The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

Is color the most important thing to get right in your colored pencil drawings?

A lot of beginning artists believe color is the most important part of drawing. Or painting, for that matter. Just look at all those gorgeous Classical paintings or brightly colored contemporary art. The color is often enough to make your mouth water, isn’t it. It has to be important.

Color is important.

But it’s not the most important thing to get right.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right Is…


The range of lights and darks in your drawing will make or break it, no matter how accurate your colors. Especially if you draw in a realistic style. Get the colors spot on, but do nothing with values, and your drawing is flat.

Get the values correct, however, and even if you don’t use any color at all, your drawing will look like what it’s supposed to look like.

Let me show you with a simple illustration.

One Color Without Value

Here’s a ball. Drawn all with one color. I layered the green as evenly as possible over the paper. It’s a nice shade of green, and pretty. But is it a ball?

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

No. It’s a circle, because every part of it is the same darkness of green. There are no shadows, and there are no highlights.

In other words, it’s all the same value.

Maybe it’s just not dark enough. Let’s make it a little darker and see what happens.


It is darker. More of the paper holes are filled in and the green is richer, but…

…it’s still all the same value. It’s still a circle, not a ball.

Here it is as dark as I could make it. Now it has a nice dark value, doesn’t it? I’ve done as much with the color as I can.

But it’s still all the same value. It’s just darker.

And it’s still not a ball. Not even close.

One Color With Darker Values

What’s the difference between a circle and a ball? A circle is flat, with no highlights or shadows, because the light hits it the same all over.

A ball is not flat. The light hits a ball in one place. Where the light hits a ball most directly, there’s a highlight. Where no light hits the ball, there’s a shadow. In between highlight and shadow are middle values. It’s this value range that makes a ball look like a ball when you draw it.

Let me show you.

Okay, back to square (circle) one. Same color, same single value. Same result.

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

This time, however, instead of darkening the whole thing, I’m going to darken just part of it: The part that will be in shadow.

A couple more layers and a little more pressure, and we’re getting somewhere!

The Most Important Thing to Get Right with Colored Pencils

You’ll notice I didn’t add shadow all around the circle. That’s because I don’t want the shadow to be all the way around the ball. The shadow needs to be on the side opposite the light source. I chosen a light source above and to the left of the circle, so the shadow needs to be on the lower right side of the ball.

Shadows are always opposite the main light source.

So now that I’ve added the darker values (shadow,) the circle is starting to look like a ball. But is that all I can do?

No. Let’s make that shadow darker.

I’ve added a few more layers on the first shadow, but also started darkening some of the middle values between the shadow and the place where the highlight will be. Even better.

But it’s not quite there yet. I’ve gone as dark as I can with the color I’m using. What’s missing?

One Color With Shadows and Highlights

For this illustration, I lifted a little bit of color to create a highlight on the opposite side of the shape from the shadows. You can also work around highlights to get brighter highlight areas.

I used the same green as for the other circles, but also added a slightly darker green to darken the shadow a little bit more.

Now, finally, we have something that looks like a ball! All it needs is a cast shadow and it’s good.

But can it be made to look even more like a ball?

Two Colors and Value

Now I’ve added a shade of blue that’s a little darker than the darkest green to the shadows on the ball. It’s not a big difference, but it is a difference.

Good Even Without Color

Now to show you that it really is the value, not the color, that turned this circle into a ball, here’s the illustration above converted to gray scale.

No color, just shades of gray.

It still looks like a ball.

So the Most Important Thing to Get Right Really is Value

Adding value to the color is what makes a circle (or any other shape) look three dimensional. The color is like the skin. The value is the body.

Value is, beyond all doubt, the most important thing to get right in any form of drawing or painting if you’re doing realism. That’s why I often recommend to artists new to colored pencil that they start with just a few high-quality colored pencils and learn to use them well.

Learn to draw value with just a few colors, and you’ll be able to draw anything with as many–or as few—colors as you wish.


  1. Melinda BC

    I knew in my HEAD about the importance of value, but this illustration kind of brought the lesson into my gut! And, I think, into my hands!
    Thanks Carrie, as always!
    Melinda BC

  2. Clelia H

    This we trick alot of people already know, i guess, but the way you have worded it & used step by step examples have simplified this, especially for me, big time! The term ‘value’ will always now be with me when i pick up my pens, pencils, markers or whatever! Best art tip ever!

    Thank – you Carrie ☺

  3. Anna Andrews


    I just took my first pencil color class yesterday and happened to come across your article. Thank you for the insight. Illustrated very well. I am a visual person and you have got me off to a good start. Thank you!

  4. Elisa Murphy

    I want to say thank you for this article. Although I knew what values were, I often struggled with them. This explanation was done in such away that I finally understand it. Thank you again.

  5. Lynelle

    I have just begun to explore the adult coloring with colored pencils. Your posts and tips are so helpful, especially to someone like me who has a passion for coloring in any medium and who is just starting out. You’ve taught me SO Much! Thank you with all my heart!

  6. Rodger

    Value! Thank you for making a very important point. It took me back to my freshman days in high school and the ability of some students to make shapes live. They understood “value!” The teacher/instructor did not teach this lesson … only valued it in the students who displayed it. Thanks!

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