How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

So you want to know how to draw a complementary under drawing with colored pencils. And you want to draw a horse in a landscape?


I’ve got just the project.

How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

This tutorial is based on a drawing I did way back in 2005, when I was first experimenting with the complementary method of drawing. I’d already made some mistakes and errors in judgment by the time I drew Green Pastures, so this drawing went pretty smoothly.

But I also made major changes to the reference photo, as you’ll soon see.

How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

My Subject

Here’s the reference photo.

Green Pastures Reference

No doubt the first thing you see is that the horse is a different color! I love this photograph but had already drawn the horse as a bay. I wanted to draw a chestnut, so I used the same photo to get the drawing correct and as a reference for light and shadow.

For the chestnut coloring, I used photos of horses of the right color in similr lighting. I also made ample use of personal observations of horses in real life.

A few other details were also changed. Most notably the thickness and position of the tail.

Materials & Supplies

This drawing is on Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper in Beach Sand Ivory. The paper is ivory in color, which is perfect color for this drawing. While white paper can be used, a complementary base color will essentially allow the artist to start with one layer already in place, enhance the “tone” of the finished artwork, and facilitate quicker attention to detailed areas. If you decide to use a toned paper, use a color that’s fairly light.

I used Prismacolor Verithin and Premier (Thick Lead) pencils unless otherwise noted.

The Complementary Under Drawing

The under drawing is created using colors opposite the final colors on the color wheel. I want to draw a chestnut horse (shades of red and orange), 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 requires a complement that is lighter in value. Parma Violet is an excellent choice for under drawing yellow or you can use a darker color applied with very light pressure.

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

If you don’t have a color wheel, this is a good time to purchase one or make one. Download a free template for a basic color wheel, along with instructions for making your own color wheel. A free value scale template and instructions is also available on that page.

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.

Starting the Under Drawing

Green Pastures Step 1

For the horse I used Prismacolor Premier Grass Green to outline the horse, then began picking out the highlights by lightly outlining them, then shading around them. There are a minimum of three layers of grass green at this stage, building darker values with each pass.

I used light pressure with each layer, building value with layering rather than pressure. It is important to start with light pressure so mistakes can be easily erased or covered.

Work carefully around the highlights.

For the background… Use the same process in the background, but with Prismacolor Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown to establish the shapes in the trees and the values in the grass.

Finishing the Under Drawing

Green Pastures Step 2

Once the basic shapes are in place, and the highlights and shadows established, the process shifts from adding color to building values to bring the under drawing—and the composition—to life.

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

Match strokes to the object you’re drawing.

Short, vertical strokes with the point of the pencil in the grassy areas, particularly in the foreground.

Long, sweeping strokes with the point of the pencil in the tail.

Broad horizontal strokes with the side of the pencil in the hills

Circular or looping strokes with the sides and point of the pencil in the trees

Matching the stroke to each area saves time and effort in the long run.

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


I like to get as much detail as possible in the under drawing, but you can develop the under drawing to your personal preferences. Just remember that most colors of colored pencil are transparent, so the details and values you establish now will influence the final drawing.

Next time, we’ll begin glazing color over the complementary under drawing.

Read more about colored pencil drawing methods.

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