Is it Better to Start with Light Colors?

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors?

If you’ve been working with colored pencils for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that it’s best to start with light colors. Today, Anne asks the same thing. Here’s what she has to say.

Hi Carrie

Do you feel it’s better to start with pale colours as with watercolour and work up to the darker ones as you layer, or is it easier to start with darker colours and layer the lighter ones over them?



Thank you for your question, Anne. It’s a good question, and I’m glad you’ve asked it!

You might also be wondering if you always have to begin with light colors. So I’ll begin by answering Anne’s question, and then share a few times when you may not need to start with light colors.

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

If you’re working on traditional drawing paper, then yes. It’s better to start with light colors and add darker colors over them.

Colored pencils aren’t as transparent as watercolors (which is why watercolorists start with light colors,) but they aren’t opaque either. Every color you put on the paper influences every other color you put on the paper.

No matter how many colors you add.

So if you layer dark colors first, then layer light colors over them, the light colors will not be as bright as they would be on clean, white paper.

start with light colors
This drawing is on traditional paper, so I started with light colors and added darker colors over them.

Yes, you can tint darker colors with lighter colors, but that’s about all.

Incidentally, the translucent nature of colored pencils is why it’s so easy to end up with muddy color if you put too many different colors one over another.

Are There Exceptions?


If you use sanded art papers, then you can layer light over dark and the lighter colors will show up. Those colors may not be as bright as they would be when layered over white paper, but they will show up.

This landscape is drawn on sanded pastel paper. I added the lightest green highlights to the main trees after shading all the other greens. Even in the darkest areas, those green accents remained bright.

This landscape is on Pastelmat, so I was able to add light colors over dark colors.

I was also able to add sky holes in some places after the trees had been nearly finished.

Some products also allow you to add lighter colors over dark and maintain the brightness of the light colors. Brush & Pencil’s Touch-Up Texture is one. Paint a little Touch-Up Texture over a part of your artwork, let it dry, and you can add more color. Even light color.

If you need to cover a larger area, the Advanced Colored Pencil Texture Fixative (also by Brush & Pencil) accomplishes the same things.

And if you use an umber under drawing (drawing the first layers with earth tones and then glaze color,) you have a little more flexibility.

But you still need to preserve the brightest highlights.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time and on most papers, you should always try to start with the lightest colors and work into the darker colors.

At the very least, start with light pressure and gradually develop dark values by increasing pressure as your drawing progresses.

Thank you again to Anne for asking her question!

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  1. Matthew B Necroto

    Ideally, yes, i agree completely, but i have weird excptions. My work is vastly green. Green pencils clump easier than most. i wont think light to dark, but shift to a secondary process. ive stated before i do the majority of my work with simple Crayola base. its a base primer tone, not my final shade. laying layers of passes, not one pass to achieve the final tone. i do layers deliberately. in layers, ints not light to dark. its bottom to top, using each pass as a blender, burnisher, blending new pencil with primer, making a third element. after 10 layers, its smooth (as my intended texture) its blended. the overall tone picks up contrasting tones making it look more ‘real’.

  2. Gary Green teaches a method of working dark to light, covering it with white, then layering dark to light again minus the darkest pencil, covering it with white, layering again minus the next darkest pencil, and on and on. Heavy pressure, slow, lots of wax or oil on the paper, and intense saturation (along with an aching wrist) are what I remember from the class I took.

    Therefore, I tell my drawing students to try both ways (on scratch paper) and see which method suits them best.

    1. Jana,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

      I know Gary Greene was doing fantastic work back in the day. I never took a class from him, but I did watch some of his videos. The thing I remember from him is his method for starting each work session. He said that when he started each day’s work, he always chose to work in the area where he could do the least damage! I was oil painting at the time and made use of that suggestion more than once.

      It would appear from some more recent experiences that I’ve forgotten that lesson!

      You are right. No method works the same for every artist. The tips and methods I share are what work for me. They won’t work for everyone. That’s why we share our tips with one another and try things. So we can find the methods that work best.

      Thank you again for leaving a comment.

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