Basic Composition for Beginners

New readers are always coming to this blog, just like new artists are always finding colored pencils. For those of you who have been drawing for some time, allow me to talk about the basics of composition for beginners.

Even if you’ve been making art for a while, it’s always worth reviewing the basics!

Basic Composition for Beginners

Artists can talk about composition for hours. How it works. Why it works. The rules that make it work. That’s not the purpose of this article.

You don’t have to know everything about composition in order to use it any more than you need to everything about your car to drive it. But you do need to understand at least a few basics.

That IS the purpose of this article. So I’m beginning with a basic definition.

What Is Composition?

When used as an art term, the word “composition” refers to the way a drawing or painting is arranged. It’s the things you chose to put into a drawing (and leave out of the drawing.) It’s the way you arrange those things within your drawing.

And it’s the sizes, colors and values of those things as they compare with one another.

This design very simple design has a composition. I decided what shapes to use, where to put each shape, what color to make it, and what size to make it. I also decided which shapes to put in front and which ones to put in back. All of those decisions are composition decisions.

Basics of Composition with a simple, graphic design.

You might be thinking, “But that’s just a bunch of shapes. What does it have to do with a portrait or a landscape?”

Short answer? Everything!

But lets start with the easiest reason.

Why Size is Important

If you have several objects that are all the same, but you make them different sizes, the largest shape looks closest. The smallest shape looks the most distant, with all the others in between.

Of these three purple triangles, which one looks the closest? The largest one, right?

Change those triangles to trees, and the same principle is true.

No matter how many trees you add, the smallest ones always look the most distant. It doesn’t even matter if they’re different kinds of trees.

I put together three different types of trees at different size and—wa-la—I have a simple landscape!

Basics of Composition - A More Complex Composition

A Couple of Other Principles of Composition

The illustration above also illustrated a couple of other principles of basic composition beginners need to learn.

Overlapping to create depth

When you overlap objects in a drawing, you create the illusion of distance, of space. The object that’s not overlapped by anything else is the object that’s closest. The more an object is overlapped by other objects, the further into the background it is.

In this drawing, the weeds are the closest so they overlap everything else. The sky is the most distant, so everything else overlaps it; even the rainy clouds overlap the sky.

The Basics of Composition for Beginners

Using value and color to show distance

The hills in the drawing above are different values of gray. The lighter the gray, the more distant the hill looks.

But even the closest hill is still lighter than the brown hill just beyond the weeds, so the brown hill appears to be a lot closer than the nearest (darkest) gray hill.

The visual path

One is something called a visual path. The visual path in a drawing or painting is the path a viewer’s eye travels through a picture. Most of the time, you want your viewer to look at the center of interest first. In an animal portrait, that’s most likely going to be the eye.

In a landscape, it’s the main subject. The star of the drawing.

But you want viewers to look at the other things, too. The supporting cast, if you want to think of it that way. That’s what a visual path is.

Let’s look at an actual landscape drawing.

The Basics of Composition for Beginners

The center of interest in this piece is the large group of trees. That’s the star. The other trees, the grassy meadow, and even the sky are all supporting actors. They’re important because they showcase the center of interest. They give it a place to be.

But they’re not as important as the center of interest.

The way they’re positioned in relation to one another leads your eye from the big trees, to the smaller tree at the left, then to the still smaller trees on the right.

The meadow is brightest around the center of interest so it contrasts with the center of interest, drawing attention. Those are all subtle cues.

The dirt path is a more obvious cue. It enters the picture at the bottom, winds it’s way through the drawing, and disappears near the big trees. I deliberately put in a path leading back to the tree to lead a viewer’s eye to the place where I wanted viewers to spend the most time.

Getting Beyond the Basics of Composition for Beginners

What I’ve described in this post are the most basic of the compositional basics; the things new artists should learn first. There’s a lot more to composition than these, though, so I encourage you to continue exploring composition no matter how long you’ve been drawing.

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Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

A lot of new artists want to know the best way of choosing the right colors all the time. I understand that because it was once one of my biggest concerns too.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

I learned through experience that there really isn’t such a thing as “The Right Color.” The more horses I drew, the more I learned that I could create realistic colors by combining many different colors.

Even more important, color really isn’t the most important thing to get right. Value is. Get those values right, and you can make almost anything look realistic no matter what color it is.

Choosing the Right Colors All the Time

Meet Pee Wee.

No, she’s not a magenta-colored cat, but she looks just as realistic in magenta-colored light (above) as she does in green (below.)

Both of those unique color selections could make a more interesting portrait than Pee Wee’s actual color.

Well. Maybe not for everyone.

Choosing the right colors

The point is that it’s not the color that makes each of these three images look like a cat in general and like Pee Wee specifically. It’s the values, the details, and an accurate drawing.

What I’m really trying to say is that if you can draw a realistic looking cat with the wild variations in color above, then it really doesn’t matter which shade of gray or brown you choose to draw the cat’s actual color.

Two Things to Consider when Choosing the Right Colors for Your Drawing

Consider the Lighting

Lighting affects color selection more than anything else because the color of the light changes the way colors appear.

During the day, snow in our front yard looks “normal.”

At night, the snow still looks normal, but the colors I’d use to draw this scene are very different from the colors I’d use for the first snowy scene. The interesting thing (to me anyway) is that the snow in both images reads as natural.

If I were to draw this street scene but use whites and grays for the snow, it just wouldn’t look right.

Whether the light comes from a natural source like the sun or moon, or from an artificial source like street lights or Christmas lights, the color will affect the way you see the colors in your subject.

Consider the Surroundings

The things around your subjects also influence the colors in your subject, especially if your subject has a reflective surface. The more reflective a surface is, the more other colors show up in it.

Water, for instance, usually reflects the color of the sky. That’s why it looks blue, and that’s why it can look so many different shades of blue.

But water also reflects the colors of the objects floating in it. If you’re drawing a duck swimming in the water, then the colors in the duck will also appear in the water.

The same is true of metallic objects like the Christmas ornaments shown below.

When you look at these three ornaments, you immediately think “red, blue, and yellowish-gold.” Right?

But look at the red and blue ornaments. The blue ornament shows some nice purples in the areas that are near the red ornament. And the red ornament also shows some nice purples (though slightly different purples) in the side that faces the blue ornament. That’s because red and blue mixed together create purple.

The yellow ornament also reflects the colors of the other two ornaments. To draw these ornaments so they look real, you have to use those additional colors.

Even objects that aren’t shiny can be influenced by reflected light. Ordinarily, you’d never consider using bright reds to draw a white kitten, but look at this little guy. Sitting on a red towel that’s bathed in bright sunlight, he turns red! Quite bright red in some areas.

Consider reflected light when choosing the right colors for your drawing.

Other factors also play a role in how you choose colors, but light and surroundings are the two most obvious.

The Bottom Line

What it all boils down to is that you need to study your reference photo closely, and then draw what you see in the photo, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense. It takes practice and the ability to trust your eyes and not what your brain is telling you, but it can be done.

Would You Like More Information on Choosing the Right Colors?

I’ve written several posts on the topic of color selection. The most helpful of them is 3 Ways to Find the Right Colors for Any Drawing. For additional articles, type “choosing colors” or a similar keyword phrase in the search bar at the top of the side bar.

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Color Intensity Basics: What You Need to Know

If you take many art courses or watch many art videos, you’ll hear the phrase “color intensity.” Sometimes, the teacher or speaker explains the color intensity basics, but most of the time it’s assumed you know what color intensity is.

The Basics of Color Intensity

How many artists really know what color intensity is? For most of my art life, I didn’t know or care. I just wanted to draw and paint horses. Maybe that describes you, too. You just want to make art.

But this is about more than just understanding the art language. This is about getting the most out of your colored pencils. And since I wrestled with this concept so long, I want to present in clear and easy-to-follow terms exactly what color intensity is and why it’s important.

Color Intensity Basics

Let me begin by telling you what color intensity is not.

It’s not value.

Lets start with these two colors. The top color is Warm Grey I. The bottom color is Light Cadmium Yellow. Both are Faber-Castell Polychromos.

At a glance, it might look like they represent two different values. But do they really?

Color intensity is not the same as color value.

Here are the two colors converted to grayscale. This is the same image as above. I simply removed all the color. Now they look the same, don’t they?

Yet, one of them is intense and the other is not. Can you guess which is which?

It’s not Hue

When you hear artists talking about hue, they’re talking about the color families, not specific colors. Brown is a hue (color family.) Within that family, you have all the various specific colors. Burnt Umber, Light Umber, Dark Brown, Terra Cotta, Burnt Sienna and so on if you use Prismacolor pencils.

Each color family contains bright and dull colors; colors that are intense and colors that are not.

So what is color intensity?

Color intensity refers to the brightness or dullness of a color. The brighter a color is, the more intense it’s said to be. Using our samples of yellow and gray, it’s easy to see that the yellow is more intense than the gray.

Color intensity is not the same thing as value.

100% intensity is a color—any color—without any white or black mixed in.

The intensity of a color can also be affected by adding other colors to the original color.

If, for example, I put down a nice, even layer of yellow on a piece of white paper so that no paper showed through, the yellow would be pure yellow. It would be the most intense it’s capable of being.

If I then layered blue over the yellow, the yellow becomes duller—or less intense. Even if the layer of blue was very thin and transparent, it tones down the intensity of the yellow.

Yes, it’s true that blue glazed over yellow creates green, but that green is less intense than pure green would be.

The same is true when you mix any two colors together. The original color is never as intense as the brightest original color.

In each of the three samples below, the teal color is less intense after I layered another color over it. Even light colors such as white and very light blue.

Adding any color to another color reduces the intensity of the original color.

Why is All of This Important?

Now that you know what color intensity is, you might be asking what difference it makes. Does color intensity really have all that much to do with making art?

Yes! Understanding color intensity and how to use it can make a huge difference in your art.

Changes in Color Intensity Indicate Distance

When you look at an object up close, you see the colors of the object pretty much the way they are. Lighting affects the way colors look, of course, but there should be no other distortions.

View the same object from a little distance, and the way you see the colors changes a little bit. View that object from a long distance, and the colors look a lot different. They lose some of the brightness (intensity) you saw from up close.

The trees in the background are far less intense than the trees in the foreground, so they look much farther away.

If you want to create the illusion of distance in your artwork, reduce the intensity of the colors you use by adding white, gray, or a complementary color.

Changes in Intensity of Color to Indicate Shadow

Color intensity can also indicate shadow. Reducing the intensity of a color is effective in creating shadows and middle values.

One of the best ways to dull down colors to create middle values is by glazing a complementary color over the original color. Each of these three ornaments has intense original colors: Blue, red and yellow. The middle values and shadows are those same colors dulled down by adding other colors to the original color.

Of course, black is also acceptable, but must be used carefully. Combining black and some colors produces muddy colors or odd colors. Using black to add middle values to the yellow ornament above produces an dull olive green color. Not very pleasing!

And of course, you run the risk of getting too dark if you rely on black too much.

How to Reduce Color Intensity

There are several ways to make colors look duller.

Use similar colors that are less intense. For example, if you use a bright yellow in the foreground, choose a duller shade of yellow in the middle ground.

Mix white or gray with the colors to make them look less intense. You have far more flexibility and an endless range of intensities when you mix white or gray with the original color.

Add a complementary color to reduce intensity. This is especially effective if you also need to change the color a little bit. Yellow to green, for example.

Can I Make a Color Look Brighter?

Absolutely!

The easiest way is to layer the color until no paper shows through the color. That way, the color of the paper isn’t directly affecting the brightness of the color.

Another way to make colors look brighter is by surrounding them them less intense colors. Yellow is a pretty intense color all by itself. To make it look even brighter, surround it with duller colors.

Want more than Color Intensity Basics?

Amy Lindenberger provides a much more in-depth look at color intensity basics and other topics in her book, Colors – A Workbook. I’ve purchased this book and drawn the exercises, and learned a lot about despite having been an artist for years. If you would like more information on this topic, get Amy’s book. You won’t be sorry.

Virtual Workshop with John Middick

If you’re looking for something fun to do this month, I suggest a new virtual workshop with John Middick.

You’ve met John Middick here on this blog and in the February 2020 issue of CP Magic.

Virtual Workshop with John Middick

Presented live and recorded for you to view and download later.

In this workshop, you’ll be drawing on white Pastelmat paper.

Join instructor, and award-winning artist, John Middick, alongside your fellow classmates in this live, Virtual CP Immersion Workshop**.

You’ll be drawing this fresh cup of herbal tea with a lime wedge. If you’ve ever wanted to be challenged with textures, hard edges, and soft edges, all in the same drawing project, this project would certainly fill that need!

Virtual Workshop with John Middick

About the Project

In this live, virtual workshop John walks you through drawing a variety of textures to show texture, form, and value.

He’ll discuss how to depict glass objects and show reflections and transparency. He’ll also demonstrate how to create semitransparent layers of colored pencil to show reflection and to build up dark values.

Learn the drawing techniques used to create realistic artwork with this new art medium!

About the Workshop

In this 1-Day, Saturday (6.5 hours) workshop you’ll learn how the layering process works, the best pencil stroke techniques to use, several methods for erasing, how, and when to burnish!

You’ll also cover the following techniques:

  1. How to blend on Pastelmat paper
  2. Color choices and color matching
  3. Pencil pressure
  4. How to erase colored pencil
  5. Creating your Line Drawing and the layout for your road-map
  6. Composition considerations before starting the project
  7. Creating texture and value structure

Attend live, on-line during the virtual workshop, and then watch the recording at your convenience afterward.

After you sign up, you’ll get the following:

  • Supply List
  • Written Instructions workbook (delivered the day of the workshop)
  • The Recording of the event (a few days following the workshop)

YES! I want to sign up for this Virtual Workshop with John Middick!

** – You need a computer or iPad (or tablet) in order to participate in this virtual workshop. The workshop technology will be handled through Zoom meeting software and will work best on a large screen.

How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings

Last week, I answered a reader who wanted to know where they should begin a drawing. Today, I want to answer the same question from a slightly different angle by telling you how I usually start landscape drawings.

How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings

In the previous post, I talked about general starting points like base layers, dark values, and light values. I listed them as three separate options, but they really work together on most projects.

So this post shows you how that looks with a specific drawing.

How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings

Landscapes almost always begin with an umber under drawing. Why browns? Umber base layers naturally keep landscape greens from being too vivid.

My favorite under drawing colors are Prismacolor Light and/or Dark Umber or Faber-Castell Polychromos Raw Umber or Walnut Brown. I have a nice collection of Derwent Drawing earth tones, too, but haven’t tried them as base layers.

Landscapes tend to take on a life of their own as I draw, making complex line drawings unnecessary, at best. So I begin landscapes with a very simple, basic sketch on the drawing paper, as shown below.

The initial sketch is drawn with an earth tone or with the main color in the landscape. Here, I chose green because that was the main color and because it scans more clearly even through the umber layers.

Dark Values First

I start the drawing by shading the base color into the darkest areas first. As I mentioned in last week’s post, starting with the shadows provides an excellent point of comparison for the middle values and light values. Even on colored paper.

However, it’s still important to work with light pressure and build up the values layer by layer. Corrections and adjustments are easier to make, and you also avoid the hazard of getting too dark too quickly.

How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings
Also notice the different strokes I used. Directional strokes to suggest grass, broad strokes with the side of the pencil in the hills, and circular and directional strokes in the trees.

Add Middle Values and Darken the Dark Values

Once the darkest values are in place, I develop the other values with additional layers.

If a drawing has particularly dark values, as this one does, I use a dark version of the same brown. I added Dark Umber to the Light Umber to darken the shadows.

Continue Developing Values and Start Developing Details

As I continue darkening the values, I also develop the most important details.

What I want in the finished under drawing is an art piece that looks finished on it’s own. So I fine tune the various parts of the landscape to create balance, a visual path, and interest.

Contrast is also important. The lightest values in a landscape are usually in the sky, so it’s important to get your shadows dark enough to give the landscape depth.

How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings
An under drawing is finished when it satisfied you. Some artists block in the basic shapes and values (a method that doesn’t work well with colored pencils.) Other artists like the under drawing to look like a half-tone image f the finished piece. I prefer something in between.

First Color

When the under drawing is complete, then I start glazing color. Usually, I choose colors that are light versions of the finished colors, and glaze them over the entire shape, as shown below.

But there is no “right way” to select colors.

Why I Start Landscapes Like This

If a composition fails as an under drawing, it goes no further. I’ve probably spent a couple of hours finishing the umber under layers, so I haven’t invested a lot of time.

If the under drawing can be improved (or fixed as is sometimes needed,) then I fix it now, before adding color.

If it can’t be fixed or improved, I start over with no hard feelings.

That’s How I Usually Start Landscape Drawings

My preference is to work an entire drawing at the same time so I can keep the light and dark values well balanced. I used to finish colored pencil drawings one section at a time, though, so it’s a matter of whatever works best for you.

If you need clarification, let me know.

Otherwise, have fun. You’re now at the fun part!

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Where to Begin a Colored Pencil Drawing

You’re new to colored pencils, and eager to get started. Your first project is on the drawing paper, your pencils are at the ready, but you’re stumped. You don’t know where to begin a colored pencil drawing.

Where to Begin a Colored Pencil Drawing

I’ve been there and stared at that blank sheet of drawing paper wondering where to start more than once. So afraid of doing the wrong thing, I do nothing at all.

Knowing where (and how) to start gets easier with each drawing, but even with your first drawing, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

Where to Begin a Colored Pencil Drawing

You may be looking for One Secret to answer all your colored pencil questions. Let me burst that bubble right now. There is no such secret.

But there is hope.

You see, the beauty of most art forms is that there are as many ways to make art as there are artists. Look for artists whose work you like, then learn how they make their art. Try their methods. If those methods work, great! Use them to make your art.

If those methods don’t work for you, don’t worry. Look at how another artist works and try those methods. Keep trying until you find the method that works best for you.

That’s what I did. When I found things that worked for me, I used them. I discarded the things that didn’t work at all, and when I found things that sort of worked, I adjusted them until they did work for me.

That’s probably what you’ll end up doing, too.

Now let me share a few tips for starting a colored pencil drawing, starting with the most basic. Base layers.

Base Layers

The first color you put on the paper is called the base layer.

A lot of times, the base layer is smooth color and is meant to shade the area you’re working on. Usually, it’s also the lightest value in that area. I usually select a color that’s the same value as or lighter than the brightest highlights if the brightest highlights aren’t white.

I describe a few ways to choose the color for the base layer in Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.

Darkest Values

Another good way to begin a colored pencil drawing is by starting with the darkest value first, as I did with this study of a cat’s eye.

Starting with the darkest value first is one good way to begin a colored pencil drawing.

Establishing this value first gives you a point of comparison for all the work to follow.

Look closely at your reference photo to determine the darkest color. It’s not always black!

Then outline the shape, then shade it. I used a variety of strokes in this illustration, starting with small, circular strokes. But I also used other strokes to fill in more of the paper holes.

Lightest Values

Many artists begin with the lightest values. Some lightly outline those values so they don’t accidentally shade color over them. That’s what I often do because I often accidentally shade over highlights. So I draw the highlights as well as the shadows from the beginning, as shown in this line drawing.

I know a line drawing like this is overwhelming to some, but it helps me preserve those all important highlights. Even if I don’t transfer every mark, I do transfer the shadows and highlights, as well as the outside edges.

You can also actually shade the highlight color over the highlight areas. Even if the color is too light to see on paper, it acts as a “resist” so that any color you put over it isn’t quite as dark as shading it over blank paper. The waxier the light color, the more it acts as a resist.

If you use medium pressure or heavier (or work on a softer paper like Stonehenge,) you also impress the marks into the paper. When you color over that area, the marks show up, as shown below. I drew the eyelashes with a very light color, but I also pressed the marks very lightly into the paper.

As I shaded color over that area, the new color did not cover the previous color. The impressed marks also began to show up because the new color didn’t get down into them. As I darken the eye, the eyelashes become more and more obvious.

The illustration above is also a good example of base layers. I selected the lightest color in each area and shade it lightly over the area.

Those are Three Ways to Begin a Colored Pencil Drawing

They aren’t the only ways to start a drawing. In fact, they aren’t the only starting point I use.

But they are the most common and, I believe, the easiest for new artists to learn quickly. Try them out and see which one or which combination works best for you and gives you the results you want.

Oh, one more thing. Have fun

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Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Last week, I showed you how to draw a complementary under drawing. This week’s post is part two of this tutorial—glazing color over a complementary under drawing.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Glazing color is pretty much the same for the complementary method as for the umber method or any other drawing method. You layer colors over the under drawing in thin, smooth layers to develop saturated color (no paper showing through,) vibrancy, and to add detail.

Keeping your pencils sharp and using light pressure to apply color are important. Creating smooth color is easier with sharp pencils, and applying color with light pressure allows the under drawing to show through.

As always, suit your pencil strokes to the area you’re working on, and begin with the lighter colors and work toward the dark colors.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Beginning Color Work in the Landscape

When glazing color over a complementary under drawing, develop the color one layer and color at a time. In most cases, more than one color is needed to achieve the final color. With this drawing, I combined glazes of several greens to get the right shade of green for the grass. The trees required a slightly different combination of greens.

For instance, I used Prismacolor Grass Green, Peacock Green, Apple Green*, and Spring Green* in the grassy meadow. I used only Peacock Green and Dark Green in the trees for the first round of color.

Start with Grass Green applied in broad horizontal strokes throughout the grassy meadow. Shade all of the meadow on the first pass.

In the foreground, add short vertical strokes to mimic the look of grass. Apply Peacock Green, Apple Green, and Spring Green to the same areas and in the same manner to begin developing the darker values.

In the trees, use Peacock Green to lay in middle values, and Dark Green in the shadows.

Technical Tip

You want to add color over the under drawing; you don’t want to cover up the under drawing. Colored pencil is a transparent medium overall, but it is possible to apply color so heavily that you lose the details in the under drawing. A good rule of thumb is to go through all the colors you want to use at least once using light pressure. Then you can use heavier pressure in those areas you want to accent or where you need to burnish.

Beginning Color Work in the Horse

Begin adding color to the horse by working light to dark using Burnt Ochre, Sienna Brown, and Pumpkin Orange as base colors. Use light pressure and a sharp pencil to work around the shapes of muscle groups, body contours and the edges of the horse.

Next, layer Burnt Ochre over all of the horse except the brightest highlights, then Sienna Brown over the same areas. Finally, add Pumpkin Orange to the darkest middle values and shadows.

Carefully work around the highlights with each color. As you add the darker colors, give the highlights more space. That creates areas of smooth and very soft color and value gradations around the highlights.

In this illustration, the back half of the horse shows all three colors in place and shows you how the green under drawing is contributing to the form and mass of the horse.

The front half of the horse shows only the Burnt Ochre. The area immediately behind the shoulder is a blending of Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown.

Technical Tip

Working the entire drawing at once (as opposed to finishing each area before moving to the next) allows you to make adjustments throughout the process and keep the composition unified.

It’s not necessary to work in this fashion, but it can be helpful in establishing the initial layers of color.

A Word on Correcting Mistakes

Whether you plan compositions to the minutest detail or develop compositions intuitively (by the seat of your pants, so to speak), there will come a time when you discover late in the process that you’ve made a mistake. DO NOT LET THIS DISCOURAGE YOU!

From the start, I included a tree on the right hand side, behind the horse. The tree survived through the under drawing and into the color phase.

Then I decided it added very little to the overall composition and crowded the horse visually. The solution? The tree had to go.

To remove it, I went back to the early stages of the process and layered under drawing colors over it so it matched the surrounding areas as much as possible. That wasn’t difficult in the upper portion, where the strokes are random. It took a bit more care in the lower areas.

When I was satisfied, I began glazing local color over those areas to bring them up to the same level as the surrounding areas. The tree wasn’t completely covered, but it had become very vague, merely a ghost of itself.

Developing Color

Continue working throughout the background with layers of Apple Green*, Spring Green*, Canary Yellow*, and Lemon Yellow in the sunlit areas of the landscape.

In the darker areas, add Dark Green, Olive Green, and a touch of Burnt Umber.

In the trees, use Dark Green, Olive Green, and Indigo Blue in the shadows and Olive Green, Grass Green, and touches of Apple Green* in the highlights.

The trees and grass need to work together visually, but they also need to stand apart, so use a couple of colors in both areas, but also keep the trees darker and cooler overall than the grass.

Use Dark Umber, Terra Cotta, Indigo Blue, and a little Dark Green in the shadows on the horse, and Terra Cotta and the siennas and ochres in the middle values.

The highlights on the horse are still untouched paper at this stage. Develop them by working around them. Sometimes, the best way to produce vibrant highlights is to darken the areas around them.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 5

Finishing the Background

At this stage, the background is nearly finished. The brightest greens are around the horse, with shadows creeping in around the edges and throughout the trees. Individual groups of trees have also been created to lead the eye to the focal point, which is the horse.

Finish each area with medium or medium-heavy pressure. Fill in as much of the paper texture as possible without burnishing. Once you burnish, it’s very difficult to add more color without the use of a solvent or spray. Solvents or sprays can be used without damaging paper or artwork, but once you take that step, it cannot be taken back.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 6

Finishing the Horse

Finishing the horse consists of adding more layers of the colors already used. Use medium pressure and directional strokes to develop color and value one layer at a time.

Also begin adding ‘surface’ colors. For such a bright chestnut, Orange* and Pale Vermilion*. Use medium or heavy pressure to add these colors. The heavier the pressure, the more impact each color will make.

Remember that heavier pressure also limits the number of layers you can add later.

Add reflected light with a layer of Light Cerulean Blue* burnished with Sky Blue Light* or White over the back and rump. Use Apple Green* burnished with Sand under the belly.

Then burnish around the places where the reflected light areas meet the horse’s natural coat color with the lightest of the coat colors to soften and blur those edges.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 7

The Final Review

The final step is a review of the artwork, then making whatever adjustments need to be made.

When I think a drawing might be finished, I generally set it aside overnight and look at it again the next day. The reason for this is that it allows me to look at the artwork with a fresh eye; as though seeing it for the first time.

You can also get a different perspective on your work by looking at it upside down or in a mirror. Any areas that need work will become obvious when you view your artwork in one of these ways.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

And that’s how to use the complementary drawing method to draw a horse. The really neat thing is that you can use the same drawing method for any subject you want to draw!

It’s not my favorite method for drawing animals, but it’s perfect for landscapes because the complementary under drawing naturally tones down the landscape greens. That makes for more natural looking landscapes.

*Denotes Prismacolor colors that are not guaranteed to be lightfast. Substitute other greens, or lightfast greens from other brands if lightfastness is important to you.

Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to draw a complementary under drawing.

This two-step process is a variation on the classical, seven-step method used by many Flemish artists and which is most commonly used with oil paints.

With the complementary under drawing method, those seven steps are combined into two. The first step is the under drawing. The second step is local (final) color.

Today, I’ll walk you through the under drawing phase.

Let’s get started.

What is a Complementary Under Drawing?

Every colored pencil drawing begins with an under drawing, which is basically just the first layers of color you put on the paper.

A complementary under drawing is created using colors opposite the final colors on the color wheel. In the piece I’m using for this demonstration, the horse is shades of red, so the under drawing will be shades of green. All of the greens in the background will have an under drawing made up of shades of red or earth tones.

Color plays a major role in this method, but value is also important. A final color that is light in value such as yellow or light blue will require a complement that is also light in value or a darker color applied with very light pressure.

Tint is also an important consideration. A blue-green subject requires a red-orange under painting. This is where your color wheel will prove its worth.

Technical Tip

If you don’t have a color wheel, this is a good time to purchase one or make one. A basic color wheel template is available here, along with instructions for making your own color wheel.

If you prefer to purchase a color wheel, you can find one at most art supply stores or print shops. They are an inexpensive, but invaluable tool.

Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

I used Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper in Beach Sand Ivory for my project. The paper is ivory in color, which is perfect color for this painting. The color of the paper affects the overall look of the finished artwork.

You can use white paper if you wish, but using a complementary base color essentially allows you to start with one layer already in place. That makes the drawing process faster.

Below is the reference photo. Not only did I tidy up the background; I changed the color of the horse. The tidier background simply looked better. I changed the color of the horse for purely personal reasons. I wanted to draw a chestnut!

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Reference Photo

You can either draw a chestnut, or draw the horse in its original colors. The principles of the complementary under drawing remain the same either way, though colors will vary.

I used Prismacolor pencils for this tutorial, but you can get successful results with any brand of artist quality pencils.

Starting the Under Drawing

For the horse

Use a medium value green such as Grass Green to outline the horse, then lightly outline highlights and shade around them. Use light pressure and develop value with layers rather than pressure. It’s important to start with light pressure so that mistakes can be easily erased or covered. Work carefully around the highlights and shadows.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 1

For the background

Use the same process in the background, where I used Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown to establish the shapes in the trees and the values in the grass.

You’ll get the best results in the foreground and middle ground by applying color evenly, but with some variations in value.

The trees may also be drawn with even color, or you can use directional or circular strokes to begin drawing the foliage. Whichever strokes you use, add darker values to the trees the same way you did the foreground. By adding more layers.

Keep your pencils sharp, too. The sharper your pencils, the more easily you can draw even color.

Finishing the Under Drawing

Extend the range of values throughout the artwork and bring out the highlights by darkening shadows and middle tones.

Now is the time to create visual interest by varying strokes. Use short, vertical strokes with the point of the pencil in the grassy areas, particularly in the foreground. Use long, sweeping strokes with the point of the pencil in the horse’s tail.

To draw the hills, hold your pencil in a more horizontal position and draw with the side of the exposed pigment core.

For the trees, use circular or looping strokes with the sides and point of the pencil in the trees.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 2

General Tips

Whenever possible, stroke in the direction of natural patterns. Stroke grass upward, just as it grows. Stroke tail and mane from the point of growth toward the ends of the hairs.

Get as much detail as possible at this stage. As you gain experience using under drawings, you’ll discover personal preferences in finishing the under drawing.

Personally, I like to get as finished a look as possible with the under drawing. I attempt to develop an under drawing until it could be a standalone artwork.

One of the things I like about the under drawing process is its flexibility. Whatever method of under drawing you use, you can develop values without worrying about color. When you get to the color phases, you can experiment more freely with color without worrying about value.

You can draw a complementary under drawing for any subject from still life compositions to animals to landscapes. Using complementary under drawings for landscapes is especially effective for creating natural landscape greens.

Next week, I’ll show you how to glaze color over a complementary under drawing.

When You Don’t Feel Like Drawing

What do you do when you don’t feel like drawing?

I confess. There have been a lot of days of late when making art is a struggle. Too many things on my to-do list is usually the cause, but there are other times when I just don’t feel creative.

When You Don't Feel Like Drawing

There are a lot of reasons to lose that creative spark. Illness. Stress. Circumstances. Even the most creative and optimistic person goes through times of creative apathy.

I, for one, wrestle with depression on a regular basis. That’s part of the reason I haven’t watched broadcast news in years.

The last few weeks have been especially difficult. In addition to the challenges of publishing one magazine and one tutorial every month, and daily chores that must be done, there have been losses in our circle of friends. Three funerals in our congregation in less than two months is a bit to take in. Things like that tend to make all the other things in day-to-day life heavier. More difficult to bear.

Combined with broader circumstances, personal situations like these can easily dampen creativity.

When You Don’t Feel Like Drawing

Can you do anything about creative apathy?

Yes.

Understand What’s Happening

It’s important to understand what’s going on internally.

When you’re unwell, rest is important. I’ve learned that lesson (again) this week, and have yielded to the need to rest, even when it seems necessary every two hours. It takes time to recover and recovery takes energy. Accept the fact that it may be some time before your mind and body have recovered to the point that creativity returns.

It’s also important to know yourself. For example, I know that I’m prone to mild depression and that it can easily turn into something worse. So I take precautions. Vitamin D taken on a daily basis is a good preventative.

So is daily Bible reading (especially the psalms) and prayer. There is a noticeable difference between days started that way and days started without it.

I also know I need to keep news intake to a minimum and that I need to be selective in my sources.

And I know that there will be days when nothing seems important.

Since I know days like this will happen, they’re not as debilitating when they occur. I also know from past experience that they pass. That, my friend, is important.

Depression may not be your problem. You may have family or work responsibilities that either take time away from art or leave you too exhausted to be creative. The key is recognizing the things that leave you creatively apathetic, and to know whether or not they can be avoided, reduced, or delegated.

Have a Plan of Action

It’s not enough to understand what’s happening. It’s just as important to develop a plan of action.

Whether you’re dealing with external situations or internal situations, find ways to work around them. How, you ask? Start by evaluating circumstances.

Are they internal or external?

Are they short-term or long-term?

Can you do anything about them or are they beyond your control? Be careful with this one. It’s so easy to think you have no control at all when you may have some control. It’s just as easy to think you can fix everything when you may not be able to.

Take the time to accurately assess your circumstances, understand what you can do, and what you can’t do.

Think of ways to do what you can, and avoid worrying over the things you can’t change.

When You Don't Feel Like Drawing - Make a plan for dealing with creative apathy.

Don’t Wait for Creative Apathy to Plan for It

Ideally, make your plans when you are in a creative mood because you won’t want to do it when you’re not already creative.

Nothing is more discouraging than trying to figure out how to handle a situation while you’re in the middle of it. Sure, the first time it happens to you, you may be caught off guard. That’s understandable.

Once you’ve experienced it, however, it’s time to consider how to respond the next time.

Keep it Simple

But keep it simple. Don’t plan elaborate things even if they seem doable when you’re in good spirits. Believe me, there are times when everything looks possible.

“Everything” is not what you need when you don’t feel like drawing or doing anything else creative.

You.

Need.

Simple.

And easy helps, too.

So what do I suggest? Here are a few things I do when I’m down.

Read a good book
Go for a walk
Take a nap (I’ve been doing a lot of that lately!)
Spend time with your spouse and family
Spend time with a pet
Put a jigsaw puzzle together
Doodle

See? Simple and easy!

You already know what activities you enjoy and that relax you. When you don’t feel like drawing, those activities are your first line of defense.

Find Other Ways to Be Creative

Art isn’t the only way to be creative and it’s possible that your problem is that you’re bored with your art. If that’s the case, you need to find something else to do for a while.

I know many of you do fabric art. Sewing, knitting, embroidery, cross-stitch. Do some of that.

Or work wood or cook or bake or whatever else you enjoy that’s in any way creative.

When You Don't Feel Like Drawing - Do something else that's creative.

One Thing You Shouldn’t Do

These measures are designed for those times when life gets to you and drains you. Not for simple cases of “I don’t want to draw.” Setting aside drawing on the basis of temporary moods is a certain path to not drawing at all. You don’t want that.

At least I hope you don’t.

When You Don’t Feel Like Drawing

I’m the first to admit that the artist’s life is difficult, especially if your art is more than a hobby. There are days when the last thing you want to do is pick up a pencil and start drawing.

But you don’t have to let creative apathy drag you down long-term. It can be survived!

If you want to read more on this topic, check out Getting and Staying Motivated when Art Gets Tough for more tips.

Face Value Portrait Course

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know I don’t offer a lot of promotions. But every now again, something comes along that I believe will help you. John Middick’s Face Value Portrait course is one of those things.

If you want to draw colored pencil portraits but have struggled to “get it right”, you’re not alone!

Like you, many colored pencil artists have struggled drawing colored pencil portraits. What if you were told it’s not your fault?! There hasn’t been a methodical process for learning colored pencil portraits.

There hasn’t been a system to give you what you need to succeed! ….Until NOW.

Face Value Portrait Course

John Middick, of the Sharpened Artist Academy, developed a comprehensive, colored pencil portrait course. The Presale of the new course, Face Value, is now open. 

If you love the medium of colored pencil and have the desire to keep growing and learning, John wants to give you the tools and instruction, as well as several bonuses and early bird pricing! 

Here’s the deal.

Face Value Portrait Course – Presale

Face Value is an immersive portrait drawing experience involving:

High-resolution videos with complete portrait drawings from start to finish
Downloadable workbooks
Email access to your instructor
Office hours for live instructor-student interaction
Immersive 24/7 access to the best material on the topic!

Due to the interactive nature of some of the material, student count will be capped at 30 students.

This portrait course is a new opportunity and a new way to understand colored pencil portrait art. There’s not another product like this available!

Get the guidance you need every step of the way and access to the support you need to reach success.

Want more information on the Face Value Portrait Course?

Additional details are available here. You can read all about the course and the bonuses without obligation.

The Presale pricing ends soon, so if you want to step your colored pencil portraits and want to join this course, sign up here.

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