Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method

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

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.

Colored Pencil Tutorial - Chestnut Horse - Complementary Under Drawing Method

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

The 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 lighter in value. Parma Violet is an excellent choice for under drawing yellow or you can use a darker color applied with very light pressure.

Tint is also an important consideration. A blue-green subject will require 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 template for a basic color wheel can be found 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 Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method

This drawing is on Strathmore Artagain Drawing Paper in Beach Sand Ivory. 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.

Step 1: Starting the Under Drawing

For the horse…Use 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.

Step 2: Finishing the Under Drawing

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

Continue 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 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

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.

Step 3: Beginning Color Work in the Landscape

Color work should follow much the same process as the under drawing. Begin with light pressure and suit the strokes you use to the area you’re working. Also begin with the lighter colors and work toward the dark colors.

Build greens one color at a time starting with Grass Green applied in broad horizontal strokes throughout the grassy meadow.

In the foreground, add short vertical strokes to mimic the look of grass. Apply Peacock Green, Apple Green, and Spring Green to the same areas and in the same manner.

In the trees, use Peacock Green to lay in middle tones and Dark Green in the shadows.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 3

Technical Tip

You want to add color over the under drawing; you don’t want to cover up the under drawing. Colored pencil is a transparent medium overall, but it is possible to apply color so heavily that you obliterate the under drawing. A good rule of thumb is to go through all the colors you want to use at least once using light pressure. Then you can use heavier pressure in those areas you want to accent or where you need to burnish.

Step 4: Beginning Color Work in the Horse

Begin adding color to the horse by working light to dark using Burnt Ochre, Sienna Brown, and Pumpkin Orange as the base color. Use light pressure and a sharp pencil to work around the shapes of muscle groups, body contours and the edges of the horse.

Next, layer Burnt Ochre over all of the horse except the brightest highlights, then Sienna Brown over the same areas. Finally, add Pumpkin Orange to the darkest middle tones and shadows.

Carefully work around the highlights with each color. As you add the darker colors, give the highlights more space. That creates areas of smooth and very soft color and value gradations around the highlights.

In this illustration, the back half of the horse shows all three colors in place and shows you how the green under drawing is contributing to the form and mass of the horse.

The front half of the horse shows only the Burnt Ochre. The area immediately behind the shoulder is a blending of Burnt Ochre and Sienna Brown.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 4

Technical Tip

Working the entire drawing at once (as opposed to finishing each area before moving on to the next) allows you to make adjustments throughout the process and keep the composition unified.

It’s not necessary to work in this fashion, but it can be helpful in establishing the initial layers of color.

A Word on Correcting Mistakes

Mistakes happen.

Whether you plan compositions to the minutest detail or develop compositions intuitively (by the seat of your pants, so to speak), there will come a time when you discover late in the process that you’ve made a mistake. DO NOT LET THIS DISCOURAGE YOU!

From the start, I included a tree on the right hand side, behind the horse. The tree survived through the under drawing and into the color phase.

Then I decided it added very little to the overall composition and crowded the horse visually. The solution? The tree had to go.

To remove it, I went back to the early stages of the process and layered under drawing colors over it so it matched the surrounding areas as much as possible. That wasn’t difficult in the upper portion, where the strokes are random. It took a bit more care in the lower areas.

When I was satisfied, I began glazing local color over those areas to bring them up to the same level as the surrounding areas. The tree wasn’t completely covered, but it had become very vague, merely a ghost of itself.

Step 5: Developing Color

Continue working throughout the background with layers of Apple Green, Spring Green, Canary Yellow, and Lemon Yellow in the sunlit areas of the landscape.

In the darker areas, add Dark Green, Olive Green, and a touch of Burnt Umber.

In the trees, use Dark Green, Olive Green, and Indigo Blue in the shadows and Olive Green, Grass Green, and touches of Apple Green in the highlights.

The trees and grass need to work together visually, but they also need to stand apart, so use a couple of colors in both areas, but also keep the trees darker and cooler overall than the grass.

Use Dark Umber, Terra Cotta, Indigo Blue, and a little Dark Green in the shadows on the horse, and Terra Cotta and the siennas and ochres in the mid tones.

The highlights on the horse are still untouched paper at this stage. Develop them by working around them. Sometimes, the best way to produce vibrant highlights is to darken the areas around them.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 5

Step 6: Finishing the Background

At this stage, the background is nearly finished. The brightest greens are around the horse, with shadows creeping in around the edges and throughout the trees. Individual groups of trees have also been created to lead the eye to the focal point, which is the horse.

Finish each area with medium or medium-heavy pressure. Fill in as much of the paper texture as possible without burnishing. Once you burnish, it’s very difficult to add more color without the use of a solvent or spray. Solvents or sprays can be used without damaging paper or artwork, but once you take that step, it cannot be taken back.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 6

Step 7: Finishing the Horse

Finishing the horse consists of adding more layers of the colors already used. Use medium pressure and directional strokes to develop color and value one layer at a time.

Also begin adding ‘surface’ colors. For such a bright chestnut, Orange and Pale Vermilion. Use medium or heavy pressure to add these colors . The heavier the pressure, the more impact each color will make.

Remember that heavier pressure also limits the number of layers you can add later.

Add reflected light with a layer of Light Cerulean Blue burnished with Sky Blue Light or White over the back and rump. On the belly, use Apple Green burnished with Sand under the belly.

Then burnish around the places where the reflected light areas meet the horse’s natural coat color with the lightest of the coat colors to soften and blur that edge.

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method - Step 7

The Final Review

The final step is a review of the artwork, then making whatever adjustments need to be made.

When I think a drawing might be finished, I generally set it aside overnight and look at it again the next day. The reason for this is that it allows me to look at the artwork with a fresh eye; as though seeing it for the first time.

You can also get a different perspective on your work by looking at it upside down or in a mirror. Any areas that need work will become obvious when you see your artwork in one of these ways.

And that’s how to use the complementary drawing method to draw a horse. The really neat thing is that you can use the same drawing method for any subject you want to draw!

Draw a Horse Using the Complementary Under Drawing Method—The Email Drawing Class

Carrie is currently developing an email drawing class on this topic, with a different subject. The class will include additional tips on choosing the best composition, choosing colors for the under drawing and the color layers, and much more.

Click here to sign up for the latest information on upcoming email drawing classes, including this extended class.