A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

When I answered the reader question that published this past Wednesday, I was reminded of a color mixing method I learned from a book for oil painters. It’s quite a simple 3-step process for choosing colors, so I thought I’d share an adaption of it for colored pencil artists.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Color selection and color mixing can be a confusing and complicated looking process. That’s why I was so impressed with the process I’m about to describe. When I first read it, it seemed quite simple and logical. I wished I’d have thought of it on my own, it was so obvious!

Let’s look at a sample project. Here’s bright and cheerful rose bud. The colors are vibrant, so they’re perfect.

A 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors

Step 1: Identify the Main Color

The first step is identifying the main color for each area. This rose has a pretty strong shadow as well as strong highlights. To keep things basic, let’s start with the highlighted part of the rose.

The main color is clearly red. But what type of red? Is it a warm red with a lot of yellow in it, or is it a cool red with blue in it?

The beauty of colored pencils is that you have several options in the red color family. So don’t just choose a red out of the box and call it good. Since you can’t mix colored pencils the same way you can mix wet media like oil paints, find the closest match possible for the red in the sunny parts of the rose.

I chose two colors, then made these color swatches. It didn’t take much more to show me which color was closest.

NOTE: If you make swatches, make part of the test swatch as saturated as possible so that the paper doesn’t influence the appearance. I make a saturated bar at the inside ends of each swatch, so I could compare them more easily.

STEP 1: Test your initial choices (if more than one) to find the best match for the base color.

I’m not naming colors because this isn’t about color names. It’s about selecting colors from the pencils you have. This method works with every brand of pencil.

Step 2: Choose the Influencing Color

Unless you happen to have an exact color match (not impossible, but also not very likely,) you next need to figure out what color you need to add to the red to get a closer match.

How do you do this?

Look at that rose again. What is the second most obvious color you see in the sunlit part?

I see a lot of yellow, so I chose two colors, yellow and yellow-orange, and layered them over the swatch of red color I made in step one: Yellow on the top half, yellow-orange on the bottom half.

Then I layered the base red over half of each one of those.

So what you see here is red-yellow-red on top, then red-yellow, then red-yellow-orange, then red-yellow-orange-red on the bottom.

Choose an Influencing Color for Each Area

The colors above are for the petals on the front of the rosebud.

Look at the petal in the back. That’s a little cooler than the petals in the front. There is some yellow, but yellow isn’t a clear influencing color.

Nor are the colors I’ve chosen good influencing colors for the shadowed parts of the rosebud.

Once you choose the base color or colors, you can further fine-tune the colors by choosing different influencing colors for each area.

I’m not naming specific colors; I’m describing a process. I don’t know what brands of pencils you have or what this rose looks like on your digital device.

But you can do this. Take your time examining the rose, and the pencils you have for each step of the process.

Step 3: Do You Need a Tint Color?

Many times, once you’ve decided on the base color and the influencing color, you find that you need to make additional adjustments. You need a third color to tint the mix of the first two colors.

At this point, other factors start to play a bigger role. Things like the type of paper you use, your drawing method, and how you want the finished drawing to look. All of these things determine whether or not you need a tint color and what color you choose.

If you do want a tint color, continue trying colors on your color swatch.

That’s the 3-Step Process for Choosing Colors that I Learned as an Oil Painter

I have no doubt this process will work for colored pencils, and for any other medium you use.

Are three colors all you’ll ever need for any subject? No. There will be times—probably lots of times—when you’ll find it necessary to add more colors for details and those little adjustments that come at the end of a drawing project.

Also be aware that in most cases, you’ll have to cycle through the three colors you’ve chosen in order to develop full color saturation and vibrancy.

But it is a workable method for choosing colors for any drawing you’ll ever want to do, and in any medium.

And once you understand the principle, it won’t take long for this 3-step process for choosing colors to become second nature.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Last week, I showed you how to draw a complementary under drawing. This week’s post is part two of this tutorial—glazing color over a complementary under drawing.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Glazing color is pretty much the same for the complementary method as for the umber method or any other drawing method. You layer colors over the under drawing in thin, smooth layers to develop saturated color (no paper showing through,) vibrancy, and to add detail.

Keeping your pencils sharp and using light pressure to apply color are important. Creating smooth color is easier with sharp pencils, and applying color with light pressure allows the under drawing to show through.

As always, suit your pencil strokes to the area you’re working on, and begin with the lighter colors and work toward the dark colors.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

Beginning Color Work in the Landscape

When glazing color over a complementary under drawing, develop the color one layer and color at a time. In most cases, more than one color is needed to achieve the final color. With this drawing, I combined glazes of several greens to get the right shade of green for the grass. The trees required a slightly different combination of greens.

For instance, I used Prismacolor Grass Green, Peacock Green, Apple Green*, and Spring Green* in the grassy meadow. I used only Peacock Green and Dark Green in the trees for the first round of color.

Start with Grass Green applied in broad horizontal strokes throughout the grassy meadow. Shade all of the meadow on the first pass.

In the foreground, add short vertical strokes to mimic the look of grass. Apply Peacock Green, Apple Green, and Spring Green to the same areas and in the same manner to begin developing the darker values.

In the trees, use Peacock Green to lay in middle values, and Dark Green in the shadows.

Technical Tip

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 lose the details in 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

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

Next, layer Burnt Ochre over all of the horse except the brightest highlights, then Sienna Brown over the same areas. Finally, add Pumpkin Orange to the darkest middle values and shadows.

Carefully work around the highlights with each color. As you add the darker colors, give the highlights more space. That creates 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. The area immediately behind the shoulder is a blending of Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown.

Technical Tip

Working the entire drawing at once (as opposed to finishing each area before moving 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.

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, behind the horse. The tree survived through the under drawing and into the color phase.

Then I decided it added very little to the overall composition and crowded the horse visually. The solution? The tree had to go.

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 surrounding areas. The tree wasn’t completely covered, but it had become very vague, merely a ghost of itself.

Developing Color

Continue working 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, add Dark Green, Olive Green, and a touch of Burnt Umber.

In the trees, use 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 use a couple of colors in both areas, but also keep the trees darker and cooler overall than the grass.

Use 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 middle values.

The highlights on the horse are still untouched paper at this stage. Develop them by working around them. Sometimes, the best way to produce vibrant highlights is to darken the areas around them.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 5

Finishing the Background

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.

Finish each area with medium or medium-heavy pressure. 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.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 6

Finishing the Horse

Finishing the horse consists of adding more layers of the colors already used. Use medium pressure and directional strokes to develop color and value one layer at a time.

Also begin adding ‘surface’ colors. For such a bright chestnut, Orange* and Pale Vermilion*. Use medium or heavy pressure to add these colors. The heavier the pressure, the more impact each color will make.

Remember that heavier pressure also limits the number of layers you can add later.

Add reflected light with a layer of Light Cerulean Blue* burnished with Sky Blue Light* or White over the back and rump. Use Apple Green* burnished with Sand under the belly.

Then burnish around the places where the reflected light areas meet the horse’s natural coat color with the lightest of the coat colors to soften and blur those edges.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 7

The Final Review

The final step is a review of the artwork, then making whatever adjustments need to be made.

When I think a drawing might be finished, I generally set it aside 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 view your artwork in one of these ways.

Glazing Color over a Complementary Under Drawing

And that’s how to use the complementary drawing method to draw a horse. The really neat thing is that you can use the same drawing method for any subject you want to draw!

It’s not my favorite method for drawing animals, but it’s perfect for landscapes because the complementary under drawing naturally tones down the landscape greens. That makes for more natural looking landscapes.

*Denotes Prismacolor colors that are not guaranteed to be lightfast. Substitute other greens, or lightfast greens from other brands if lightfastness is important to you.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

How do you decide the order of colors to get the right color, values, or appearance? There are so many options, how do you decide?

That’s what Catherine wants to know. Here’s her question:

How do you determine the order of layers of different colors? I spend a lot of time testing the order of laying down color on the outer edges of my drawings, is there a quicker or better way?

This is a great question, Catherine. Thank you for asking it.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering

One of the joys of colored pencils is the ability to layer multiple colors to create new colors. You also have a wonderful selection of colors to use. So you have to decide which colors to use when, and I confess that decision can look mind-boggling.

So how do you decide the order of colors? Is there a simple method or technique?

I’m afraid the answer is no. In fact, the best answer is one most of us prefer not to hear. Practice and experience.

Lots of both.

But there are few basic principles that may help you make those decisions more easily.

How to Decide the Order of Colors

I once read about an oil painter who used only seven or eight colors and mixed everything else. Obviously, his techniques won’t work with colored pencils, but his method of deciding which colors to mix, what colors to start with, and adjusting colors as he painted can be applied to colored pencils.

The following tips are based on personal experience and the oil painter’s methods.

Study the Colors in Your Reference Photo

The first step is to study the color of whatever you’re drawing. What’s the main color and to what color family does it belong?

This horse, for example, is yellow-gold in overall color. The color family is brown tending toward yellow or golden.

This color family provides the foundation colors for this portrait. The main color family provides the foundation colors for whatever you want to draw.

So determine the main color family for your drawing. Not every color will be appropriate, but identifying the main color family will ultimately help you decide the order in which you apply colors.

Start with a Base Color

The base color comes from the main color family.

The base color should be a medium-light or lighter value. Ideally, as close to the color of the highlights as you can get. If you have to use a color darker than the highlights in your subject, work around the highlights.

This is the first color you’ll put on paper, and it’s also one of the colors you’ll use most often. Set it aside.

This is the base color for Portrait of a Palomino Filly (read the full tutorial.) The paper is a light eggshell color just a little darker than the highlights, so I chose a base color that was a little darker than the paper. This color was used throughout the completion of the drawing.

Choosing the Next Color

After you’ve layered the base color, compare your drawing to your reference. Chances are excellent the base color isn’t exactly the same as the colors in the photo.

So what color do you need to add to make the color on the paper more like the color in the reference photo?

For my horse portrait, I decided the base color needed to be warmed up, so I chose a warm, light-value color that was about the same color as the highlights, and layered that over the horse.

After I finished that layer, I compared drawing and photo again, and chose a reddish earth tone to add more color and value.

The color selection process continued that way until I’d used five or six colors, then I began layering them over and over.

Do the same thing with your work. Compare your drawing and reference photo after you’ve layered each color. Decide how your drawing differs from the reference, and what color you need to use to make the drawing more like the reference.

Keep making those decisions layer by layer, color by color, until you finish.

How to Decide the Order of Colors when Layering
The final color or colors are adjustment colors. They add value (darken dark values) or tint the colors already on the paper. Sometimes they do both.

That’s the Easiest Way I Know to Decide the Order of Colors

Don’t fret too much over deciding what order you should apply colors. You will make mistakes. That’s part of the learning process. Be bold and courageous! Learn from those mistakes.

Catherine says she spends a lot of time testing colors before using them on a drawing. That’s a good idea and a lot of artists swear by it. It’s a good way to gain the experience necessary to know instinctively what colors to use when.

The other option—the one I used when I began—was simple trial and error. Mostly error, sometimes (or so it seemed.)

But knowledge acquired by experience often sticks with me more quickly and longer than what I see or hear by example.

Image by husnil khawatim from Pixabay

My Advice for Deciding the Order of Color Application

Don’t worry too much about getting the order of color application correct right from the start. Unless you’re a highly analytical artist (yes, there are some of those,) it will be more frustrating than helpful to try to plan so carefully. You’re far more likely to frustrate yourself into not drawing at all. At least that’s what happens when I try to plan too far ahead.

The fact of the matter is that one layer of color could totally upset all those carefully laid plans.

So work one color at a time. Do those test swatches if they help you, but don’t try to swatch out the entire drawing before you start drawing.

Instead, choose the base color and put that on the paper.

Then compare what you’ve drawn with your reference photo to decide on the next color. Keep track of the colors you use and the order in which you use them if you like, but work step by step through the drawing until it’s finished.

I guarantee you’ll have more fun drawing and finish more drawings that way.

Unless you are an analytical sort of artist!