How to Draw Highlights with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Highlights with Colored Pencils

Let’s talk about how to draw highlights with colored pencils. This is a frustrating topic for many artists, but it doesn’t need to be.

First, though, let me share the reader question.

What’s a good method for highlights? My frustration is working light to dark and the times I need to highlight over dark.

This is a great question, and something I struggled with for a long, long time.

Highlights with Colored Pencils

Depending on the color of the paper you’re using (and the type of paper,) the best way to draw highlights with colored pencil is to preserve them from the start.

How to Draw Highlights

Working from light to dark is the accepted way to use colored pencils. It’s almost always preferable to add darker colors over lighter colors because colored pencils are translucent. All the colors on the paper show through every other color you put over them.

So adding highlights after you’ve drawn the dark values is almost always a sure road to frustration. I know. I did many drawings trying to add highlights at the end of the drawing.

Now, I lightly outline the highlights when I do the line drawing because I still sometimes shade right over highlights if I don’t mark them in some way. The lightest lines in this illustration are the highlights I’ve marked.

I transfer those highlights when I transfer the drawing. Otherwise, they do no good and I end up guessing where they should be. Guessing is all right with some subjects. Landscapes for example.

But whenever you do a portrait of any kind, the highlights must be correct. They help portray your subject and if you get them wrong, the portrait doesn’t look right.

Since I used medium gray paper for this portrait and the horse was black, I didn’t have to do much with most of the middle values. The paper color provided the lighter middle values, so I was able to add lighter highlights after the other values were in place.

When working on white paper, it’s best to work around the highlights as you add darker values. That’s why having them outlined in advance is so helpful. Once the darker values are in place, you can then lightly shade the highlights whatever color you need.

If you prefer drawing on medium dark or dark colored paper, shade the highlights first with white, then layer the other colors around them.

What About Adding Highlights Over Darker Colors?

Unless you use sanded art paper or a product like Brush & Pencil’s Titanium White, it isn’t possible to successfully add highlights later. No matter how much pressure you use, or how many layers you add, those bright colors will never be very bright. That’s because colored pencils are translucent by nature. Once they’re on paper, you can see other colors through them. That’s what makes glazing so effective!

With sanded art papers, however, you can add light colors over dark colors. That’s what I did to add the lighter, brighter accents to this group of low trees.

But in most cases, the best way to draw bright highlights is by working around them from the beginning.

Thank you for your question!


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