Adding Color to a Complementary Under Drawing

Welcome to the second part in this two-part blog class on drawing with the complementary under drawing method. Last time, I showed you how to draw a complementary under drawing with colored pencil. This week, I’ll show you how to add color to your completed under drawing.

Let’s get started.

Beginning Color Work in the Landscape

Green Pastures Step 3

One of the rules of thumb with the drawing methods I use for colored pencil is to start with very light pressure and gradually increase pressure through successive layers. That’s how I drew the under drawing for this drawing. It’s how I’ll add color.

I also suit the strokes I use to the area I’m working on. If I’m drawing grass in the foreground, I use short, vertical strokes with an upward motion. In the background, I use the side of the pencil and put down broad, horizontal strokes. Why? Because the distance will show color, but not as much detail. Reducing the level of detail as you move into the background of your drawing helps create the illusion of distance.

Reducing the level of detail as you move into the background of your drawing helps create the illusion of distance.

Finally, I begin with lighter colors and work toward dark colors.

In this step, I worked exclusively in the background, building greens one color at a time. I started with Grass Green, which I applied in broad horizontal strokes throughout the grassy meadow. In the foreground, I then added short vertical strokes to mimic the look of grass. Peacock Green, Apple Green, and Spring Green were then applied to the same areas and in the same manner.

In the trees, I used Peacock Green to lay in middle tones and Dark Green in the shadows.

I used a slightly blunt pencil and circular strokes to mimic the appearance of leafy foliage without drawing too much detail.

Technical Tip

Use light pressure at this stage. You want to add color over the under drawing; you don’t want to cover up the under drawing. Colored pencil is a transparent medium overall, but it is possible to apply color so heavily that you obliterate the under drawing. A good rule of thumb is to go through all the colors you want to use at least once using light pressure. Then you can use heavier pressure in those areas you want to accent or where you need to burnish.

Beginning Color Work in the Horse

I began adding color to the horse by working light to dark using Burnt Ochre, Sienna Brown, and Pumpkin Orange to create the base color. I used light pressure and a sharp pencil to work around the shapes of muscle groups, body contours and the edges of the horse.

Green Pastures Step 4

I layered Burnt Ochre over all of the horse except the brightest highlights. Next, I layered Sienna Brown over all of the horse except the brightest highlights and surrounding areas. Finally, I added Pumpkin Orange to the darkest middle tones and shadows.

The lighter colors were worked closely—and carefully—around the highlights. As I moved through the darker colors, I gave the highlight areas more space. That created areas of smooth and very soft color and value gradations around the highlights.

In this illustration, the back half of the horse shows all three colors in place and shows you how the green under drawing is contributing to the form and mass of the horse.

The front half of the horse shows only the Burnt Ochre glaze. The area immediately behind the shoulder is a blending of Burnt Ochre glaze and Sienna Brown glaze.

Technical Tip

Working the entire drawing at once (as opposed to finishing each area before moving on to the next) allows you to make adjustments throughout the process and keep the composition unified.

It’s not necessary to work in this fashion, but it can be helpful in establishing the initial layers of color.

One of the things I like about the under drawing process is its flexibility. Whatever method of under drawing you use, you can develop values without worrying about color. When you get to the color phases, you can experiment more freely with color without worrying so much about value.

Developing Color

A Word on Correcting Mistakes

Whether you plan compositions to the minutest detail or develop compositions intuitively (by the seat of your pants, so to speak), there will come a time when you discover late in the process that you’ve made a mistake. DO NOT LET THIS DISCOURAGE YOU!

From the start, I included a tree on the right hand side of this composition. The tree survived through the under drawing and into the color phase.

Please take note that it is no longer part of the composition. Why? Because it added very little to the overall composition and because it crowded the horse visually. The solution? The tree had to go.

Green Pastures Step 5

To remove it, I went back to the early stages of the process and layered under drawing colors over it so it matched the surrounding areas as much as possible. That wasn’t difficult in the upper portion, where the strokes are random. It took a bit more care in the lower areas.

When I was satisfied, I began glazing local color over those areas to bring them up to the same level as the work as the surrounding areas. The tree wasn’t completely covered, as you can see, but it became very vague, merely a ghost of itself.

Once corrections were complete, I continued to work throughout the background with layers of Apple Green, Spring Green, Canary Yellow, and Lemon Yellow in the sunlit areas of the landscape.

In the darker areas, I used Dark Green, Olive Green, and a touch of Burnt Umber.

In the trees, I used Dark Green, Olive Green, and Indigo Blue in the shadows and Olive Green, Grass Green, and touches of Apple Green in the highlights. The trees and grass need to work together visually, but they also need to stand apart, so I used a couple of colors in both areas, but also kept the trees darker and cooler overall than the grass.

I used Dark Umber, Terra Cotta, Indigo Blue, and a little Dark Green in the shadows on the horse and Terra Cotta and the siennas and ochres in the mid tones. The highlights on the horse are still untouched paper at this stage. I developed them by working the areas around them. Sometimes, the best way to produce vibrant highlights is to darken the areas around them.

Further Color Development

At this stage, the background is nearly finished. The brightest greens are around the horse, with shadows creeping in around the edges and throughout the trees. Individual groups of trees have also been created to lead the eye to the focal point, which is the horse.

Green Pastures Step 6

Heavier pressure is used to finish each area. Between 6 and 8 on a scale of 10 (with 1 being very light pressure and 10 being very heavy pressure). I wanted to fill in as much of the paper texture as possible without burnishing. Once you burnish, it’s very difficult to add more color without the use of a solvent or spray. Solvents or sprays can be used without damaging paper or artwork, but once you take that step, it cannot be taken back. If I use solvents or sprays, I generally use them very near the end of the process.

I much prefer pure colored pencil, though, so I try to avoid solvents or sprays.

Very little additional work has been done with the horse. That will be the final step.

Step 7: Finishing Touches

The background is now essentially finished. The colors and values are where they need to be for a completed drawing. Work on the horse consists of additional layers of the colors already used. Using medium pressure and directional strokes, I developed color and value one layer at a time.

Green Pastures Finished Drawing

I also began adding surface colors. For such a bright chestnut, this required Orange and Pale Vermillion. At this point, using either medium pressure or heavy pressure is suitable. The heavier the pressure, the more impact each color will make. However, heavier pressure limits the number of layers I can add because it fills up the tooth of the paper more quickly.

Reflected light was added to the horse. Light Cerulean Blue burnished with Sky Blue Light or White over the back and rump; Apple Green burnished with Sand under the belly.

I then used the lightest of the coat colors to burnish around the interior edges (the places where the reflected light areas meet the horse’s natural coat color) to soften and blur that edge.

The final step is a review of the artwork, then whatever adjustments need to be made. When I think a drawing might be finished, I set it aside at least overnight and look at it again the next day. The reason for this is that it allows me to look at the artwork with a fresh eye; as though seeing it for the first time.

You can also get a different perspective on your work by looking at it upside down or in a mirror. Any areas that need work will become obvious when you see your artwork in one of these ways.


If you have questions or difficulties, let me know in the comment box below. Chances are that if you have a question, others will have the same question, so please ask!

I’d love to see your work, too. So if you’d like, email me a picture of it. Make sure your images are saved at 300 pixels wide and at a resolution of 72 dpi. Also save images as jpg or png files (jpg preferred). Let me know the details of your drawing (paper, size, etc.). Also let me know whether you’d like to share it with the class and I’ll post it at the end of this post.

Read more about colored pencil drawing methods.

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