How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

Toni wants to know how to keep track of colors and order of application.

Hi Carrie,

Just read your post about getting out of your comfort zone/challenges.  Read minds much? I’m bored with myself.  But I may have bitten off way more than I can do.

I’m working on a red/yellow pix of an African Bush Viper snake.  I am trying to do one scale at a time and it’s sorta working.  It’s VERY confusing trying to make sure that I’m on the right scale in the right row etc.  I’ve crossed out the scales as I go but …. good thing no one knows the snake personally!

How do you keep track of the colors you’re using, in what order you lay them down or blend.  This guy has lots of reds, dark reds, pinks, oranges, lemon yellow, light yellow, cream, and some in between.  The colors repeat (sorta) down a section of the body.  I get so involved trying to get the part I’m working on right that by the time I need to repeat it, I don’t know exactly what I did.

I feel like there is a logical answer but I can’t see it.

Sorry this is so convoluted.  You should see my rant on Flicker about POLKA DOTS😶


LOL Toni!

No, I don’t read minds at all (I don’t always know my own, let alone messing with other people’s!)

I’ve learned after so many years of blogging that if something affects me personally, it affects others. Those sorts of posts resonate.

How to Keep Track of Colors for Complex Drawings

I know exactly what you mean about repeating patterns. I did one of those a year ago. A red Christmas ornament with a braided cord of yellow, green, and red. Not quite on the scale of what you’re doing, but very close.

How to Keep Track of Colors that Repeat

Here’s the finished drawing.

When it came time to draw the cord, I thought I had it pretty well taped, because I’d drawn everything out carefully. Except I hadn’t been as careful as I thought and I didn’t get more than two or three of those repeating patterns done before I realized I’d made a mistake in the line drawing.

Time for a rethink.

The first order of business? Scrapping the line drawing and just laying down color, blocking in each color from one end of the cord to the other. I don’t remember the order I worked in, but would guess it was probably yellow, then green then red (light to dark.) I put flat color in each area using light or medium pressure and a sharp pencil.

After blocking in the cord, I went back and add shadows and middle values to create highlights.

I used only six colors total. A light or medium value yellow, green and red, a dark value green and red, and a light golden brown. The blocking in was with the lighter colors and I did all of each color in that round. So there was no need to remember the order.

Then I went back and did the same thing with the darker colors. Again, there was no need to really remember the order of each color because I worked the entire area with each color.

When I did the final round and added details, then I worked back and forth between lights and darks and may have even added other colors to get darker values.

For the most part, I either laid the pencils to one side of my working area, or held them in my left hand. A method known fondly as the handful of pencils method.

But that method works best if you’re using only a few pencils on a small drawing (or a small area.) I used six or seven over a small area. The entire drawing was only 8 x 10 inches.

So probably doesn’t help you with your African Bush Viper, since you’ve already done some of the scales.

Two More Ways to Keep Track of Repeating Colors

There are a couple of ways to keep track of colors in complex pieces.

Make Swatches as You Work

The easiest method is to make a mark somewhere along the edge of the drawing or on a piece of scrap paper as you use each pencil. Either before or after you layer that color, do a little swatch or even just a mark or two. You don’t even need to label them, because you can compare pencils to the marks.

Do the same thing with the next color and the next and the next and so on. If you repeat a color, make another mark, so you have every layer documented, as well as every color.

I made these color swatches for the red Christmas ornament project above. This more of a color selection tool than anything, but it gives you an idea of color swatching. I have made marks along the margins of drawings before and found that useful. It may also work for you.

This will be easier if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the rest of your pencils. Hold them in your hand if they’re just a few, or put them in a cup or jar, or just lay them to one side. Quite often, I take them out of the box and then keep the box a little bit apart from where I’m working. Handy, but not so handy I’m likely to put a pencil back into it without thinking.

Mind, the difficult part is going to be remembering to make that mark. If you draw anything like I do, you get so involved in the process that everything else ceases to exist. You’ll have to train yourself to make this part of the process, so it becomes automatic.

Try a Color Recipe Sheet

The second way I’ll describe is to make a “recipe sheet” before you start. Use the same type of paper you plan to do the drawing on, and make a small study. In the case of your African Bush Viper, you might draw a few scales in full, glorious color. After you’ve seen which combination of colors works the best, make either a swatch or a written list of the colors you’ve used and the order in which you used them.

Keep that sheet handy as you work through your drawing.

Of course this method also works best if you keep the pencils you’re using separated from the others.

One Thing to Keep in Mind

Even on an African Bush Viper, the scales that are the same colors and have the same patterns will look different depending on where they are along the body, and whether they’re in light and shadow.

It may be frustrating—maybe very frustrating—not to know the exact order of color application, but it probably won’t make that much difference in the finished piece.

I’ve never drawn a snake before, and I don’t know if I will. But I venture to guess those subtle variations that happen when the same colors are applied in different order might produce a more realistic and natural drawing. Get the light values light enough and the dark values dark enough.

Thanks for the question, though. It brought a smile to my face and that’s always a good thing!

PS: I’d love to see your African Bush Viper when it’s finished, and I’ll bet I’m not the only one (reading minds, again!)


  1. Gail Jones

    So this insightful artist asked a question I had thought about, but not put into words. Thank you for the question. I have struggled with using a lot of pencils for a project and taking detailed notes for each part I did…..ugg! Very time consuming! More paper work than fun. Carrie thank you for the easier way of keeping track of pencil colors. Much easier your way! Yay!

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