How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

How do you decide the order of colors to get the right color, values, or appearance? There are so many options, how do you decide?

That’s what Catherine wants to know. Here’s her question:

How do you determine the order of layers of different colors? I spend a lot of time testing the order of laying down color on the outer edges of my drawings, is there a quicker or better way?

This is a great question, Catherine. Thank you for asking it.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

One of the joys of colored pencils is the ability to layer multiple colors to create new colors. You also have a wonderful selection of colors to use. So you have to decide which colors to use when, and I confess that decision can look mind-boggling.

So how do you decide the order of colors? Is there a simple method or technique?

I’m afraid the answer is no. In fact, the best answer is one most of us prefer not to hear. Practice and experience.

Lots of both.

But there are few basic principles that may help you make those decisions more easily.

How to Decide the Order of Colors

I once read about an oil painter who used only seven or eight colors and mixed everything else. Obviously, his techniques won’t work with colored pencils, but his method of deciding which colors to mix, what colors to start with, and adjusting colors as he painted can be applied to colored pencils.

The following tips are based on personal experience and the oil painter’s methods.

Study the Colors in Your Reference Photo

The first step is to study the color of whatever you’re drawing. What’s the main color and to what color family does it belong?

This horse, for example, is yellow-gold in overall color. The color family is brown tending toward yellow or golden.

This color family provides the foundation colors for this portrait. The main color family provides the foundation colors for whatever you want to draw.

So determine the main color family for your drawing. Not every color will be appropriate, but identifying the main color family will ultimately help you decide the order in which you apply colors.

Start with a Base Color

The base color comes from the main color family.

The base color should be a medium-light or lighter value. Ideally, as close to the color of the highlights as you can get. If you have to use a color darker than the highlights in your subject, work around the highlights.

This is the first color you’ll put on paper, and it’s also one of the colors you’ll use most often. Set it aside.

This is the base color for Portrait of a Palomino Filly (read the full tutorial.) The paper is a light eggshell color just a little darker than the highlights, so I chose a base color that was a little darker than the paper. This color was used throughout the completion of the drawing.

Choosing the Next Color

After you’ve layered the base color, compare your drawing to your reference. Chances are excellent the base color isn’t exactly the same as the colors in the photo.

So what color do you need to add to make the color on the paper more like the color in the reference photo?

For my horse portrait, I decided the base color needed to be warmed up, so I chose a warm, light-value color that was about the same color as the highlights, and layered that over the horse.

After I finished that layer, I compared drawing and photo again, and chose a reddish earth tone to add more color and value.

The color selection process continued that way until I’d used five or six colors, then I began layering them over and over.

Do the same thing with your work. Compare your drawing and reference photo after you’ve layered each color. Decide how your drawing differs from the reference, and what color you need to use to make the drawing more like the reference.

Keep making those decisions layer by layer, color by color, until you finish.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering
The final color or colors are adjustment colors. They add value (darken dark values) or tint the colors already on the paper. Sometimes they do both.

That’s the Easiest Way I Know to Decide the Order of Colors

Don’t fret too much over deciding what order you should apply colors. You will make mistakes. That’s part of the learning process. Be bold and courageous! Learn from those mistakes.

Catherine says she spends a lot of time testing colors before using them on a drawing. That’s a good idea and a lot of artists swear by it. It’s a good way to gain the experience necessary to know instinctively what colors to use when.

The other option—the one I used when I began—was simple trial and error. Mostly error, sometimes (or so it seemed.)

But knowledge acquired by experience often sticks with me more quickly and longer than what I see or hear by example.

Image by husnil khawatim from Pixabay

My Advice for Deciding the Order of Color Application

Don’t worry too much about getting the order of color application correct right from the start. Unless you’re a highly analytical artist (yes, there are some of those,) it will be more frustrating than helpful to try to plan so carefully. You’re far more likely to frustrate yourself into not drawing at all. At least that’s what happens when I try to plan too far ahead.

The fact of the matter is that one layer of color could totally upset all those carefully laid plans.

So work one color at a time. Do those test swatches if they help you, but don’t try to swatch out the entire drawing before you start drawing.

Instead, choose the base color and put that on the paper.

Then compare what you’ve drawn with your reference photo to decide on the next color. Keep track of the colors you use and the order in which you use them if you like, but work step by step through the drawing until it’s finished.

I guarantee you’ll have more fun drawing and finish more drawings that way.

Unless you are an analytical sort of artist!

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How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Part 5

The portrait of a black Bouvier is just about complete. Today, we’ll put the finishing touches on it.

If you’ve missed any of the previous installments or if you would like a review, here are the links.

Now on to this week’s installment.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Part 5

Step 8: Finishing Layers

The first thing I did was wash generous amounts of rubbing alcohol over all of the dog except the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. As before, I wanted to fill in some of the paper holes. But it was also important to break down some of the wax that had accumulated on the drawing before trying to add more color.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Alcohol Blend

Once the paper was dry, it was time to finish the portrait. I used a lot of colors, so I’m listing color by area worked on.


I started with light peach applied with light pressure over all of the tongue. I followed up with flesh over everything but the brightest highlights, then blush over everything but the brightest highlights and middle values, and burnt ochre in the darker middle values and shadows. In other words, as I used darker colors, I worked on smaller and smaller parts of the tongue. In this way, the highlights were drawn by adding darker colors around them.

Then I applied a second layer of each color. I used the points of well-sharpened pencils with small, tight strokes and light pressure to get saturated color.

Next I glazed everything with carmine red and darkened the shadows with dark umber. After that, I adjusted color and value until it looked correct and burnished with the colorless blender.


Darkened the pupils and rims with black. Added blue slate around the highlights, then burnished with white.

Also highlighted the lower rims with blue slate and white using firm strokes and heavy pressure.


I glazed bronze into the inside of each ear with light pressure followed by blush and light peach with medium pressure. The backs and rims of the ears were done with black and medium pressure.


I glazed blue slate over most of the nose, then glazed black over the front part. I applied blue slate then white to the highlights around the nostrils then burnished the front of the nose with the colorless blender and reapplied color.

Then I dr3w the sides and the top of the nose using the same colors, but using the lighter colors more than the dark colors.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Color Work over Alcohol Blend Detail 1


I needed to tone down the blue highlights in the lighter areas of the body and face, so I tried a glaze of bronze. The warm tones of bronze—which is an earth tone—made the blues less bold and added warmth to the hair.

Next, I added black, which I applied with the side of a well-sharpened pencil. I used firm strokes with medium or medium-light pressure—very light pressure over the highlights and heavier pressure in the shadows.

In each area, I stroked in the direction of hair growth.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Color Work over Alcohol Blend Detail 2

To finish the portrait, I used dark umber and ultramarine to lay down a cast shadow to the dog’s left, then signed it, photographed it and sent a digital proof to the clients.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Color Work over Alcohol Blend

The clients approved the drawing but asked me to make the ears a little more scruffy. Stroking outward from each ear using tiny strokes and light pressure was the best and easiest way to make that correction.

I made those changes and the portrait was complete. It was delivered the following day and is now framed and hanging side-by-side with a portrait of another of the family’s canine companions.

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Finished Detail 1

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Finished Detail 2

How to Draw a Dog with Colored Pencil Finished

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4

Thank you for joining me again. The portrait of this black Bouvier is coming along very nicely. The color is beginning to take shape and the hair looks more like hair every day.

This is the fourth part in a five-part series describing how I’m layering several colors to create a natural, realistic black. If you missed any of the previous articles or would like to review them, here are the links.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4

Each of the previous steps in the layering process involved introducing a new color. This week, I’ll be working with previous colors again. But I will also be adding a new color: Black.

Before adding color, however, I blended the previous layers with rubbing alcohol to fill in some of the paper holes. I also wanted to blend the colors mechanically as well as visually. Rubbing alcohol was the perfect tool for both.

It also moved the portrait several steps forward. That’s one of the reasons I recommend an alcohol blend so highly.

I used a small sable brush with the hairs trimmed quite short to apply rubbing alcohol to the darkest areas, then spread it into surrounding areas to move pigment around a little. It’s not quite as efficient as using water and watercolor, but it works quite well and the results are almost always exactly what’s needed.

Step 6: Indigo Blue & Dark Umber

When the paper was thoroughly dry, I glazed indigo blue over all of the lighter middle values and most of the highlights. These areas hadn’t been worked on before, so I used very light pressure and the side of a well-sharpened pencil to lay down color.

Most of the work was accomplished in a single layer. For some of the darker areas, I used two or three layers.

I also finished the dark parts in the eyes by using the point of the pencil and medium-heavy pressure to draw the pupils and rims of the eyes. I added black to the eyes to darken them a little bit more.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4 - Mixed Layer 1

Next, I sharpened the dark umber pencil and added a glaze in the same areas. Again, I used the side of the pencil for all the work. In the lighter areas, I used light pressure. In areas with more color, I increased the pressure to light-medium. Some areas were worked over just once; others received two or three layers of dark umber.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4 - Mixed Layer 2

Step 7: Adding Black

From this point on, it’s all about bringing the previous layers of individual color into harmony. I used the same colors I’d used before (indigo blue and dark umber), but added black and used all three colors together to begin finishing the drawing.

I worked from one area to the next beginning with the off side front leg. In each area, I alternated layers of dark umber and indigo blue using the sides of the pencils and medium to medium-heavy pressure. Then I used the points of the pencils—mostly dark umber—and heavy pressure to create the hair shapes. Finally, I glazed black into the entire area with light pressure in the highlights and increased pressure until I was nearly burnishing in the darkest shadows.

I did the nose, too, but didn’t finish that. I also layered dark umber into the shadowed parts of the tongue.
How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4 - Black Layer

Next, I burnished all of the drawing except the facial features, the ears, and the lightest highlights. The shadows were most heavily burnished.

Burnishing in random areas also allowed me to create subtle variations in the middle values, a method that worked best to suggest thick hair in the front legs.

After burnishing, it was fist-full-of-pencils time. I used black, white, warm grey medium, warm grey very light, and powder blue to work up the lights and darks and the shapes of random hair masses throughout the legs and body.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 4 - Mixed Layer 3

At this point, the drawing is starting to look finished. Everything looks pretty good except the head, which needs quite a bit more work.

In the next post, I’ll finish the head, then put the finishing touches on the drawing as a whole.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3

Welcome back to this step-by-step demonstration showing you how to draw a dog in colored pencil. If you’re joining us for the first time today, here are the links for the first two posts.

A Quick Recap

As mentioned in previous posts, I’m using Prismacolor Premier pencils unless otherwise mentioned. The drawing is on Strathmore Artagain paper in Flannel Gray.

For this portrait, I’m developing a deep, rich black color by layering many different colors.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3

Colors used so far are, in order of application, Indigo Blue, Dark Brown, and Dark green. For each layer of color, I used light to very light pressure and drew with directional strokes to imitate the pattern of hair growth and hair masses. I drew darker values with multiple layers and worked around the highlights.

As of the end of the last previous post, the drawing looked like this:

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - End of Part 2

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3

Now for the next colors and layers.

Step 4: Adding Black Grape and a New Strok

I layered Black Grape into all of the shadows and darkest middle values using medium pressure with the pencil tip. I sharpened the pencil frequently to work in the smaller areas, but I also allowed the pencil to become blunt while working in larger areas.

Most of the work was completed with the same methods with which I added Indigo Blue, Dark Brown, and Dark Green. But I added a new stroke and method with this layer.

For the new stroke, I held the pencil close to the end and used the side of the pencil to glaze color over each area. Part of the reason I chose this stroke was to lay down broad, even layers of color, as shown here.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Black Grape Layer - Detail 3

TIP: Use the side of a well-sharpened pencil to lay down broad areas of color that show no pencil strokes.

Why You Should Consider Using This Stroke

Using a pencil this way also sharpens the pencil as I work. Believe it or not, you can get quite a nice point on a pencil this way so you save time.

You also save time in application because you’re sharpening the pencil and applying color at the same time. A third benefit is that the color is being used on the drawing instead of ending up in the shavings.

The secret is using light pressure so you don’t break the pigment core and don’t lay down such a heavy layer of color you can’t work with it without resorting to a solvent blend of some type.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Black Grape Layer Detail 1

I also began applying color with a blunt pencil and medium heavy pressure. For this work, I held the pencil nearly horizontal, but gripped it near the business end. Strokes were applied in the direction of hair growth with heavy pressure in dark shadows (around the eyes and nose in the illustration above) and medium pressure (along the shoulder and across the chest in the illustration below).

The net result was a more solid color layer. The blockier strokes also contributed to developing the bulk of the hair masses and the shape of the body.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Black Grape Layer Detail 2

And a look at the full drawing after adding black grape. You can still see areas that lean toward the blue, some that lean toward green, and still others that are more purple. That’s okay. You want those variations in finished drawing.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Black Grape Layer

Step 5: Dark Umber

To keep all those colors from getting too bold, I next glazed dark umber over them. I used the side of the pencil and medium to medium-heavy pressure to apply the glaze.

In the first layer, I used closely spaced diagonal strokes that roughly followed the contours of the body. I didn’t pay much attention to hair masses or to values.

In the second layer, I continued to use the side of the pencil and medium-heavy to heavy pressure, but followed the contours of the hair masses rather than the body.

As you can see here, the colors are beginning to blend to create a nice, rich black color.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Dark Umber Layer

In the face and head, I darkened more of the middle values.

I also began doing the eyes, working around the highlights in each eye and the hairs that overlap the eyes. Ordinarily, I’d impress a few lines to indicate hairs. For this portrait, I decided to work around the overlapping hairs.

Also notice the addition of flyaway hairs around the left side of the head.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Dark Umber Layer Detail 1

The brown is less noticeable in the chest, but you can see the saturation in the darkest shadow between the front legs. Gradually, all of the darkest shadows should look more like this.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 3 - Dark Umber Layer Detail 2


I like the variation in color that is natural to building blacks with this method of layering. It gives even the darkest shadows a level of visual interest and color variation that you just can’t achieve with black alone.

If there is a disadvantage to drawing black colors this way, it’s the tendency to give up too soon or start adding black too early in the layering process.

In the next installment, we’ll continue layering colors with another layer each of indigo blue and dark brown. But we’ll also get to black and I’ll show where and how I used that to deepen the dark values.

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How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2

Welcome back to this step-by-step demonstration of the layering method using colored pencils. If you missed the first step, you can read it here.

I’m using Strathmore Artagain Art Paper in Flannel Gray for this 12×16 drawing. Unless otherwise noted, the pencils I’m using are Prismacolor Premier Pencils.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2

A Recap

Although this dog is black, I’ll use very little black in the drawing. Why? Because black is such a strong color, it can easily overpower other colors and leave the drawing looking flat and lifeless.

If the subject of this portrait is anything, it’s not flat or lifeless. So the best way to draw her is by creating a more natural black through the layering of colors.

The two best colors for drawing realistic and lively blacks are dark blues and dark browns. My two favorite colors are Indigo Blue and Dark Brown. In the previous post in this series, I showed you how I began the drawing with indigo blue, so the next step is Dark Brown.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2

Step 2: Dark Brown

I applied Dark Brown over the same general areas in which I applied Indigo Blue, but the brown layer isn’t an exact duplicate of the blue layer. I wanted some areas to be more brown and some to be more blue so I applied Dark Brown in a somewhat splotchy pattern.

But I used the same pressure (light pressure). The darker areas are the result of more than one layer. It’s usually best to build dark areas gradually—with more layers instead of heavier pressure.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Brown Layer

I also duplicated the variety of strokes. Squiggly and broken strokes with soft edges in the hair and tighter, smaller strokes in the eyes, nose, and tongue.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Brown Layer Detail 1

You can see in both of these details where I layered Dark Brown over Indigo Blue and where I allowed the Indigo Blue to show through.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Brown Layer Detail 2

The variations in color are quite dramatic at this stage, but as I work with the color and deepen values, the variations will become more subdued and natural. By the time I finish the portrait, I should have deep, dark shadows that show a hint of lighter values. I should also have middle values with lots of variation.

Step 3: Dark Green

Green might seem like an odd choice for a black dog. In developing blacks with colored pencil, however, it’s important to remember that a good, rich black is made up of many colors. Take a look at the mane of a black horse or the hair of a black cat (especially a short-hair). Notice how the sunlight shines on black hair. See the rainbow of colors in the highlights?

The same colors are in the shadows, too. They just aren’t as obvious. So when I build blacks by layering colors, I use as many of the dark colors as possible.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Green Layer

I sharpened my pencil twice during the 40 minutes it took to do this work. I used the sharpened pencil in detail areas or small areas like the eyes and nose.

For the hair, I let the pencil go blunt, then used medium to medium-heavy pressure with jagged, back-and-forth strokes to continue developing the hair masses. These strokes are especially noticeable around the head and under the chin in this illustration.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Green Layer Detail 1

Notice in each of these detail images how the three colors I’ve used so far (Indigo Blue, Dark Brown, and Dark Green) can be seen in various places. That variation will give the final coat the look of mass and shape I need for hair this thick and long. I’ll continue to develop it through each layer.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 2 - Dark Green Layer Detail 2

Slowly but surely, the dog is taking shape as the dark values get darker and the value range increases. That’s exactly what I’m looking for and what you should look for as well.

Don’t be discouraged if your drawing seems to be developing too slowly. With a medium like colored pencil in which it’s difficult to correct mistakes, this is a good thing!

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How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1

This week begins a new demonstration series: How to draw a dog in colored pencil.

In this series, I’ll show you how I drew a black dog by layering several different colors. Because Bouviers are known for hair—a lot of it—I’ll also show you how to draw masses of thick hair.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1

The drawing for this demonstration is a portrait of a black Bouvier.

Katy was the companion of a couple from church. When she passed away, her people wanted a portrait. Since they already had a colored pencil portrait of another canine companion, they came to me with their request.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil

About the Drawing

The finished drawing is 12×16. I chose Strathmore’s Artagain Art Paper in Flannel Gray because it provided an ideal background for this vignette-style portrait.

It also saved a lot of time because I didn’t need to do anything with the background.

Unless otherwise noted, I used Prismacolor Premier Soft Core pencils.

I used a direct drawing method for this project.

Read how this drawing method compares with other colored pencil drawing methods.

Preparing for Drawing

The first thing I had to do was process the digital images I used for reference. The dog is so dark and was sitting on a white table in a light colored interior. Her facial features were difficult to see and impossible to draw accurately, o some photo manipulation was necessary.

I saved the primary reference photo with a different name, then increased the brightness and contrast. This is the original reference photo cropped.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Original Reference Photo

This is the lightened version.

The colors are diluted, but the eyes, nose, and mouth are much easier to see and draw.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Reference Lightened

I put a grid on the lightened reference photo, then developed the drawing using the grid method.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Line Drawing

When the drawing met with my satisfaction and had the client’s approval, I transferred it to the paper by mounting it to the back of the drawing paper and transferring it on a light box.

Beginning Color Work

Step 1: Block in basic values with Indigo Blue

When I begin building black by layering, I almost always begin with Indigo Blue. Whether the final color is a warm black or a cool black, Indigo Blue is a good base color.

Begin with several layers applied with light pressure. Develop dark shadows with through multiple layers. In the dark areas between the dog’s front legs and under its belly, there are as many as five or six layers of color.

Apply no color in the lightest areas in the first few layers.

In the illustration below, I’ve added color in the darkest shadows with a sharp pencil and crosshatching strokes. I put down a couple of layers with light pressure, keeping the strokes close enough together to draw an even layer of color in most of the dark shadows.

Along the edges of those shadows and over the eyes, the strokes are directional and duplicate the growth pattern of hair.

In the middle value areas, use the sides of the pencil to lay down one or two layers with very light pressure. In the areas where middle values and light value meet, stroke in the direction of hair growth. Use whatever strokes covered the paper best where you need flat color.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Indigo Layer 1

Step 2: Add a few details in the head and chest.

Use small, tight strokes with a sharp pencil to add detail in the eyes, the nostrils, and the shadow on the tongue.

Use either the side of the pencil or a blunted tip to draw hair masses. Broken strokes also contribute to the look of masses of hair.

The detail below shows the variety of strokes on head.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Indigo Layer 2 Detail

The detail below highlights the variety of strokes I used in the chest.

Pencil strokes mimic hair growth and hair mass, as well as the contours of the legs.

How to Draw a Dog in Colored Pencil Part 1 - Indigo Layer 2 Detail 2

The outline on the left is the transferred drawing. It begins establishing the uneven edges of the dog from the beginning.


The goal right from the start is to establish the shape of the dog and the nature of the surface texture.

From the initial drawing and first layers of color to the last layers, the drawing should become more and more defined and refined with each step.

Next week, we’ll continue learning how to draw a dog in colored pencil by adding the next color.

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