Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial – Dark Horse

In this umber under drawing tutorial, I describe in detail how to draw a horse from start to finish. Steps include developing a line drawing, creating the under drawing, and finishing with details.

In this umber under drawing tutorial, I describe in detail how to draw a horse from start to finish. Steps include developing a line drawing, creating the under drawing, and finishing with details.

Why I Use the Umber Under Drawing Method

I prefer under drawings because they allow me to work out the values and composition with just one or two colors. I draw values—highlights and shadows—without also having to make color decisions. It may seem like a simple matter to add color to the mix, but I’ve discovered drawings turn out better with an under drawing.

I prefer the umber under drawing method because I can do an entire under drawing with only one color—usually a medium value earth tone (hence the name.) Umber under drawings also work so well with so many subjects.

As you might guess, it’s perfect for animals of all types and colors because the browns provide an ideal base.

But it also works beautifully with landscapes because earth tones are naturally part of the landscape palette. Browns are also natural complements to many greens, so beginning a landscape with an umber under drawing makes for more realistic looking greens in the final drawing.

About this Project

The subject of this painting is Salt Lake, 1989 Thoroughbred stallion.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Reference Photo

Salt Lake is by one of my favorite Thoroughbred stallions, Deputy Minister. I first saw Salt Lake on the cover of The Blood Horse magazine after his gutsy and amazing win in the 1991 Hopeful Stakes. “Salty” was the leading active California sire by lifetime stakes winners and earnings until his death in 2010.

Golden Eagle Farm Equine Operations Manager, Lori Piedra, provided two excellent photographs she’d taken of Salt Lake. One of them is the reference photo for this project.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial – Drawing a Horse

Prepare the reference photo by putting a drawing grid over it.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Reference Photo with Grid

As with all projects, the first step is preparing the primary reference photograph. I enlarged the digital image to the same size as the drawing, then drew a grid over the image. I used Photoshop on a Mac G4 for this stage because it’s so much easier than drawing a grid by hand. Especially for an artist like me, who is technical drawing challenged!

Once the grid was prepared, I printed the reference with the grid, and I was ready to begin.

Creating the line drawing step-by-step

Step 1: Start the drawing by drawing the big shapes.

In the portrait, Salty measures about ten inches tall by about thirteen inches head to tail so I drew a scaled-up grid to those measurements on a sheet of drawing paper.

NOTE: Sometime after doing this portrait, I discovered the benefits of working small, at least for the initial line drawing. Now I set up a grid on the digital image, then print a gridded image AND a grid without the image. I can then do the first couple of drawing phases on that grid, without having to first draw the grid.

Step 2: Add details and make adjustments as needed.

The drawing shown here reflects two phases of work. The first phase was a rough design that placed shapes on the paper relative to each other. It doesn’t generally take long to do this part, since the goal is an overall design and not detail.

I draw enough detail to provide reference points within the drawing, including a bit of shading.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Line Drawing

Step 3: Refine the drawing until it’s as accurate as you can make it.

After letting the initial drawing sit over night, I went back over it and corrected problems I’d seen since the last working session, as well as any new problems. Letting a drawing sit over night helps me see it with fresh eyes the next time I work on it.

I also refined the drawing, improving the overall look and getting a better likeness to Salt Lake.

After a couple of revisions on the grid, I laid a sheet of tracing over the drawing, and made a fresh copy. Refinements continued through this tracing process, then I removed the tracing paper from the grid, mounted it on a fresh sheet of drawing paper and went over it again using the original image on the computer to pick up more detail.

This is the finished drawing.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Revised Line Drawing

Notice that the outside edges of the horse and halter are darker than the edges between shadows and the body contours. I use line quality (darkness, thickness, and solid or dotted) to distinguish the overall shapes from interior shapes. It doesn’t make much difference in a drawing like this, but can be essential with more complex compositions.

Then I transferred the drawing to a piece of light ivory mat board using transfer paper.

TIP: Use light pressure and a sharp pencil for this. Draw firmly enough to transfer the lines onto the drawing surface, but not so firmly that you impress them into the paper or mat board.

Begin the piece with the umber under drawing.

Step 1: Begin shading the under drawing starting with the shadows.

Since the primary purpose is to establish lights and darks without getting into deep detail, I used a simplified drawing process of outlining an area, then filling in the shadow shapes. I started with the hind legs and worked my way forward.

Use light pressure, a sharp pencil, and strokes placed close together to fill in these shapes evenly. Also match the type of stroke to the area you’re drawing. For example, use long, straight strokes in the tail, and shorter strokes on the body, where you can’t see the patterns of hair growth.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 1

Step 2:After the basic shapes are in place, continue layering to develop values.

Remember that it’s usually better to develop values by adding layers, rather than adding pressure, because it preserves the tooth of the paper better.

This illustration shows the head, neck, and front legs finished at this step. The rest of the horse is still at step one of the under drawing.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 2

Read more about colored pencil drawing methods.

Step 3: Begin darkening shadows, separating middle tones from dark shadows and separating highlights from middle tones.

I took more time for this step, since some of the edges are very soft and others are nearly indistinguishable. The edges of the highlights were ‘sketched’ in using the pencil in a nearly vertical position and holding it close to the business end (the drawing end). I used very light pressure so no lines were too dark to later cover.

Middle tones were placed with the side of the lead and holding the pencil at the unsharpened end and in a roughly 45 degree angle for a lighter touch.

To compensate for the texture of the mat board, I worked in several directions until I had the darkness and coverage I wanted.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 3

Step 4: Continue to develop values through slow, careful layering. Blend if necessary.

I worked on the hip, legs, tail, body, shoulder, neck and head and finally got some work in on the halter.

Then I used a small sable round and washed alcohol over the darkest shadows. Some of the darker areas were blended two or three times, but all of the darks were blended at least once.

In some areas, I also pulled color into adjacent middle tones, then set the drawing aside to dry.

TIP: For a more thorough blend, use odorless mineral spirits or turpentine. Whatever solvent you use, use it with care and proceed carefully. You can’t unblend something once it’s blended.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 4

Step 5: Darken the darkest shadows and darker middle values.

After the mat board was thoroughly dry, I went over some of the darker areas. Again, I worked in the darkest areas first, deepening shadows and increasing the darkness of surrounding middle tones.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 5

I continued darkening the darkest shadows beginning with the belly and hip and working forward using a variety of stroke types, pressures, and directions to fill in gaps and create even color layers.

Step 6: Blend again with solvent for smoother color.

After working through the body, shoulder, and front legs, I blended the new color with rubbing alcohol and a sable brush. The drawing was given half an hour or so to dry completely, then I went over the shoulder and neck again. I also darkened the deep shadows on the head, inside the ears, and in the forelock.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Under Drawing Step 6

When the darks were uniform and right on the edge of being too dark, the under drawing was finished.

The Over Drawing

Step 1: Begin adding color with a base color that will work well with lights and darks.

Color began with Terra Cotta, which I layered over most of the body, part of the rump and a little bit of the neck and head. Salt Lake is a dark bay, so the reds and golds are highlights and accents. I wanted to get a little bit of red on the drawing right away to see how color looked over the umber under drawing.

After that, I layered Ultramarine and Indigo Blue over the darker areas using a variety of pencil strokes.

Drawing concluded with Violet in the cast shadow, using a heavier pressure to make a more dense color layer.

Then I used a small, sable round to paint rubbing alcohol over the cast shadow. I worked diagonally across the texture of the paper to get the best possible blending.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 1

Step 2: Continue to develop color layer by layer; use different colors to create deep, rich color.

Step 2 began with a light layer of Pumpkin Orange over the warmer parts of Salt Lake’s coat. I kept the layer as even as possible, but was more careful to define the highlights accurately. Most of the work was on the rump and flank, but I also worked in and around the shoulder and on the head.

That was followed with Yellow Ochre, which I used exclusively on the head.

But the work that made the biggest difference was layering Non Photo Blue over the horse from head to tail. I stayed away from the brightest highlights and from the warmest areas of the head, behind the point of the shoulder, the flank, and the rump. Every other place received at least one layer of blue and some were worked over two or three times.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 2

Step 3: Continue layering color. If you began with harder pencils, switch now to softer pencils.

At this point, I laid aside the Verithin pencils, and turned the softer leaded pencils Prismacolor Soft Core pencils.

Van Dyke Brown, Dark Green, and Crimson Red were layered over the horse from head to tail, focusing on the body. I followed those colors with Black and Indigo Blue stroked into the tail and Indigo Blue over most of the body.

I used sharp pencils and light to medium-light pressure for all colors.

When I finished with color application, I used rubbing alcohol to blend some of the darker areas. I also pulled a wash of color into the inside of the off-side hock. Then the drawing was set aside to dry.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 3

Step 4: Use complementary colors to darken the darkest values.

Layer Dark Green, Crimson Red, Black Grape, and Tuscan Red into the darks along Salty’s back from just behind the halter to the top of his tail. I worked mostly with the grain of the mat board and holding the pencils almost completely vertical.

Use medium to heavy pressure, kept the pencils needle sharp. Blend between layers and, sometimes, during application for smoother color.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 4

Step 5: Develop the details that will bring the drawing to life.

At this point, I began building color saturation and detail. The goal is to bring each area to completion before moving onto the next.

Rather than use one color at a time as I have been doing, I chose a handful of colors including Black, White, several blues and a couple of earth tones and applied them as necessary.

I also used a colorless blender to burnish the work, sometimes burnishing between every color, sometimes burnishing over multiple layers. I even burnished darker colors with a lighter color in a couple of places.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 5

This illustration shows the rump, tail, and back legs finished.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 7

I worked on the front legs, the body, and the cast shadow, alternating between heavy applications of color and heavy burnishing with light colors over dark or with a colorless blender over the light areas.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 6

I made a few adjustments on the rump, polishing and adjusting the color and form of the body.

Next, I finished the near side front leg, the shoulder, chest and neck.

Finally (for this step,) I finished the cast shadow and played with the mane.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 8

Step 6: Work on the head.

I started work on the head by drawing the halter. This was the easiest part because of all the small pieces of leather.

After the halter, I worked on the face, darkening it overall and drawing the highlights and shadows. I finished the jowl and tweaked the neck around the halter, too.

I also corrected mistakes and fine-tuned details in the head and halter.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Over Drawing Step 9

Step 7: Add any final details and make any adjustments that might be necessary.

I cleaned up the background with an eraser, then sprayed it with retouch varnish. When that was dry, I added the final bits of detailing.

The last detail was my signature and the drawing was complete.

Umber Under Drawing Tutorial - Finished Drawing

Final Thoughts on the Umber Under Drawing Method

That concludes this umber under drawing tutorial for drawing a horse. If you would like to see tutorials on this method with other subjects, let me know. Also let me know if you would like to see full-length tutorials on other drawing methods.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, the umber under drawing method is suitable for almost any subject you care to draw, but it’s ideal for animals and landscapes.

If you’ve never tried it before, I encourage you to do a little experimenting. Even if all you do are little studies, it will be time well spent.


  1. Catherine

    This was amazing to me! I have had a few classes in color pencil but learned a ton from you! Thank you so very much. I loved horses growing up! Owned one and now I want to paint them. Great help Carrie. Your work is wonderful…

    1. Catherine,

      Thank you so much! I appreciate your readership and your very kind comments.

      I’ve always been “afflicted” with a deep appreciation for horses, the way they look, and the way they move. They are ever fascinating.

      I’m delighted the step-by-step description of Salt Lake was helpful to you. It was one of the projects I did while leading a colored pencil class a few years ago.

      If you’re interested, I offer an online colored pencil course one-on-one. Check out the information by clicking on the link in the sidebar.

      Thanks again for visiting.


  2. Angus Ballantine

    Not only a beautiful picture but it’s helped solve one of the biggest stumbling blocks for me as an amateur. It must sound silly to an established artist but I can usually follow step by step guides without any trouble; however, when it comes to doing my own original work I can’t somehow translate what I’ve seen done but using this, with the result broken down to almost microscopic steps, I think I can overcome this hurdle. Thank you

    1. Angus,

      Thank you!

      I know exactly what you mean! I’ve learned primarily from watching and studying the work of other artists. Sometimes, I have to see a thing many times before I finally get it.

      I’m glad I was able to help you.


  3. Jack Etheredge

    I thought I filled everything out properly. Anyway, thanks for all the tips. I really enjoy your site and I am glad you take the time to do it. I have learned a lot from reading it.

  4. Jack Etheredge

    I am learning a lot from your page. I am an experienced watercolorist, but just learning colored pencils. Thank you for sharing your knowledge so freely. It is rare that an artist of your ability is willing to share this way.

  5. Edwina Cooper

    Jun. 24, 2016
    Ms. Carrie,
    Thank you for all the instructions with your portraits and for sharing your knowledge in using the colored pencils!

    I have had only one class in colored pencils, thus far, and now I am wondering where that one lesson and with all that is on your blog where it will lead me? I was introduced to the pencils as a child but I didn’t do much with them at that time. I was more interested in the crayons at that time because they didn’t take much time to do what I wanted to accomplish. But, now I can see that the pencils can be more adaptable to what I would be more interested in learning to do. The pictures are more refined and beautiful.

    Thank you again for sharing your talent and techniques with others, especially me.

    1. Edwina,

      Thank you for reading my articles and for your very kind comments. I’m glad to be of help to you.

      You can pretty go wherever you want to go with colored pencils. The articles I write are a mix of basic information and more specialized methods. I try to hit all the basics and to answer the questions I had when I was getting started with colored pencils 20 or 30 years ago.

      The online art courses are designed around whatever you might want to learn, whether it’s learning a new method or improving existing skills. Students have worked mostly with equine subjects, but have also drawn big cats and primates.

      If there’s something you’d like to know or a question you want answered, let me know. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find it or find someone who does know.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!


  6. Theresa Glover

    Awesome step-out, beautiful work. Thanks for taking the time to do this pic. I am a cp beginner. I find it very hard to do underlayers, but this tutorial was very clear. Thank you,

    1. Cindy,

      Thank you for reading all about how I drew Salt Lake and for your comment.

      Most of my artwork over the years has been portrait work and has been delivered as soon as it’s finished. I got in the habit of photographing everything early in my career. To begin with, it was so I had a record of the work I’d done and had samples to show others. Having a good portfolio is vital for an artist whose art is their livelihood.

      As the years have passed, being able to look back over the work I’ve done has also provided a sort of measuring stick against which I can measure progress. An unexpected consequence is that whenever I feel like my work is no good and I can’t draw anything, all I have to is look at photos of old work to see how far I’ve come.

      Besides, my drawings and paintings are like my children in a lot of ways and who doesn’t take pictures of their children?


  7. Joletta M. Brooks

    WOW ! This is simply wonderful! I look forward to trying my hand at it . Thank you so much for sharing your methods … step-by-step … you truly are a great teacher. I have owned horses in my younger years so have lots of photos to work from. It will be a joy this winter when the snow is on the ground to have projects. THANK YOU!

    1. Joletta,

      I’m glad you like the demonstration of Salt Lake. This is one of my all-time favorite colored pencil drawings. Feel free to try the same method with any subject and to let me know if you need help with anything. That’s what I’m here for, after all.

      Ah yes. Drawing during the winter. The perfect time to stay inside with colored pencils!


  8. Debbie Davis

    Absolutely beautiful work! Thank you so much for your dedication to help others!! Until my daughter recently bought me the 72 set of Prismacolor Premier, I had used my trusty cheap pencils and perfected my skills perfectly over many years. Now, I am unable to master these buttery soft pencils. I’m trying to draw a Rhodesian Ridgeback and am still not satisfied after 7 attempts. It hit me a week ago to try an ‘undercoat’. Never trying this, would you recommend drawing the complimentary colors over the entire dog being he’s basically the same color (adjusting for shading)? Thank you again for sharing your knowledge Carrie ♡

    1. Debbie,

      Thank you for reading this demonstration and for your very kind comments.

      I also congratulate you on persisting until you mastered cheap pencils. Most people give up on them because they can be difficult to use. That tells me you will be able to master the better pencils, too. It’s all a matter of persistence!

      If you do a complementary under drawing, do it over the entire dog except for where the dog may have white markings. Make the complementary color in the shadows a little darker than the middle values and work around the highlights, since you probably won’t want too much of the complementary color in those areas right away.

      If you’re at all unsure, try a few sample swatches first, and see how it turns out.

      You can also add a complementary color over what you’ve already drawn. It won’t have quite the same effect, but it will make the following layers deeper and richer.

      I’d love to see what you’re doing. You may be closer to finishing one of those seven drawings than you realize.


  9. Kerri

    Thanks for this tutorial! I enjoyed it tremendously.. I loved the umber underdrawing technique. I think that this will help me with my heavy hand! Focusing on one color in layers really helped!

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