Today’s topic is one a lot of colored pencil artists can never learn enough about. Drawing on dark paper is something most of us want to try at least once, but it’s also something we have questions about. Before I share tips for drawing on black paper, here’s the question to get us started.
One of the things that intrigues me about colored pencils is eventually working on black paper. My question is this.
How do I know which colors are going to be the most vibrant on black?
Also, is there anything different in technique about working on black paper vs white paper? Am especially wondering about bright highlights on black.
Thank you for a great question, Gail. The old adage that if one person asks a question, dozens of other people also want to know is definitely proven with this question!
Gail has actually asked two questions. Both are important, so I’ll answer each one in turn.
Tips for Drawing on Black Paper
Looking for Vibrant Colors
No color looks as vibrant on black paper as it looks on white paper. Colored pencils are translucent by nature, so unless you apply color with very heavy pressure, the color of the paper affects the color layers.
But you can look for colors that are high contrast to black. A bright, medium value or lighter red looks more vibrant on black paper than a darker red, for example. I used Prismacolor Scarlet Lake on the left and Prismacolor Raspberry on the right. The more layers and heavier pressure I used with each color, the brighter the color is. But burnishing the Raspberry will never make it as bright as the Scarlet Lake.
Also, choose lighter colors than the colors you see in the reference photo. The color that looks perfect when you compare it to your reference photo may be too dark when you put it on black paper. So look for a lighter version of that color for your drawing.
This takes some practice, so I suggest you keep a scrap of black paper handy to test colors. That saves you using the wrong colors on your drawing. It also saves a lot of headaches.
And if you plan to use black paper often, save those color swatches for future reference! Labeled by color, of course!
Adjusting Your Drawing Technique
Start with a White Under Drawing
Whether you start with an under drawing or not with white paper, consider doing an under drawing on black or dark-colored papers.
And you’ll probably want to consider using white for the under drawing (although Helen Carter did a great tutorial with a yellow under painting in the June 2020 issue of CP Magic.)
This sample shows Scarlet Lake and Raspberry layered over White. I applied all three colors with varying pressure and numbers of layers.
A white or light-colored under drawing acts as a buffer between the paper and color layers. The black of the paper doesn’t dim the color layers quite as much if you put color over a white under drawing.
This isn’t absolute, of course. I didn’t use an under drawing for this horse drawing. But I also wasn’t doing a “finished portrait.” As I recall, I did this head study in a single day, and was basically just playing around with colored pencils and dark paper.
But it shows that you can start with local colors on black paper. You don’t need an under drawing.
Light Values First
The most important thing to remember about working on black paper is that you need to work in reverse. Instead of establishing the dark values and working toward the light values, establish the lightest values first and work toward the dark values.
It’s still important to create a good range of values, with dark darks and light lights. But instead of shading the dark values, shade the light values.
When working on white paper, I start by establishing the shadows, because they give my subject form. But I have to start by shading the highlights when I draw on black paper.
With this little study, for example, I began by lightly sketching the large branches, and then continued to brighten them as I drew. I increased the brightness by adding more layers of white or by increasing the pressure. Sometimes both.
The darkest shadows are the black of the paper.
Yes, I used only one color on this study, but the process is the same when I use a full palette.
Layer, Layer, Layer
This isn’t any different than working on white or light-colored paper, except that you need to add light values and colors over and over.
Light colors sometimes seem to seep into dark-colored paper. At least that’s the way it seems to me. So every time I work on a more complex piece like this one, I have to redo the light colors.
That’s also often the last thing I do to finish a piece.
A lot depends on the paper you use, of course. Toothy papers like Canson Mi-Teintes take more layers to fill, so you have to add lighter colors again and again.
Smoother papers like Strathmore Artagain have less tooth to fill. Artagain comes in a very lovely black that’s fairly easy to work with. I prefer their black paper to the much softer Stonehenge, as a matter of fact, but I’ve had success with all of them.
The Four Most Important Tips for Drawing on Black Paper
In most other ways, drawing on black paper is no different than drawing on any other color of paper. Pay attention to how you put the color on the paper, the strokes you use, and so on, and you’ll do fine.