How to Adapt the Flemish Painting Method to Colored Pencil

How to Adapt the Flemish Painting Method to Colored Pencil

Today’s topic covers one of my favorite subjects: How to adapt the Flemish painting method to colored pencil.

I spent several years experimenting with and learning the Flemish painting method in oils. There were more than a few missteps along the way, but there were also some great results. I describe the oil painting process step-by-step on EmptyEasel.

When I started doing more colored pencil, it was natural to adapt the Flemish painting method to colored pencil.

How to Adapt the Flemish Painting Method to Colored Pencil

Can You Do Just a Dead Layer?

Since it’s not possible to do both the umber layer and the dead layer, is it possible to substitute the latter if the subject hues are cooler?

You can substitute the umber layer and the dead layer with a single layer, then select the color temperature of that under drawing based on the final colors of the drawing.

The final drawing won’t show the full effects of a drawing incorporating all seven layers, but you will have more paper tooth available for later layers by combining the umber and dead layers, or by doing only one or the other.

Restoring Tooth to the Paper

Does use of a workable fixative restore enough tooth on the paper to add detail with colored pencil?

This has been the biggest challenge of using the Flemish method with colored pencil: The need to do at least seven distinct layers. The problem is with wax buildup. The more layers, the more wax on the paper. The more wax on the paper, the more difficult to add more layers.

I’ve used retouch varnish to restore the tooth to paper and have been able to draw over it, but it’s effectiveness is limited. At most, you can probably add three or four more layers. You can spray the drawing again, but each time you do that, the result is less satisfactory, so I don’t recommend it.

I’ve also tried workable fixative, but it’s even less helpful than retouch varnish.

One thing you don’t want to try is the final finish made for oil paintings. Not only may that flake off a waxy drawing, it may also discolor the paper and the drawing.

Alternatives to Restoring Paper Tooth

Rather than restoring tooth to the paper, it’s better to work in a way that preserves the tooth as long as possible.

Use Verithin pencils (or similar) in the early stages. These are harder versions of Prismacolor Premier. The pigment cores are harder and thinner, and contain less wax binder. You can develop an umber layer completely with them, and still have plenty of paper tooth left.

The purpose of the imprimatura step in the Flemish method is to tone the canvas, so you’re not painting on a white surface. If you want to work on a toned surface with colored pencil, use a light-colored paper. Using a colored paper eliminates the need to shade an imprimatura and thus preserves the natural tooth of the paper.

You can also tone white paper by rubbing color onto it with paper towel or bath tissue. That’s a time consuming task though. You can get wonderful, soft color so if that’s what you need, give it a try.

A third way to tone the paper is by using water soluble colored pencils, then drawing over them with regular pencils.

Texture Fixative

To truly restore the tooth of the paper after you’ve started drawing, about the only thing you can use is Brush & Pencil’s texture fixative. This spray-on product restores texture over colored pencil so you can continue to layer color as much as you wish. Here’s a great video on using texture fixative and companion products with a method similar to the Flemish method.

I have yet to try this product, but confess that it intrigues me!


  1. Mariepier

    I learned that technique when I was in my last high school year from my art teacher, I did not keep using it for oil ( too long ) but when I switch to acrylic it was great I love the depth it gives to the painting easier for me to define the values. When I started to use colored pencils to paint, not too long ago, I wanted to use underpainting again. I looked online but could not find much information until I found your site. It does inspire me a lot. Thank you so much.

  2. Judi hopewell

    It is possible to tone the paper with the imprimatura layer with a pounce. For graohite drawing i do this with my saved pencil shavings, seived to get the graphite dust which i make into a small pounce (like a drawstring purse) made with an old knee high cut down to a circle. Make a tight closure with elastic bnd wound many times. With a gentle touch you can wipe gently across your paper. Also chalk pastel works wonderfully too and saves your tooth for other layers.

    1. Judi,

      Thank you for reading this post, and also for your question.

      It seems reasonable to think you might be able to tone white paper with this method, but it also seems likely the results would be very subtle and similar to using tissue paper. The wax binder in colored pencils keeps them from being easily smudged. If you could transfer color using your pounce method, the color would be very subtle.

      I don’t know enough about how chalk pastels are made to know whether or not you could tone paper with them, then work over them with colored pencils. My primary concern would be first with the lightfastness of the chalk pastels, and second with how colored pencils would interact with the more powdery pastels. Have you used this method? If you have, what was your experience with it?

      Thanks again for the comment and the question.


    1. Ann,

      Clear gesso would work great for preparing the drawing surface. Your suggestion reminds me that I have a very nice birch panel that’s never been painted on, and that would benefit from a coat of clear gesso so I could draw on it and still make use of the wood grain.

      The difficulty is that most gessoes are acrylic based, and cannot be used over oil-based mediums. That’s why you can do an acrylic under painting for oils, but you can’t do an oil under painting for acrylics.

      The same applies to colored pencils, which are wax-based or oil-based. The gesso would flake off the colored pencil and everything drawn over the gesso would be lost.

      You’re thinking outside the box, though, and that’s a good thing!


  3. Danyel Hudon

    I am a fan of you! I am still taking notes about your video of advices colored painting and tricks of layering colored pencils. But I am. still to shy to try it. I am practicing with the colored books of animals with ultra-realistic looking, especially the looking eyes that I painted with my colored pencils just like marbles or some specifics gems. and it works well for me. Furthermore, I am still surprised that I did that. I just can not believe it. I’ m anticipated to do the project to paint a jaguar or a tiger.

  4. Silvia

    Hello, Carrie. Is it possible to skip the paper toning layer? I don’t totally get its purpose. Honestly, such many “pre-layers” seem to be too much. I usually use underpaintings, preferably with complimentaries, it adds more depth and interest to the colours. Doesn’t the gray dead layer dull the color of the underpainting?

    1. Silvia,

      The best way to do the first step in the Flemish process with colored pencils is to use a toned paper. That’s what I do. When I work on white paper, I go straight to the umber layers and start there.

      I also skip the dead layer, since it doesn’t accomplish the same purposes with colored pencils that it does with oils.

      You could also start with a grayscale under painting (also known as a grisaille). I have done that with good success, too.

      And I’ve started one or two pieces with complementary colors. I like that, too, but my favorite starting point is with an umber under layer.

      The great thing about art and all these drawing methods is that none of them works for every artist all the time. So find the one that works best for you and have fun with it!

      Thank you for reading, and thank you for your comment!

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