Composing coloured pencil drawings

Composing coloured pencil drawings before you start is vital to a successful piece of artwork. 

On this page we will walk through the steps taken for one of Peter's coloured pencil drawings, including the aspects of composition and how he completed the project. 

The exercise was also designed to introduce the method of underpainting with watercolour pencils to beginning artists. Clearly more work could be done to produce a "finished' picture, but hopefully it will give beginners and those more experienced in coloured pencil drawings, some ideas and guidelines. 

The Grand Union Canal

Our scene shows a view of the Grand Union Canal as it passes through Milton Keynes where Peter lives. You see a pathway to the lefthand side which was originally the track used by the horses which towed the boats.

The Grand Union Canal runs from London to Birmingham in the Midlands of England. It was built to transport heavy cargo on small narrow boats. The UK canal system was built over 200 years ago, but the Grand Union section of the system was modernised in the 1930s. It is now the longest single canal at 300 miles and the most modern of the old canals. It is used almost entirely for leisure traffic today and many of the old narrow boats that once worked on this water are now used for residential purposes. 

Our main reference photo

Composing coloured pencil drawings

First, let's look at the composition of the actual photo shown above. 

The focus of attention is the oncoming boat coming through the arch of the bridge. There is a major area of dark foliage to the right and Peter felt the picture needed to be better balanced. 

One way to do this could have been to lighten the right hand side, but this would have taken away the attraction of the focal point.

He decided to introduce a moored boat on the left and found an image that he had taken of another narrow boat, which was sited on an entirely different canal near Coventry. Some coloured pencil drawings are worked from multiple photo references, as in this case. 

A second photo of a narrow boat

Peter added the second image to the first and adjusted the position of the new boat so that the two photos made a logical composition. He didn't want to lose the light coming through the arch so the new boat had to stay to the far left. The new dark area, from the reflection of the boat, helps balance the righthand side and concentrate the eye on the bridge.

He decided to open out the trees over the bridge to introduce more light into the picture. Although he was intending to use washes of colour from watercolour pencils to tint the paper, and could have put in a blue sky, he opted to leave the white of the paper for the sky. The sky is usually the lightest part of a landscape and it is no problem to leave it white. 

The two photos merged

The difference in size between the two barges also helps to give depth to the composition. Objects that are further away from us appear smaller, even if in fact they are the same size as each other as would likely be the case with our two boats. 

Any 'trick' that will give our coloured pencil drawings a sense of depth is worth capitalising on!

Starting the drawing

Now that the composition has been settled, the next task is to draw out the image and transfer it to our chosen paper. Because we were going to use watercolour pencils the paper used for this image was Fabriano 5 watercolour paper which has a good white surface. It takes wet processes well and also has a reasonable tooth for the later dry point pencil work. 

Peter chose a handful of watercolour pencil colours, many of which matched the Polychromos pencils he will use later. The selection was...

  • Grass green
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Paynes Grey

Using a sharp craft knife he scraped  pigment from the pencil points onto a white palette and mixed a thin wash from each colour.

Peter's palette

The rule here is to use two thin coats of colour rather than one thick one, and then to build up layers of tint on to the drawn image. The first layers need only be general, but once they are dry you can go for more detail in the second set.

The first wash of colour
Second wash of colour

Just as in working dry coloured pencil drawings, it is essential to work the colour in the direction of the surface. This means that the foliage in the trees is applied with ‘dabs’ of colour and the water surface with horizontal strokes. Take care with the application of the darks on the boat and keep the reflection of the light on the boat side.

The colours of the greens from the Polychromos range of pencils are shown here in the order in which they were applied. 

You can see the way the darks have been punched in to the shadowed area on the right, under the overhanging branches and at the same time the same colours have been applied horizontally on the water.

Walnut brown and Sanguine are used to apply shadow areas to the side of the bridge brickwork and the same colours are used to insert bricks into the foliage over the bridge arch.

Remember if you are defining brickwork, that the light catches the top edge of bricks along the line of mortar and the lower edge (usually) has a line of shadow. If you are working this image at leisure, you will have time to add a lot more definition than my students get!

You will see from this detail of the upper right hand side trees that layers of ‘scribble’ strokes are applied in different colours. If you were working with dry point aquarelles at this stage, you could use a damp brush tip to draw, blend and shape the colours into more detailed foliage.  

The example below is taken from another of Peter's coloured pencil drawings, but you can see how the colours can be worked once there are a good number of dry layers in position. Don’t restrict yourself to just greens - incorporate ochres, browns and darks such as sepia. Leave the really dark areas to a sharp dry point at the end. Check out images of trees to see how the shadow areas are shaped. 

The water reflections

The water surface reflects the colours and shapes that lie immediately above. There will be some disturbance on the water which will break up the accurate reflection, but the overall reflections of dark and light must relate to the original shapes.

One of the frequent errors by students showing reflections is to get reflected lights and darks out of line. Reflected colours are also usually a darker tone of the original. Look out for a lighter line often seen around water edges in the distance.

As you will see in the photo, there are also verticals in the reflection of the distant trees. At this point I was starting to lose the tooth of the paper surface so this was not defined in my picture.

Reflections in the water (drawing)
Reflections in the main photograph

A final look at how the nearby narrow boat has been worked.

That reflected light on the side is essential to the success of the picture. Check out the light line along the hull of the boat, and the way that the strong red of the paintwork in the Foreground contrasts with the black and white to bring that part of the picture forward in the composition.

Finally, a line of shadow in the water along the bottom edge of the picture and a ripple lifted out of the water using an eraser and we are done. 

Below is the final scan of this, one of Peter's effective but quick to work coloured pencil drawings. 

Finished drawing