How To Draw Trees with Colored Pencil

So how do you draw trees with colored pencils? Is there a “best way” to draw them far away and up close? That’s what Paula is asking today. Here’s her question:

Hi Carrie,

I’m having trouble with trees and leaves.  Trees in the distance aren’t too bad but as they get closer in view you need to combine the “fuzzy” trees in the distance with some more detailed leaves in the foreground.  Love your tips!

Paula

Thank you for your question, Paula.

How to Draw Trees with Colored Pencils

Trees. At one time, I hated drawing them and avoided drawing them whenever possible.

They’re now among my favorite subjects to sketch and draw.

When I started writing this post, I fully intended to show you how to draw a tree with colored pencil with a step-by-step tutorial.

Then I decided to begin with a few general tips and by the time I had those outlined, I realized adding a tutorial would make the post way too long. So we’ll focus on the general tips, then I’ll link to a two-part tutorial I wrote for EmptyEasel.

A Few Tips for Drawing Trees

Let’s begin with a few basic principles that will help you draw better trees no matter what type of tree you want to draw. They’re easy to grasp and put to use because you’re probably already using them with other subjects and didn’t realize they apply to trees, too (and anything else you might want to draw.)

Go for the Big Shapes First

No two trees are identical, even if they’re the same type of tree. Branches grow differently. Branches die and fall. Trees get pruned. Whatever the cause, each tree is as unique as each person.

So the first thing to do when you draw a tree is to look for the big, overall shape. Don’t worry about what’s within that shape.

If you’re drawing more than one tree, pay attention to how they relate to one another in size, too. Vary the sizes of the trees you draw so it doesn’t look like you’re drawing cut-out trees.

How to draw trees - start with the big shapes
Always begin with the largest, most basic shapes for each tree. If you’re drawing more than one tree, note how the shapes relate to one another in size and location.

Vary the Level of Detail

The closer an object is, the more clearly you can see the details of that object. Trees in the foreground should have more detail than the trees in the background. The further away a tree is, the less detail you should draw.

Color and value is part of this picture. Colors generally get less vibrant as they recede into the distance. The range of values also gets narrower. The light values get a little darker and the darker values get a little lighter.

Each of these three things contribute to the illusion of distance and space in artwork.

Don’t Draw Every Leaf

Even in the trees in the foreground.

There is one exception to this principle and that’s if you happen to have twigs or branches hanging down in the extreme foreground. You will need to be more careful about drawing individual leaves in a case like that.

Yes, the closer trees should look more like they have leaves instead of a solid canopy, but you still shouldn’t draw every leaf. A few strokes or dots of color in a few places around the outside edges of your tree will be enough to help a viewer “see” leaves in the rest of the tree.

Another good place to add these kinds of details is along the edges where colors or values change, such as the edges of shadows.

But you’re also probably going to show them in less detail and perhaps silhouetted in order to keep them from becoming the focus of attention.

Use More than One Color

Most of the time, trees are some shade of green. Obviously, Autumn is one time of year when many trees are not green, and there are some trees that are never green, but for the most part, when you draw a tree, you’ll be using a green.

But don’t limit yourself to just one green. Choose a dark green, a middle green, and a light green that work well together. Use each color where appropriate to draw the colors AND values.

For good measure, have an earth tone handy, just in case those greens get a little too artificial looking! Some shade of red or orange also work to tone down greens.

Stay Away from Those Neon Colors

Unless your landscape features something man-made, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find bright, vibrant colors in it. So when you make color selections, stay away from colors that are bright enough to attract the eye, but don’t look at all natural in a landscape.

How To Draw Trees with Colored Pencil

As mentioned earlier, I’ll send you over to EmptyEasel, where you can see the first article in a series showing how I drew a landscape with trees. I started with an umber under drawing, and you can read that article here.

How to Draw Trees with an Umber Under Drawing

The second part is all about color, and you can read that here.

This two-part tutorial will help you see how to separate the trees in the foreground from the trees in the middle ground.

And I hope to do a new landscape tutorial sometime in 2020, so stay tuned for that.

How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

Let’s talk about one of the easier ways I know to draw dark backgrounds with colored pencils.

You’ve heard me talk about emphasizing your subject by creating contrast between the subject and the things around it. The sample for that article was a yellow flag, which I showed against a white background (not very exciting) and a black background (much more exciting.)

I’m not the only artist who uses dark or black backgrounds to put zing into their work. Cecile Baird has made dark backgrounds, backlit subjects, and high contrast her signature style. Take a look at some of her work and see for yourself.

How to  Draw Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

That’s all well and good, you say, but what’s the best way to draw a black background? Black paper doesn’t give you the contrast that white paper does, and not every artist is comfortable using solvents to blend colors.

So what’s the answer?

I’ve already mentioned that using a dark paper presents challenges that are best addressed in a separate post.

You could also try mixed media. Personally, I’ve tried India ink, watercolor, and watercolor pencils to make dark backgrounds. They’re fine for what they do, but none of them have ever been dark enough on their own. The watercolor pencils were the closest, but even with them, I ended up going over them again with regular colored pencils.

What does that leave? Plain, old colored pencils.

But that’s so much work, you say!

It can be. It doesn’t have to be. Let me show you how I do it.

How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

One disclaimer before I begin: Colored pencils are a naturally slow medium. Even when I say a particular method is quick, remember that that’s compared to other methods. Okay? Okay!

I drew the background for this yellow flag with nothing but two colored pencils. Black over purple, which I chose because purple and yellow are complementary colors.

You need only two or three colors to make deep, dark backgrounds using only colored pencils.

A couple of layers applied with medium pressure or heavier to accent the yellow flag, and it was done.

Following is a quick, step-by-step demo to show you how to draw dark backgrounds with colored pencils. I don’t have a work-in-progress to use, so we’ll do the ever popular boxes!

Step 1: Decide on the Colors

That might seem painfully obvious, but black backgrounds can be very subtle. They may all look black, but you can give your work a more unified look by mixing the black with some of the colors in your subject.

Dark blues and dark greens layered with black give a slightly different black than dark browns. I like to pair horses with dark backgrounds that are a mix of black and some of the earth tones in the horse.

A green apple might be drawn against a background that includes dark green mixed with black.

On the other hand, you might want to try mixing black with the complementary color of the subject for a little, subtle zing (if there is such a thing as subtle zing.) A well-lighted subject against a black background has a lot of contrast built into it. Add a complementary color, and the contrast takes on a bit of added life.

For this demo, I chose four colors: Scarlet Lake, Olive Green, Dark Brown, and Indigo Blue. I did two or three layers each with medium pressure.

Draw Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils - Step 1

Step 2: Add a Layer of Black

Next, I layered Black over each color, increasing the pressure slightly to get the color to stick to what was already on the paper. I didn’t burnish, because I want to add more color after the black.

I also used the same stroke to add black that I used to add the other colors, but didn’t completely cover the other colors. That left areas where the red, green, brown, and blue show more clearly through the black.

You can create subtle variations in dark backgrounds by using more or fewer layers of the colors you use. If your dark background is very large, this can be a good way to add a little visual interest to the background without distracting from the subject.

So that we have a point of comparison between each of the dark colors I’m creating, I made a solid black box below each of the original four. I used only black for that and burnished with a blunt pencil to cover all of the paper.

Step 3: Layer the Original Color

Next, I increased pressure again, and added a couple of layers of each of the original colors. This time, I turned the paper so I was stroking opposite the original strokes to fill in the paper tooth more completely.

I used Bristol Vellum for this demo so there wasn’t much tooth to fill, but changing stroke direction is still a good way to draw smooth color.

Step 4: Finish with More Black

Finally, I layered more Black over each of the boxes. This time, I burnished to fill in as many of the paper holes as possible and to make the color smooth.

Take a look at the black samples below each of the larger boxes. The larger boxes would look black or nearly black on their own, but when you compare them to the smaller black boxes, they actually look quite different. Using only Black to make a dark background could be faster, but it could also look flatter and less interesting when the drawing is finished.

When you Draw Dark Backgrounds

You can, of course, do more rounds of color than I’ve shown here. The more texture your paper has, the more likely it is that you will have to do more layers.

You can also use more than two colors. You can use as many colors as you want to use. I think the most colors I’ve ever used in one background is three, and you can read about that here. It’s based on a work-in-progress.

And you can use just Black if you prefer.

Whatever you decide to do, this simple method for drawing dark backgrounds can help you get drawings finished more quickly and still add spark to your work!

Who doesn’t want that?

1 Way to Draw Realistic Landscape Greens

Is there a sure-fire way to draw realistic landscape greens most of the time?

Short answer, yes.

The question is, what’s the best solution for you?

I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself, but I can share with you the method that helps me draw landscapes that look like landscapes, no matter what shades of green, what time of year, or what the lighting conditions.

1 Way to Draw Realistic Landscape Greens

Landscape greens can be the most difficult colors to get right in any medium. Most of us have drawn landscapes in which the greens are too soft and muted or are way too bold and artificial.

My Favorite Way to Draw Realistic Landscape Greens

Over the years, I’ve used several methods to draw landscapes. My favorite method to draw realistic landscape greens is beginning with an umber under drawing, then glazing color.

The first few layers of color you put on the paper are called the under drawing. An under drawing can be a single color, two or three colors, a limited palette, or lighter shades of the final colors.

When the under drawing is in earth tones, it’s called an umber under drawing. You can use any earth tone, but the best choices are generally medium-value, neutral colors like Prismacolor Light Umber or Polychromos Nougat or Raw Umber. Once I discovered umber under drawing, my landscapes began to look like they were supposed to look.

Learn how the umber under drawing method compares to other colored pencil drawing methods.

Step 1: How to Begin an Umber Under Drawing

The process is simple. Develop your landscape first in all earth tones. Choose one or two browns—three at most—and draw the entire landscape with those colors.

I prefer Prismacolor Light or Dark Umber, usually use just Light Umber. It’s possible to get a nice value range with Light Umber simply by adding layers. The more layers, the darker the value.

You don’t want to get too dark too quickly, and you also want to avoid developing details too quickly, so draw the under drawing with several layers applied with light pressure.

You can also use a tinted paper, as I did with the drawing below. The paper is Rising Stonehenge in a very light tan color. The color of the paper provided the lightest values for the drawing.

Draw Realistic Landscape Greens Step 1
Use light pressure and a sharp pencil to begin shading values. Start with the shadows, then gradually darken values and add middle values layer by layer.

Step 2: Develop Detail & Values

Use a variety of strokes to mimic each element of the landscape. Short vertical strokes with a sharp pencil for grass, stippling (dotted) or circular strokes with a sharp to slightly blunt pencil for trees (use a sharper pencil in trees close to the foreground and a blunter pencil for more distant trees), and the sides of the pencil to lay down even color in the distance.

Define the center of interest early by drawing the darkest shapes near the center of interest or in the foreground and keeping other parts of the drawing more subdued.

Draw Realistic Landscape Greens Step 2
Keep the darkest values and sharpest details in and around the center of interest (the tree on the left.)

Step 3: Finishing the Umber Under Drawing

You can make the under drawing as detailed as you like. When I draw horses, I generally draw a more detailed under drawing, because I want the under drawing to look like a finished drawing on its own.

But with landscapes, I develop just enough light and shadow to define the landscape elements and to begin depicting the sense of space (pictorial depth or aerial perspective).

Glaze color over the finished under drawing layer by layer with light pressure. Most colored pencils are translucent by nature, so the umber under drawing tones down the greens you glaze over it. Even if you appear to totally cover all of the under drawing, its influence is still present.

draw realistic landscape greens
Spring 2012, 4×6 Colored Pencil on Stonehenge Paper

Want to See How I Drew Realistic Landscape Greens Step-by-Step?

I drew this landscape as a demonstration piece for EmptyEasel.com. To see the full, step-by-step demonstration on EmptyEasel.

How to Create a Colored Pencil Landscape Underpainting

Color Glazing a Landscape Painting with Colored Pencils

The Basics of Reflected Light

Let’s talk a little bit about reflected light basics today. You’ve probably heard me mention reflected light in various tutorials and maybe even in a class if you’ve taken one of those. It’s time to define what I’m talking about.

The Basics of Reflected Light

What is Reflected Light?

Reflected light is light that comes from a source other than the primary light source. The light of the moon is sunlight reflecting off the moon and back to us.

Reflected light in art is the light that bounces off one object and strikes another object.

No matter what subjects you draw or paint or how you draw or paint them, you’re working with light. How well you draw light determines how three-dimensional your drawing turns out.

How well you draw reflected light determines how strong the illusion of three-dimensions is.

So it’s important to know and understand just how reflected light works.

The Basics of Reflected Light

Inanimate Objects

A natural light source (the sun) in an outdoor setting, illuminates these books and their surroundings. The light source is strong and direct.

Reflected Light on Books

The light source is from the upper right and almost directly to the right of the books.

The Merck Manual gets the most direct light, but since the brightest light is on a side that isn’t visible, you can’t see the brightest highlights anywhere but along the edge where the spine curves around to meet the front cover.

But there is plenty of reflected light. The black arrows below mark light reflected onto the books from other books or from the floor.

But do you see the red-tinted area on the white bricks? That’s light bouncing off the front of the Merck Manual, and illuminating the wall. In other words, reflected light.

Reflected Light on Books 2

If the light source is strong enough and the object off which light is being reflected is close enough to the object onto which light is being reflected, the second object reflects color as well as light.

Horses and Other Animals

Reflected light affects more than smooth or shiny objects. It affects all subjects, animate and inanimate. Take a look at this photo, for example.

Reflected light and animate objects.

The primary light source is the sun, and comes from the upper right. The cast shadow is directly beneath the horse and stretches out behind. The shadows are all exactly where you expect them to be.

But note that his belly and the downward facing planes of the chest are light. The darkest part of the shadows is not on those surfaces—where you expected them—but partway up the horse’s side and chest.

Light bounces off the sandy ground and illuminates the underside of the horse. The affect is especially noticeable because the primary light source is so strong, the horse’s coat is smooth, and the ground is flat, bare, and reflective.

Reflected light on a wet horse is also quite noticeable. That’s what makes “bath shots” so appealing.

Dimmer primary light (as in a cloudy day or indoor light) creates less reflected light. Longer hair also produces less reflected light, as would mud or grassy ground cover.

Also take a look at the top slope of the horse’s rump. The rump is well lighted even though it doesn’t face the light source. Compare it to the shadow on the ground.

The light across the top of the rump is another form of reflected light. This time, the reflect light comes from the sky, hence the bluish tint.

Just to show you reflected light does appear on long haired animals, here’s Max. Asleep in a patch of sun falling on a pink towel.


Pink reflects up onto Max between his eyes, on the underside of his outstretched paw, and in the fur around his neck. It appears in shadows and in mid-tones.

 Conclusion

Not drawing or painting reflected won’t make your art bad. I painted portraits for years without understanding or using reflected light.

But a good understanding of the basics of reflected light, and knowing how to draw or paint it will make the subjects you paint or draw look more three-dimensional. It is a valuable addition in your art toolbox no matter what your preferred subject.

How to Finish a Drawing Started with Watercolor Colored Pencils

In this post, I’ll show you how to finish a drawing started with watercolor colored pencils.

Last week, I shared the method I used to create an under drawing using watercolor colored pencils. While I focused on watercolor colored pencils in that post, the technique applies to any type of water soluble media with the possible exception of water miscible oils. I’ve never tried that combination, so cannot tell you whether or not it would work.

In this part of the tutorial, I added dry color over the under drawing.

Before You Start

Before adding dry color, make sure the under drawing and paper are completely dry. If there’s any residual dampness, you risk damaging the paper. I usually allow paper to dry over night, just to be on the safe side.  I also usually allow papers to air dry by natural evaporation. Even on the hottest days, this process is less likely to cause warping or buckling.

But you can dry paper with a hand-held hair dryer if you need to finish it quickly. Use a low heat setting and don’t get the dryer too close to the paper to keep the color from running before it dries.

How to Finish a Drawing Started with Watercolor Colored Pencils

Unless otherwise noted, the colors listed in this article are Prismacolor Soft Core colors. Any colored pencils work over watercolor pencils.

Step 1: Start dry drawing with the base colors.

When the paper is ready for dry color, use the same methods of choosing colors you use for any other technique. Start with the lightest colors and build toward the darks layer by layer.

In this illustration, I’ve added a very light earth tone that’s also a warm color. Burnt Ochre was lightly shaded over the darker area behind the ears and in front of the ears. I used light pressure with a very sharp pencil to draw an even color layer.

Next, layer Burnt Ochre over the rest of the horse except the highlights. I always work around highlights so they don’t become muddy or—even worse—disappear. This is the best way to get sparkling highlights when you work on white or light colored paper.

On the horse’s head and neck, use a sharp pencil to draw a smooth, even color.

In the mane, stroke with the growth of the hair, starting at the bottom edge of the highlight and stroking downward to the ends of the hair groups.

Use light or very light pressure on the head, neck, and ears. For the mane, use light to medium-light pressure.

Begin drawing the muzzle with a light layer of pink on the chin and light gray in and around the nostril.

How to Finish a Drawing Started with Water Soluble Colored Pencils - Step 1b

Step 2: Glaze color over the base layers.

With the base color in place, begin developing deeper values and richer colors.

For this demo, I used Sienna Brown and Mineral Orange in the middle values, a light glaze of Light Umber and Goldenrod to the lighter values, and Dark Brown to the shadows. However, getting the values right is more important than correct color. Since we don’t all see color the same way, select colors based on what you see in your reference.

Continue working around the brightest highlights.

For each round of work, add more of each color. Getting good coverage (filling all of the paper holes) requires multiple layers. For the best color, alternate between two or more colors.

Continue using light pressure and sharp pencils to draw smooth color. Stroke in the direction of hair growth in the mane and forelock.

How to Finish a Drawing Started with Water Soluble Colored Pencils - Step 2b

Step 3: Add finishing details to complete your drawing.

When the drawing nears completion, begin working on the highlights. Leave the brightest highlights alone. The highlight along the top of the crest, for example, is whatever color shows through from the under drawing.

For the others, add Spanish Orange, Orange, or Yellow Ochre if the highlight is warm in color (the highlight along the cheek). If the highlight is more neutral, use Sand or Cream (behind the eye).

Most of the highlights are then burnished with a color like Beige or Cream to keep them unified with the coat colors around them.

Conclusion

Using water media or watercolor colored pencils to draw the under drawing is a great way to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a colored pencil work. It’s also a good way to cover the paper without filling in the tooth of the paper.

I probably won’t be using this combination very often because it doesn’t work very well on my favorite papers. They just don’t handle moisture well and I don’t care for the texture of watercolor papers that are heavy enough to take the moisture.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t a viable—and valuable—alternative to using only traditional, dry colored pencils.

As I mentioned in the previous post, if you hope to enter your artwork in shows that are exclusively colored pencil, stick with watercolor colored pencils.

If that doesn’t matter, then experiment and have fun!

Would you like to try your hand with watercolor pencils with a short project you can finish in a few hours?

Draw a Tree Branch with Watercolor Pencils is the tutorial for you! See how easy watercolor pencils can be.

How to Start a Drawing with Watercolor Colored Pencils

Today I want to share a drawing method that’s both fun and potentially time saving. What is it? Drawing with watercolor colored pencils.

Making art with colored pencils is time-consuming. If you like detail and want to do anything larger than 11×14, you should plan on spending hours in the process.

It could take weeks.

Or months.

Solvents are one way to save time, but there are other ways. Using a traditional colored pencils over watercolor colored pencils is one of them.

How to Start a Drawing with Watercolor Colored Pencils

About the Drawing

The art work is small. About 5×7.

I used a combination of Faber-Castell Art Grip Aquarelle and Prismacolor pencils on a scrap of watercolor paper. Unfortunately, I don’t know what type of paper beyond the fact that it was not very smooth, and was heavy enough to withstand repeated wetting.

I wanted to learn what I could do with watercolor colored pencils, so I used an old drawing from another project.

How to Start a Drawing with Watercolor Colored Pencils

Step 1: Getting ready to paint (and deciding how to start)

There are several ways to create color washes with watercolor colored pencils.

To create strong color, use dry pencils to layer color, then wet the color with a brush. Colors “melt” and flow together just like traditional watercolors.

Or dip a sharpened pencil into water and draw while it’s wet. This works especially well in small areas, but requires frequent dipping. It can also soften the wood casing if the wood gets too wet.

If you want softer color, dampen a soft brush with clean water, then stroke the exposed core of the pencil to pick up color. Usually one or two strokes against the pencil is sufficient to produce good color.

If you plan to use watercolor colored pencils for most of the drawing, create a palette by making heavy layers of the main colors on a scrap of watercolor paper as shown below.

How to Start a Drawing with Watercolor Colored Pencils - Color Palette

Several heavy applications are necessary, but when you finish, you can use this palette as you would use a watercolor painting palette. Dampen your brushes, pick up color from the palette, and brush it onto the paper. When the palette begins to look used, simply recharge it by layering more color on the palette.

Step 2: Toning the background

Mark the borders of the drawing, leaving ample margins to wash color beyond the edge of the drawing.

Create a pink wash with Rose Carmine (124) and a yellow wash with Cadmium Yellow (107).

For this piece, I dampened a brush and stroked it against the exposed cores of each pencil to pick up color, then added a band of pink and a band of yellow. I also blended a tint of pink wet-into-wet into part of the yellow.

Step 2: Toning the Subject

For this demonstration, I under painted the horse in complementary colors. The horse is a chestnut (a reddish brown), so greens are the complementary colors. To make the green, wash Emerald Green (163) over part of the background and part of the horse using the same method described above.

For the mane, use a small, round sable. Stroke color into the shadows that break the mane into hair masses. Leave the rest of the mane alone.

For stronger color, wet the brush, then blot it before touching it to the pencil. The resulting color is less diluted and, therefore, darker.

One thing to remember when using colored pencil in this way is that you have one or two strokes—at most—to get the look you want. The more strokes you do and the more water you add, the more you dilute the color. Limit yourself to one stroke for the darkest values. 

After the paper dries, add a very thin wash of cadmium yellow over the horse. Use a larger brush for more even color. Once again, limit yourself to one or two strokes. Load the brush with water, then touch it to the sharpened pencil.

For brighter color along the top of the crest and in the mane, use a smaller brush and a more dry-brush method to stroke color into the still wet wash. The new color dissolves slightly into the wash, creating darker accents with soft edges.

Notice how fresh dampness affects the dry color on the mane (the green). Working with water soluble color requires a different working mindset than using dry color.

How to Start a Drawing with Water Soluble Colored Pencils - Step 2b

Parting Thoughts about Drawing with Watercolor Colored Pencils

Using watercolor-like washes to start a colored pencil drawing is a great way to get a lot done in a short amount of time. You can use watercolor colored pencils (as I did here), watercolor, acrylic (thinned to tint strength,) or any other medium that can be thinned with water then used in this way.

Keep in mind that if you use watercolor colored pencil, the work is still considered colored pencil. Using any of the other mediums makes your drawing a mixed media. If you want to exhibit in exclusively colored pencil shows, this is important to keep in mind.

If this is the first time you’ve used water soluble methods, practice first. It doesn’t matter how you practice. This piece was my test piece, but you could also do random color swatches or just play with color to see how it responds.

Wet media colors interact differently than dry media. Some of them also dry darker or lighter than they appear when wet. Doing a few test pieces will show you what to expect from the medium you’re using.

But you also need to know how traditional colored pencils react with a wet medium under drawing. Next week, I’ll show you how I finished this piece with traditional, wax-based pencils.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll take time to experiment with water soluble colored pencils yourself.

Oh, and have fun!

How to Make Drawings Look Less Flat

New artists constantly confront a handful of challenges, no matter what medium they use. For those who like their work to look realistic, the biggest challenge is learning to make drawings look less flat.

That was the subject of a recent reader question.

Carrie, I have attached my drawing of a horse’s head. I am probably my own worst critic as I do strive for perfection. The drawing was done on white paper, Bockingford 120 gsm. It was extremely hard to fill the tooth and put on probably 20 layers in places. I had to burnish very hard to get the fill. I found it difficult to get a clean edge but think this is not keeping the pencil sharp or upright enough. Also found it more difficult than graphite to show the contours. Bill Bayne

Make a Drawing Look Less Flat

How to Make Drawings Look Less Flat

Bill raised several topics worthy of discussion, but since his primary concern was making his lovely horse look more real, let’s address that issue in this post.

Bill provided a drawing of a horse and gave me permission to share them with you. Thank you, Bill!

Following are two suggestions you can put to use immediately.

Contrast is vital to creating realistic drawings or paintings in any medium.

Color is important in realism, but contrast is more important.

Contrast is what happens when you have very light colors and very dark colors in the same drawing. Every drawing should have dark values and light values, and those values should not be limited to a white part (such as the horse’s marking) and a black area (such as the bridle.)

When a drawing has good contrast, each area also has good contrast. Sometimes the transitions from one value to the next are subtle, but there are transitions.

Take a look at this side-by-side comparison. The left image is the original image. I increased the contrast using a photo editor to make the image on the right. I made the light values lighter and the dark values darker. There have been no other changes, yet you can see the difference.

So the first thing to check whenever your drawing looks flat is the contrast. Are your darks dark enough? Are your lights light enough?

It can be intimidating to made dark values darker, so photograph your drawing and play with it in a photo editor. Seeing how it looks with stronger values gives you the confidence to make those changes on the draining.

When you do begin darkening values, do so gradually. One layer at a time. Use light pressure and fade the new, darker color into the other colors. Review your drawing after each layer, so you don’t go too dark.

Shading is important to drawings that look less flat.

Shading is the process of adding shades of color to the shape you’ve drawn. These “shades” are known as modeling.

Modeling represents the way light illuminates the object, and it’s done by drawing a smooth transition of values from light to dark. The lighter the value, the more light on the object it represents. The darker the value, the less light—the deeper the shadows.

When you shade a shape, you make it look like light is striking different parts of it to different degrees, and that creates the illusion that the object has form or mass; that it takes up space.

And that makes it look less flat.

There is no shading on the first circle. It’s just green. The middle circle shows a medium amount of shading. There are lights and darks, but neither is pushed as far as it could go.

(I spent a lot of years doing art that looked like the middle circle!)

Make Drawings Look Less Flat - Shading

The third circle has very dark shadows and very bright highlights. It is no longer a circle; it’s a ball.

The same principle holds true with every subject. Take note of where the shadows are in your reference photo, and make them dark enough on your drawing.

It may be easier to see where you need to darken shadows and lighten highlights by looking at a gray scale version of your artwork next to a gray scale version of the reference photo. You can convert an image to gray scale in a photo editor.

Use modeling and contrast to make drawings look less flat and more life-like.

There are other tips and techniques to make drawings look less flat (things like reflected light and aerial perspective,) but improving contrast and modeling are usually the best places to begin.

And the easiest to implement!

How to Rework a Background

Can I rework a background? I’ve tried erasing at least a little bit without much success…Thank you so much. Have a beautiful holiday season. Mirian Bertaska

Mirian asks a great question. I’ve wrestled with this very thing many times, so let’s take a look at a few possible answers to Mirian’s question.

How to Rework a Background

Mirian very kindly included her drawing and gave me permission to share it with you, so you could “see” what we’re talking about.

Mirian has good color saturation in her drawing. Her color choices make the bird stand out from the background.

But she is right about the background. It doesn’t convey enough distance. It looks like the bird and the background are all at the same distance.

Kudos to Mirian for seeing that. Knowing what’s not working in your art is key to improving.

Suggestions about How to Rework a Background

Whether or not you can rework a background depends on how much color you already have on the paper, what type of paper you’re using, and whether or not you’ve burnished or blended with solvent.

Mirian’s drawing is on Bristol. Bristol is excellent for colored pencils, but it is limited on the number of layers you can put down. However, it’s also very good for lifting color if the color has been applied in layers with light pressure.

Try lifting color to push the background into the distance.

Scotch tape is probably the best way to lift a little color. Lightly press a small piece of tape to the drawing, then carefully pull it up again.

Mounting putty is another good way to lift color, especially if you want a blurry look.

For small areas or detailing, an eraser may also help lift color. The ideal place for eraser work is around the bird.

Read Two Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings at EmptyEasel.com.

Add lighter colors to lighten the background.

Softening the colors with a light blue or cool gray is a good way to push the background further into the distance. Color can either be added over the existing background, or after the background has been lightened by lifting color, as described above.

Use sharp pencils and light pressure to layer lighter colors. Choose colors that are not only lighter, but cooler (tending toward blues and greens, rather than reds and yellows.) Try combining a couple of colors, too, so the background doesn’t become too uniform in value or color.

Add color one layer at a time, then review the drawing. Keep adding layers until the drawing looks the way you want it to look.

Try a soft blend to dissolve wax binder and “sink” color into the tooth of the paper.

If you’re willing to experiment a little, try a soft blend with odorless mineral spirits. Use a soft brush and blot the brush after you dip it in odorless mineral spirits. You don’t need a lot of solvent for this type of blend.

If you don’t want to try odorless mineral spirits, or don’t have any, but you want to try blending, try rubbing alcohol. Dampen a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol, then rub it on a corner of the piece. That should give you a nice, soft blend that pushes the background further into the background.

Even if that doesn’t work, the rubbing alcohol could break down the binder in the pencils enough to allow you to add a little bit more color.

Don’t get your paper too wet or it could buckle.

TIP: Layer color onto a scrap piece of Bristol until you have a similar look, then try blending that first. If it works, great! You can blend your drawing. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t damaged the drawing.

How that Worked for Mirian

I asked Mirian if she would let me know how her experiments turned out. Here’s what she had to say.

Hi Carrie,

The painting wasn’t accepting more color, so I … layered violet blue on a little piece of each, and the alcohol one looks better in my opinion.

Mirian layered Violet Blue on the left side of the illustration below. The rubbing alcohol blend is on the right side.

The portion above the line is the original drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Rubbing Alcohol

Neither solution is ideal, but Mirian was satisfied with the rubbing alcohol blend.

Leave the background alone and work on the bird to bring it forward.

The final possible solution is to leave the background as it is, and increase the values on the bird. Make the highlights brighter and darken the darks.

One of the things that gives a picture “depth” is the value range. The greater the contrast between the lightest lights and the darkest darks, the closer the object looks.

Here’s Mirian’s drawing in black-and-white.

How to Rework a Background - Original Drawing in Gray Scale

As you can see, the value range is fairly close. When the background and the subject have pretty much the same values, the result is a background that’s not in the background.

I used GIMP (free photo editing software) to select the bird, then increased the contrast. The bird now “leaps” forward in the drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Gray Scale with Contrast

This tip doesn’t apply to reworking a background, but sometimes the solution involves the subject, not the background!

Thank you to Mirian, who was willing to share not only her question, but her artwork.

Thanks, Mirian!

How to Draw Leather with Colored Pencils

Today, I’d like to show you how to draw leather with colored pencils. The project for this tutorial was drawn on gray paper, which gave me a head start on establishing values.

But this method of drawing will work on any color of paper. Yes, even white!

How to Draw Leather with Colored Pencils

How to Draw Leather with Colored Pencils

Pencils: Prismacolor Premier

Paper: Canson Mi-Teintes 98lb pastel paper, Steel Grey. (If you use Mi-Teintes, make sure to use the back, which is much smoother and more suitable for colored pencils.)

Step 1: Add basic colors to begin developing values.

Begin drawing the leather by working on an isolated piece, as I did here, or by layering each color over all parts of the bridle. I tend to work section by section, but either way works.

Ordinarily, it’s best to begin with lighter colors, but since we’re working on a medium gray paper, you can begin with darker values first.

Use a sharp pencils and light pressure to layer Dark Brown over the middle and dark values. Start with the darkest area first, then put a second layer over that area plus the middle values. Work around the two bright highlights at the top and bottom of the leather strap (also known as the headstall.)

Next, layer Mediterranean Blue with light pressure between the lightest area and the darkest value, then layer White over the lightest area at the top of the headstall.

Also layer White over the highlight near the bottom of the strap. To warm up the color, layer Spanish Orange over the browns.

How to Draw Leather - Step 1

Step 2: Layer colors again to create saturation and color depth.

The texture of Canson Mi-Teintes paper helps establish the “feel” of the leather without much effort. The appearance of color on the paper gives the leather a finished appearance after only one round of color. For some kinds of leather, that would be appropriate.

This leather is very smooth, though. Almost polished in appearance. So add a couple more layers of Dark Brown alternating with White in the lighter areas along the side of the head.

Mix Dark Brown and Indigo Blue over the top of the head. Use slightly heavier pressure to create smooth color, but don’t burnish.

At the top of the head, darken the shadow with Indigo Blue, then punch up the reflected light highlight with a little bit of White.

Also layer White over the lower part of the strap and burnish the brightest part of the highlight with White.

How to Draw Leather - Step 2

Step 3: Fine-tune highlights, shadows, and reflected light.

Next, I fine-tuned the headstall by re-enforcing the reflected light with a stroke or two of Cool Grey 20% and adding a form shadow on the back edge of the strap with Indigo Blue.

How to Draw Leather - Step 3

Step 4:

Continue drawing the leather parts of the bridle and reins by using Sienna Brown as the base color, and mixing Dark Brown and Indigo Blue in the shadows and darker areas.

Draw the lighter middle values by mixing Goldenrod and Sienna Brown, then add highlights with a mix of White and Powder Blue.

Use light pressure and circular strokes for the first layers of color in each strap. Add additional layers with medium pressure and the highlights with heavy pressure.

The primary goal is filling in all of the paper holes, so after the colors are established, continue layering with a variety of strokes, gradually increasing pressure with each layer.

Add touches of Black in some of the darker shadows.

Step 5: Add detailing.

To give the bridle an extra look of realism, use a light and dark color to add shadows and highlights around the holes in the straps, the stitching in some of the straps, and on and around the restraints holding the ends of the straps. A stroke or two in most of these areas makes a big difference.

Step 6: Draw the reins using the same colors and layering process.

Finish the reins in the same way and using the same colors.

How to Draw Leather - Step 6

This illustration shows the finished bridle.

That’s How to Draw Leather with Colored Pencils

At least, that’s how I draw leather.

Drawing leather doesn’t have to be complicated. If you follow the steps described here, you can draw even the most complex bridle or harness. Take your time, keep your pencils sharp, and work from one strap to the next.

This tutorial is excerpted from the Portrait of a Black Horse tutorial. The tutorial covers drawing the horse and bridle, ribbons, and metal.

Colors to Use for a Monochrome Under Drawing

Today’s reader question is about method; in particular, the monochrome under drawing method.

I want to try a monochrome under drawing for colored pencil. What colors can I use?

The short answer is that you can use any color you want. That’s one of the great things about being an artist!

What Colors Can You Use for a Monochrome Under Drawing

Neither art nor life is as easy as that, though.

While it is true you can use any color you want for a monochrome under drawing, not all colors are good choices. The color you choose will greatly affect the look of the finished drawing, so you need choose carefully. Believe it or not, it is possible to ruin a drawing in the under drawing phase.

I know.

I’ve done it!

Tips For Using a Monochrome Under Drawing

Two main guidelines you should pay special attention to are:

don’t use very light colors

don’t use very dark colors

Colors that are too light in value won’t do you much good.

Light colors might seem like a natural choice, but they aren’t. If you choose a color that’s too light, it’ll have little or no impact on the final color.

I chose colors opposite the color wheel from a deep chestnut for this under drawing. Apple Green for the horse and Grass Green for the tack. I soon learned they were too light to make an impact on the final drawing.

Monochromatic Under Drawing - Color Too Light

So be wary of using lighter colors. They simply may not be bold enough to make much difference to the finished drawing.

But don’t go too dark, either!

You can get away with dark colors more easily than light colors, but you also run the risk of getting the under drawing so dark, color glazes will be ineffective.

I chose a dark blue for this drawing because the horse was a darker brown and because the horse was back lighted.

This under drawing looks great, doesn’t it? I should have left it this way. Every color I added made the drawing darker and darker until there wasn’t much room to add the necessary details. The finished drawing was too dark and vague for my liking, and just didn’t turn out to expectation.

Monochromatic Under Drawing - Color Too Dark

If you are able to apply color with very light pressure—whisper soft pressure—then dark colors can produce excellent under drawings.

But if you’re a bit heavy-handed or just aren’t confident in your ability to produce light pressure, you’re better off steering clear of dark colors.

Oh, there is one other thing you need to be careful to do.

Colors you might want to stay away from if you’re doing a monochrome under drawing.

As you may know, complementary colors appear opposite one another on the color wheel. Yellow and purple are complementary colors. So are red and green.

Monochromatic Under Drawing - Color Wheel

Technically speaking, a monochrome under drawing can also be a complementary under drawing. Complementary under drawings are great for drawing almost anything.

But I generally keep the two drawing methods separate. I use the complementary method often enough that if I really want to use a single color for an under drawing, I steer clear of complementary colors.

The same holds true for earth tones, since I use earth tones for the umber under drawing method.

Does that mean you can’t use complementary colors or earth tones for your monochrome under drawing?

Absolutely not! I’m just telling you why I don’t use complementary colors or earth tones when I use a monochrome under drawing.

If you’ve never used a single-color under drawing before, the color wheel is your treasure box! Use whatever color you want!

In fact, try them all.

A fun and easy drawing exercise to get started.

Pick six to twelve colors at random out of your pencil collection. Shade each color with medium pressure (or several layers of light pressure) on a piece of paper. To keep things simple, make each swatch as even in color and value as you can.

Then choose a different color, and layer that over each of the color swatches. You want to see how the under drawing colors affect the surface color and this is a fast and easy way to do that.

If you want a bit more in-depth test, make each color swatch range in value from as light as you can make it to as dark as you can make it. Then do the same with the color you layer over the under drawing colors.

I’m guessing it won’t take you long to discover which colors work for an under drawing and which aren’t suitable.

Conclusion

As I stated at the beginning, you can use pretty much any color you want to draw a monochrome under drawing.

Some colors will hinder you more than help you, though, so take time to experiment before you start the drawing. You’ll be glad you did.

If you have a question, leave a comment below.

Want to know if the monochromatic drawing method is the best method for you? Read Comparing Colored Pencil Drawing Methods.