Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods

Comparing colored pencil drawing methods can be a challenge. For one thing, there are nearly as many methods of drawing with colored pencils as there are artists using colored pencils.

And even though two artists may produce similar styles and types of work, the methods they use may be widely different.

How do you know which method is best for you?

Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods - Pencil & Paper

Why Method Matters

As universal as drawing with colored pencils may seem, the method you use depends largely on three things:

  1. The type of work you want to create
  2. Your favorite papers or supports
  3. The pencils themselves

Believe it or not, some methods work better on smooth paper than on rough. Some methods also work best with high-quality pencils, and sometimes, the method that’s best for you is dependent on your artistic temperament.

Choose the wrong method for your tools and personality, and you may very well give up on colored pencils before finishing your second piece.

But find the right method, and you can draw for years and enjoy almost every minute of it!

Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods - Primary Colors

Understanding Terms

Before we get started, let me briefly explain terms.

Regardless of the way you draw, you’re likely to work in two basic phases.

The first phase is what I call an under drawing. It’s the first layer or two of color you put on the paper no matter what method of drawing you use. The under drawing may consist of just a couple of layers or it may involve as many as six to ten layers.

The second phase is what I call the over drawing. In this phase, you’re developing the colors, values, and details you established in the first phase.

It doesn’t matter what colors you use in the under drawing. It’s still an under drawing.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be comparing different methods for drawing the under drawing, since the over drawing is fairly consistent no matter which method you prefer.

Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods

There is no easy way to categorize drawing methods because the methods I’m about to describe are not isolated one from the others. You can combine various aspects of them as you like, so they’re more like points on a line.

Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods

To keep the discussion brief and clear, I’m limiting it to the four methods I use most often: Complementary, direct, monochromatic, and umber under drawing method. As mentioned above, these names refer to the way I draw the under drawing. Once I have a complete under drawing, the over drawing is pretty much the same from one method to the next.

Complementary Drawing Method

Complements on a Color Wheel

With this method, the under drawing is drawn in colors that are opposite the the color wheel from the final colors of the drawing.

In the color wheel shown here, orange and blue are complementary colors. If you wanted to draw something blue using this method of drawing, you’d begin by drawing the under drawing in shades of orange.

Green Pastures - Complementary Under Drawing

The drawing, Green Pastures, was drawn with a complementary under drawing. This is the finished under drawing. The under drawing looks almost like a finished drawing, but in complementary colors.

Green Pastures Finished Drawing

This is the finished drawing. Local color (the finished colors) were glazed over the under drawing. I needed to draw very little detail because it had already been established in the under drawing.

Tips for Using the Complementary Drawing Method

Take careful note of the local colors of your subject. An object that is blue-green in color will require a different complement (red-orange) than an object that’s yellow-green (red-blue). The more precisely you can identify the local colors and their complements, the better this method works.

For environmental greens, consider using earth tones as the complements, rather than direct complements. A grassy field on a sunny day will benefit from an under drawing in cool browns, for example.

If you’re unsure what colors to use for a complementary under drawing, reverse the colors on your digital photo. You can do this in most photo processing programs. You won’t be able to exactly duplicate the colors, but this “negative” image should give you a good idea where to begin.

Download my free color wheel template and make your own color wheel. Not only will this exercise give you a good feel for how complementary colors relate to one another; you’ll end up with a reference tool you can use for future drawings. Instructions are included.

Direct Color Drawing Method

Direct drawing is probably the most popular method of drawing with colored pencils because it’s where most artists begin. It’s natural. You draw the under drawing with the same colors with which you draw the over drawing. There usually isn’t a moment when you say to yourself, “The under drawing is done.” Instead, you continue to layer color until the drawing is complete.

Fire & Ice Filly Under Drawing

This  illustration shows the under drawing stage of a drawing in which I used the direct method.

With this method, you’re developing detail and creating value—just as you do with the other methods. But you’re also making color choices. The drawing develops at all three levels at the same pace.

The drawing moves without notice from the under drawing phase to the over drawing phase.

Fire & Ice Filly Over Drawing

This illustration shows the finished drawing

The primary differences between the under drawing (above) and the finished drawing is that the colors and values are fully developed. I’ve also added detailing where necessary.

Tips for Using the Direct Drawing Method

Start with light colors and light pressure. You can use lighter values of the local color if you wish, or simply start with very light pressure and increase the amount of pressure you use layer by layer.

Build color and value slowly. It’s easier to increase color saturation and value range than it is to decrease it.

Be prepared to possibly have to mix more colors to get the exact color you want. I didn’t have one color that was an exact match for the palomino color of the horse in this example, so I had to combine several shades of yellow- and red-browns.

Monochromatic Drawing Method

When you use the monochromatic drawing method, you draw an under drawing in a single color (or maybe two), but the color you choose is entirely up to you. You develop the under drawing the same way you do with the complementary method or umber under drawing method.

Morgan in Western Indigo Blue Under Drawing

I have used this method with Indigo Blue, as shown in the under drawing shown at the right. I’ve also used shades of purple and green.

But I don’t use the monochromatic method very often because the colors I choose tend to be either complementary colors or earth tones (browns).

Morgan in Western

The color you use for the under drawing will affect the final look of the drawing.

As you can see with the finished drawing here, the chestnut is quite dark. Some of that darkness is due to the colors I used in the over drawing, but most of it is the result of drawing the under drawing in Indigo Blue.

Tips for Using the Monochromatic Drawing Method

If you like to experiment and want to see how colors influence each other, do a simple drawing with a monochromatic under drawing, but do several versions of the same drawing with different colors as the under drawing.

Chose a color that’s medium value. Use light pressure to draw the lighter values. Increase pressure or number of layers to draw darks.

Consider the local color of the subject when choosing the under drawing color. The horse in this sample was naturally a dark chestnut, so using Indigo Blue helped developed the coat color. Using Indigo Blue for a light gray horse would not have helped at all.

Umber Under Drawing Method

This is my preferred method; the method I use to draw horses, landscapes, and almost anything else I want to draw. That doesn’t make it better than any of the others. It just means it works best for me.

Landscape Umber Under Drawing 2

This method is similar to the monochromatic method in that you use only one color. In this case, however, the color you use is an earth tone—a shade of brown.

The illustration at left was drawn entirely in browns. The landscape elements were developed in detail and value through several layers.

Landscape Study Flint Hills Spring

Once the drawing is complete, color is layered over the drawing.

In this sample, I used several greens to draw the grassy hillsides, and the trees. For the most part, I used the same greens in the foreground as in the background, but used the lighter values from the under drawing to create the illusion of distance.

Tips for Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

Use an earth tone that’s either neutral in color (not too blue or too yellow) or that is the complement of the final color. I use a light umber most of the time, because it’s a light brown that’s still dark enough to draw nice dark values. But it’s a little on the warm side, so if I’m drawing a subject that will feature warm colors in the over drawing, I might switch to a darker shade, which is slightly bluer in color.

General Under Drawing Tips

Begin with light pressure and build value slowly, layer by layer.

Choose middle value colors. The color needs to be dark enough to impact the over drawing, but light enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the over drawing.

Work around the highlights. It’s much easier to preserve the highlights than to restore them.

When drawing landscapes, don’t under draw the sky unless there are clouds. A clear, blue sky should be the purest color in your landscape, so it doesn’t need an under drawing.

Read more about colored pencil drawing methods.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

This week brings us to the conclusion of this series. If you’ve been following the series with your own drawing, today is the day I’ll show you how to finish your drawing.

While this series has focused on using the umber under drawing method with colored pencils, the finishing steps apply to any colored pencil drawing using any method.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

By the time you reach this stage in any colored pencil drawing, most of the hard work has been done. Unless you need to make corrections, the majority of work now is adding details and making sure the values and colors are as correct as you can make them.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

Developing Color, Value & Detail

I began by layering Peacock Green over most of the body and neck, working around the highlights. I followed that with Bruynzeel Permanent Orange.

Next, I used Black, Blue Slate, Powder Blue, White, and Limepeel (in that order) to draw the legs. First, I layered Black over all four legs. Then I singled out the flexed front leg and concentrated on that. I alternated among the colors and, when the leg was nearly complete, began working the grass and fence, so I could adjust edges.

When I’d done everything I could think of to do with that leg, I worked on the off side hind leg using the same method. In that manner, I worked from leg to leg until they were all finished.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 15
Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 17

Then I layered Bruynzeel Permanent Orange over all of the body, neck, and head except the reflected lights and brightest highlights. I worked into some areas of the highlights that had previously been worked around, but only very lightly. I used the side of the pencil and stroked in several different directions to get even color.

Then I used True Blue and the side of the pencil to layer color into the reflected highlights along the back, top of the neck, and rump, as well as on the off side of the shoulder and the front leg. That was followed by layering the same color throughout the body to gray and darken the orange.

When I finished, I used Dark Brown to deepen the shadows on the chest and neck.

By the time I finished, the paper was losing tooth and burnishing the drawing or spraying it with fixative were possibilities.

TIP: I try never to make a decision like this without giving myself time to consider options. Once a drawing is burnished, it can’t be unburnished. Fixative cannot be removed, either, so it’s generally better not to rush a decision like this.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 18

Final Detailing

When I reviewed the drawing later, I decided against using fixative at least long enough to try burnishing.

I began detailing with the muzzle using Dark Brown and Black to draw lights and darks, then burnishing with the white. I worked up into the head, brightening highlights and darkening darks as I went, adjusting edges and shapes, and burnishing area by area. I finished the head and ears, then worked down the neck toward the shoulders.

TIP: With larger drawings, it can be better to work section by section when doing final details. This method produces a sharper, clearer image more quickly. There would also be the appearance of faster progress as more and more surface was covered. That can be a major encouragement!

To get the best possible look at details, I worked from the computer and enlarged the reference photo to focus on each area. If a photo is not high-resolution, you may find that enlarging the image too much doesn’t help. Find the best balance of clarity and enlargement to help you see the details you want to draw.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 19

The final layers on the neck, shoulders, chest, body, and rump were Bruynzeel Permanent Orange, Sienna Brown, Dark Brown, Dark Green ,Deco Blue, Tuscan Red, and Cream.

When I finished adding color, I blended with rubbing alcohol applied with a cotton swab. Rubbing alcohol “melted” the wax binder enough for the colors to blend slightly. It also restores some of the paper tooth, so after the paper is dry, I can add more color if necessary.

When I finished, I set the drawing aside for a few days, so I could review it with a fresh eye.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 20

After I determined the drawing was, indeed, finished, I sprayed it with two coats of workable fixative and it was ready for framing.

You don’t have to spray a finished colored pencil drawing with fixative or varnish if you don’t wish to. There are advantages to a light coat of fixative, including keeping wax bloom in check, but it really is a personal preference.

That completes this series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.

For personal, one-on-one instruction in this method of drawing, you might consider one-to-one distance learning. I offer learning by the week, by the month, and by the project. For more information is available through Colored Pencil Tutorials/One to One Classes.

How to Add Color to a Horse Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

The last two posts in this series involved adding color to the landscape for a large colored pencil pastoral. It was a two-step process in which I established the basic colors, then enhanced the color and developed details.

I also did a little work on the mane and tail of the horse to avoid losing those areas to the background. This is how the drawing looked when I finished with the landscape.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 10


How to Add Color to an Umber Under Drawing – The Horse

As with the landscape, adding color to the horse involved two steps: establishing the base colors and details and developing color and value ranges.

The final step with every drawing is reviewing it as a whole and making whatever adjustments to color, value, and detail may become apparent.

How to Add Color to a Horse Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

Establishing Base Colors and Details

The base color for the horse was drawn with a combination of Yellow Ochre in the lighter mid-tones, Pumpkin Orange in the mid-tones, Dark Umber in the shadows, and Cloud Blue in the reflected highlights. Each color was applied with light pressure and a sharp pencil. Wherever possible, I stroked in the direction of hair growth. When that wasn’t possible, I worked around the contours of the horse’s body.

TIP: The base color is the foundation for everything else. Use small strokes placed close together or the side of a well-sharpened pencil to create smooth, even color.

Adding Color to Umber Under 1rawing Step 11


Once the overall color was in place, I used Slate Gray in the light areas and Black in the shadows of the muzzle and black areas. Color was applied with tiny, circular strokes to the muzzle and with directional strokes in the forelock.Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 13


Next, I worked on the legs and muzzle using Black and Slate Blue, darkening values and drawing detail.

Mineral Orange, Dark Umber, and Red Ochre were used in the body, neck and head.

For this round of color, I again worked throughout the horse with light pressure.

TIP: At some phases of a drawing, you can spend a couple of hours working without appearing to make much progress. Be patient! Your work will be rewarded if you stick with it!

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 14


I layered Mineral Orange, Sienna Brown, and Burnt Umber over the body, legs, and neck, then added Black to the legs and darkest shadows of the body. Limepeel was used to draw reflected light on the under sides of the belly, chest, and legs.

Next, I added Orange throughout the horse, shading over some of the highlights that had been protected up to that point and working around others. I used my computer reading glasses for the work so the work was slightly out of focus. That helped me avoid getting too detailed too quickly. I also applied color mostly with the side of the pencil.

Then I layered Sienna Brown and Henna over the brown parts of the horse using broad strokes and following the contours of the horse. Except for the smaller areas or tighter details, I used the side of the pencils.

The browns were getting a little too bold, so I toned them down with a layer of Peacock Green, which I also used on the black areas.

To darken the blacks and darker shadows, I next used medium pressure to apply Copenhagen Blue, then glazed Henna over all of the horse except the blacks.

At that point, my goal shifted to building up color and value as quickly as possible toward a finish. Toward that end, I layered:

  • Tuscan Red over all of the horse but the brightest highlights and the reflected light areas
  • Ultramarine on the legs and in the darker shadows in the head and body
  • Dark Brown over almost all the horse
  • Bruynzeel Full Color* Permanent Orange over all of the browns

All colors were applied in medium length parallel strokes except in the tighter, smaller areas and when I needed to create a directional pattern.

Adding Color to Umber Under Drawing Step 15

That concluded work on the first round of work. The basic colors and details are now in place. It’s time to finish. We’ll tackle that all important step in the next post.

*The Full Color line of Bruynzeel pencils is no longer available. I’ve read that the Design line is the same basic pencil and that the colors are the same, but I have yet to give them a try.

Previous Posts in this Series

  • Creating a Landscaped Drawing Using the Umber Under Drawing Method
  • How to Start an Umber Under Layer
  • How to Finish an Umber Under Layer
  • How to Correct an Umber Under Drawing
  • How to Add Color to an Umber Under Drawing – The First Landscape Layers
  • How to Add Color to an Umber Under Drawing – The Second Landscape Layers


How to Start a Colored Pencil Umber Under Drawing

Welcome back to my series featuring my favorite drawing method, the colored pencil umber under drawing method. If you missed the previous post in the series, here is the link.

  • Creating a Landscaped Drawing Using the Umber Under Drawing Method

In that post, I showed you how to create the line drawing, prepare the drawing paper, and transfer the drawing.

Today, we begin the umber under drawing.

How to Start an Umber Under Drawing

The Process in General

Throughout this part of the drawing process, I used Prismacolor Light Umber. I almost always use this color because it’s a medium value color that is fairly neutral. It produces the darkest values necessary, but it’s also light enough to erase fairly well if I make a mistake.

The entire drawing should be built layer by layer to avoid getting too dark too quickly. The larger the drawing—this one is 16×20—the more time it takes. The more tempting it is to develop each area to completion before moving onto the next. For balanced values, it’s best to resist that temptation.

However, with a large work, it will be easier to work in segments. I layered enough color in each area to establish the shapes before moving to the next area. In addition, I developed each area to the same degree before moving to the next step.

TIP: I’m describing the process that works best for me most of the time. While I believe it will work for most of us, I also realize that we’re all different. Take what you can use of this process and adapt to fit your needs and working style. Above all, have fun!

The First Umber Layer

After transferring the drawing to Rising Stonehenge paper, I outlined the top rail of the fence.  I added shading with horizontal strokes using very light pressure and a sharp pencil held in normal writing position. The strokes mimicked wood grain and didn’t cover all the area.

I started drawing the background trees with hatching, crosshatching, and other types of strokes designed to create a large area of light value first. Once that was complete, I layered strokes to vary the values and duplicate the look of distant foliage.

I outlined some of the more prominent trunks and worked around those, as well as around the outside edges of the fence.

Umber Under Drawing Step 1

That corner became the benchmark for the drawing. I compared everything else to that area for type of stroke and value.

I used loose, vertical strokes to shade the rest of the background trees. Most of the strokes were applied with the side of the pencil rather than the point, but I did use the point to do the detail work around the horse, the fence and in smaller areas.

I also outlined the ears, head, forelock, and mane as I worked the background in those areas to preserve those areas and to begin establishing the horse’s presence. I also did a little shading in those areas, paying special attention to the horse’s eyes and one hoof. That was the fun part with which I rewarded myself toward the end of the drawing session.

Umber Under Drawing Step 2

The Second Umber Under Drawing Layer

After completing the first umber layer, I added the second layer. Again, I used light umber, light pressure and loose vertical strokes, but I worked over some of the areas I’d worked around last time and worked around some new areas to begin creating the sense of depth and of trees visible deeper within the stand.

Here is a detail of the head and the area around it. Even though there are very few ‘lines’ drawn, the edges are beginning to take shape.

Notice also the vertical shapes in the background. I didn’t outline those, but worked around some of them in both layers and around some of them for one layer. Already, there’s a sense of depth in the background.

Umber Under Drawing Step 2 Detail

I want soft edges where necessary, so that means proceeding carefully and thoughtfully as I continue building value in the background.

Some areas will need to be ‘lined’ in. The mane and forelock, for example. In those areas, I outline each detail area, then fill it in with equal value, but the goal is to create edges without drawing lines.

I see that the ears aren’t the same size in this image. That means the first thing I’ll have to do in the next session is determine whether the off side ear is too large (I think it is) or the near side ear is too small.

Umber Under Drawing Step 3

I continued darkening the background behind the horse and fence. I carefully outlined each area, then filled in the outlines. For everything else, I applied color in long, broad strokes with medium to light pressure. I don’t want an even color layer, but I wanted to darken it more quickly.

Next, I layered vertical strokes over all of the background, working around tree trunks and other background features. Then I applied looser, more random horizontal strokes to fill the space a little more. When I finished, the area was about as dark as I want to go without working up some of the other areas, too.

The last thing I did for this session was lay a t-square along the bottom of the drawing and use it as a bumper against which to define the bottom edge using Light Umber and very loose vertical strokes to apply the first color in that area.

I also worked on the tail a little bit and on the second hoof, but mostly to bring those two areas out of the background somewhat.

Umber Under Drawing Step 4

I worked on the foliage and grass this afternoon, still using Light Umber, but focused more on smoothing the color and shaping the values.

Correcting an Error in Values

Later I noticed that the left and right sides of the background are not the same value (a common error in working a large piece in short work sessions.) At first, I added color in horizontal strokes in an effort to even up the two sides.

That didn’t work, so I tried lifting color with the click eraser. That didn’t work, so I got out the sticky stuff and dabbled around with that. That lifted color very well if I kept it carefully kneaded. I was able to lift some of the heavy darks just above the top rail in the background on the right and I liked that so well that I repeated the process on the left side. The result was very nice, so I think the first thing I’ll do tomorrow is lift addition color and see if I can create some tree trunks on the right with this method.

Umber Under Drawing Step 5

The background is now as complete as I want to make it without finishing the horse. I worked on the horse a little, but need to finish it to the same level as the background. Only then can I tell if the under drawing is finished.

We’ll tackle the horse next week.