How to Draw Rich Black Colors

Lets talk about one way to draw rich black colors.

I recently wrote a post about drawing dark backgrounds and some of that information will help you draw rich black colors, too. But there are times when you need nice, saturated black colors and don’t want use heavy pressure to create them.

How to Draw Rich Black Colors

There are many ways to make a nice, vibrant black. Peggy Osborne wrote a post on this subject a few weeks ago, but she uses a slightly different method than I do. I encourage you to read her tutorial as well as this post, and then do a little experimenting on your own.

Peggy and I agree on one thing, though: The best black colors result from mixing different colors. You can use black—I do—but rarely alone.

But I don’t always use the same methods twice. However, here’s a general rule of thumb method that works every time with only a few adjustments.

How to Draw Rich Black Colors

Step 1: Decide What Type of Black You Need to Draw

That may sound like an odd place to begin until you realize that not all black colors are the same. Some blacks are warm, with shades of brown or gold mixed in. Other blacks are cool blacks and tend more toward blue or violet.

The best way to tell the difference is to look at your subject in good, natural light. If the subject is a warm black, you’ll see warm colors mixed in with the brightest highlights. The black may also look a bit brown.

If the subject is a cool black, there will be blues and other cool colors mixed in with the brightest highlights.

You need a very high resolution photograph to see this and even then, it can be a difficult decision to make. That’s why I prefer to see my subjects (usually horses) in person. On a sunny day, you can get a good look at the other colors that appear in the black hair.

One word of caution. On sunny days, there will usually be some blue in the upper highlights—those highlights on the upper surfaces. This could be because the black is cool, but it is always very likely the result of reflected light from the sky. Reflected sky light is always bluish on clear days. Don’t confuse reflected light highlights with other highlights. For the purpose of determining whether or not black is cool or warm, check the highlights other than those on the upper surfaces.

Step 2: Choose the First Color

I usually start a drawing with a light earth tone such as Light Umber Prismacolor or Brown Ochre Polychromos.

Depending on what you’re drawing, you may want to start with another color. I started this drawing with green, believe it or not, then layered many other colors to develop the black. I didn’t use Black until near the end of the drawing. Even then, I added black only to the darkest values.

One way to draw rich black colors is by mixing many different colors with black.

A good rule of thumb is to make the first color warm or cool based on the type of black you need to draw.

What you want to do at this stage is draw the shadows, and begin establishing the middle values. But don’t draw them too dark. Every color you add darkens the values naturally, so draw even the shadows lightly.

Use a sharp pencil with light pressure, and start by carefully outlining the most obvious shadows, then filling in the shapes with the base color.

You may want to do two or three layers with the base color, darkening the shadows each time, but also drawing more middle values with each layer. By the time you complete a few layers, you should have dark values, two or three middle values, and the light values, which have no color at all.

Step 3: Mix Black in With Other Colors

Layer other colors over the black area. Choose those colors based on whether you’re drawing a cool, blue-black, or a warm brown-black. Alternate between the layers as you develop values, colors, and details.

It’s all right to use Black. I use it all the time, but it’s almost always toward the end of a project and I’m using it to darken an area. It can be mixed with the other colors at any stage or the process, however. The decision is based entirely personal preference.

And how much time you have to finish the drawing!

Step 4: Continue Layering Colors

Repeat the colors until you get the black you want, and/or until the paper holes are filled in. Mix Black in with the other colors, but you might also consider adding a complementary color once in a while just to add a little sparkle to whatever you’re drawing.

Step 5: Finishing Layers

You can either do the final layer with Black, or with a dark warm color if the black is warm, or with a dark cool color if the black is cool.

Again, use the colors that give you the result you’re looking for.

Beware Wax Bloom!

Whenever you use wax-based pencils and a lot of dark colors with medium pressure or heavier, you may encounter something called wax bloom. Wax bloom makes a drawing look cloudy or foggy, and it’s especially obvious in dark colors. If you use heavy pressure, wax bloom may appear overnight or even from one session to the next on the same day.

Don’t worry. It’s nothing serious. The wax binder in the pencils is rising to the surface of the color layers. Wipe it off with a clean tissue or cloth and go back to drawing.

When you finish, wipe off the wax bloom, then spray the drawing with a final fixative to keep wax bloom from happening again.

The dark half of this illustration shows the true colors. The “foggy” half shows the affects of wax bloom. Use a clean cloth or paper towel to gently wipe wax bloom off a drawing.

That’s One Way I Draw Rich Black Colors

As I mentioned before, this is just one way to draw rich black colors. There are others.

The best advice I can give you is to recommend you try every method you come across, and see which one works best for you.

And remember that not every method works equally well for every subject. Always look for ways to adjust your favorite methods to get better results.

For more in-depth how-to on this subject, try my Portrait of a Black Horse tutorial.

One Reply to “How to Draw Rich Black Colors”

  1. This was super helpful, especially about the wax bloom. Love your drawing of the horse. I’m a big horse fan.

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