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. 

Peter designed this exercise to introduce the method of underpainting with watercolour pencils to beginning artists. Clearly more work would 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. 

We use the canals for leisure now, but they they started life, over 200 years ago, to transport heavy cargo on narrowboats. Horses walked along the water’s edge, pulling the boats.

They modernised this section in the 1930s. It is the longest single canal in the UK at 300 miles and runs from London to Birmingham.

Composing coloured pencil drawings

Study the photo shown above. 

The focal point is the oncoming boat coming through the arch of the bridge. However, the dark foliage to the right made the picture unbalanced. Peter needed to either add something dark on the left or brighten the foliage. An extra boat with a dark reflection, added from a different photo, solved that compositional issue. 

Grand Union canal CoventryA second photo of a narrow boat
Grand union canal merged boatsThe two photos merged

The boats’ positions also helped to add depth to the composition as objects that are further away from us appear smaller, even if they are the same size. This compositional trick exaggerates the perspective in our drawing.

Starting the drawing

Now that we have settled on the composition, 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 dry point pencil work we will undertake later. 

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.

Just as in working dry coloured pencil drawings, it is essential to imitate the surface you are depicting with your pencil strokes. Apply colour to the area of foliage by dabbing the pencil, while taking horizontal strokes for the water.

Aim to keep the contrast of the dark and light areas on the boat nearest to us. 

The color chart here shows the greens from the Polychromos range, in the order we used them.

We used the darker colours to deepen the shadows under the overhanging branches on the right. Then, using the same pencils, we applied horizontal strokes to the water surface. 

Walnut brown and Sanguine are used to apply shadow areas to the side of the bridge brickwork, 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 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!


The close up, below, shows the upper right-hand side trees and the layers of “scribble” strokes that were 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.  

Taken from another of Peter’s coloured pencil drawings, the example below shows how he worked the colours once there was a good number of dry layers in position. 

Don’t restrict yourself to just greens - incorporate ochres, browns and darks such as sepia. 

Use a sharp, dry pointed pencil for the darkest areas, studying photographs if necessary to see how the shadows form.

The water reflections

The water surface reflects what lies above, although disturbances can break up the shapes being reflected. The dark and light areas still relate to the objects creating the reflections, however the colours are a darker tone of the original. There is often a lighter line seen around water edges in the distance.

As you will see in the photo, the distant trees produce vertical reflections. Peter was losing the tooth of his paper and therefore they are not as defined in his painting.

Let’s look at how Peter worked the nearby narrow boat. 

The reflected light on the side, and the pale line below the hull, are essential. Note how the strong red of the paintwork in the foreground contrasts with the black and white. This helps to bring that part of the composition forward.

A slight shadow along the bottom edge and a ripple lifted out of the water using an eraser completes the picture.

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

You might like these