Comparing colored pencil drawing methods can be a challenge. For one thing, there are nearly as many methods of drawing with colored pencils as there are artists using colored pencils.
And even though two artists may produce similar styles and types of work, the methods they use may be widely different.
How do you know which method is best for you?
Why Method Matters
As universal as drawing with colored pencils may seem, the method you use depends largely on three things:
- The type of work you want to create
- Your favorite papers or supports
- The pencils themselves
Believe it or not, some methods work better on smooth paper than on rough. Some methods also work best with high-quality pencils, and sometimes, the method that’s best for you is dependent on your artistic temperament.
Choose the wrong method for your tools and personality, and you may very well give up on colored pencils before finishing your second piece.
But find the right method, and you can draw for years and enjoy almost every minute of it!
Before we get started, let me briefly explain terms.
Regardless of the way you draw, you’re likely to work in two basic phases.
The first phase is what I call an under drawing. It’s the first layer or two of color you put on the paper no matter what method of drawing you use. The under drawing may consist of just a couple of layers or it may involve as many as six to ten layers.
The second phase is what I call the over drawing. In this phase, you’re developing the colors, values, and details you established in the first phase.
It doesn’t matter what colors you use in the under drawing. It’s still an under drawing.
For the purposes of this article, I’ll be comparing different methods for drawing the under drawing, since the over drawing is fairly consistent no matter which method you prefer.
There is no easy way to categorize drawing methods because the methods I’m about to describe are not isolated one from the others. You can combine various aspects of them as you like, so they’re more like points on a line.
Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods
To keep the discussion brief and clear, I’m limiting it to the four methods I use most often: Complementary, direct, monochromatic, and umber under drawing method. As mentioned above, these names refer to the way I draw the under drawing. Once I have a complete under drawing, the over drawing is pretty much the same from one method to the next.
Complementary Drawing Method
With this method, the under drawing is drawn in colors that are opposite the the color wheel from the final colors of the drawing.
In the color wheel shown here, orange and blue are complementary colors. If you wanted to draw something blue using this method of drawing, you’d begin by drawing the under drawing in shades of orange.
The drawing, Green Pastures, was drawn with a complementary under drawing. This is the finished under drawing. The under drawing looks almost like a finished drawing, but in complementary colors.
This is the finished drawing. Local color (the finished colors) were glazed over the under drawing. I needed to draw very little detail because it had already been established in the under drawing.
Tips for Using the Complementary Drawing Method
Take careful note of the local colors of your subject. An object that is blue-green in color will require a different complement (red-orange) than an object that’s yellow-green (red-blue). The more precisely you can identify the local colors and their complements, the better this method works.
For environmental greens, consider using earth tones as the complements, rather than direct complements. A grassy field on a sunny day will benefit from an under drawing in cool browns, for example.
If you’re unsure what colors to use for a complementary under drawing, reverse the colors on your digital photo. You can do this in most photo processing programs. You won’t be able to exactly duplicate the colors, but this “negative” image should give you a good idea where to begin.
Download my free color wheel template and make your own color wheel. Not only will this exercise give you a good feel for how complementary colors relate to one another; you’ll end up with a reference tool you can use for future drawings. Instructions are included.
Direct Color Drawing Method
Direct drawing is probably the most popular method of drawing with colored pencils because it’s where most artists begin. It’s natural. You draw the under drawing with the same colors with which you draw the over drawing. There usually isn’t a moment when you say to yourself, “The under drawing is done.” Instead, you continue to layer color until the drawing is complete.
This illustration shows the under drawing stage of a drawing in which I used the direct method.
With this method, you’re developing detail and creating value—just as you do with the other methods. But you’re also making color choices. The drawing develops at all three levels at the same pace.
The drawing moves without notice from the under drawing phase to the over drawing phase.
This illustration shows the finished drawing
The primary differences between the under drawing (above) and the finished drawing is that the colors and values are fully developed. I’ve also added detailing where necessary.
Tips for Using the Direct Drawing Method
Start with light colors and light pressure. You can use lighter values of the local color if you wish, or simply start with very light pressure and increase the amount of pressure you use layer by layer.
Build color and value slowly. It’s easier to increase color saturation and value range than it is to decrease it.
Be prepared to possibly have to mix more colors to get the exact color you want. I didn’t have one color that was an exact match for the palomino color of the horse in this example, so I had to combine several shades of yellow- and red-browns.
Monochromatic Drawing Method
When you use the monochromatic drawing method, you draw an under drawing in a single color (or maybe two), but the color you choose is entirely up to you. You develop the under drawing the same way you do with the complementary method or umber under drawing method.
I have used this method with Indigo Blue, as shown in the under drawing shown at the right. I’ve also used shades of purple and green.
But I don’t use the monochromatic method very often because the colors I choose tend to be either complementary colors or earth tones (browns).
The color you use for the under drawing will affect the final look of the drawing.
As you can see with the finished drawing here, the chestnut is quite dark. Some of that darkness is due to the colors I used in the over drawing, but most of it is the result of drawing the under drawing in Indigo Blue.
Tips for Using the Monochromatic Drawing Method
If you like to experiment and want to see how colors influence each other, do a simple drawing with a monochromatic under drawing, but do several versions of the same drawing with different colors as the under drawing.
Chose a color that’s medium value. Use light pressure to draw the lighter values. Increase pressure or number of layers to draw darks.
Consider the local color of the subject when choosing the under drawing color. The horse in this sample was naturally a dark chestnut, so using Indigo Blue helped developed the coat color. Using Indigo Blue for a light gray horse would not have helped at all.
Umber Under Drawing Method
This is my preferred method; the method I use to draw horses, landscapes, and almost anything else I want to draw. That doesn’t make it better than any of the others. It just means it works best for me.
This method is similar to the monochromatic method in that you use only one color. In this case, however, the color you use is an earth tone—a shade of brown.
The illustration at left was drawn entirely in browns. The landscape elements were developed in detail and value through several layers.
Once the drawing is complete, color is layered over the drawing.
In this sample, I used several greens to draw the grassy hillsides, and the trees. For the most part, I used the same greens in the foreground as in the background, but used the lighter values from the under drawing to create the illusion of distance.
Tips for Using the Umber Under Drawing Method
Use an earth tone that’s either neutral in color (not too blue or too yellow) or that is the complement of the final color. I use a light umber most of the time, because it’s a light brown that’s still dark enough to draw nice dark values. But it’s a little on the warm side, so if I’m drawing a subject that will feature warm colors in the over drawing, I might switch to a darker shade, which is slightly bluer in color.
General Under Drawing Tips
Begin with light pressure and build value slowly, layer by layer.
Choose middle value colors. The color needs to be dark enough to impact the over drawing, but light enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the over drawing.
Work around the highlights. It’s much easier to preserve the highlights than to restore them.
When drawing landscapes, don’t under draw the sky unless there are clouds. A clear, blue sky should be the purest color in your landscape, so it doesn’t need an under drawing.