How to Choose Base Colors

How to Choose Base Colors

No matter what drawing method you prefer, you need to know how to choose base colors. Making the wrong decision doesn’t necessarily doom a drawing, but it can make a huge difference in the success (and speed) of the drawing process.

Sometimes, you can look at your subject and know what color or colors to start with. But that’s not always true, and I’d like to share the best way I’ve found to make error-free (or nearly error-free) color selections.

How to Choose Base Colors

I used Affinity Photo for the illustrations in this article, but you can do the same with nearly any photo editor.

Sample #1

The most important thing to remember when using colored pencils on traditional paper is to start with the lightest color. That’s because you can always make color darker, but it’s difficult to make color lighter.

There are clear light values and dark values in this example. Several places that could qualify as the lightest area in the photo. I used the dropper tool in Affinity Photo and hovered over what looked like the lightest areas. I also tried other areas to make sure I’d chosen the lightest spot in this photo.

In this illustration, the circle on the left shows the color in those light areas.

The circle on the right shows the closest match in my full set of Polychromos pencils: Ivory.

It’s very close to a perfect match, so this is the base color.

How Did I Find the Polychromos Color?

I have a digital color chart from Faber-Castell showing all the available colors. I opened that chart in Affinity Photo and used the color picker the same way I used it on my photo. When I had what I thought was a good match, I selected that color and filled in the circle on the right above.

The process may be a bit different for you, but if you have a color chart for your pencils, then you can do the same thing.

If you don’t have a color chart, you can fill in a blank color chart with all the colors you have. Search for “blank color chart” for whatever brand you have, and you’re sure to find something.

You can also make a chart of color swatches without an actual chart. Make sure the color completely fills in the paper holes. Also label each color with the brand and color name.

Whatever type of chart you make, it will be worth the time and effort if you use this method of color selection.

Sample #2

In this sample, the lightest color appears in the stripe near the top of the wood. Slightly darker versions of the same color appear in the other light stripes.

Once again, I checked a couple of areas and isolated the one with the lightest value. That color is shown in the circle on the left below the photo.

In comparing my line of Polychromos pencils with this color sample, Ivory was the best match.

You may notice that Ivory is actually a little lighter than the lightest colors in the wood. What’s the best way to get a closer match?

Since it’s unlikely you could add enough layers of Ivory to get an exact match, the best solution is to add another, slightly darker color to the Ivory.

However, my inclination in this situation would be use only Ivory. Why? Because I can always adjust the highlights later if I want to, but it’s difficult to make them lighter if I start out with them too dark.

As always, this is a personal decision.

If you don’t use Polychromos pencils, or if you have other brands as well as Polychromos, it’s possible you will have a closer match.

Sample #3

The following sample shows much more variation in color. It also proves the value of really looking at your subject. When I started considering base layers for this sample, I was of the very firm opinion that I would need two base layer colors. So I sampled two areas on the dark slats (left) and two areas on the lighter slats (right.)

The first thing I discovered was that the lightest areas in both sets of colors are not that far apart. At least they aren’t as far apart as I expected.

The next thing I discovered was that the closest match in my set of Polychromos pencils was the same color for both: Ivory!

However, I needed to add a second color to get an exact match. So I tried different colors in combination with Ivory to find the best ones. I ended up with Nougat on the left and Burnt Ochre on the right.

Finding the Right Mix of Color

To make sure, I made a color sample for each of those two colors. Then I overlapped each color on the Ivory sample. Then I adjusted transparency until the “mixed” color was close to the color samples from the photo.

That also told me how much of the second color to layer over the Ivory. The more transparent I had to make the second color, the less of it is needed in a drawing. Compare the transparency of the Nougat (left) with the Burnt Ochre (right.) I had to make the Burnt Ochre much more transparent to get a match, so it will take less Burnt Ochre mixed with Ivory.

On the left, the base color for the dark boards is one layer of Ivory, one thin layer of Nougat. Then add another layer of Ivory, all applied with light pressure.

The light boards require a layer of Ivory, followed by a very thin layer of Burnt Ochre. Finish the base layer with another layer of Ivory. If that’s still too dark, add another layer of Ivory. Again, all layers should be applied with light pressure.

Example #4

This is the most complex of my examples.

But despite the complexity of this sample, the same principles apply. Once again, I sampled the areas that looked the lightest, and settled on the area shown below.

How to Choose Base Colors

Then I compared that color with the Polychromos color chart. It was obvious at once that there was no match, nor close match for this color. The closest I could find was Warm Grey I.

But it was also obvious that White would produce the best results when mixed with Warm Grey I. I tried Ivory as the second color because the wood in the photo seems to have a warm cast. The result was interesting, but not satisfactory, telling me that White was the best choice.

So for this base layer, I’d start with a layer of Warm Grey I, then add light layers of White until I had a good match.

Bonus Tip on Choosing Base Colors

I did all of these samples assuming I’d be drawing on white paper.

But white paper isn’t the only choice. I could save time by using a light ivory or cream colored paper for the first three subjects. The fourth one could be drawn on light gray paper. Choosing a paper close to your base color saves you the step of laying down the base color.

Choosing the right color of paper for the third sample would really save time. You could start with the two secondary base colors!

How to Choose Base Colors with a Photo Editor

This is not the only way to choose base colors. If you and computers don’t get along very well, it’s probably not the best way for you!

But it can be a useful tool when you find yourself stumped about the best base layer colors.

Whatever method you use, it’s well worth the time to do a little testing before you put that first color on the paper. It can save time and frustration later on.

And we all want that, don’t we?

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  1. Vicky Autry

    Awesome explanation. There’s way more strategy involved in art than most people realize. I am so grateful, always, that you take the time to articulate your process. To me, this is as absorbing as watching someone draw, and maybe even more useful in the long run, as it teaches discernment. Thank you, Carrie!!!

    1. Thank you, Vicky! What a beautiful comment.

      There is a lot more strategy in making art than most people realized. It’s a lot more than just “slapping paint on a canvas” or, in our case “making marks on paper.

      Thank you for reading this post and for commenting on it!

  2. Gail Jones

    Going to look into a color picking photo program like Affinity. Just need to work with one a little bit and get comfortable with it because sometimes I do have problems determining base colors. Thank you for this helpful article.

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