How to Make Colors Pop on Colored Paper

How to Make Colors Pop on Colored Paper

Today’s question comes from a reader with a first-time question. She wants to know how how to make colors pop on colored paper.

Hi Carrie.

This is my first question to you, and I hope you are able to advise me.

Is it possible to draw a bright white little dog on cream paper, and how would you get the drawing to pop?

I can see pale pinks, greys, blues and creams in it’s fur, but also brilliant white as the sun shines on the fur.

Can you give me a starting place?

Thank you,


Thank you for your question and welcome! It’s always great to get first-time questions from readers.

(Actually, I like getting questions and helping all of my readers!)

How to Make Colors Pop on Colored Paper

The first answer is yes. It is possible to draw bright, white little dogs on cream colored paper and make the colors pop.

The thing that makes colors pop is contrast. Contrast is the difference between the darkest color or value and the lightest color or value. The bigger that difference is, the more the colors pop.

Look at the image at the top of this post. See how much brighter the white letters appear on the black background? That’s because there’s more contrast between the color of the letters (white) and the color of the background (black.) But it works with any color combination.

Here’s the same illustration with different colors in the background. The white letters still show up better on the blue than the yellow. That’s because the blue is a darker value.

Just to prove my point, I made the title the same color as the background. You can still see the letters, and you can probably still read them because I left the shadow black.

But the title isn’t what catches your eye now, is it? Is my name on the next line down. That’s because that line now has the most contrast.

(By the way, contrast is one way to create a center of interest in your work. The greater the contrast, the more eye catching that part of the drawing is.)

The same applies to artwork. If you draw a white dog on cream-colored paper, you’re going to have some of the same problems that appear in the second illustration.

So how do you avoid those problems? I have two suggestions.

If The Paper Color is the Background

If you want to use the paper color for the background, then the best suggestion is to make sure the shadows are dark enough to create contrast with the background (paper color.) The advantage to this is that getting the shadows dark enough will also create more contrast with the bright whites in the dog, and that will make the dog look more three-dimensional.

Here’s one of my portraits. The dog wasn’t white, but it was fairly light-colored. I chose Stonehenge Fawn paper, which is a light, warm earth tone. I like that color for animal portraits, and since it was close to the middle values in this dog, it seemed like a good choice.

Make Colors Pop on Colored Paper

But once I got the dog drawn, I didn’t care for it. About all I saw from a distance was the nose, mouth, and that eye peaking through the hair.

Ordinarily, that’s not a bad thing. You want the face, and especially the eyes, to draw attention. But they need a face to look out of!

So I darkened as many of the shadows as I could to focus attention on the face and features.

You can do the same, but don’t go too dark too quickly on the shadows. Build them up layer by layer using light or medium-light pressure. That way, you’re less likely to get them too dark.

Also, if you do go too dark, it’s easier to make corrections if you applied color with light pressure. It’s still difficult to completely remove color once it’s on the paper, so that’s another reason it’s important to go slowly and draw carefully.

Adding Background Accents

If you don’t mind doing a little background work, you can always shade a little bit darker color around the dog. You don’t have to shade color over all the background. Just adding a little color around the lighter edges of the dog will make it stand out a little more.

This is one of my all-time favorite horse portraits. It features a light gray horse on light gray mat board.

Fortunately, I had all kinds of harness and equipment to define the horse a little better, but after I’d drawn her, I decided to shade the background very lightly. The darkest shading is in the corners. You’ll notice how the darker grays on the horse’s chest and shoulders combine with the corner shading to frame the head.

Here’s another example of adding a bit of background to emphasize the subject.

The dog is backlit, so it was fairly easy to emphasize the highlights failing over the top of her head. To keep the focus on the face, I faded the highlights as they moved along the back.

Then I added the green background, and I deliberately made it darkest around the dog’s head. It fades into lighter greens, then into the paper color around the edges and along the chest and back.

Make Colors Pop on Colored Paper

Depending on your subject, you may not need to do anything as elaborate as this, but you can see how much the dog catches your attention with the dark background.

Making Colors Pop on Colored Paper

You can make any color pop on any color of paper, but some combinations are easier. You have an excellent opportunity to try either one (or both) of these suggestions on your portrait.

Remember, it’s all about contrast, so make sure the darkest values are dark enough, and the lightest values are light enough. Get that right and the rest will be easier!

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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