Skip to main content

Drawing With A Limited Palette in Colored Pencils

#33 of 100

#33 of 100 -- 1/3 done and only ONE day behind now! Whoohoo! is the challenge link.

#33 of 100 -- 1/3 done and only ONE day behind now! Whoohoo! is the challenge link.

What if I don't have a lot of colors? Or money?

 In a much earlier Hub, I recommended getting the biggest set of colored pencils you can afford in artist grade, and even multiple sets because they make it much easier to draw anything you want. Colored pencils are a dry medium and it's always easier to mix two or three colors that come close to the exact hue (color) and value (how light or dark) you want than to try to mix it with colors that are very far apart from either. It's also easier to get a smooth gradient.

That's just "easier" though, not "necessary."

Derwent makes these very convenient six-color bubble packs for artists to try their products without sinking much money into even a 12 color set of their specialty pencils. Inevitably they come up with very good choices for what six colors to go into the pack. They don't have a tin, but with only six pencils you can stick them in your pocket or a cup or into a zippered pencil bag with your graphite ones and have them on hand if you don't want to carry much with you. Say, outside when you really don't know if you're going to draw but might as well shove a handful in your pocket along with the little Moleskine sketchbook or some other small sketchbook. They can be very handy.

I happened to get one when I bought my first set of 24 Derwent Coloursoft -- a free bonus item was a six-pack of Coloursoft. Neat. I got extras. Very cool.

So I sat down and decided I'd find out once and for all if I could do something realistic using just the colors in the six-pack, or whether I should put those off to the side as replacements when I use those colors up in the bigger set. It worked. I did a ruby throated hummingbird so well that I had to do it yet again for a friend who wanted an ATC swap.

Hummingbird ACEO

Hummingbird ACEO in six colors of Derwent Coloursoft by Robert A. Sloan

Hummingbird ACEO in six colors of Derwent Coloursoft by Robert A. Sloan

How I Did It

 This was the second time I'd drawn that hummingbird, so I got a little more elaborate with the background and fooled around more with mixing different dark colors to make the bright little bird pop forward.

One thing I used successfully was the white of the paper to get lighter colors than I had available in the range of six Coloursoft pencils. The palette, if you have a larger set of Coloursoft is probably included: Deep Cadmium C040 (bright warm yellow), Green C420 (bright green), Indigo C300 (very dark slightly greenish blue), Red C120 (very bright mid red), Dark Brown C520 and Black C650. If you have another brand, pick out colors that fit these descriptions to try using this palette. You won't be far off if your bright green is mid value and midway between yellowish and bluish -- it's that very bright medium green sometimes called Emerald or something like that.

Before using black anywhere, I sketched with the Indigo and the Brown. In areas I knew were red in the reference, I sketched with red. I sometimes strengthened the red with the yellow.

I often used yellow over the Indigo to get different shades of deep green -- it does make a good green. Thin layers of brown, yellow and Indigo also come out with interesting dark greens, so does Indigo over the green itself shading it toward a blue-green. If I wanted it to stay true green and get deep dark, I alternated Indigo and Yellow over the green.

I did the first hummingbird in a sketchbook just matching the colors of different areas as closely as I could, laying down a thin loose sketchy layer with strokes in the direction of the feathers and then adding more layers in different colors. I had some scrap paper and tested mixtures on it before using them on the bird itself and closely followed the reference. In this one I actually made up some of the background but I've been doing twigs and leaves for a long time -- and I kept it dark to make the bird pop out from it.

The scan is a high resolution one so that it's easier to see the areas where one color shades into another.

The biggest thing to remember in mixing from a limited palette is to do shaded tonal layers instead of going heavily at first. They will blend gradually when you go over them with lighter colors and they can deepen even at full saturation when you add darker or contrasting colors to them. When you want something like orange, the red has to be at half value and the yellow very heavy to create it. For gold, a little brown, maybe a little red and heavy yellow will do it. For gray, it's really best to also use a white Derwent Drawing Pencil or Coloursoft with it, but I keep an extra white Derwent Drawing Pencil in the same zippered pencil bag and didn't use it on the hummingbird because I was seeing how this would work if those were the only colored pencils I had on hand.

I'm going to do something like this again in stages with another subject to show more of what I mean by the description of my process. If you've never done shaded tonal layers, that's like drawing with a graphite pencil and shading by pressing lighter and lighter. It takes practice to get them smooth but it's so worth it when you get the knack.


The Onion -- Stage 1

Onion sketched in Dark Brown and Indigo monochrome light tonal layers. Robert A. Sloan

Onion sketched in Dark Brown and Indigo monochrome light tonal layers. Robert A. Sloan

Try This At Home

I'm using a photo reference from the May 2009 Colored Pencil Challenge at -- if you join, just navigate to the Colored Pencil forum and look for the May challenge thread, then look at the first posts and you'll find the references. The photo reference is Onion 1 by WC member orangepassion. Photo references in the Reference Image Library are free to use for WetCanvas members, so it's worth joining for the library even if you don't read the forums (but the forums and classes are really good!).

The photo reference is of a reddish gold onion, a subtle blend of mixed colors. It's posed on a white cloth that I've chosen not to draw because I don't want to spend half the evening drawing the cloth perfectly and getting the values of the background just right.

My first stage is to pick the darkest color that I'll use in any given color area. The darks of the golden-reddish onion will need brown in the mixture, a black would make the color turn greenish. This might be good for some other colors of onions, so your other alternative is to go in the kitchen, get a real onion and draw it from life. You'll be amazed at how much more detail you can get from a real object than even the best reference photos. Just adjust your colors to what your onion really looks like, and also the values.

Scroll to Continue

Or do yours but do it the colors mine is, your call. This sketch is nowhere near as dark as the onion in the photo reference is, so look at all the illustrations before putting the first layer down. I deliberately went much lighter than I will by the time I'm done. This makes it easier to erase any mistakes and to lighten by lifting color with a kneaded eraser.

I used Indigo for the shadow. You can see it's a very strong blue even used lightly, but the brown onion reflects back down into the shadow so it'll be a mixed color that's bluish but not that bright. If I kept the shadow that blue, the cloth would look like it's a bright blue cloth and I'd have to color in around it to make it make sense.

Draw the lines fairly lightly, pressing harder where they're dark and going very light where they near that white shiny highlight. That's one of the things that'll make the onion look real, so look for it on your real one -- the light in the room will reflect on the onion skin. Not quite as bright as it would on a metal onion, but bright enough that the highest highlights may well get to white.

I'm going to add more colors gradually by building up very thin layers of them over this sketch, till I have the right mixture. For a full rich burnished effect it's good to go through all the colors in an area twice adjusting how much of each before you get to the final burnishing layer with a colorless blender or just leave it with the white areas unburnished.

Since I don't want to actually use any other pencils but these Coloursofts, this won't be carried to the point of using white or colorless blender -- it's just a sketch using a six-pack of Coloursoft. But I could carry it farther if I wanted and do keep a colorless blender Prismacolor in the same bag of pencils along with a spare white Derwent Drawing Pencil. If I'm out in the yard I don't want to go in for more pencils.

Onion Second Stage

Onion stage two: red has been added both to the onion and the shadow. Robert A. Sloan

Onion stage two: red has been added both to the onion and the shadow. Robert A. Sloan

Now Add A Layer of Red

 My second stage on the onion demo is to add a wash of red over everything. There are red elements in the shadow in the photo reference because the redness of the onion reflects down into the shadow, which might well be pure  blue on a white cloth. On the onion itself, I went a little heavier with the red than with the brown because it comes close to the true values of the original onion photo.

It's called a "wash" in colored pencils painting if you cover the entire painting or an area in it with a very light layer of a color, so light it's transparent. The red wash is visible on the highlight, because it isn't really white -- it's actually rather pinkish in the photo but does have a bit of the golden tone to it as well. It'll mute to more of a pale russet or peach once I have a little yellow added, but it will have to be done very carefully to keep it from being bright orange-yellow, which it is not.

While I could continue with many layers and get a fully burnished saturated Colored Pencil Painting, what I want is a good detailed colored pencil drawing in a limited palette. I think this layer has added enough red. I could leave it alone right now and call it a red onion because the values are right for a medium-light red onion and the purplish shadow looks natural as it is. But I want the color to look more like the golden onion in the photo reference, so I'll keep going and see what else is needed.

Maybe the yellow will be enough, or maybe I'll want to go back in with a little more brown and some green. We'll see when I get there.

When you use the white of the paper for your whites and don't burnish out that stippled effect that a light tonal application shows, it's called a colored pencil drawing. It can be just as realistic, the difference is whether it "looks like a painting." I want it to look like a realistic drawing since I'm starting to really like the way it looks on white, so we'll go for Drawing texture this time. Besides, I categorized this one as "drawing" rather than "painting."

Onion Third Stage

Yellow has been added to the onion drawing, it's much closer to true color now. Robert A. Sloan

Yellow has been added to the onion drawing, it's much closer to true color now. Robert A. Sloan

Third Stage -- Yellow Wash

 Once again I gave the entire drawing, all the colored bits, a light wash of the next color, Deep Cadmium Yellow. After the light wash over everything, I pressed quite hard burnishing the deeper red and brown areas with full strength yellow to tone them more golden.

The results are very close to the true colors in the photo reference and once again, I could stop now. It's a nice drawing. But if I bring in some more colors here and there, I can add a little finesse and make it richer. Some of the darkest areas aren't quite dark enough and the brightest reddish areas don't shine out as redder than some of the browner areas.

So my next stage is going to be tricky. Instead of washing all over it again, I'm going to use the Green to mute some areas of red just at the ends and create a mixed brown. I have to avoid using very much or I'll change the color too far. Less is more when muting with complements.

All of my strokes in all layers have been lightly drawn in the direction of the ribs on the onion skin. This helps keep the texture of the onionskin and keep distracting heavier strokes from breaking up the rounded shape of the onion. Controlling the direction and pressure of strokes is an important thing to learn in drawing, whether with graphite or with colored pencils.

In colored pencils, it can make the difference between a mixed color truly mixing or a bright detail going wrong and created in the middle of something else by a stroke that went the wrong direction with too much pressure.

Onion Stage Four

All the colors are deeper and richer with touches of green in the darks. Robert A. Sloan

All the colors are deeper and richer with touches of green in the darks. Robert A. Sloan

Touches of Green

The green is very bright. I noticed looking at the reference carefully that there were some touches of green in some of the dried bits including one that overlapped the onion, so I drew it in. That area at the root end is starting to be heavily burnished, it won't take much more layering.

I washed green lightly over some parts of brown that looked too red in my drawing, and this made the parts I didn't put green on look more orangy-rich golden reddish.

Each step and each color added makes the entire drawing more realistic.

We've now used Yellow, Red, Green, Indigo and Dark Brown. So far I haven't really used too much of any given color because I'm used to doing this, but if I had I could go back to the earlier colors to brighten it up or if I'd gone too lightly. There's one pencil left I haven't used -- and it might be a perfect finish to pick out some deep darks with Black and wash a little of it over the shadow to mute it, as well as strengthen some of the Dark Brown lines with it to deepen them.

I might also use more touches of Brown or Indigo again in the last stage right with the Black if Black would be too much but lines need darkening.

Onion -- The Finish

The finished Onion drawing, using Black, a little more Dark Brown and repeats of Red and Yellow layers. Robert A. Sloan, May 21, 2009.

The finished Onion drawing, using Black, a little more Dark Brown and repeats of Red and Yellow layers. Robert A. Sloan, May 21, 2009.

The Finish

 This is where to repeat any colors that aren't strong enough once you get through all the layers using each color once. I did some Black details to add deep darks, especially on the deepest part of the shadow right next to the onion. This helped sit it solidly on the imaginary white surface, which could easily be a piece of white printer paper on your desk big enough the edge doesn't come into the picture when you set out your real onion to draw.

The darkest shadow is always right by the edge of a solid object and helps make it look like it's three dimensional and so is the shadow. Reflected light from the rest of the white cloth in the photo reference lightened other parts of the shadow, but more toward the front than the back.

Then I strengthened the darkest part of the lines with Black, continued them with Brown and shaded darker in a few areas with Brown. I brightened the reddest areas again with more Red and finally strengthened the Yellow where it needed to be more golden. I looked at the reference often while making those last adjustments and it's come out pretty true to what I saw in the good macro photo provided in the May 2009 Colored Pencil Challenge.

If you want to try this exactly the way I did, you will need a moderately toothy white drawing paper, cartridge paper or sketchbook paper. Smooth bristol won't give the same texture but Vellum Bristol will. Regular cardstock probably will. Make sure it's white, if you work on any tinted paper you'll need to adjust both the colors and the values and probably need a white pencil to get that highlight light enough.

You will also need a Kneaded Eraser aka Putty Eraser, usually under a dollar anywhere art supplies are sold. It's a little gray square thing, occasionally blue, wrapped in cellophane. Unwrap and squeeze it and it turns into grownup artist Silly Putty that can lift off colored pencil when you have too much on by pressing it and peeling it off. Pretty much the same way you transferred bits of the Funnies with Silly Putty when you were a kid -- it left the newspaper faded, didn't it? But kneaded erasers are gentler on paper than Silly Putty is.

Last, you'll need six colors of Derwent Coloursoft either as mentioned or just purchase the six color bubble pack, which is much cheaper even than the 12 color set. If you have any larger set of Coloursoft, just go through the set and pick out those colors and put the rest away. If you don't have Coloursoft, I'm going to do some shaded patches of all six colors here so you can match them as close as possible with the colored pencils you do have.

Enjoy, and if you do this from my tutorial, please do link to your sketch from your comment! I would love to see it if anyone tries this onion using my article. You do have my explicit permission to forget the photo reference and just draw from my stage sketches, copying my art stage by stage, just mention my name and that it's a copy, and link to this article when you do.

Onion Page

Onion Page in my ProArt wirebound sketchbook with color samples of all six Coloursoft colors used. Robert A. Sloan, May 21, 2009

Onion Page in my ProArt wirebound sketchbook with color samples of all six Coloursoft colors used. Robert A. Sloan, May 21, 2009


prismalos on May 07, 2010:

Wow, thanks for the tips!

KelciC on May 04, 2010:

Oooh, I've been looking for ways to practice sketching with a small number of colored pencils. I have a huge 72-count set of Prismacolors, but for sketching I wanted to see if I could narrow that down to a mere handful. This hub DEFINITELY gave me some inspiration now. Thanks!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on August 23, 2009:

I understand a lot of artists don't like using black, that deep purple can be more vibrant. However in the context of the little six-color set of Coloursoft, the Black is included and a deep purple isn't. So I'll go ahead and use the black when I'm using these. It's the sketch set that lives in my graphite pencils bag for spur of the moment drawing.

someone on August 23, 2009:

I ment black

someone on August 23, 2009:

you shouldn't use purple because it makes it look bland you should use a dark purple or something in that hue to make it more vibrant

Related Articles