Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to draw a complementary under drawing.

This two-step process is a variation on the classical, seven-step method used by many Flemish artists and which is most commonly used with oil paints.

With the complementary under drawing method, those seven steps are combined into two. The first step is the under drawing. The second step is local (final) color.

Today, I’ll walk you through the under drawing phase.

Let’s get started.

What is a Complementary Under Drawing?

Every colored pencil drawing begins with an under drawing, which is basically just the first layers of color you put on the paper.

A complementary under drawing is created using colors opposite the final colors on the color wheel. In the piece I’m using for this demonstration, the horse is shades of red, 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 will require a complement that is also light in value or a darker color applied with very light pressure.

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

Technical Tip

If you don’t have a color wheel, this is a good time to purchase one or make one. A basic color wheel template is available here, along with instructions for making your own color wheel.

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.

Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

I used Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper in Beach Sand Ivory for my project. The paper is ivory in color, which is perfect color for this painting. The color of the paper affects the overall look of the finished artwork.

You can use white paper if you wish, but using a complementary base color essentially allows you to start with one layer already in place. That makes the drawing process faster.

Below is the reference photo. Not only did I tidy up the background; I changed the color of the horse. The tidier background simply looked better. I changed the color of the horse for purely personal reasons. I wanted to draw a chestnut!

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Reference Photo

You can either draw a chestnut, or draw the horse in its original colors. The principles of the complementary under drawing remain the same either way, though colors will vary.

I used Prismacolor pencils for this tutorial, but you can get successful results with any brand of artist quality pencils.

Starting the Under Drawing

For the horse

Use a medium value green such as Grass Green to outline the horse, then lightly outline highlights and shade around them. Use light pressure and develop value with layers rather than pressure. It’s important to start with light pressure so that mistakes can be easily erased or covered. Work carefully around the highlights and shadows.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 1

For the background

Use the same process in the background, where I used Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown to establish the shapes in the trees and the values in the grass.

You’ll get the best results in the foreground and middle ground by applying color evenly, but with some variations in value.

The trees may also be drawn with even color, or you can use directional or circular strokes to begin drawing the foliage. Whichever strokes you use, add darker values to the trees the same way you did the foreground. By adding more layers.

Keep your pencils sharp, too. The sharper your pencils, the more easily you can draw even color.

Finishing the Under Drawing

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

Now is the time to create visual interest by varying strokes. Use short, vertical strokes with the point of the pencil in the grassy areas, particularly in the foreground. Use long, sweeping strokes with the point of the pencil in the horse’s tail.

To draw the hills, hold your pencil in a more horizontal position and draw with the side of the exposed pigment core.

For the trees, use circular or looping strokes with the sides and point of the pencil in the trees.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 2

General Tips

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

Get as much detail as possible at this stage. As you gain experience using under drawings, you’ll discover personal preferences in finishing the under drawing.

Personally, I like to get as finished a look as possible with the under drawing. I attempt to develop an under drawing until it could be a standalone artwork.

One of the things I like about the under drawing process is its flexibility. Whatever method of under drawing you use, you can develop values without worrying about color. When you get to the color phases, you can experiment more freely with color without worrying about value.

You can draw a complementary under drawing for any subject from still life compositions to animals to landscapes. Using complementary under drawings for landscapes is especially effective for creating natural landscape greens.

Next week, I’ll show you how to glaze color over a complementary under drawing.

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