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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Another great article. I very recently finished my first ‘proper’ piece of artwork – an otter; after moving on from adult colouring books. I have had a lovely online mentor from a group I am in who had said similar to yourself. At one point where I thought I couldn’t do anything else and it looked a bit childlike, she told me to go over it again with deeper layers; especially on its back towards his rear end. What a difference this made Thinking I would spoil it, it turned out quite the opposite. Great advice. Thank you again for such detailed advice.
You’re quite welcome and congratulations on the otter!
I’m always happy to provide this kind of information, since it’s the kind of information I would have liked to have when I was getting started twenty years ago!
Thanks Carrie. This was very informative. I discovered color pencils about a year ago and started drawing for the first time. I am having an amazing time with them and really enjoy your site and all the teaching you provide.
You’re welcome, Damien, and welcome to the world of colored pencils!
Ahh this is very interesting! I keep looking at my finished drawings and everyone says they are lovely but to me they don’t feel right, too wishy washy and dull and I couldn’t work out why but I think you have answered that for me. I thought I’d finished the drawings but I obviously need one more day! Thank you so much, I’m going to try a few more layers now and see if I can get the results I’m looking for. I’m so grateful xx
You’re welcome, Suzanne.
You know, I had a similar experience with my portraits about ten years ago. I was oil painting then, and had been making good progress. Then my portraits started looking flat and lifeless. I remember one in particular that I simply couldn’t get right.
That’s when I started looking for other ways to paint. That search eventually led me to the Flemish method of painting, also known as the seven-step process. The difference was amazing. I couldn’t believe the improvement with the first portrait I did that way.
When I switched to colored pencils exclusively, I adapted that method to that work, as well. It made a big difference in this medium, too.
So I’m confident you’ll see improvements in your own work as you begin layering more.
Best wishes and happy penciling,
This answers a question I had about adding depth and shading.