How to Know What Colors to Layer

How to Know What Colors to Layer

Hello I really enjoy your posts. How do you layer colors to add depth to a picture. For example instead of using black use dark brown and indigo blue. I guess I’m asking how do you know what colors to layer when looking at a reference photo. Paula


Thank you for your question. This is a great question and gets right down to the heart of colored pencil work.

Learning which colors to mix to get certain results is a long-term process that involves experimentation and reading about (or watching) what other artists do.

But there are a few things you can do to make those decisions easier until they become natural to you.

How to Know What Colors to Layer

Following are three things you can do to learn color mixing more quickly.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Experimenting with color is the best way for a lot of us because we can see firsthand what happens when we layer two or more colors. I’ve heard of artists who sit down with new pencils and make color swatches for every single color.

You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to, but the best way to learn which colors to mix to get new colors is by trying different combinations. Here’s an easy way to do that.

Take out a sheet of paper and start by making color swatches something like this.

The bottom row shows the first color I used.

The middle row shows that color with another color layered on top of it, and the top row shows both colors with a third color added to them.

I was testing colors for grass with this sample. You could make solid blocks of color or use whatever stroke strikes your fancy. Just put color on the paper.

This is a great way to see how each color affects all the others. If you keep these swatches in a binder, notebook or drawing pad, you’ll eventually have a very good catalog of color mixes. Of course, you need to name the colors for future reference.

Other artists make mixing palettes in which they have sheets of paper with nothing but various mixes of different colors on each sheet.

Physical Comparison

If you work from printed reference photos, you can compare your pencils with the reference photo as shown here.

How to Know What Colors to Layer

In this sample, none of the three colors I thought were closest to the greens in the photo were exact.

But I could see that I needed to add other colors to get a closer match.

For example, if I used the pencil in the left, I’d have to add a cooler, bluish color to tone down the warmth of that green.

If I used the pencil on the right, I’d have to layer a warmer, yellowish color because this green is very cool and blue.

You can do something like this with digital photos, too. Be aware, however, that it can be more difficult to get a good match because digital images are illuminated differently than your pencils will be. I list other options for doing this here.

Reading and Watching

Another way to get the basic knowledge is by reading good art books or watching videos.

In my opinion, the best art book on color mixing with colored pencils is Amy Lindenberger’s book, COLORS: A Workbook. I bought that book when it first came out and did most of the exercises. I’d been using colored pencils for years by then, and I still learned a lot.

Whatever book you buy or video you watch, don’t just read or watch. Do the exercises. Doing the exercises helps imprint the information on your brain in a practical fashion.

It’s also a great way to add to your color chart or swatch collection!

Knowing What Colors to Layer for Specific Results

There are no short-cuts. It’s all about drawing often enough to learn which colors to mix for whatever new color you want.

Remember, you don’t have to do all this drawing on actual artwork, although there’s nothing wrong with that.

Find a method that is enjoyable enough that you want to do it, then practice that method diligently.

Then apply what you learn to your artwork.

It won’t be very long before you discover that making the right choices is happening almost without thinking about it!

I hope that helps. This subject is pretty involved, and difficult to give a short answer for!

*This post contains affiliate links.


  1. Gail Jones

    Good article Carrie. I do my own color swatches on scrap paper when I go to start a project. Usually I just do one color by itself, but I tend to know what colors I can mix to get what I want…so that is all I usually need. If I need a couple colors mixed and I can’t decide between several close ones, I will then do another swatch of those combos. BTW…card stock is great for using to make color swatches.

    1. Gail,

      That’s a good method. I do something like that, too. But I’ve been doing colored pencil work (and oil painting) for so long that I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. Usually, if I have to make color swatches, it’s because I need a particular color for something I haven’t done before.

      Thank you for reading, and for commenting!

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