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Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

A Beginners Guide to Under Drawings

Today’s post is a quick beginner’s guide to under drawings, and it’s prompted by a recent reader question. Here’s the question to get us started.

I am a beginner to the art of colored pencils. You may have covered my question in a previous post but I could not find it.

My question: What do you mean by under drawing? An example would be helpful as well as I learn best by observation.


This is a great question. When you’ve been doing art for as long as I have (over 50 years,) it’s easy to take for granted that everyone knows what I know. That is so not true, and I thank this reader for bringing the question to my attention.

Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

In it’s most basic form, an under drawing is the first layers of color you put on the paper. The under drawing is also sometimes called “base layers.” This illustration shows the under drawing or base layers for a recent landscape.

To further complicate matters, some artists work over all of their drawing at each phase, while others finish one section at a time.

Whichever way you work, you most often probably start with the same colors that you’ll finish with, as I did in the sample above. Blues for a sky, greens for grass, and so on. That’s the way I worked when I first began using colored pencils back in the 1990s.

But I was also oil painting at the time and learning a painting process that involved starting with an umber under painting. With that method, I roughed in the painting with brown tones, followed by gray tones, and ending with color glazes.

When I got serious about colored pencils, I adapted that method to colored pencils.

So when I speak of an under drawing, I’m talking about a method of drawing that begins with a color other than the final colors of the piece.

Different Kinds of Under Drawings

There are different ways to do under drawings, so let me share the two I use most often.

Umber Under Drawings

An umber under drawing is an under drawing done in shades of brown. I do a lot of landscape art and brown tones are natural for landscapes.

I also like browns of all sorts, so starting with an umber (or brown) under drawing is my favorite way to begin many drawings.

This is an umber under drawing for a landscape.

A Beginners Guide to Under Drawings

I used Prismacolor Light Umber for this under drawing. Light Umber is a nice, medium-value, warmish brown that produces fairly dark values and extremely light values.

As you can see, there’s already a good sense of distance in the drawing because of the difference in values and details.

This is also a good way to double-check a composition before getting too far into a project. If I find mistakes at this stage, it’s easier to correct them. Then I can layer more browns or start glazing colors.

Here’s the finished landscape.

I did this piece as a demo piece for the first article I wrote for EmptyEasel, so you can start reading the step-by-step here if you’re interested. It’s a two-part series. I’ve linked to the second article, which contains a link to the first article.

Complementary Under Drawings

I have also used complementary under drawings, also usually for landscapes. With a complementary under drawing, I choose a color that’s opposite the final color on the color wheel. For greens, the under drawing would be some shade of red, for example.

Here’s a landscape started with a complementary under drawing.

I used a couple of shades of red for this under drawing; darker red on the main group of trees, and lighter red everywhere else.

But I used the same basic under drawing method for this piece that I used for the umber under drawing sample above. I drew a little bit more detail and darker values in the center of interest, and fewer details in the other parts of the landscape. Even though the colors look “odd” to us, there is still a feel of distance in the drawing.

I could also see the composition was working quite well, though I did make one change at the end of the project.

This is the finished landscape.

I described the drawing process in depth in a three-part tutorial for EmptyEasel. You can reach the third part here, and link to the other two parts from that article.

Tips for Under Drawing

The following tips work for me and I offer them with the hope that they may work for you, too. They are not absolute by any means. Merely suggestions.

Start with Harder Pencils

Before I bought Polychromos pencils, I used Prismacolor Verithin pencils for under drawings. Verithin pencils are harder than Prismacolor Soft Core pencils. They contain less wax, so they’re ideal for under drawings because they leave less wax on the paper. It’s easier to layer softer, waxier pencils over them.

They also are less pigmented. It’s very difficult to get too dark when you use a Verithin pencil, though it is possible.

And they also erase much more easily than waxier pencils. If you find a mistake in the under drawing, it’s easier to remove or correct, and then cover.

Now I use Polychromos pencils for under drawings, and for all the same reasons. They don’t erase quite as a well as Verithin pencils, but they do lift more easily than waxier pencils.

Plus they have many more colors: 150 colors compared to 36 colors in the Verithin line.

Use Light Pressure

Light pressure is always important. It’s even more important at the under drawing phase. Color applied with light pressure is easier to correct than color applied with heavy pressure, no matter what type of pencil you use.

You also have more control over values with light pressure. You may still get too dark, but drawing dark values bit by bit helps avoid that.

Evaluate the Under Drawing Before You Glaze Color

I’ve found it helpful to let a drawing sit overnight when I think the under drawing is complete. I can evaluate it with fresh eyes the next day. If I see things to improve or change, I make those adjustments before starting color glazes.

Of course you can make adjustments throughout the color glazing phase, but getting the under drawing as accurate as possible before you start color glazing makes color glazing that much easier.

Why I Start with Under Drawings

I often start with an under drawing for landscapes, because I can work out the shapes, values, and even some of the details without also having to make color decisions.

The earth tones or complementary colors also keep the greens in the landscape from getting too bright or artificial looking.

And I simply find it easier to develop a drawing without also making color choices in the early phase.

That’s my Beginner’s Guide to Under Drawings

There is much more to under drawings than that, but it would take a couple more posts (or a very long one!) to cover everything.

If you’re interested in trying any of the under drawing methods, I encourage you to do so. Start with something small and fun. Maybe even just drawing a series of balls with the same final color glazed over several different colors. That’s the best way to see whether any of these methods work for you or not!

For more information on layering color, read Layering Colors with Colored Pencils.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

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Drawing on Black Paper: The First Steps

What Should I Do First When Drawing on Black Paper

Today’s reader question comes from a reader who wants to know the first steps in drawing on black paper.

The reader wants to draw a dog, but the steps I’ll outline for you work for any subject and any type of artwork. They also work for other dark colors of paper.

Let’s begin!

The First Steps in Drawing on Black Paper

For the most part, the basics of layering and blending apply no matter what color of paper you use. But black paper requires some adaptation in methods, beginning with the need for an under drawing.

Choose an Under Drawing Color

Whether or not you start with an under drawing with white paper, consider using an under drawing on black or dark-colored papers.

You’ll probably want to consider using white for the under drawing in most cases, (although Helen Carter did a great tutorial with a yellow under painting in the June 2020 issue of CP Magic.)

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 layer them 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.

However, I recommend starting with an under drawing for more finished pieces.

Block in the Lightest Values

The most important thing to remember about working on black paper is that you need to work in reverse. Instead of using the paper color for the lightest values, use it for the darkest 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.

Reapply Light Colors

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 instead of darker colors.

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 the one below, I have to redo the light colors.

That’s also often the last thing I do to finish a piece.

Don’t Be Afraid to Add Darker Colors

Sometimes, I shade black into the darkest areas to deepen the value. I did that with the dog portrait above to accent the dog a little more.

Depending on the type of paper you use and shade of black, you may not need to do this. But know that if you need to darken an area with black, that’s okay.

Basic First Steps in Drawing on Black Paper

A lot depends on the paper you use, of course. Toothy papers like Canson Mi-Teintes take more layers, so you have to add lighter colors again and again. You also have more paper tooth in which to add color layers.

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. That’s the paper I used for the dog portrait above. But I’ve had success with all of them.

The bottom line is that it is possible to get rich, vibrant colors on black paper. The secret is patience, a willingness to try different colors in the under drawing (on scrap paper!,) and persistence. Master those three things and you can master black paper!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!