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How to Underpaint for Colored Pencil

The Octopus Project, Finished

The Octopus, by Robert A. Sloan

The Octopus, by Robert A. Sloan

The Octopus Project

Underpainting with watercolor or markers is a technique that saves time. It's related to using colored paper for an artwork -- you don't need to add as many layers of colored pencil to make sure all the little white specks are burnished out, because those specks are in a color that affects the final layers in a good way. Either in a version of the local color of what you're drawing, or you can dare to underpaint in complementary colors or more vivid colors to give added vibrance to your painting. The main illustration above is the Octopus Project, a colored pencil painting you can paint and draw step by step with me in whatever size you like.

Be aware that you can't use a watercolor underpainting or marker underpainting in a CPSA competition -- you have to do all your layers with colored pencils rather than using another medium. I would avoid it for a juried competition. This technique is a timesaver that may help a lot in other circumstances, but don't stick to it exclusively. There are effects you can only get if you don't use this shortcut and instead layer colored pencil directly over white, many many times. But the effect of a watercolor underpainting is gorgeous in its own right, and you can always enter it in mixed media competitions if you produce a competition quality artwork. With contests and competitions, read the rules.

You will need white museum board, watercolor paper or heavy art paper to use this technique, and a good set of student or artist grade watercolors, plus a set of 24 Derwent Coloursoft or other artist grade colored pencils such as Prismacolors, Faber-Castell Polychromos, or Koh-I-Noor Progresso.

Colors list by Coloursoft names, if you are mixing brands or buying individual pencils:

  1. White
  2. Indigo
  3. Electric Blue (close to Prismacolor True Blue)
  4. Blue (close to Prismacolor Non Photo Blue)
  5. Green (a bright green like PC Grass Green)
  6. Light Green (PC Apple Green or Spring Green)
  7. Lime Green (close to Chartreuse or yellow-green)
  8. Lichen Green (close to an olive green)
  9. Dark Brown
  10. Acid Yellow (PC Lemon Yellow)
  11. Dark Terracotta (PC Terracotta or Henna)
  12. Ochre (PC Yellow Ochre)
  13. Pale Brown (PC Light Umber)

Color Swatches


Other Supplies Needed

You don't need many colors in your watercolor set. An eight to twelve color set is all that you need to get any colors you need for an underpainting. Remember that paint mixes into washes.

You will also need a sable or synthetic watercolor brush, preferably a medium sized round sizes 3 through 7, or a larger watercolor brush if you plan to underpaint a large picture. If you have more control with flat watercolor brushes, use your favorite flat brush. I prefer round brushes with a good point because I like to work with the point when going into small details while the belly is good for covering large areas.

You can also use watercolor pencils for underpainting, the main difference is that with those you would lightly cover areas with a thin tonal layer and then wash over them with the wet brush. If you're good at doing smooth tonal layers, this may be easier and more convenient. But for pure speed, a watercolor wash is very fast and powerful. It does not matter if you use tube paint or a pan set of watercolors. Most pan sets have a palette or mixing area in the lid, but if you use tube paint you will need a palette or some clean dishes to use for a palette. Saucers make good improvised palettes for big flat washes.

Another good underpainting technique, since areas of flat color are easy to get with markers, is to use Prismacolor 4 in 1 Markers. Depending on the paper you use, you may want to put a piece of cardboard under your art. Markers are a good illustration medium in their own right, but they shine for doing flat areas of bright color as long as you fully saturate each area. The broad side can fill in big areas of color and the pointed tip can be used to get into fairly small details if you want those underpainted too -- though it's less important than covering the big areas.

The Octopus Sketch -- permission granted to trace or copy for use in your drawing or painting.

The Octopus Sketch -- permission granted to trace or copy for use in your drawing or painting.

The Octopus Sketch

On any underpainting, be sure to work around any white highlights. Outline them and make sure the line width of your pencil sketch is on the outside and not within the area -- you don't want to have to go erasing the pencil lines after the underpainting is in just to reserve white. It's easier to reserve the white in the first place. Sketch a little larger than needed for highlights if they are small, by the time you're finished you can work inward and get it to its exact size. That's much easier than restoring it if the center area of a white highlight is too small.

I've done an outline sketch of a Common Atlantic Octopus on some coral and rocks, to demonstrate underpainting. This is my contour sketch, with contrast heightened to make the pencil lines show up better on the scan. After scanning, I used a kneaded eraser to lighten the lines till I could barely see them. Try to keep your line width on the shadow or darker side of anything outlined.

You have permission to copy, trace or enlarge this sketch to do the exercise, and to copy my original finished artwork. You may sell your derivative or prints of your version, if you mention that it's from a sketch by Robert A. Sloan and credit me; also if you post yours online, please link to my article unless links are forbidden by the site you use. Links within an eBay listing description may be against eBay rules as of July 2008, consult eBay for details.

Start the Underpainting

You can begin with any area that will be the same color. I started with the octopus.

You can begin with any area that will be the same color. I started with the octopus.

Start the Underpainting with one area of similar colors.

Now I'm going to do the underpainting using my 12 color Sakura Koi pocket field sketch box. Its color range is comparable to most of the twelve color watercolor sets I've used, and the water-handle brush is extremely convenient. My paper is Strathmore Aquarius 2 watercolor paper, only 90lb but a synthetic component to make it less likely to buckle than other watercolor papers. In my experience, that means it's likely to buckle anyway, but it'll dry flat again afterward.

Octopi change color between almost white and almost black, with browns and reds and yellows in between. I want a brighter octopus than my reference photo, where it looks grayish and pale, so I'm going to underpaint the animal with Yellow Ochre, one of three earth tone colors almost always included in watercolor sets. I can elaborate on that with lighter and darker patches and shading in the penciling, but the underpainting of the animal means I'm working on yellow ochre paper for the animal's colors.

Without waiting for it to dry completely, I added some modeling and shadows looking at my reference and used Burnt Sienna, the reddish brown rust color in my set. This darkens it and sets the basic colors I'm going to be using. The animal's photo shows many different mottled patterns and I'll be establishing those with pencil rather than detailing with the paint, but I'll be doing it on these two warm earth tones to make the animal come forward as a foreground element.

Flat Blue Background

Flat blue background does not need to be a perfectly smooth wash.

Flat blue background does not need to be a perfectly smooth wash.

Scroll to Continue

Paint the next color area.

In watercolor painting, I would normally start with the farthest distant part of the background and work forward. In an underpainting, this is less important. I'm coloring this sketch the way I'd do a coloring book, in flat areas, without even trying to make them smooth or shade gradually. It's going to be covered by my penciling. Rather than worry about whether it's foreground or background, take each color group area as something to paint separately.

I've now done the background area with pure French Ultramarine, a blue to complement the orange octopus. This is going to be a bright colored pencil piece, with all these contrasts. I'm going to let the flat blue background dry before filling in a background color on the sponges, rocks and algae-covered corals he's crawling over. In my photo reference many of these are olive green or bright green, while I'll do the sponges in turquoise to show that they're farther off than the foreground objects the octopus is crawling over. As objects come forward, I am warming the colors to push them forward.

Look at how messy my flat blue background is though! You do not need to be careful on an underpainting. You just need to make colored paper, and any irregularities will be smoothed out by the penciling as long as you cover that area thoroughly. If this were to be a painting in its own right, I would have carefully soaked the background area and then gone in with the paint so that it'd smooth and dry flat. But for this, I don't need to be careful. Staying close to the lines and establishing value and hue is good enough.

Middle Ground Turquoise


Underpaint another area

Blue-green mixed from the greener blue and the bright green is what I used for the sponges in the distance and some other areas of the background. I put a little more green into the mix while it was drying, and did some shadowing on the foreground rocks and coral, which are not going to be as detailed as the animal but should be warmer.

This is setting up for an analogous color harmony with one strong complement -- the orange of the octopus. As I work on it, I'm deciding colors with my underpainting and setting a tone. By the time I get to penciling, I will be detailing and refining these choices.

I am also establishing values on some of these elements, but not entirely since I can darken or lighten them in the pencil stage. Here is the underpainting with the blue-green areas painted in.

Finished Underpainting

The finished underpainting. Some broad flat shadows are included but details aren't painted in, and an oversize white highlight is left on the animal's eye.

The finished underpainting. Some broad flat shadows are included but details aren't painted in, and an oversize white highlight is left on the animal's eye.

Finish the underpainting.

Finish the underpainting by washing over the foreground rocks and coral with green. I mixed the bright green in my set with Yellow Ochre to get a yellower green that would still be related to the yellow ochre of the octopus's highlights.

I washed over everything, then added a little more color into the shadows. This is also where to begin lightening up if you need to. Finish the underpainting and then take a clean brush with clean water on it.

Scrub over the area you want to lighten and lift it by blotting it fast with toilet tissue, facial tissue or a soft paper towel. You can also use a soft white rag for this. Do not use colored fabric unless it's been through the laundry a few times, or you may be applying dye from your blotting cloth to the paper right in a highlight where it'll show the worst.

I added a little more darks into the deepest darks too as I finished off, using the dark blue that's not Ultramarine. I think that color is Prussian Blue in my watercolor set, but in yours it might be Pthalo Blue or a different greener blue. Most watercolor sets have a slightly purplish blue and a slightly greenish blue, and Ultramarine is the top choice for the purplish blue. Which one the greener blue is varies a lot, but it is at least moderately dark.

Begin using colored pencils

I began coloring with the background first and shaded it with several blues.

I began coloring with the background first and shaded it with several blues.

Begin pencil coloring with the most distant elements.

Now I am ready to begin using colored pencils on my underpainted Common Atlantic Octopus. I have areas of golden-russet for the animal, green for the algae-coated rocks and coral it's crawling over including the very dark shadowed one behind it, blue-green distant features including some sponges and a flat blue for the water. From here I can shade in more detail, add features that were too small to underpaint and work over it in layers until I have a good colored pencil piece.

I chose a 24 color set of Derwent Coloursoft to work on this piece, since I don't need to do as many layers as I would if I hadn't underpainted. Coloursoft is relatively opaque, and so it will cover better in fewer layers. But you can use Prismacolors or any other good artist grade brand to do this type of colored pencil realism, just test how your colors look over the underpainting on a scrap to see how careful you need to be about shading the underpainting right.

I created shading on my flat blue background by using Electric Blue, Blue (which is lighter and closer to Non-Photo Blue in Prismacolors), Indigo and a little Royal Purple in the deepest darks. I went over the lightest area with White after it was down, so that I could get a lighter blue. The result is a pleasing gradation created entirely with soft, heavy horizontal strokes to give the impression of smooth distant water.

There are two things you can do with strokes. Try to hide them by going over them and burnishing so much that they blur and have no direction other than the shape of the object, or use them boldly to help describe the shape of the object. What I did in the water is a bit of both -- they are well blended but by keeping them horizontal, any streaks between the colors in the shading help give a watery impression.

Middle Ground Sponges

Shade the sponges and corals with a nubbly texture using small circular strokes.

Shade the sponges and corals with a nubbly texture using small circular strokes.

Shade the middle ground sponges with a texturing stroke.

On the sponges, I did some initial modeling with Indigo in the shadows and White on the highlights, then started alternating blues and greens for the middle tones. Instead of a monochrome turquoise, they jump out now as something with texture and mottling. I used small circular strokes and freely went over every area for light and dark, keeping the highlights to the left and the shadows to the right so that it would match the lighting on the octopus.

Because I used an underpainting, I was able to use Lichen Green and Dark Brown on the blue-green distant sponges and rocks without losing their sense of being blue-green. The layers went quickly and weren't solid, I deliberately scribbled and went loosely to create mini-highlights and mini-shadows in my texture. Even at a distance they look nubbly and rough as they should.

Finish with the Foreground and Octopus

The Octopus by Robert A. Sloan

The Octopus by Robert A. Sloan

Completing the Octopus Project

Scribble some highlights in rough small circular strokes on the foreground algae-covered coral and rocks using Acid Yellow. Scribble just into the darkest parts of the deepest darks with Indigo, and add your initials where I've put mine using Indigo. Placing your signature dark on light is easier going over one of the light areas in the underpainting before penciling over it with other colors. If you do it large, you can put your whole signature there.

With Dark Brown, go over some of your Indigo dark details and go out a little farther than with the Indigo, still using small circular motions and working rough. This will begin to create the nubbly texture of the middle ground sponges. Shade into the middle tones with Lichen Green, again with loose circular strokes but not pressing as hard. Leave some mid-tones greener, but fill in about half of them with Lichen Green circular strokes stopping at the Acid Yellow highlights.

Now go in with Green over the midtones, going over some of the Lichen Green midtones and still using the small circular strokes to make a nubbly effect. Shade loosely to keep altering the shapes of the lumps of algae-covered coral, adjusting them till you like how they look. Go over the highlights with White using heavy pressure and circular strokes.

Then shade over all of the midtones again with Light Green. Add some more detailing in Lichen Green where it ought to look browner, and a little more with the lighter Blue in the areas where the green midtones are bluest. This gives a good varied hue to the foreground green algae covered rocks, and still ties it to the turquoise and blue backgrounds. Alternate all the greens, browns and blues in layers paying more attention to value than to color until you are satisfied with how the foreground algae covered rocks and corals look. The more different colors you blend in this, the richer your final results will become.

On the octopus itself, use Dark Brown sketch in some circles that are open in the center and touch or come close. Vary them in size and shape, some can be oblong. Stretch some out to broken lines and cover the entire octopus lightly with this texture. Shade lightly in the deepest darks, following the example.

Then shade over that shading with Dark Terracotta, extending the shadows and broadening the dark area. Go over all of the lighter areas with Ochre. Lighten the strongest highlights with White.

Go over the eyeball with Acid Yellow, then detail the pupil with Indigo and Dark Brown over each other, being careful not to completely cover the reserved white highlight. Go over some of the texturing lines in Dark Brown again to make the pattern stronger. Work alternately with all the browns and golds till the octopus looks natural.

You can vary the colors from what I chose, but laying it out with a dark for the deepest shadows, a medium, a light color and white will result in a well modeled realistic looking octopus. Using Peach for the lightest color and bumping the others down so the Brown is only in the details of markings would make a lighter octopus with a different color cast. They change colors to communicate, so whatever you do with your octopus is accurate! Mine is in a dark golden-ruddy mood right now, but yours is whatever you want. Also you could make some foreground corals bright orange, pink or red to make the scene more dramatic. Just look at different reef photos and do colors based on those.

Whatever you do with this exercise, the convenience of underpainting your colored pencil art will be clear the first time you work on an underpainted piece. If you need to finish it faster, watercolor or markers can really help!


Hassan on October 11, 2013:

This is an interesting technique . Thank you for sharing this -

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iron doors on July 16, 2011:

Love the idea, I tried them ,pretty cool!

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sarasmile on February 07, 2011:

This is an interesting technique, I'll have to try it. Currently, I like to work in watercolor but I have quite a collection of colored pencils just sitting in boxes. I've been meaning to do something with them for years but I've never tried combining them with watercolor. It looks like it could be a good next project. Thanks. ~ modern furniture

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on March 13, 2009:

My comment posted twice so I edited this one. Thanks for commenting. I hope this has inspired you to do something splendid in colored pencil. I did something little tonight with it after months away from it and I'd forgotten how much detail is possible.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on March 13, 2009:

It saves a lot of time if you want to get rid of those white specks and still have a glowing luminous layered look. I love it.

I tend to drift into it and away from it because detailed colored pencil realism is such a slow technique.

Christa Dovel from The Rocky Mountains, North America on March 13, 2009:

I love drawing with colored pencils, though I have to admit it has been a while since I have done much. I can see many uses for this technique.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on March 13, 2009:

Thank you! Yes, most of my writing nowadays is on the Internet. I have Hubpages, Ehow articles, Deviantart articles and art, EmptyEasel articles, Wetcanvas posts, art on Etsy and sometimes on eBay and of course, my grand project, http://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.c... -- that's where most of my writing is. Thanks!

I love wetcanvas, that's where I hang out most these days.

Greg on March 13, 2009:

Mr. Sloan you are quite widely published on the internet! You provide great instruction and wonderful art. To think, my first contact with you was on wetcanvas! Keep up the good work.

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