Comparing Colored Pencil Methods

Comparing Colored Pencil Methods

Today’s post is all about comparing colored pencil methods.

Choosing between colored pencil 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 differ widely.

So how do you know which method is best for you?

Why Comparing Colored Pencil Methods is Important

As universal as drawing with colored pencils seems, the method you use depends largely on three things:

  1. The type of work you want to create
  2. Your favorite papers or supports
  3. 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: How you like to put color on the paper.

Choose the wrong method for your tools and personality, and you may very well give up on colored pencils before finishing your second piece.

Comparing Colored Pencil Methods 1

But find the right method, and you can draw for years and enjoy almost every minute of it!

That’s why it’s important to know the basics of various colored pencil drawing methods. If nothing else, you can rule out those methods that don’t appeal to you at all!

Understanding Drawing Terms

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 layers 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.

It doesn’t matter what colors you use in the under drawing. It’s still an under drawing.

Comparing Colored Pencil Methods

The second phase is the over drawing. In this phase, you’re developing the colors, values, and details you established in the first phase.

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.

Comparing Colored Pencil Methods

To keep the discussion brief, I’m limiting it to the methods I use most often: Complementary, direct, 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 color wheel from the final colors of the drawing.

In the color wheel shown here, I’ve circled two complements; red and green. If you wanted to draw something green using this method of drawing, you’d begin by drawing the under drawing in shades of red.

The drawing, Green Pastures, was drawn over a complementary under drawing. The illustration below shows the finished under drawing (left) and the finished drawing.

Local color (the finished colors) were glazed over the under drawing.

Tips for Using the Complementary Drawing Method

Take careful note of the local colors of your subject. A blue-green object requires a different complement (red-orange) than a yellow-green object (red-blue). The more precisely you identify the local colors and their complements, the better this method works.

For environmental greens, consider using earth tones as the complements. A grassy field on a sunny day benefits from an under drawing in cool browns, for example.

This piece also began with a complementary under drawing, with different colors for each area.

Download my free color wheel template and make your own color wheel. Instructions are included.

Direct Color Drawing Method

Direct drawing is probably the most popular method of drawing with colored pencils because 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 layering until you finish the drawing.

This  illustration shows the under drawing stage (top) of a drawing in which I used the direct method.

This is the finished drawing.

With this method, you develop detail and value—just as you do with the other methods. But you also make 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.

Tips for Using the Direct Drawing Method

Start with light colors and light pressure. Use lighter values of the local color if you wish, or simply start with very light pressure and increase the amount of pressure layer by layer.

Build color and value slowly. It’s easier to increase vibrant color and strong values than it is to decrease it.

Expect to mix 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 combined several shades of yellow- and red-browns.

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.

With this method, I always start with a medium-value earth tone such as Prismacolor Light Umber. I develop the values, shapes, and many details using this color.

I layer color over the finished under drawing.

This is a horse portrait using an umber under drawing.

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 for All Colored Pencil Methods

There is no easy way to categorize drawing methods. The methods I described above are not isolated. You can combine various aspects of them as you like, so they’re more like points on a line.

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.

Read more about colored pencil drawing methods.


  1. Pat Wessels

    Hi Carrie. Thank you so much for another invaluable tutorial. You are such a star to share your considerable knowledge so generously. Please know your efforts are deeply appreciated and you posts keenly awaited.
    From an ardent fan.

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