How to Draw Delicate Details

How to Draw Delicate Details

Knowing how to draw delicate details is important for any artist interested in drawing any type of realistic art. In many cases, those delicate details make the difference between so-so and fabulous.

So I wasn’t surprised to receive today’s question.

Hi Carrie,

Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions!

Although I have many, here is the question I selected:

How do I create delicate details, for example, bird feathers, with colored pencils?

As I build up layers of colors, details of the drawing tend to blur or blend. I end up outlining details which [means] the piece no longer looks natural, but more like an illustration.

I hope this makes sense.

Thanks again.


That question makes perfect sense, because I struggled with it for a long time. Sometimes, I still do!

Andrea asks a good question. Drawing bird feathers really requires a stand-alone tutorial post. I’ve never drawn feathers before, but I’m curious enough to be thinking about a feather study sometime next year.

But Andrea doesn’t want to wait until next year for an answer and neither do you. So let me approach the answer in a more general way.

First, I’ll show you how changing the way you hold your pencil can make a difference. Then I’ll followup with a few basic principles to help you draw delicate detail no matter what your subject.

Five Tips on How to Draw Delicate Details

How You Hold Your Pencil

It may seem too simple to work, but how you hold your pencil when you draw makes a big difference in drawing details. The reason? Control.

Most of us hold a colored pencil the same way we hold a pen or pencil when we write. (You do still write with a pen or pencil, don’t you?) Most of the time, the pencil is at roughly a 45 degree angle to the paper. That works great most of the time because it’s the most comfortable to your hand.

And most of the time, I can draw all the detail I need with a normal grip.

But not always.

Sometimes I want precise control for small areas or for making small marks on my drawing. Then I hold the pencil in a more vertical position, like this.

When you hold a pencil like this, you’re drawing with only the tip. If your pencil is needle sharp, then the marks you make will be very small. You’ll have a lot of control over where you put them, too, as well as how you draw them.

Now for a few basic principles for drawing details.

Drawing The Delicate Details

Following are what I consider the four most important guidelines to follow. They aren’t the only ones, but if you master these, you’ll see your work improve greatly.

Pay Attention to the Reference Photo

The first is to pay attention to the reference photo. Don’t just glance at it, then draw! That’s one of my biggest problem areas, and it’s a huge hindrance to my art progressing.

If you want to draw feathers that look like feathers, then you need to know what feathers look like. That means studying your reference photo. There is no clear rule of thumb, but you should spend at least as much time studying the reference photo as you spend drawing.

When you draw, make a few marks or shade a small area, then check the reference photo again. That’s where I get into trouble. I look at the reference photo and think I know what’s there, then proceed to draw for five or ten minutes without looking again. Even now, after all these years, that’s a problem! Why?

Because your brain fills in the things it thinks should be there instead of your hand drawing what’s actually there. By the time you realize there’s a problem, it may be too late to correct it. At least that’s what happens to me.

Make Careful Marks

This applies all the way through the drawing process. Nothing hinders your drawing faster than careless drawing. Believe me. I’ve fallen victim to it often enough to know!

But using pencil strokes that mimic the texture of what you’re drawing helps you add realism to your work at every stage. In this illustration, for example, I’ve shown the type and direction of strokes I’d use to draw these feathers.

You can do a base layer of solid color, then add blending layers of solid color if the strokes become too bold. But most of the color should be added with this type of directional stroke.

For more tips on this, read Let Your Pencils Do More of the Work with These 3 Advanced Pencil Strokes, which I wrote for EmptyEasel.

Watch Those Edges

When it comes to drawing delicate detail, edges are very important. Andrea mentioned her work looking blurry. That’s because the edges have either all become soft and blurred, or because there are no clear edges.

It’s very easy to blur edges with colored pencil, so make a conscious effort to draw as precisely as you can with every layer.

Are Your Values Right?

The biggest challenge for most of us is getting values right. That means the light values need to be light enough and the dark values need to be dark enough.

And that can be difficult, especially if we’re wary of getting too dark. The key is begin by establishing the darkest values first, then using light pressure to add layers and develop darks.

That’s one reason I prefer to start most of my drawings with an umber under drawing. It’s easier to work up the values correctly if I’m not also trying to make color decisions. You may find that helps you, too.

How to Draw Delicate Details

As I mentioned earlier, these five principles are not the only things that contribute to drawing delicate details of any type.

But once you master them, you’ll find your work improving by leaps and bounds!

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