Pencil Lessons - Don't Draw Every Hair

TIP: Start drawing with a base layer of even color, preferably a mid-tone. Add details along the edges between changes in value or color, or “clump” hair, grass, and other things into groups, rather than draw every hair or blade of grass.

Learning These Four Colored Pencil Lessons Turned My Art Around

They can turn your art around, too.

Whether you have to learn through experience or can learn by example, you will sooner or later have to learn a lot of lessons about colored pencils. It is possible, but be warned. It will take time.

In fact, it’s a life-long journey.

There is, after all, always something new to learn, isn’t there?

Looking for More Specific Lessons?

A few years ago, I did (what was, for me at that time) quite an experimental drawing. It was a smaller than normal landscape, on a surface I didn’t regularly use, but I’ve never forgotten the lessons I learned because of that drawing. Read the full article.