Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to draw a complementary under drawing.

This two-step process is a variation on the classical, seven-step method used by many Flemish artists and which is most commonly used with oil paints.

With the complementary under drawing method, those seven steps are combined into two. The first step is the under drawing. The second step is local (final) color.

Today, I’ll walk you through the under drawing phase.

Let’s get started.

What is a Complementary Under Drawing?

Every colored pencil drawing begins with an under drawing, which is basically just the first layers of color you put on the paper.

A complementary under drawing is created using colors opposite the final colors on the color wheel. In the piece I’m using for this demonstration, the horse is shades of red, so the under drawing will be shades of green. All of the greens in the background will have an under drawing made up of shades of red or earth tones.

Color plays a major role in this method, but value is also important. A final color that is light in value such as yellow or light blue will require a complement that is also light in value or a darker color applied with very light pressure.

Tint is also an important consideration. A blue-green subject requires a red-orange under painting. This is where your color wheel will prove its worth.

Technical Tip

If you don’t have a color wheel, this is a good time to purchase one or make one. A basic color wheel template is available here, along with instructions for making your own color wheel.

If you prefer to purchase a color wheel, you can find one at most art supply stores or print shops. They are an inexpensive, but invaluable tool.

Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

I used Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper in Beach Sand Ivory for my project. The paper is ivory in color, which is perfect color for this painting. The color of the paper affects the overall look of the finished artwork.

You can use white paper if you wish, but using a complementary base color essentially allows you to start with one layer already in place. That makes the drawing process faster.

Below is the reference photo. Not only did I tidy up the background; I changed the color of the horse. The tidier background simply looked better. I changed the color of the horse for purely personal reasons. I wanted to draw a chestnut!

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Reference Photo

You can either draw a chestnut, or draw the horse in its original colors. The principles of the complementary under drawing remain the same either way, though colors will vary.

I used Prismacolor pencils for this tutorial, but you can get successful results with any brand of artist quality pencils.

Starting the Under Drawing

For the horse

Use a medium value green such as Grass Green to outline the horse, then lightly outline highlights and shade around them. Use light pressure and develop value with layers rather than pressure. It’s important to start with light pressure so that mistakes can be easily erased or covered. Work carefully around the highlights and shadows.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 1

For the background

Use the same process in the background, where I used Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown to establish the shapes in the trees and the values in the grass.

You’ll get the best results in the foreground and middle ground by applying color evenly, but with some variations in value.

The trees may also be drawn with even color, or you can use directional or circular strokes to begin drawing the foliage. Whichever strokes you use, add darker values to the trees the same way you did the foreground. By adding more layers.

Keep your pencils sharp, too. The sharper your pencils, the more easily you can draw even color.

Finishing the Under Drawing

Extend the range of values throughout the artwork and bring out the highlights by darkening shadows and middle tones.

Now is the time to create visual interest by varying strokes. Use short, vertical strokes with the point of the pencil in the grassy areas, particularly in the foreground. Use long, sweeping strokes with the point of the pencil in the horse’s tail.

To draw the hills, hold your pencil in a more horizontal position and draw with the side of the exposed pigment core.

For the trees, use circular or looping strokes with the sides and point of the pencil in the trees.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 2

General Tips

Whenever possible, stroke in the direction of natural patterns. Stroke grass upward, just as it grows. Stroke tail and mane from the point of growth toward the ends of the hairs.

Get as much detail as possible at this stage. As you gain experience using under drawings, you’ll discover personal preferences in finishing the under drawing.

Personally, I like to get as finished a look as possible with the under drawing. I attempt to develop an under drawing until it could be a standalone artwork.

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 about value.

You can draw a complementary under drawing for any subject from still life compositions to animals to landscapes. Using complementary under drawings for landscapes is especially effective for creating natural landscape greens.

Next week, I’ll show you how to glaze color over a complementary under drawing.

The Complementary Under Drawing Method

Today, I’d like to explain one of my favorite ways to draw: The complementary under drawing method. We’ll talk about what makes this drawing method unique, how you can use it to advantage, and few disadvantages to consider, as well.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained

The Complementary Under Painting Method Explained

The color wheel is what sets the complementary under drawing method apart from the other drawing methods I’ve used over the years. I don’t need to refer to a color wheel with the direct method or the umber under drawing method. The complementary under drawing method requires a color wheel.

In fact, the color wheel defines the method.

Read more about basic color theory.

When you use the complementary under drawing method, you create the under drawing with colors that are opposite the color wheel from the finished colors.

More Basic Colored Pencil Terms - Color Wheel

For example, the complementary under drawing for an orange is blue, because blue is the complement to orange. Blue and orange are on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Complex subjects as well as simple ones can be drawn effectively with this method. I’ve used it to draw horses and landscapes, and have seen excellent still life compositions rendered using this method. If you can dream it up, it can be drawn with the complementary under drawing method.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Sentinel

Advantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

That’s all well and good, but why should you try the complementary under drawing method? Here are a few of my reasons.

Deepens color depth and creates vibrant color

One way to create points of interest in artwork is to put complementary colors side by side. The contrast created by those two colors next to one and another adds a bit of sizzle to that part of the composition. That “sizzle” is a great way to emphasize the center of interest.

You would expect the same thing to happen when you layer complements one over another, wouldn’t you?

But it doesn’t.

A color layered over its complement produces a depth of color that’s difficult to get any other way.

Naturally tones down landscape greens

One of the biggest challenges facing me as a landscape artist is creating landscape greens that look natural. For years, that seemed like an insurmountable problem. The greens in my pencil box looked good in the box, but no matter how I mixed them on paper, they always ended up looking fake.

Way too bright.

Much too vibrant.

Practically glow-in-the-dark sometimes (at least that’s how it seemed to me!)

The first time I tried a complementary under drawing with a landscape, I didn’t expect much from it. How could it possibly work?

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Green Pastures

But it did!

I was convinced. When I started doing more landscapes, the complementary method was one of methods I used.

Disadvantages to the Complementary Under Drawing Method

I’ve made the complementary under drawing method sound like a magic bullet, haven’t I? A sure-fire cure for everything that can go wrong with a colored pencil drawing.

It’s not a magic bullet.

There are downsides, too.

Color selection can be confusing and  time consuming

Selecting the right colors for a complementary under drawing can get very complicated very quickly. If your subject is complex (colorful marbles or a still life,) choosing the right complement takes time and patience. For some that wouldn’t be a disadvantage. For others, it might be.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Marbles

The complementary under drawing method also presents the opportunity for a lot of nuance. Two trees side by side might both be green, but one is blue-green, and the other has more yellow.

You can use the same complement for both, but true complements would reflect those color shifts in the green.

Complementary Under Drawing Method Explained - Different Shades of Green

Or consider a group of horses, a flock of colorful birds or a bed of flowers..

For a lot of artists, that’s just more fussiness than they want to deal with.

Sometimes, that includes me!

It can take more time to finish a drawing

Any time you use a different set of colors to create the under drawing, you potentially extend the amount of time it takes to complete the drawing. Especially if your under drawings are very detailed.

It’s Easy to Create Mud

Remember I said one of the things I liked best about complementary under drawings for landscapes is that the complements naturally tone down the greens?

There is a dark side to that comment.

Complementary colors also tend to create muddy color if you’re not careful. Color that’s dull and lifeless results from carelessly choosing complementary color, or from using too much of the complement.

The landscape greens I love so much would go from just the right green to an ugly, dull green when I use too much red.

Or the wrong kind of red.

Conclusion

So there you have it. A brief explanation of the complementary under drawing method.

If you haven’t yet experimented with it, I urge you to take time to do so.

And if you’d like more information, I’ve selected a collection of articles on this blog and EmptyEasel.

On The Blog

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals

Using a Complementary Under Drawing to Draw Animals shows you how I used this method to draw a horse.

Colored Pencil Blog Class – The Complementary Method

This two-part series also features a horse, but this time in a pastoral setting.

How to Draw a Complementary Under Drawing

Adding Color to a Complementary Under Drawing

On EmptyEasel

How to Draw a Landscape Using the Complementary Drawing Method

This three-part series takes you step-by-step from the first layers of complementary color to the final touches on the drawing, The Sentinel.

How to Draw a Complementary Under painting for your Green Landscape

How to Add Rich, Vibrant Color on Top of Your Colored Pencil Under painting

Finishing Up a Traditional Colored Pencil Landscape Painting.

Looking for More Personal Information?

If you have any questions, ask in the comment box below, or send me an email.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Paper

Let’s talk about basic colored pencil terms today.

A lot of readers are new to this blog, or new to colored pencils, or both. Whichever category you fall into, welcome! Welcome to the blog and welcome to colored pencils!

If you haven’t already, you’re going to hear a lot of terms that make no sense. That’s my bad. I’ve been doing colored pencils so long, I tend to forget what it was like when I first got started!

I also know there are a lot of budding artists out there who already love the medium, but are confused by the jargon.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms for Beginners
So today, I want to go back to square one and define some of those confusing-but-basic colored pencil terms.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained

To make things less confusing, I’ve arranged terms into four separate categories. We’ll begin with the two most basic: Pencils and Paper!

Basic Pencil Terms

The following terms apply to your colored pencils no matter what brand you prefer or the quality of pencils in your pencil box.

Wax-Based

All colored pencils are made by grinding pigment, then mixing it with a binder. The binder allows the pigment to be formed into the core of the pencil, holds it together while you use the pencil, and allows the pigment to lay down smoothly on the paper.

Wax-based pencils like Prismacolor and Caran d’Ache Luminance utilize a binder that’s mostly wax.

Wax-based pencils generally lay down more smoothly, and are softer. They also tend to break more easily if you press too hard with them.

They’re great for laying down lots of color quickly, but can be more of a challenge in drawing details.

Wax bloom can also be a problem, especially with dark colors.

Wax-based pencils are the most popular and the most widely available.

Oil-Based

Oil-based pencils have a binder that’s mostly oil, often vegetable oil. They do contain some wax, but not usually much. Faber-Castell Polychromos and Rembrandt Lyra are oil-based pencils.

Oil-based pencils are harder and sometimes more brittle feeling than wax-based pencils. That makes them great for detailed work. Smooth layers of color are possible, but aren’t usually as easy to achieve. They hold a point much longer, too.

Wax bloom is not usually a problem with oil-based pencils, even if you tend to use heavier pressure when drawing.

Wax Bloom

When you draw, you leave color on the paper, but you also leave binder. The harder you press on the paper with the pencil, the more color and binder you leave on the paper.

Wax binder eventually rises to the surface of the color layers, giving them a foggy, misty, or gray appearance. This is normal with all colors, though it’s more obvious on darker colors.

The cloudy right half of this sample is wax bloom. The left side shows the natural color after the wax bloom has been removed.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Wax Bloom

Wax bloom is easily removed by wiping a drawing with clean tissue and light pressure. It can be prevented by sealing a finished drawing with final finish; preferably one designed for colored pencil work such as Brush & Pencil’s Final Fixative.

Framing under glass will not prevent wax bloom.

Grades of Pencils

Colored pencils are manufactured in three grades: Scholar, Student, and Artist. Scholar-grade pencils the least expensive and poorest quality. Artist-grade pencils are the highest quality, so are usually more expensive.

Artist grade pencils have a higher ratio of pigment to binder, so they produce better color and results with less effort. They’re often more fade resistant.

Scholar grade pencils have more binder and less filler, so the color they produce may be weak or pale.

You can make great art with any grade of pencils, but will generally get the best results with higher quality pencils.

Lightfastness

A pencil is lightfast if it doesn’t fade over time.

If a color fades over time, it’s also referred to as fugitive. The color “runs away and hides” if exposed to light. Sometimes it may disappear altogether, and sometimes very quickly.

Pencils are rated differently in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, but all brands are tested in some form, and many companies provide color charts that include lightfast ratings.

Watercolor Pencils/Water Soluble Pencils

These are watercolors in pencil form. Many artists consider them to be colored pencils, others don’t. Since many colored pencil manufacturers also produce watercolor pencils, I tend to think of them as colored pencils that just happen to dissolve in water.

Instead of a wax- or oil-based binder, they use a binder that dissolves in water. You can draw with them dry and mix them with other colored pencils.

You can also draw with them dry, then wet blend them with water, or paint with them by dampening the pigment with water and using a brush.

Paper

The following terms apply to drawing papers of all types.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Paper

Support

The surface you draw on. For colored pencils, that’s usually paper, but colored pencils can also be used on wood, pastel papers, mylar and other similar films, and mat board, just to name a few.

Some paper manufacturing companies also produces papers mounted to a rigid support. The drawing surface is still paper, but the support itself is rigid. Many sanded art papers are available as sheets and boards, for example.

Tooth

Tooth refers to the surface texture of papers. The toothier a paper is, the more texture it has. Sand paper has more tooth than inkjet paper.

Tooth is important to the colored pencil artist because of the way colored pencil lays down on different types of paper. In most cases and for most methods of drawing with colored pencils, smoother papers are better.

However, there sanded art papers are one notable exception. The grittiness of sanded art papers would seem to make them unsuitable for colored pencils, but many artists actually prefer them to traditional drawing papers.

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Tooth

Weight

The weight of the paper refers to the thickness. A 98lb paper is thinner than a 140lb paper. Paper is measured this way because the “weight” is what a standard ream of a particular paper weighs. A ream is 500 sheets, so a ream of 98lb paper weighs 98 pounds.

The actual process is quite complicated, since the weights assigned to papers are assigned based on the standard size for each type of paper, and the type of paper (bond paper, card stock, etc.)

All you really need to keep in mind is that the higher the pound weight, the thicker the paper is most likely to be.

This is important because you don’t want to use a drawing paper that’s too thin (light weight.)

Basic Colored Pencil Terms Explained Paper Weights

Most pads of drawing paper include clear labeling on the weight of the paper (see above.) Most full sheets are also labeled, though the information may be more difficult to locate.

Conclusion

Those are our basic colored pencil terms defined for today. There are a lot more terms relating to both pencils and papers, so if you encounter a term you don’t understand, send me an email and ask about it.

Next week, we’ll talk about some basic colored pencil terms concerning drawing methods and techniques.