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.
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.