Colors for Under Drawing Waves

What are the best colors for under drawing waves?

Should you use the umber under drawing method that’s so good for landscapes or would some other color work better?

I get a lot of questions about drawing water, and it’s no surprise. Water is beautiful to look at but difficult to draw.

But the following question is unique in that the reader wanted to know, well…. Let her tell you.

Really got a lot out of your articles on under drawings for landscapes and understand why you would go with an earth color such as light umber for all that green

I love seascapes so I’ve been thinking that if it’s going to be a “cold” ocean then perhaps a 50% cool gray would be appropriate, but if it’s going to be a warmly lit ocean then maybe a 50% French or warm gray would be better for the under drawing. I’ll remember to leave the lightest areas blank on the under drawing.

What do you think? I’m a relative newcomer to colored pencil, just a few months of working on small pieces. I have lots of Prismacolor Premier and Verithins as well as the three trays of Polychromos.

Thank you so much!

Thank you to my reader for her question, which I answered personally and directly.

However, after sending her answer, I thought the question was well worth answering publicly, as well. After all, this reader isn’t the only artist interested in drawing waves!

Colors for Under Drawing Waves

A public response also gives me an opportunity to expand on my personal answer and to provide a few examples for everyone.

Colors for Under Drawing Waves

Colors Not to Use

I almost always start with an umber under drawing. That’s my favorite drawing method because it works so well with animals and landscapes.

But there some instances in which an umber under drawing probably isn’t the best choice. For example, I never under draw a clear sky with an earth tone. The reason is that the colors in the sky should be pure and don’t need to be toned down.

So my first inclination would be not to go with an earth tone to under draw water. Especially translucent water like a wave. Earth tones (and complements) tend to tone down the final color. That’s why they work so well with a landscape, where you don’t want brilliant color.

You wouldn’t want to use a complementary under drawing either, and for the same reasons. Complementary colors naturally neutralize each other. Perfect for a landscapes.

Not great for waves.

Waves need to look like light is coming through them and an earth tone or complementary color could make it more difficult to achieve that look.

The Color of Waves

Something else to keep in mind is that water is highly reflective. It “assumes” the color of the light around it.

Water looks blue under a blue sky because it reflects the color of the sky. The same water at sunset takes on the colors of the evening sky.

Waves emphasize that because the light shines through them. The time of day and the location of the light source determine what colors you’ll see in a wave.

A wave on a clear day.

This wave is lighted from the upper right (notice where the wave is shadowed) on a sunny day. The sand or rocks in the lower left give it a yellow look, but the main colors are blues. The dark blue is reflected by the light from the sky. The light blue is the result of light shining through the water.

The first colors I’d use to draw the wave above are shades of blue. Probably very light blue with a slight greenish tint, such as the color you see in the crest of the wave. Prismacolor Light Aqua or Faber-Castell Polychromos Light Phthalo Green would be good choices.

For the flatter water in back, I’d choose a darker blue. Maybe Prismacolor True Blue or Polychromos Cobalt Blue.

A wave lighted from behind on a cloudy day.

Here’s a wave lighted from behind. The yellow light of the sun gives the wave a green tint. Notice that even the white foam is really a yellow color. Perhaps even yellow-green.

The first colors you put on this drawing should reflect those local colors. Prismacolor Olive Green or Polychromos Permanent Olive Green in the darkest areas of the wave and Prismacolor Chartreuse or Yellow Chartreuse or Polychromos Light Green in the brightest areas.

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

A wave lighted from behind at sunset.

The lighting and color on this wave is totally different than any of the others in this post. This is the only one I would even think about using an earth tone for and that’s because it’s such a golden-brown color to begin with.

I’d start a drawing of this wave with Prismacolor Yellow Ochre, Spanish Orange, or Golden rod or Polychromos Dark Naples Ochre where the light shines through the water. In the darker areas, Prismacolor Burnt Ochre or Sienna Brown or Polychromos Brown Ochre or Raw Sienna would be good choices.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

How to Choose Colors for Under Drawing a Wave

Choosing colors for under drawing waves doesn’t have to be complicated. The key to success is studying your reference photo to see what colors you see. Remember that no two artists see color the exact same way, so trust yourself.

Then start with the lightest shade of the local (final) colors you see and gradually build the values through layering different colors and values together.

Work around the highlights in each area, especially if you’re working on white paper.

If you’re still not sure about color selection, the best option is to do some swatches first. Select the colors you think you’ll use for the final colors, then try layering them over different colors (earth tones, grays, lighter shades of the same colors,) and see which combinations give you the best results.

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