This week’s reader question is from Gina, who wants to know how to layer color and get soft colors. Here’s her question.
On most of my drawings, the subject calls for color that has been layered with pretty hard pressure. The result is a solid color with depth. Landscape and horses and things are examples.
I would like to know how to still incorporate all the layers and yet end up with a soft look, such as in some portraits that I have seen. My portraits usually have an aged look about the persons, especially the children. I think it comes from too much pressure. Is it just practice, practice, practice?
Thank you for your question, Gina. You’ve addressed an issue that a lot of colored pencil artists wrestle with.
There are a lot of ways to get good color with a soft look, including blending solvents and special tools. I’ll include links to some of the articles I’ve written on those subject below.
But I want to answer this question from the point-of-view of someone who doesn’t want to or is not able to use solvents or doesn’t have some of those special tools, by providing tips and suggestions that work with just pencils and paper.
How to Layer Color and Get Soft Colors
Lots of Layers
You can get depth of color and good color saturation with lots of layers. The fact is, combining layers of different colors is the best way to get color saturation with colored pencil.
Every layer of color you put on the paper fills in the tooth of the paper a little. Put just a few layers on, and you fill up only a small portion of the tooth. There are still a lot of paper holes showing through.
Put down a lot of layers, and you eventually fill in every bit of tooth. No more paper holes showing!
The fewer paper holes show through, the more saturated your final color.
Getting good color saturation doesn’t require heavy pressure.
Begin with the lightest possible pressure you can—I often refer to it as “whisper soft” pressure—and continue to keep the pressure light throughout as much of the drawing as you can.
If you have difficulty getting light pressure, try changing the way you hold the pencil. Most of us hold a drawing pencil the same way we hold a writing pen. This kind of grip gives us good control of the pencil, but may make it difficult to draw with very light pressure.
So try holding the pencil at the back, and in a more horizontal position, so you draw more with the side of the exposed pigment core than with the tip. You have less control of the pencil, but you’re also able to exert less pressure on the pencil.
Sometimes, I use this grip with the pencil held loosely in my fingers and let the weight of the pencil apply the pressure to the paper.
You will not be able to draw details or shade small areas with a horizontal grip, so practice developing a lighter hand with simple drawing exercises. Try writing your name repeatedly, using less pressure each time until you can barely see what you’ve written.
You can also shade a mark starting with regular pressure, then decrease the pressure you draw until the mark “disappears.”
Sharpen your pencils often. Getting good color saturation with many layers and light pressure requires very sharp pencils, because the sharper the pencil, the more easily you can get color into the deeper tooth of the paper.
Use a stroke that helps you draw even color layers by either mimicking the surface texture of whatever you’re drawing or by leaving no visible stroke at all. Most artists recommend a tight, circular stroke such as is shown below. This type of stroke doesn’t create edges where the stroke stops or changes direction, and it allows you to move over larger areas of color without creating “edges” where you don’t want them.
But it’s also acceptable to use other strokes if they help you draw whatever you’re trying to draw.
Read Let Your Pencils Do More of the Work, With These 3 Advanced Pencil Strokes on EmptyEasel.
I’ve saved this tip for last because although your choice of paper will affect the final look of your art, it will have a little bit less influence than any of the previous tips. In other words, the previous tips will work on almost any type of paper to some degree.
But it is still important to choose the right paper for the drawing methods you use.
More Tooth, More Layers
The more tooth the paper has, the more layers you can put on it. The more layers, the better the color saturation, and the more opportunity you have to blend by combining layers of different colors.
The ideal paper is one that’s heavy enough to take a lot of color, smooth enough to allow you to draw detail, but also has enough tooth to accept a lot of layers.
Your choices may vary, but I suggest papers like Stonehenge, Strathmore Artagain, or Canson Mi-Tientes. Those are the papers I use most often, so if you want results similar to mine, try those three papers.
I used to use Bristol 145lb board for most of my work because I could buy it locally and it has a beautiful, smooth surface.
But it has very little tooth, so layering becomes difficult after a few layers. I’m finishing what will probably be my last project on this paper as I write this post. I recommend it only if you usually work with half a dozen layers or less.
Old Looking Portraits
You also mentioned your portraits looking older than they should, and you wondered if that’s the result of applying too much pressure during drawing. It could be, but it’s more likely that color choice and the way you’re drawing values has more to do with the end result.
One thing I can suggest is that you keep the gradations between values very soft when drawing children. They generally have smoother skin and a lot less wrinkles than older people. I’m putting together a tutorial on this subject, so stay tuned.