How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing

The umber under drawing has been finished, the first glazes of color are in place, and you’ve begun to deepen color and create richness. You’ve even fixed a big mistake. Now comes the moment of truth: knowing how to finish a colored pencil drawing.

That may seem like a silly thing to consider, but stop and think about it. How do you know when a drawing is finished?

I’ve finished enough drawings and paintings in over forty years to know it’s not always easy to know when something is finished. It’s not like putting the last stitch into a quilt, or the last dash of salt into a recipe. There always seems to be something else you could do.

Something that could be improved upon.

Sometimes it comes down to simply not knowing what to do next. I’ve been there more than once!

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing

Sooner or later, every piece of art must be finished, if only to make room on the easel or drawing table for the next piece.

This is the final post in this tutorial, so it’s reasonable to discuss some of the things I did to bring the drawing to completion.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing

Add Final Color

I worked throughout the horse with a layer each of Dark Brown, Black Cherry and, in the darker areas, Black applied primarily over the shadows and darkest areas. There was enough color on the surface that I had to use heavier pressure. Not quite burnishing, but getting close.

After that, I altered the shape of the off side eye, adding a little bulk to it and correcting the contour.

I also finished or nearly finished the near eye with heavy layers of Indigo Blue and Black over the eye ball, a highlighting with Sky Blue Light*, which I also applied to the rim of the lower eye lid. Darker colors were used around the eye and in the cast shadow below the eye.

For the reflected light in the shadow around the eye, I used Slate Gray. A few additional eye lashes were stroked in with Verithin White.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - Finishing the Color

Final Colors on the Bridle

Beginning with the headstall, I finished the bridle strap by strap. Most of the colors were colors used in drawing the horse’s hair—Dark Brown, Burnt Ochre, Sienna Brown, and Goldenrod or Yellow Ochre.

I tweaked the parts of the horse adjacent to the straps I worked on, adjusting edges, adding darker or lighter values as needed.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - Finishing the Bridle

Adding Details

I burnished the loose strap with Sand and added a few accents with White, Sky Blue Light*, and Dark Umber, mostly to emphasize or create stitching. I also added additional detail to the buckle with the same colors.

Next, I added details to the shadow around the eye. The eye and that shadow are the focal areas of the composition, so getting them finished goes a long way toward making the drawing look finished.

I began differentiating between reflected light and shadow within the shadow, using Dark Umber to bring out the shadows and Slate Gray to create faint reflected light. Next, I used Sky Blue Light* and heavy pressure with short, curving strokes to create the look of hair in the stronger reflected light in front of the eye. I then glazed middle values with Sienna Brown and Yellow Ochre.

I then applied Dark Umber and Black in successive layers to the shadow on the forehead and down the bridge of the nose. Dark Umber was stroked into the middle values between the front of the head and the shadow around the eye in a pattern that duplicated the look of hair. I did the same thing further down the face, but worked around the lighter value areas. The further I moved away from the eye, the less pressure I used.

When I finished with Dark Umber, I glazed Sienna Brown over most of the lower head and Yellow Ochre over the parts that were more golden in color.

I also altered the shape of the highlight curving across the forelock, still trying to reduce the look of a peaked skull. Then I added black to separate and define hair masses.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - Adding Details

Final Adjustments

After I’d finished, I reviewed the drawing, looking for things that needed to adjusted, corrected, emphasized or subdued. There wasn’t much.

I glazed Dark Brown over parts of the face and under the eye and in the orbital groove. Then I glazed Dark Brown lightly over the top of the strap behind the ears, and the top of the neck.

Then I used Verithin White to draw in a few more eye lashes and Prismacolor White to add highlights to the hardware.

At that point, I sprayed the drawing with workable fixative and set it aside for one last review.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - Final Adjustments

After The Pencil Work

The drawing part of the process was essentially finished at this point, but I still wasn’t satisfied. The biggest reason was the disparity between the forelock in front of the ears and the top of the neck behind the ears. They just did not line up properly.

But there was only one way to resolve that problem. Cropping the composition.

Before cutting the paper, though, I placed a couple of working mats over the drawing to test scaled down versions. Only one option appealed to me. A square crop.

I don’t use square compositions very often because they’re awkward with horses. Part of the difficulty is that they’re pretty static. A square painting automatically generates a sense of stillness and quiet. Most paintings do not benefit from such an impression.

But what about a drawing of a dozing horse?

I went to the computer and cropped the image to a square composition. Here’s the result.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - A Square Composition

Of course, once you start down that road, you can try any number of possible compositions.

This one eliminates more of the neck and focuses the attention more completely on the horse’s face. It also resolves the problem of the forelock and neck.

How to Finish a Colored Pencil Drawing - A Square Composition 2

Or even this very tight composition.

Of course, the tighter the crop, the smaller the actual drawing becomes.


In the end, I left it the way it was. That gave me the option of framing it large or small.

I can hear some of you saying I could have discovered all of this before putting colored pencil to paper. Yes, I could have. That’s one reason I now urge students and readers to take their time over the design phase. It would have been much easier—and quicker—to have know from the start these square crops would be been so pleasing. I could have started with such a composition and saved a lot of drawing time!

Alas, we all live and learn, don’t we?

Admit it. That’s one of the things that makes making art such a never-ending challenge!

*Sky Blue Light is not a lightfast color, and is no longer on my palette. I use Powder Blue or a combination of True Blue and White as a substitute.


    1. Dawn,

      Thank you for your question.

      I hardly ever use a fixative with colored pencils. For the most part, there’s no need. At least not when you use traditional drawing papers. Fixative doesn’t hurt a drawing, but it also doesn’t serve much purpose when you frame under glass.

      Fixative is more useful when you draw on a rigid support, especially if you don’t plan to use glass when you frame. It keeps dust and dirt off the artwork.

      Fixative is also helpful when you draw on sanded art papers. In such cases, it does help hold the pigment in place.

      But for the most part, using fixative is a personal decision. If used properly, it does no harm, but you also don’t need it.

      Of course those are general principles. A lot depends on how you’re using colored pencils, what you plan to do with the artwork, and the materials you use.

      I hope that’s been helpful.

      Thank you again for your question.


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