Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

I’ve been developing  the habit of drawing outside for a couple of years, now. It began with the first Colored Pencil Plain Air Drawing Autumn Challenge in 2016. I talked about a lot of things related to plein air drawing back then, but there is one topic I neglected: Choosing colors for outdoor drawing.

That’s the subject of this week’s reader question.

Hi Carrie,

I like to work in the field sketching, [and] primarily do landscapes but also may do street scenes. I especially like travel sketching. Can you recommend which colors would be helpful to a minimum travel kit? I own so many colored pencils it is daunting to pick which colors to take without overloading.


Stephanie Reitmajer

Stephanie has asked an interesting question, and one most of us don’t think about all that often.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

Choosing colors for outdoor drawing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. As with most things about colored pencils and art, there is no “right way.”

But I can offer the following basic suggestions to get you started.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

Try to plan for every conceivable possibility and you’ll soon be frustrating yourself needlessly. It would be better—and easier—to pack all your pencils, and be done with it!

Understanding what you’re most likely to see and what you’re most likely to draw, then planning for those things makes the process infinitely simpler.

The key to choosing colors for outdoor drawing is knowing what you’re most likely to draw

There’s a rule of thumb among writers (fiction and nonfiction) that the key to success is knowing who you’re writing for. When you know who is most likely to read your work, you can write for those people.

Believe it or not, the same rule of thumb applies to this question, and here’s how.

Stephanie mentioned the types of subjects she prefers drawing. Landscapes and street scenes.

Those are two broad categories that can cover a lot of territory, but knowing those categories helps Stephanie—and you and me—decide which colors to take on road trips and drawing outings.


Colors like greens, blues, and earth tones appear in some form in most landscapes.

The range of colors may be broader for street scenes, but the same basic colors might apply.

So the first step in choosing colors for outdoor drawing is knowing yourself well enough to know what types of subjects you’re most likely to draw.

Understand your subject well enough to know what colors are mostly likely to appear in those subjects.

Next, understand those subjects well enough to know what basic colors are most common in those subjects.

Landscapes are relatively easy. Greens, blues, and earth tones. You can narrow those selections even further by knowing in advance what types of landscapes you’ll be seeing on the next trip.

I favor the Flint Hills as a subject, and in the spring, it usually looks like this.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing - Flint Hills Spring

In the Fall—and sometimes late summer—it looks more like this.

Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing - Flint Hills Fall

I would choose different colors in the spring than in the fall.

When choosing colors for outdoor drawing, focus on color families

Next, look at color families, not individual colors.

Red, blue, and yellow are the primary color families. With them, you can make every other color.

For a little more refinement, add the secondary color families of green, purple, and orange.

When it comes time to travel, choose the color families you use most often, and the colors that best suit your most likely subjects.

TIP: Sort your pencils by color families and store them in individual containers for ease of use. I use a lure box for my pencils. Each “well” contains a different color family.

Want just the bare bones colors? Try this selection method.

Two of each of the primary and secondary colors are all you really need. One cool yellow and one warm yellow, and so on. It doesn’t matter all that much which two colors you choose, just as long as you have a cool and warm from each color family.

Or you could try selecting one light value, one medium value, and one dark value from each of the color families.

Black and white are optional colors, especially if you plan to draw on colored paper. You may also want to include a few cool and warm grays.

TIP: Some brands of pencils offer special sets designed for specific subjects. Portrait sets or landscape sets, for example. These are ideal for traveling and drawing outside. If you’re not happy with the selection of colors that come in the set, save the tin or box they come in, and fill it with your own choices!

Choosing Colors for Drawing Specific Subjects

So you now have the basics. Want a little more information than that? Here are colors I’d consider for specific subjects.

Choose “earthy” colors for landscape drawing

I do a lot of landscape drawing,  and although I often take all my pencils, I sometimes want to travel light. Especially for short trips.

When I want to travel light, the best colors are “earthy” colors. The earthy blues and greens made by Faber-Castell, are ideal for landscape work. Derwent Drawing  pencils also have great colors for landscape artists.

Similar colors from any brand are most likely to work for landscape drawing.

I also suggest at least two browns one light and one dark (or one warm and one cool.) Browns are ideal for an umber under drawing or for layering with greens to keep the greens from going too bright. They’re also vital if you don’t have any earthy greens in your collection.

Following are my color selections. The colors listed below are the colors I reach for most often when drawing landscapes. Your preferences may differ.

Faber-Castell (any of their lines)

The following earth tones make a good selection of base colors.

Burnt Ochre
Indian Red
Light Chrome Yellow
Light Yellow Ochre

Add these blues and greens to your outdoor colors.

Chrome Oxide Green
Chromium Green Opaque
Earth Green
Earth Green Yellowish
Green Gold
Juniper Green
Light Cobalt Turquoise
Light Phthalo Blue
Light Ultramarine
May Green
Olive Green Yellowish
Sky Blue

Prismacolor Premier

Burnt Ochre, Chartreuse, Chocolate, Dark Brown or Dark Umber, Dark Green, Goldenrod, Jade Green, Lemon Yellow, Light Umber, Mineral Orange, Sepia, Sienna Brown, Terra Cotta, Yellow Chartreuse. Any of the French Greys are excellent additions to an outdoor drawing palette.

Koh-I-Nor Progresso

Brown, Dark Blue, Dark Green, Hooker’s Green, Light Green, Light Ochre,  Sap Green, and Sky Blue. Light Grey is also a good color to have along.

I probably wouldn’t take all of these pencils unless I was planning a long trip. In that case, I’d pack everything.

The season also plays a role. For winter scenes, take fewer greens. For autumn, more bright colors and earth tones.

And of course adjust your palette appropriately for wooded scenes, seascapes, and so on.

Earth tones, a few blues, greens, reds, and yellows provide a good color base for drawing most kinds of animals

My landscape palette is heavy on greens, with a lot of earth tones.

For drawing animals, I reverse that balance so there are more earth tones. Those colors include all the browns from the lightest cream or ivory to the darkest brown.

Colors I’d add are colors like Prismacolor’s Black Grape, Black Cherry, Indigo Blue, Pumpkin Orange, or Mineral Orange or similar colors.

If you’re going to be drawing horses, cattle, or most wildlife, those colors (added to the lists above) provide all the colors you’re likely to need.

If birds, butterflies, or other such creatures are your subjects, you’ll need to add brighter blues, greens, yellow, and reds to your palette.

When choosing colors for street scenes, add a few brighter colors

This subject category is a little outside my area of expertise. However, if I were thinking about trying a street scene, I’d start with the list above. In many cases, the street scenes reflect the landscape around them.

In the southwest, streets are more likely to be earthy, warm colors, while streets in the Pacific Northwest will reflect more cool blues, greens, and grays.

There are also artificial things like street signs and vehicles to consider, so add brighter colors to your palette.

My Best Suggestion for Choosing Colors for Outdoor Drawing

A lot more could be said on color selection. After all, I haven’t said anything about still life, or floral drawing.

The best advice I can give you is to look at all of your pencils. If you have a relatively new set, which pencils are the shortest?

Those are the colors you use most often in the studio.

Chances are, they’re the colors you’re most likely to use while drawing outside.


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