If you’re a landscape artist, one of the most important concerns is getting life-like color. Knowing how to draw a landscape green that looks real—no matter where it appears—can be one of the biggest challenges you face. That is certainly the case with this week’s reader question.
I want to draw landscapes, but my greens never look right and I can’t find the right green colored pencil. How do I make a green that looks real?
This is a great question. No matter what medium you use, creating believable landscape greens is a challenge.
No Perfect Green
Before I say anything further on the subject, let me save you a little time. You can stop looking for the perfect green pencil. There isn’t one. Even if there was just one green that worked for everything that grows, it would be difficult to make an ideal green pencil, because the atmosphere, time of day, and time of year all influence the way landscape greens appear.
Having said that, however, I will add that some brands of pencils have better selections for landscape greens than others. One of the first things I noticed about the Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils was the collection of greens that are ideal for landscape drawing. They still have some of the brighter greens, but those bright colors are well balanced by what I refer to as “natural greens.”
If you’re a landscape artist, it could be worth your time to look at the greens available from different manufacturers. One quick way to compare is by looking at the color charts for colored pencils at Dick Blick.
How to Draw a Landscape Green that Looks Real
Does that mean you’re stuck? Not at all. What it does mean is that you’ll have to rely on mixing colors rather than using a single color.
Here are my favorite methods for creating believable, true to life landscape greens.
Choose the Best Green
The first step in drawing landscape greens that look real is choosing the green pencils that most closely match your subject. The best rule of thumb I can offer on this is to use bright colors for spring landscape and duller colors for summer landscapes.
Also select three colors: one light, one dark, and one middle value color. These will be the base colors for the landscape greens.
If your landscape has more than one distinct green, select three colors for each of those greens.
Still not sure which colors are best? Do a test sketch with different combinations. Use the same kind of paper you want to put the drawing on. You don’t need to do a detailed sketch. Just rough in the light, middle, and dark values. That should be enough to show you which colors are best.
You can also use the color picker in your photo editor. The color picker is usually represented by an eye dropper icon. Select that tool, then click on the area you want to draw. A sample of the color will be shown. It’s a great way to isolate individual colors, and it can guide your color selections.
Tone Down Those Vivid Greens With Earth Tones
Even with the best possible greens, you’ll probably still get landscape greens that look artificial. They’re either too flat and lifeless, or they’re way to bright. In fact, you’re almost guaranteed to get an artificial, “painted on” look any time you use just green.
So every few layers of green, add a layer of an earth tone that’s the same value as the greens. For light value greens (or brighter greens), try light umber or beige. For mid-range greens like grass green, burnt sienna or burnt ochre will work better. Dark umber or dark brown are perfect for the shadows or any other place you might have dark greens. Pine trees, for example.
Again, use a little caution and experiment on scrap paper first. Just because a color combination works most of the time doesn’t mean it always works!
You can also add warm tones by mixing yellows in with the green. Adding blues will cool down greens, and if you need to get a really dark green, try layering Indigo Blue and Dark Brown with the greens in the shadows.
Start with an Umber Under Drawing
Try starting with an umber under drawing in earth tones. My favorite colors for umber under drawings are Light Umber and Dark Umber, sometimes alone, and sometimes in combination. Use one or the other or use them in tandem. Develop the drawing as much or as little as you like, then glaze greens over it.
You may still have to add earth tones later in the drawing process, but not as much. It may seem like more work to develop the drawing twice—once in earth tones and once in color—but it’s actually faster because you can work out the shadows and values without also worrying about color.
At least that’s the way it works for me.
Here’s a landscape I began with an umber under drawing. This is the completed under drawing. As you can see, the most “finished” part of the drawing are the trees in the middle. That’s because they’re the subject of the drawing, with the isolated tree on the left as the primary subject.
This is the finished drawing. I glazed color over the under drawing without needing to add a lot of additional detail.
Draw Believable Landscape Greens with a Complementary Under Drawing
Another way to draw believable landscape greens is by using a complementary under drawing.
A complementary under drawing is the same basic process as the umber under drawing, but with one important distinction: Rather than choose an earth tone to do all of the under drawing, use a color that complements the final colors.
For this small landscape, I began with an orange red and added a slightly darker red as the under drawing developed. The only places I didn’t do an under drawing was in the sky. I rarely under draw the sky because the sky is usually the brightest, purest color in the landscape. The only time you might consider under drawing the sky is if you’re drawing a cloudy day. Even then, go lightly.
Once the under drawing is finished, the process is the same as for any other under drawing. Glaze colors over the under drawing. The complements in the under drawing will affect the way the greens look even after several layers.
These aren’t the only methods for drawing realistic greens in your landscape, but they’re the three that work best for me.
They should work equally well for you, too.
Read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods for more information on other methods of drawing you can use for drawing landscapes.