3 Ways to Find the Right Colors for Any Drawing

3 Ways to Find the Right Colors for Any Drawing

One of the questions I’m asked regularly concerns color selection. Artists—and especially new artists—want to know how to find the right colors for their drawings.

The implication is that there is a right way to choose colors, and finding that “right way” always results in choosing the right colors.

I hate to tell you this, but there is no right way! The plain and simple truth is that choosing the right color is sometimes a trial and error process, with a lot of error.

Yes, even for someone who’s been drawing as long as I have!

However, there are ways to sort through all the available color options and find the right colors without messing up your current drawing.

And they’re relatively easy to do. In fact, the most difficult part is making yourself take the time to do it!

3 Ways to Find the Right Colors for Any Drawing

Base Color, Second Color, Accent Color

Look at your subject, then choose the pencil that’s closest to that color. Let’s say you want to draw a red apple. Which of your red pencils is closest to the color of your subject? That will be your base color.

Chances are good the red will not be an exact match, so the next thing to determine is what other color the red of the apple leans toward. Is it more yellow or blue? Maybe it’s a little bit golden or even white.

You may find that in one place the red is definitely bluer (in the shadows,) and in another, it’s quite yellow. If you see a couple of different colors, chose the best pencil for each color. These colors will be your second colors.

Usually, there are also colors that appear only in a few places. I call these accent colors.

You can do quick sketches to select the best color combinations if you like. This is an ideal way to make use of plein air drawing time, as a matter of fact. Especially if you find a subject you want to do as a studio drawing.

For more on this method, read How to Select a Color Palette for Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel. This article explains this method in more detail.

Color Swatches

Making color swatches is another good way to find the right colors, especially if you have to mix different colors. The key to good color swatches is studying your reference photo or subject well enough to have already decided the base colors and second colors.

Then make a column of color swatches for each base color. Use the same type of pressure you usually use to draw, and fill in each swatch completely. If you have three base colors, you should have three columns.

Make a row for each of the second colors, too. If you have six second colors, each column should have six swatches.

Then begin layering the second colors over the base colors, one color per swatch until you find the best second color for each base color. Apply the second colors only to the base colors they influence.

Start with one color first. If that works, but isn’t quite right, add another color. Make note of which colors you used and in what order, so when it comes time to draw, you can refer to this color chart.

This is the color swatch chart I made for last week’s tutorial on finding the right colors for summer grass. The base colors are labeled along the top. The second colors are down the side.

In this case, I tried every second color on every base color, but you may not need to do that.

Find the Right Colors Sample Swatches

Photo Editing Software

I’m using IrfanView on a laptop, but there are other apps for phones if that’s what you prefer using. Art Rage, and Sketchbook by Auto Desk are two recommended apps. Photoshop on a Mac or PC is also a great app for picking the right colors.

Irfanview is a free editing photo program.  You can download the latest version at www.IrfanView.com. Versions are available for PC only, but there are some Mac equivalent programs to be found here.

Here’s how to use Irfanview. This is my sample photo.

Finding the Right Colors - Sample Image

Click on the EDIT menu (red arrow, below), and select SHOW PAINT DIALOG from the drop down menu. The paint dialog box will appear (the column in the center of this illustration.)

Click on the eye dropper image (red circle.) This is the color picker tool.

Find the Right Colors Sample Photo Step 1

Click on whatever part of the image you want to know the color for. I’ve circled part of the sky in the illustration. below

The color of that area appears in the box at the bottom of the paint dialog box (red arrow.)

Find the Right Colors Sample Photo Step 2

Now look through your colored pencils to find the closest match.

That’s all there is to it! Repeat the process for each area of the drawing, and set aside your pencils.

You can either check all the major colors before you start drawing, or do like I do and check them when you begin drawing each area. Either way, this is a great way to see colors isolated from the surrounding colors. It’s also great for overcoming any natural color bias you might have.


Whether you use one of these methods or have your own method of finding the right colors, it’s important to match colors as accurately as possible. Don’t think that just because the apple you want to draw is red, that it’s the same red as every other apple. As I’ve learned the hard way, no two shades are exact and the only way to find the right colors all the time is to color match every subject.

Every time.

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