The Complementary Under Drawing Method

Today, I’d like to explain one of my favorite ways to draw: The complementary under drawing method. We’ll talk about what makes this drawing method unique, how you can use it to advantage, and few disadvantages to consider, as well.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained

The Complementary Under Painting Method Explained

The color wheel is what sets the complementary under drawing method apart from the other drawing methods I’ve used over the years. I don’t need to refer to a color wheel with the direct method or the umber under drawing method. The complementary under drawing method requires a color wheel.

In fact, the color wheel defines the method.

Read more about basic color theory.

When you use the complementary under drawing method, you create the under drawing with colors that are opposite the color wheel from the finished colors.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Color Wheel

For example, the complementary under drawing for an orange is blue, because blue is the complement to orange. Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Complex subjects as well as simple ones can be drawn effectively with this method. I’ve used it to draw horses and landscapes, and have seen excellent still life compositions rendered using this method. If you can dream it up, it can be drawn with the complementary under drawing method.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Sentinel

Advantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

That’s all well and good, but why should you try the complementary under drawing method? Here are a few of my reasons.

Deepens color depth and creates vibrant color

One way to create points of interest in artwork is to put complementary colors side by side. The contrast created by those two colors next to one and another adds a bit of sizzle to that part of the composition. That “sizzle” is a great way to emphasize the center of interest.

You would expect the same thing to happen when you layer complements one over another, wouldn’t you?

But it doesn’t.

A color layered over its complement produces a depth of color that’s difficult to get any other way.

Naturally tones down landscape greens

One of the biggest challenges facing me as a landscape artist is creating landscape greens that look natural. For years, that seemed like an insurmountable problem. The greens in my pencil box looked good in the box, but no matter how I mixed them on paper, they always ended up looking fake.

Way too bright.

Much too vibrant.

Practically glow-in-the-dark sometimes (at least that’s how it seemed to me!)

The first time I tried a complementary under drawing with a landscape, I didn’t expect much from it. How could it possibly work?

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Green Pastures

But it did!

I was convinced. When I started doing more landscapes, the complementary method was one of methods I used.

Disadvantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

I’ve made the complementary under drawing method sound like a magic bullet, haven’t I? A sure-fire cure for everything that can go wrong with a colored pencil drawing.

It’s not a magic bullet.

There are downsides, too.

Color selection can be confusing and  time consuming

Selecting the right colors for a complementary under drawing can get very complicated very quickly. If your subject is complex (colorful marbles or a still life,) choosing the right complement takes time and patience. For some that wouldn’t be a disadvantage. For others, it might be.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Marbles

The complementary under drawing method also presents the opportunity for a lot of nuance. Two trees side by side might both be green, but one is blue-green, and the other has more yellow.

You can use the same complement for both, but true complements would reflect those color shifts in the green.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Different Shades of Green

Or consider a group of horses, a flock of colorful birds or a bed of flowers..

For a lot of artists, that’s just more fussiness than they want to deal with.

Sometimes, that includes me!

It can take more time to finish a drawing

Any time you use a different set of colors to create the under drawing, you potentially extend the amount of time it takes to complete the drawing. Especially if your under drawings are very detailed.

It’s Easy to Create Mud

Remember I said one of the things I liked best about complementary under drawings for landscapes is that the complements naturally tone down the greens?

There is a dark side to that comment.

Complementary colors also tend to create muddy color if you’re not careful. Color that’s dull and lifeless results from carelessly choosing complementary color, or from using too much of the complement.

The landscape greens I love so much would go from just the right green to an ugly, dull green when I use too much red.

Or the wrong kind of red.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A brief explanation of the complementary under drawing method.

If you haven’t yet experimented with it, I urge you to take time to do so.

And if you’d like more information, I’ve selected a collection of articles on this blog and EmptyEasel.

On The Blog

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals shows you how I used this method to draw a horse.

Colored Pencil Blog Class – The Complementary Method

This two-part series also features a horse, but this time in a pastoral setting.

How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

Adding Color to a Complementary Under Drawing

On EmptyEasel

How to Draw a Landscape Using the Complementary Drawing Method

This three-part series takes you step-by-step from the first layers of complementary color to the final touches on the drawing, The Sentinel.

How to Draw a Complementary Under painting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Under painting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting.

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