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Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

These week’s Q&A post is a follow up to last week’s question about choosing colors. I decided to share a few basic principles of layering colors with colored pencils through a short demo.

But here is the original question.

How do you choose the pencils/colors that you use when layering color? In what order do you apply them?

You can read the original answer here if you haven’t already read it. Today’s post is a demonstration of the principles I talked about in that post.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

There is no absolute way to decide the order in which you layer colors. Much depends on your particular drawing style and how you want each drawing to look. The type of paper you prefer even makes a difference, since you can layer light over dark when you draw on sanded art papers.

I don’t pay much attention to the order in which I layer colors. Instead, I start with the base colors, and then make adjustments as needed by adding other colors.

About the only thing I do regularly is start with an umber under drawing, because I like developing details and values without having to make color decisions. I prefer earth tones because they are an excellent “toning down” color for landscape greens.

Most of the time, I use Prismacolor Light Umber (for cotton papers) and Faber-Castell Polychromos Raw Umber (for sanded art papers.)

I also sometimes use a light warm gray for a blending layer.

One thing I can tell you, however, is that the last color you add will have the most influence on that area. If the last color is blue, the overall color will have a blue tint no matter what else is under it. If you use yellow on the same area, the overall tint will be yellow.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

So rather than give you specifics, let me share the general order of progression.

Start with the Shadows

I layer color into the shadows first. Blocking in the shadows first gives me a sense of the “mass” of the subject. The way it takes up space in real life.

I start with light pressure and build color and value layer by layer. As the shadows become darker, I add darker middle values, and then lighter middle values.

Here’s the landscape with only the shadows and darker middle values blocked in.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

But I still look for the lightest color I can use for the shadows. I used Prismacolor Light Umber to block in the shapes first, then darkened some of the shadows with Prismacolor Sepia.

You’ll have to find the color or colors that work best for you if you don’t start with a standard under drawing color. The principle is the same. Start with a light or medium-light version of the color you see in the reference photo, and then build darkness layer by layer.

I continue developing the under drawing until it looks the way I want it to look, with a nearly full range of values, and all the details I want to show. Throughout the under drawing, I use the same color or colors, so once the original colors are chosen, there are no further color choices to make until I start glazing color.

So let’s move ahead to glazing.

Choose the Base Colors

When you start glazing, look for the lightest color in each part of the drawing. In this case, I chose a light, yellow-green which I shaded over all of the landscape except the trees. This illustration shows the glazing about half finished.

The trees and scrub brush are darker than the grassy hills. They’re also a bluer shade of green than the grass, so I chose a darker, bluer green as the lightest color.

But I glazed this color over all of the trees, just as I layered the yellow green over the grass. These two colors (medium value blue-green and light value yellow-green) became my base colors for this landscape.

Add Other Colors as Needed

Once the base colors are in place, I chose additional colors based on the colors in the reference photo and the way I wanted the finished work to look.

This drawing, for example, was designed to capture the look and feel of a gray spring day. So I chose subdued, even dull, colors. If I drew the same scene on a bright, spring day, I’d use brighter greens and would replace some of the blue-greens with yellow-greens or even yellow.

Layer, Layer, Layer!

Once the general colors are established, I continued layering them to develop rich color. When the color needed adjustment, I added other colors to the mix.

After that, it’s a matter of layering colors, fine tuning values, and working out details until the drawing looked the way I wanted it to look.

This is the finished landscape, Late Spring in the Flint Hills.

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

Layering Colors with Colored Pencils

It doesn’t matter what you like to draw most or how you most like drawing. The basic principles for choosing colors and deciding the order in which to layer them should work for you. Even if they don’t, they will give you a place to begin.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Tips for Choosing Colors

Tips for Choosing Colors

Let’s talk about a few basic tips for choosing colors.

Here’s the reader question that prompts this discussion.

How do you choose the pencils/colors that you use when layering color? In what order do you apply them?

The short answer is that every artist develops a different method of choosing colors based on their artistic personality, their style of drawing, and their preferred working method.

For example, a lot of my work begins with an umber under drawing. I use the same basic earth tones for umber under drawings. The only decision is which earth tone to use.

Other artists work with complementary under drawings, and still others start with the local colors.

However, there are a few basic principles that will help you design your own color selection method. So let’s talk about those basic tips.

Tips for Choosing Colors

The most important thing to remember is that colored pencils are translucent. Every color you put on the paper affects every other color you put on the paper. The first color influences the last color. Even the color of the paper makes a difference.

Some colors are more opaque than others. Some brands are more opaque over all than other brands, but they are all translucent. Unless you layer with very heavy pressure, the layers are translucent.

What that means in general is that it’s usually best to start with the lightest colors, also sometimes called a base layer.

So how do you choose the best colors to begin with?

Identify the Lightest Colors in Your Reference Photo

There are a couple of ways to choose colors. In this example, I used a photo editor to identify the lightest color (the base color) for this horse. I clicked the color picker on the lightest highlights on the face, and the color appears in the box on the left. Most basic photo editors have this capability.

Tips for Choosing Colors

Another method of comparison is to compare your pencils with a printed reference photo as I did below. One disadvantage to this method is that printed colors look different than they may appear on your device.

If you work from a printed reference photo, however, and you want to match the colors in the printed photo, then this is a great way to choose colors.

You can also just eye ball the reference photo and your pencils.

Whatever method you use, identify the base color for each area of your composition.

What is the Color Family?

Once you’ve identified the base color for each area, decide what color family each color is in.

The color families are: red, red-purple, purple, blue-purple, blue, blue-green, green, yellow-green, yellow, yellow-orange, orange, and red-orange. Basically, that’s three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors. You can simplify to primary and secondary colors, but you don’t need to go more complex than the tertiary colors.

For example, is the lightest color yellow, yellow-orange, or yellow-green?

Most brands of colored pencils have colors in each of the families. If you have a couple of different brands, you have more selections within each family.

All other colors from the lightest to the darkest can be selected using the same method.

With this color selection process, you don’t have to search through every color to find the best matches. If the colors in your drawing are all in two or three color families, those are the only color families you need to search through for good matches.

How to Decide the Order of Layering

There is no absolute way to decide the order in which you layer colors. Much depends on your particular drawing style and how you want each drawing to look.

I don’t pay much attention to the order in which I layer colors. Instead, I start with the base colors as described above, and then make adjustments as needed by adding other colors.

One thing I can tell you, however, is that the last color you add has the most influence. If the last color is blue, the overall color will have a blue tint no matter what else is under it. If you use yellow on the same area, the overall tint will be yellow.

These are My Tips for Choosing Colors

No matter what style of art you do or what your favorite subjects, these tips for choosing colors will help you choose the best colors for every drawing.

As I mentioned at the beginning, choosing colors is a highly personal matter. The best advice for learning how to choose colors is to experiment.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Is it Better to Start with Light Colors?

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

If you’ve been working with colored pencils for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that it’s best to start with light colors. Today, Anne asks the same thing. Here’s what she has to say.

Hi Carrie

Do you feel it’s better to start with pale colours as with watercolour and work up to the darker ones as you layer, or is it easier to start with darker colours and layer the lighter ones over them?

Thanks,

Anne

Thank you for your question, Anne. It’s a good question, and I’m glad you’ve asked it!

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

You might also be wondering if you always have to begin with light colors. So I’ll begin by answering Anne’s question, and then share a few times when you may not need to start with light colors.

Is it Better to Start with Light Colors

If you’re working on traditional drawing paper, then yes. It’s better to start with light colors and add darker colors over them.

Colored pencils aren’t as transparent as watercolors (which is why watercolorists start with light colors,) but they aren’t opaque either. Every color you put on the paper influences every other color you put on the paper.

No matter how many colors you add.

So if you layer dark colors first, then layer light colors over them, the light colors will not be as bright as they would be on clean, white paper.

Yes, you can tint darker colors with lighter colors, but that’s about all.

Incidentally, the translucent nature of colored pencils is why it’s so easy to end up with muddy color if you put too many different colors one over another.

Are There Exceptions?

Yes!

If you use sanded art papers, then you can layer light over dark and the lighter colors will show up. Those colors may not be as bright as they would be when layered over white paper, but they will show up.

This landscape is drawn on sanded pastel paper. I added the lightest green highlights to the main trees after shading all the other greens. Even in the darkest areas, those green accents remained bright.

I was also able to add sky holes in some places after the trees had been nearly finished.

Some products also allow you to add lighter colors over dark and maintain the brightness of the light colors. Brush & Pencil’s Touch-Up Texture is one. Paint a little Touch-Up Texture over a part of your artwork, let it dry, and you can add more color. Even light color.

If you need to cover a larger area, the Advanced Colored Pencil Texture Fixative (also by Brush & Pencil) accomplishes the same things.

And if you use an umber under drawing (drawing the first layers with earth tones and then glaze color,) you have a little more flexibility.

But you still need to preserve the brightest highlights.

The Bottom Line

Most of the time and on most papers, you should always try to start with the lightest colors and work into the darker colors.

At the very least, start with light pressure and gradually develop dark values by increasing pressure as your drawing progresses.

Thank you again to Anne for asking her question!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

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Is there a Published Guide for Skin Tones?

Welcome back to Q&A Wednesday. Today’s reader asks about a published guide for skin tones. Here’s the question.

Hi Carrie ,

Is there a published guide to the mix of brands pencils to particular skin tones? For example, which Prismacolor pencil blends would I use to create sallow skins , pink skins, brown skins, etc.?

And which would be good tones to use for highlights and shadow in those same skin tones?

Or Derwent pencils? Or Faber -Castell?

Thank you

Regards,

Karen
Is There a Published Guide for Skin Tones?

Thank you to Karen for asking her question. I know that there are others also wondering about which colors to use to draw different types of skin tones.

Is there a Published Guide for Skin Tones?

I don’t do human portraits very often, and never in colored pencil. So I cannot offer personal advice on this topic. However, I did a little research into the matter, and am happy to share how I looked and what I found.

Where I Looked and My Search Results

The short answer is, yes. There are dozens of published guides for skin tones. My first search (guides for skin tones) produced thousands of links. Most of them were for makeup and hair dressing!

So I narrowed my search to “guides for skin tones for artists.” Again, thousands of results. However, a lot of these were for painters.

A search for colored pencil related skin tone guides resulted in links to videos and supplies, but very few published guides.

And I found nothing listing specific colors for Prismacolor, Faber-Castell or any other brand of colored pencils.

So I next checked Dick Blick (my favorite online art store) for sets of “skin tone” colors. Neither Prismacolor nor Faber-Castell offer such sets.

Why It’s so Difficult to Find Reliable Published Guides

Unfortunately, there is no established color palette in any brand of pencils that works for every skin tone. Nor do I know of a guide listing individual colors for skin tones. There are probably some available, but I couldn’t find them.

The reason is that there are so many varieties of skin tones from very light to very dark that no brand of pencil has every color you’d ever need to draw all of those variations. The fact is that combining all the popular brands wouldn’t even give you all the colors you need without mixing.

I’d have the same problem if I looked for a guide on drawing portraits of chestnut horses. Even if I could find a published guide listing pencil brands and color names, it would only be a starting point. Why? Because there are so many shades of chestnut horses from very pale to very dark. No one color set works for every shade!

And the same is true for human skin tones.

You also need to consider the lighting of your subject. The same person seen in bright sunlight and colored artificial light would require two different sets of color for the skin tones.

Where to Find Help

The best source of information is probably going to be an online course or video. But don’t limit yourself to one video or one artist, especially if you go the YouTube route. No two artists work exactly alike, and it’s unlikely you’ll find one artist who has an answer that will help you all the time. That’s certainly been my experience in researching how to draw various horse colors.

But a lot of the artists who produce how-to art videos list the brands and colors of pencils they use for each tutorial, and that can be a huge help.

Then when you find an artist whose work is similar to what you want to accomplish and whose teaching style is a good fit, join them on Patreon if they have a Patreon channel. For just a few dollars a month, you’ll get more in-depth teaching month by month, without committing to months of study.

If you’re looking for a portrait artist who specializes in colored pencil and portraits, check out John Middick’s Sharpened Artist Academy*. He offers everything from free classes to full up portrait courses that go far beyond a basic tutorial.

You might also consider buying Alyona Nickelson’s book, Colored Pencil Painting Portraits. You can buy an autographed copy (with free samples of some of her other products) here, or buy a print or ebook here. The book covers all aspects of colored pencil portrait work from posing models to color selection. While it may not provide specific lists for any brand of pencils, it will help you grasp how color works, and that will help you.

Your Best Guide for Skin Tones

I hope that helps Karen and everyone else looked for the best colors to use for skin tones. It would be nice if there was a published guide for skin tones, but I don’t know that there is.

The best answer is to study your reference photo, determine the colors that you see in that photo, and then choose pencil colors accordingly. If you have more than one set of colors, use all the colors that apply. Most brands of colored pencils work well together and can be mixed without worry.

Update

After this post published, a reader emailed me to let me know that Ann Kullberg had a skin tone guide available on her website. So I searched for skin tone tools and found the Portrait Skin Tone Value Viewer Replacement. It’s not a guide, per se, but is a value viewer pre-printed with a variety of skin tones from very light to very dark. It’s not exactly what Karen was looking for, but it could be helpful.

In researching another article, I also found some colored pencil sets designed for portrait artists, including one by Derwent.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.

* Contains an affiliate link