How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan April is today’s reader and she wants to know how to get realistic shadows in skin tones. Here is her question.

Hi Carrie,

I love colouring with coloured pencil, but run into so many problems doing skin tones! If I manage to get the overall colours blended well, that last shading of dark colour is a problem! Can you help?

The shading on the cheeks is so not right, but I don’t know how to fix it! Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Thank you,

Susan April

Thank you for your question, Susan!

I don’t do human portraits as a rule, but the methods I use to draw realistic shadows on animals and landscapes also work for portraits.

I asked Susan for a sample of her work, which she very kindly provided. She also gave me permission to use it for this post. Here’s her portrait.

Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan has done a good job with this portrait. Since I’m not sure of her skill level, which looks pretty high, I’ll share a few general tips, then offer some advice for this particular piece.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

In general, drawing realistic shadows is all about values. Get the values right, and getting the color right is much simpler. That’s one reason I like starting drawings with an umber under drawing. It’s a lot easier to develop values without also having to make color decisions. Once the values look right, I glaze color over the under drawing, then add details.

This illustration shows the under drawing fully developed. The landscape already looks real because there’s a full range of values.

Here’s the finished piece with all the colors glazed over the under drawing.

I adjusted the values while adding color, making them darker as I worked. But the shadows also were developed from the start, so they look much more natural.

Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

What I Recommend for Susan

If Susan wants her dark values to blend into the middle values and general skin tones, then the best thing to do is to begin developing those values at the beginning of the drawing.

She doesn’t have to start with an umber under drawing as I did, though that method works quite well with portraits. But I do suggest she begin by shading the shadows first, as I did with this drawing.

Establishing the darkest shadows first with light pressure, then gradually darkening while adding middle values. If she doesn’t start with a light earth tone (I used Prismacolor Light Umber,) she should start with a dark skin tone. That will require thinking far enough ahead to decide what colors are in the shadows, or using a color picker to select colors.

Since Susan’s portrait is already so far progressed, she’ll have to add shadow colors over the work that’s already been done. The best way to do that is by using light pressure with well-sharpened pencils to glaze color over the shadows. Use very small strokes to smooth out the color.

In general, she’ll probably get the best results by alternating light and dark values. Just make sure to use lighter colors already in the skin tones, so the shadows don’t look glued on.

Since the color on the cheeks looks a bit rough, she might also try softening it by dry blending with a piece of paper towel or bath tissue. That’s easy to do and there isn’t much risk of damaging the drawing.

Just fold a piece of paper towel or bath tissue into a small square as shown below.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Rub the folder paper over the area that needs smoothing. The paper moves pigment around enough to even out the color.

How to Get Realistic Shadows in Skin Tones

Susan can alternate layering color and blending this way until the tooth of the paper is filled and no longer accepts color. This is.a blending method that works on almost every paper. It does not work on sanded art papers.

Thank you again for your question, Susan! I hope that helps!

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s a question I’ll bet every colored pencil artist—beginner and advanced—has asked at one time or another. Why do every layer if you draw over them anyway? What’s the point?

Am I right?

Colored pencils are such a slow medium to begin with. Yes, there are ways to speed up the process. Blending with solvent, using watercolor pencils, drawing on colored papers, or sanded art paper, for example. But no matter what methods you use, it still takes time to finish a colored pencil piece.

Wouldn’t it be faster to just put down one or two layers and be done with it?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway

We’ve all heard about the layering process. Even if your “main thing” is adult coloring books, you’ve read countless articles on the importance of layering colored pencils. Still, you sometimes wonder.

Are all those layers really necessary?

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?

Here’s the truth.

Colored pencils are a translucent medium. Because so few of them are truly opaque, every color you put on the paper affects the colors you layer over it. They all influence each other.

So if you drew the same painting once with many layers of different colors and drew another version of it skipping or combining some layers, there would be differences. Even if the end result was similar, the two paintings would not be identical.

What’s more, most people would most likely prefer the layered version, even if they didn’t know why.

Yes, you can leave layers out or combine them to finish faster, but you will lose something in the process. In some cases, the trade-off may be worth it, but the best paintings are usually created without shortcuts.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Color

Remember I said most colored pencils are translucent? That means you can layer five different colors, one over another, and all five will influence the look of the last color. They all contribute something to the final color.

Let me show you what I mean.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending Colors

From left to right, I layered Canary Yellow, Limepeel, Grass Green, Peacock Blue, and Light Umber, then a second layer of Canary Yellow, and Grass Green.

I used light pressure for each of the first five layers, and medium pressure for the last two.

On the far right is only Grass Green, applied with heavy pressure and two or three layers.

Layering the grass green with heavy pressure was faster, but the green created by using five colors is a more realistic green. If your subjects are landscapes or florals, this blended green is the one you want.

Does that mean it’s never good to do a single color with just a few layers? Not at all. There are times when that’s your best choice. A clear blue sky is often best drawn with a few layers of one or two shades of blue.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Blending

The illustration above also shows how layering colors lets you create new colors. Every color layered over existing color changed the existing color in some way. Sometimes subtly; sometimes dramatically.

In the sample below, I layered pink and blue with very light pressure to create a shade of purple.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Blending

You can create even more subtle color gradations by changing the order in which you layer. Blue over pink produces a blue-ish purple, while pink over blue creates a purple that’s a little more pink.

What this means is that even if you’re limited by cost to a small set of colored pencils, you’re not limited to the number of colors you can create.

Why All Those Layers Matter for Value

The same principle applies for drawing values. You can choose a darker color or press harder on your pencil to get a darker value, but building value layer-by-layer is the preferred method. Even if you don’t use different colors and even if you use light pressure for every layer, every layer you add makes the value darker.

I shaded each of these squares with the same color. The square on the extreme right was shaded with one or two layers applied with heavy pressure. The others were shaded with multiple layers applied with light or medium pressure.

Why does that matter?

Not everything you draw will be equally dark. Let’s say you want to draw this blue jar. Look at all the values! They range from almost white in the brightest highlights, to very dark.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Values

Even though the blue is the same all over the jar, there’s a full range of values.

You can draw the shadows with a layer or two applied with heavy pressure, but you need many layers applied with lighter pressure to draw all the gradations between the lightest light and the darkest dark.

Using light and dark blue pencils may help you, but not as much as multiple layers of the right blue (or the closest blue you have.)

Why All Those Layers Matter in Finishing Pieces

This is Afternoon Graze on the day before it was finished (top) and on the day it was finished.

Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Afternoon Graze

It’s not difficult to see the difference, especially in the horses.

What did I do to get from the top sample to the bottom one? Added more layers over the horses and parts of the background.

Was that necessary? That depends. When I first started doing colored pencil work, I probably would have been content with the piece the day before it was finished.

But I’ve learned the hard way that skipping the last few layers decreases color vibrancy, value depth, and generally results a flat-looking piece.

Most of the time, I now give a piece I think is finished one more day’s worth of work. Very rarely do I regret that extra day.

Does the Order in Which I Add Colors Matter?

Now that I’ve explained why you should do all those layers, let me address another issue. The order in which you put color on the paper.

It does matter what order you add colors. The color with the most influence will be the last color you use. Layer yellow over green, for example, and bright, yellow-green is the result. Layer green over yellow, and you’ll get a green that’s more green than yellow.

Burnishing with a color changes the final look even more, but even burnishing (which is applying color with the heaviest possible pressure) doesn’t completely cover up what’s underneath.

That’s why it’s important to consider the last color you use.

In the following illustration, I’ve drawn six boxes with a medium value red, then layered other colors over most of them. The first box (on the left) is just red.

I burnished the rest of the boxes as follows:

A colorless blender in the second box

Yellow in the third box

Dark blue in the fourth box

White in the fifth box

Red in the sixth box


Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway - Order

It’s easy to see the differences wit burnishing. Layering with light or medium pressure also produces differences in color and value.


And that’s why you have to draw every layer even though you draw over them. They all matter!

If you’ve been creating work with just a few layers, try doing a small piece with more layers. Even if you layer the same selection of colors the second time around that you used the first time, I guarantee you will see a difference.

As I mentioned before, it is possible to create beautiful art with just a few layers. Many artists do it.

But for most of us, the more careful layering we do, the better our work is. At least, that’s been my experience.