How to Make a Color Lighter

How to Make a Color Lighter

Do you know how to make a color lighter once you’ve gone too dark?

Any artist who works with colored pencil gets a color too dark sooner or later. Most of us have heard that it’s next to impossible to add lighter colors over dark colors and make an impact, so just how do you make a color lighter once it’s gone too dark? Is it even possible?

Yes, it is possible. Not always easy, but definitely possible.

Over the last few weeks, more than one reader has asked about ways to make colors lighter. Here’s a sample:

I have a drawing I’m doing for some friends of ours and I misunderstood what color she actually said she wanted their classic 37 Ford Club Coupe car to be and I think I’ve got it too dark. I’ve found it’s not hard to darken something but to lighten something is different. Especially after using a waxy pencil like the better Prismacolor ones. What would you use and/or do?

There are three basic approaches to making a color lighter:

—Burnish with a lighter color
—Restore paper tooth, then add a lighter color
—Remove the dark color, then add the right color

Let’s take a look at each one of those options in detail.

How to Make a Color Lighter

Burnish with a Lighter Color

Burnishing is a method of applying color with very heavy pressure. When you burnish, you’re essentially “grinding the colors together” and pushing them down into the tooth of the paper.

Read A Beginner’s Guide to Burnishing.

This is the easiest way to lighten a color, but it may also keep you from using any of the other methods described in this post. Depending on the number of layers already on the paper, burnishing should work.

The following tips are based on your having a lot of layers on the paper, with the final few layers applied with medium-heavy pressure or heavier.

Different Ways to Burnish

If you want to lighten the color without changing it, burnish with white. White will tint the color without covering it. However, white may make the color look chalky. You could also use a lighter value of the same dark color if you need to lighten the color only slightly. For example, a light green over a dark green.

If you want to make the dark color lighter and a little warmer, burnish with Cream, Jasmine or a similar light color. The French Greys are ideal for this because they come in several different values.

You could also burnish the color with a shade that’s lighter and warmer than the original color. A light, yellow-green over a dark, cool green, for example.

If you want to make the dark color lighter and a little cooler, use a light color that’s cool, such as Powder Blue or one of the cool greys.

Or try a lighter, cooler shade of the same color.

And if you need to lighten the color and neutralize it (make it less vibrant,) burnish with a light shade of the original color’s complement or a near complement. I often layer an earth tone that’s light in value over landscape greens that are too dark and too vibrant.

Your Drawing Paper Makes a Difference

The success of these methods depends on the paper you’re using. If it’s very smooth—a Bristol for example—you may not be able to lighten the drawing very much by burnishing.

If it’s a medium tooth paper (like Stonehenge) or rougher, give these tips a try. Use the same type of strokes with these lighter colors that you used with the original colors.

Using a blunted pencil is a good idea, so you don’t damage the paper.

Restore Paper Tooth, Then Add a Lighter Color

You can also restore a little surface texture, then add color over it.

One way to do this is by spraying your drawing with rworkable fixative.

I’ve drawn over light applications of retouch varnish, but it’s effectiveness is limited. At most, you can probably add three or four more layers of color. You can spray the drawing again, but each time you do, the result may become less satisfactory, so I don’t recommend it.

For the best results, apply two to four very light coats to your drawing. Let each coat dry completely before applying the next one. Half an hour is probably sufficient. I prefer a full hour.

How to Make a Color Lighter 3

Make sure the final coat is absolutely dry before you start drawing over it.

Don’t use the final finish made for oil paintings. Not only may that flake off a waxy drawing, it may also discolor the paper and the drawing.

A Better Alternative

To truly restore the tooth of the paper, the best option is Brush & Pencil’s texture fixative. This spray-on product restores texture over colored pencil so you can continue to layer color as much as you wish. It works best on sanded art papers, but you could try it any type of paper.

Once the paper is dry, you can continue layering color.

NOTE: Once you spray your drawing with any of these products, it will be impossible to change the color beneath the spray coating.

Remove the Dark Color, then Add the Right Color

I recently wrote about lifting color to fix a big mistake in a drawing-in-progress. The same process works with little mistakes.

Sometimes all you need to do is lift a little color.


Use transparent tape, masking tape, or painter’s tape. Painter’s tape is your best choice because it’s designed to be less sticky.

Cut off a small amount of tape, press it lightly against the area you want to lighten, then carefully lift the tape. Depending on the paper you’re using, you might be able to lift enough color to work. I’ve used this method successfully a number of times.

Be careful not to press the tape too hard against the paper or you could tear the paper.

TIP: If the tape seems too sticky, press it against a piece of non-lint cloth first. Denim is great!


Any eraser designed for use with colored pencils will help you remove color. I prefer a click eraser, but have also used an electric eraser with good results.

Use medium pressure (normal handwriting pressure) and stroke along the shape you want to lighten. Two or three strokes should be sufficient. It’s better to remove color a little bit at a time, rather than pushing too hard and damaging the paper.

In this illustration, I used a click eraser to add highlights to the neck of the horse. I’d applied the color with light pressure, so this method worked well.

The paper is Canson Mi-Teintes, which also helped me lift color. Mi-Teintes stands up well under this kind of work.

You won’t be able to remove all the color, but you should be able to remove enough to be noticeable.

TIP: It’s easier to make a color lighter if you haven’t used heavy pressure to put the color on the paper, but you should be able to remove some color with any of these methods no matter how hard you pressed while drawing.

Read “2 Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings” on

Bonus Tip #1

One way to make a color appear lighter is to darken the values around it. Admittedly, this method has limited use. It’s way too easy to end up with an entire drawing that’s too dark.

But if the area that looks too dark is small, or is surrounded by light values, consider darkening some of those light values just a little bit.

This is an ideal method to test first on a photo editing program. Scan or photograph your drawing, then use Photoshop or something similar to darken the values around the place you think is too dark.

Bonus Tip #2

Sometimes, the best thing to do when you think you’ve made a mistake is to walk away. No, not forever. Take a break and do something else.

It may be that there isn’t really a problem with the drawing, other than that you’re just tired of it.

I know it sounds trite, but it does work. I can’t list all the times I thought I messed up a drawing—or even ruined it—only to discover the problem mysteriously disappeared overnight. The rest, the time away from the drawing, and a new perspective was really all that was needed.

So my best tip when you think you’ve gotten something too dark? Set the drawing aside over night or over the weekend. Then, if you still think it needs to be fixed, give these methods a try.

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