Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

These week, I decided to share a few basic principles of layering colors with colored pencils through a short demo.

The topic is based on a reader question. Here is the original question.

How do you choose the pencils/colors that you use when layering color? In what order do you apply them?

Now on to the demo.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

There is no absolute way to decide the order in which you layer colors. Much depends on your particular drawing style and how you want each drawing to look. The type of paper you prefer even makes a difference, since you can layer light over dark when you draw on sanded art papers.

I don’t pay much attention to the order in which I layer colors. Instead, I start with the base colors, and then make adjustments as needed by adding other colors.

About the only thing I do regularly is start with an umber under drawing, because I like developing details and values without having to make color decisions. I prefer earth tones because they are an excellent “toning down” color for landscape greens.

Most of the time, I use Prismacolor Light Umber (for cotton papers) and Faber-Castell Polychromos Raw Umber (for sanded art papers.)

I also sometimes use a light warm gray for a blending layer.

One thing I can tell you, however, is that the last color you add has the most influence on that area. If the last color is blue, the overall color will have a blue tint no matter what else is under it. If you use yellow on the same area, the overall tint will be yellow.

So rather than give you specifics, let me share the general order of progression.

Start with the Shadows

I layer color into the shadows first. Blocking in the shadows first gives me a sense of the “mass” of the subject. The way it takes up space in real life.

I start with light pressure and build color and value layer by layer. As the shadows become darker, I add darker middle values, and then lighter middle values.

Here’s the landscape with only the shadows and darker middle values blocked in.

But I still look for the lightest color I can use for the shadows. I used Prismacolor Light Umber to block in the shapes first, then darkened some of the shadows with Prismacolor Sepia.

You have to find the color or colors that work best for you if you don’t start with a standard under drawing color. The principle is the same. Start with a light or medium-light version of the color you see in the reference photo, and then build darkness layer by layer.

I continue developing the under drawing until it looks the way I want it to look, with a nearly full range of values, and all the details I want to show. Throughout the under drawing, I use the same color or colors, so once the original colors are chosen, there are no further color choices to make until I start glazing color.

So let’s move ahead to glazing.

Choose the Base Colors

When you start glazing, look for the lightest color in each part of the drawing. In this case, I chose a light, yellow-green which I shaded over all of the landscape except the trees. This illustration shows the glazing about half finished.

The trees and scrub brush are darker than the grassy hills. They’re also a bluer shade of green than the grass, so I chose a darker, bluer green as the lightest color.

But I glazed this color over all of the trees, just as I layered the yellow green over the grass. These two colors (medium value blue-green and light value yellow-green) became my base colors for this landscape.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils
Add Other Colors as Needed

Once the base colors are in place, I chose additional colors based on the colors in the reference photo. I also selected colors to achieve my goal for the drawing.

This drawing, for example, was designed to capture the look and feel of a gray spring day. So I chose subdued, even dull colors. If I drew the same scene on a bright, spring day, I’d use brighter greens and would replace some of the blue-greens with yellow-greens or even yellow.

Layer, Layer, Layer!

Once the general colors are established, I continued layering them to develop rich color. When the color needed adjustment, I added other colors to the mix.

After that, it’s a matter of layering colors, fine tuning values, and working out details until the drawing looked the way I wanted it to look.

When It Looks Right, Stop

Or, when it looks the way you want it to look, stop. Remember, reference photos are only jumping off points for your finished artwork. You don’t have to duplicate every color, value or detail to create great artwork.

So when your drawing looks the way you want, it’s time to stop drawing and call it finished.

Even if it doesn’t look exactly like your reference photo.

This is my finished landscape art, Late Spring in the Flint Hills.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

The Bottom Line

It doesn’t matter what you like to draw most or how you most like drawing. When it comes to layering colors with colored pencils, the basic principles for choosing colors and deciding the order in which to layer them should work for you.

Even if they don’t, they will give you a place to begin.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

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One comment

  1. Patricia E Wilson

    I’m a card maker and most of the time use my colored pencils on dark cardstock to color them. I do use white usually as my base coat and then add other colors. I found that interesting that the last color you add will be the one that you see. This was very helpful to me. Thank you.

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