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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? Carrie answers a reader question every Wednesday. Click here to ask your question.