I recently received the following question from a reader who wanted to know how to draw white objects on white paper. It’s a good question and one I’ve struggled with in the past.
Here’s the question.
There are several occasions where the subject I am working on has white areas such as a bird, flower, or animals that should be left white. How should these areas be treated if you are using white paper? Or there whites in some brands of colored pencil that lighten better than others?
This reader is talking about drawing white parts in otherwise colorful subjects. The white blaze on a horse or the white parts of a flower.
But let’s be honest. We also have trouble—and sometimes a lot of trouble—drawing things that are entirely white.
How to Draw White Objects
A lot of things come into play when drawing white things. Is the object smooth or rough? Is the surface shiny or dull? What is the setting like?
You have to ask the same questions for objects of any color, but for some reason, white objects throw us into more confusion than the same object in a different color. I dare say most of us know how to start drawing a red mug (or are willing to just pick a red and start drawing.) Give us a white mug, though, and we’re stuck.
The Real Question
So far as I’m able to tell based on personal experience, the biggest problem isn’t with drawing a white mug or anything else. The biggest problem is how I approach the drawing.
For example, if I’m drawing a black horse, I don’t ask what color of black I should use. I ask what colors I see in the horse.
But if I’m drawing a white horse, I start fretting over how to draw a white horse and don’t look for the colors in the horse.
The next time you prepare to draw something white, ask yourself what other colors you see in the reference photo. If you accurately identify the other colors and draw them, you won’t need a white pencil.
That’s because you can’t really draw white, especially on white paper. You have create the illusion of white through the colors you use on the white subject AND on everything around it.
Here are four other things to consider.
Is the object smooth or rough?
Smooth surfaces catch and reflect light and color better than rough objects. The smoother a surface, the more likely it will show hints of the colors that appear around it.
The petals on this flower are smooth and velvety.
This snow has a more granular surface. It’s still influenced by the colors around it (especially the sky,) but the granular surface texture gives it a different look. A rough surface would look different from both the flower and the snow.
Is the surface shiny or dull?
Smooth or rough is not the same as shiny or dull. A smooth surface can be either shiny or dull.
This coffee cup has a smooth surface and it is also shiny. The flower petals also have a smooth surface, but they are not shiny.
The shiny surface of the mug shows clearer reflections of the things and colors around it than the dull surface of the white flowers.
What colors are around the object?
Especially with highly reflective objects, you have to pay attention to the things and colors around whatever you’re drawing. Why? Because they influence the colors you see in your subject.
Look at all the shapes, values, and colors in this coffee cup. Light is shining on it directly and also indirectly. The saucer is shown in reflection on the lower half of the cup, and so on. Just drawing this cup with the dark background and shading it without all those details may produce a good drawing, but it will lack life.
What is the lighting like?
Perhaps the biggest factor in drawing accurate white objects is the lighting.
In the example above, the mug is brightly lighted by sunlight coming from the upper left.
This mug is lighted in artificial light with a bluish (cool) cast.
This mug is back lighted, and the light has a warm cast.
They’re both white, but you would use different colors to draw each one because of the lighting.
How to Draw White Objects Accurately: 4 Tips
Believe it or not, it’s easier than you think.
Tip 1: Study Your Reference Photo
Look at the colors in the photo. Set aside the idea that you’re drawing something white. Also set aside the notion that you’ll use white in your drawing. If you’re working on white paper, you won’t need a lot of white, if any at all. The photo below has very little white in it, yet the cup and book both look white.
If it helps, use a photo editor to isolate colors, as shown below. You can select colors as you draw, or make a digital palette before you start, then choose the best colors based on that.
Tip 2: Follow the Reference Photo
Draw the shapes, values, and colors you see as you see them. Study the reference, even when you think you know what to draw. Nothing gets me into trouble with a drawing more quickly than thinking I know what’s in the photo instead of studying the photo to make sure.
Tip 3: Light Pressure, Sharp Pencils, Lots of Layers
Use sharp pencils and light pressure to add color. Build the values and colors layer by layer. Consult your reference photo often before, during and after each layer.
Tip 4: Work Around the Brightest Highlights
The best way to get good whites in a colored pencil drawing is to work around the area you want white. You can lift small amounts of color if you’ve used light pressure to layer them. But even then, you won’t be able to get all the way back to the original white of the paper.
How to Draw White Objects in Conclusion
If you remember nothing else, remember that even the whitest object shows other colors. Shiny surfaces show those colors more clearly, but even dull surfaces show them.
The egg drawing below shows how I drew a white egg on white paper. Only the brightest area (the top part) is pure white and that’s the color of the paper.
To draw the shadows, I used the same colors I used in the background and on the cloth. To draw the reflected light (lower left part of the egg), I used a light yellow and light grays.
As with all subjects of any color, accurately drawing white objects is a matter of knowing what colors you see in your reference photo, then reproducing them as accurately as possible.
For further help, read Drawing Vibrant Highlights with Colored Pencils.