Drawing Vibrant Highlights with Colored Pencils

Sometime ago I wrote a post on drawing vibrant shadows to create strong contrast. There are two sides to strong contrast; shadows and highlights, so lets talk about drawing vibrant highlights today.

The following reader question prompts today’s post.

“I always admire the flowers or eyes that have highlighted white shines. When I try it, the white from my pencil doesn’t stand out, or it gets drowned by the other surrounding colours.”

3 Tips for Drawing Vibrant Highlights with Colored Pencils

Most of us can empathize with this reader. How many times have you tried to get nice, bright whites—or highlights of any colors—and had the same results? Too many to number if your experiences are anything like mine.

Time to end the frustration with three easy-to-implement options.

3 Tips for Drawing Vibrant Highlights

There are a number of ways to get bright whites and vibrant highlights with colored pencils, but some of them require certain papers, some require specific tools, and some work best with both.

We don’t all have easy access to those special papers or specific tools, so I’d like to focus this post on things you can do with most drawing papers and any type of colored pencils.

One caveat though. The higher quality your paper and pencils, the better your results. Read My Recommended Paper and Colored Pencils for the papers and pencils I recommend.

Now for those three options.

Use White Paper

Colored papers are wonderful time savers and fun to work with. Colors look so different and interesting on them.

But they’re not very good for drawing vibrant highlights.

Contrast—not color—is what makes a drawing look three-dimensional. Contrast requires really bright bright values and really dark dark values.

It’s easy to get dark values on a colored paper, especially dark paper.

But bright bright values? Not so much.

Yes, you can get values that look bright relative to the dark values, but they won’t be truly vibrant because the color of the paper will tint even the whites. That’s because colored pencils are translucent, not opaque.

Look at this horse portrait.

I chose medium gray paper because of the horse’s color. The gray paper served as a beautiful middle value. It also saved a lot of drawing time because I didn’t need to draw those middle values.

But although the white face and blue eye look bright, they’re not as bright as they would have been on white paper. I don’t regret this paper choice; it was a good one, but I had to choose between absolutely vibrant highlights and saving time.

Drawing Vibrant Highlights with Colored Pencil - Use White Paper
Portrait of Bart, Colored Pencil on Gray Paper

You have to make that decision with every drawing you do.

Unless, of course, you work only on white paper!

Identify Highlights

Even with white paper, identifying and preserving highlights is necessary. Once you’ve layered color onto paper, it’s difficult if not impossible to get back to the color of the paper. No matter what method you use to lighten or remove color. Staining is inevitable.

So the best thing to do is map out your drawing well enough to know where the highlights and shadows are.

Let me show you how that might look. Here’s one of my favorite current line drawings.

Line Drawing from the Portrait of a Black Horse tutorial.

I developed this complex line drawing method because I always seemed to work over highlights no matter how careful I was while shading. I had to find a better way and this type of line drawing was the solution.

What do all those lines mean?

The darkest lines are outside edges. Highlight and shadow edges are outlined with dotted or dashed lines (see #2,) and contours are marked with directional lines.

I develop most line drawings to this degree, then transfer the lines I need for shading. Always outside edges, highlights and shadows; sometimes contour lines.

You don’t have to get this complicated with a line drawing, but it is important to find some way to mark those highlights so you don’t accidentally shade over them.

Work Around Highlights

When you begin shading, it’s doubly important to work around the highlights. It’s not enough to identify them; you must preserve them, too.

That sounds easy, but how do you do it?

Start by shading the darkest values first.

I always begin shading in the shadows no matter what method I use. In this sample, I started with light versions of the local colors. But the same principle applies to an umber under drawing, a gray scale under drawing or any other color you use to begin with.

After shading the shadows, I go over them again and work into the next lighter values with the next layer. I continue that process until everything is shaded except the highlights.

Drawing vibrant highlights start with shading the darker values first.
Start by shading the darkest shapes first. This illustration shows the shadows shaded (layer 1) as well as the darker middle values (layers 2-4 or 5.) Work from the shadows into the slightly lighter values layer by layer.

Use light pressure when layering.

Apply each layer of color with light pressure. Color applied with light pressure is easier to correct if you need to. You’re also less likely to get too dark too quickly if you use light pressure.

Continue using light pressure as long as you can, then increase pressure slowly, layer by layer.

Develop values slowly, layer by layer.

Don’t rush the drawing process. Colored pencil work sometimes seems unnecessarily slow, but it’s usually best to develop shadows slowly and gradually add the lighter values.

Here, I’ve shaded all the values up to the brightest highlights, which I’ve worked around. They don’t look very bright, do they? That’s because the darker values are still quite light.

But this horse is overall darker than the horse above. That’s because I darkened all the values with each layer.

The horse below is darker still, and the highlights are starting to look brighter. The darker the dark values become, the brighter the highlights look.

But it’s still important to work slowly and carefully work around those highlights.

Tint highlights as needed.

The final step in drawing vibrant highlights is tinting the highlights as needed. For Afternoon Graze, I lightly layered yellows over most of the highlights to give them a golden glow.

For drawing horses at mid-day, some of those highlights would remain white.

Want to draw these grazing horses? The full Grazing Horses tutorial is available from Ann Kullberg. Just click here. This link is an affiliate link.

Drawing Vibrant Highlights Needn’t be Difficult

But it must be intentional, especially if you use traditional drawing papers. You need to know where those highlights are, and keep them clean throughout the drawing process.

Plan your drawing enough to know where highlights are, then work carefully around them, and you’ve got the hard work done.

No matter what your favorite subject may be.

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