5 Underpainting Techniques for Stunning Colour Depth in Your Coloured Pencil Artwork

Hey there! If you're looking to achieve some serious colour depth in your coloured pencil artwork, underpainting is the way to go.

It's a technique that helps you get vibrant colours on your paper without sacrificing definition. Plus, it helps fill in any pesky white specks that may show up due to the texture of the paper. Let's dive into five different ways you can approach underpainting!

1. Layering colours

Layering sequence of coloured pencil8 layers of Caran d'Ache Luminance wax pencil on card

The classic method is to layer your coloured pencils. By adding successive layers, you'll intensify the colour depth. You can use a mix of similar tints like reds and oranges, greens and yellows, or blues and purples, depending on the final result you're aiming for. As you build up more pigment, those annoying white specks will start to disappear.

If there are any areas lacking colour, you can fix it up by burnishing the surface with firm pressure using a coloured pencil or a blending/burnishing pencil. It smooths out the surface and helps to blend the colours together seamlessly.

Now, let's talk about the fancy French word: Grisaille. It basically means painting the first layer in a gray monochrome. But you can use any neutral-coloured pencil for this technique.

Once the grey layer is down, you can go wild with full-color on top. It's like starting your artwork with a black-and-white movie and then adding Technicolor goodness.

You may wish to use a complementary colour for each section of your underpainting. For example blue under orange for a tangerine, and green under red for a rosy red apple. A complementary colour is one from the opposite side of the colour wheel

Underpainting in complimentary coloursDerwent Artist pencils in the colours shown, on Strathmore Colored Pencil paper. A single layer of each colour was used with firm pressure.

Tips for underpainting with pencils

  1. First things first, let's talk about the type of pencils you're using. If you have a variety of brands and types, it's best to start with the hardest pencils. These will lay down a nice foundation for your colors. Then, you can layer the softer pencils on top to add depth and richness to your artwork.
  2. Now, let's talk about getting that pigment on the paper. Before you even think about blending, make sure you have a good amount of pigment down. This will ensure that your colors really pop and blend smoothly later on.
  3. Speaking of blending, if you want to create areas of darkness and shadow, it's important to define them early on. Don't be afraid to go in with darker colors to establish those shadows. Trust me, it'll make a world of difference in your final piece.
  4. On the other hand, if you're going for some pale colors, here's a little trick for you. Consider putting down a base of white or cream pigment before layering on your lighter colors. This will help reduce the absorption of color from later layers, giving you more control over the final result.
  5. Oh, and let's not forget about the paper. Different papers have different characteristics, and some will take color better than others. So, if you have the opportunity, experiment with different types of paper to see which one suits your style and desired effects the best.

2. Dissolving with solvent

Another trick is to use solvents.

When a solvent is applied to colored pencils it penetrates the pigment and starts to interact with the binding material that holds the pigment particles together. The resultant liquid can be moved about until it soaks into the paper.

This helps eliminate those white specks and makes the paper more receptive to additional layers.

You can try using "Zest It" or Low Odor Thinners, which are typically sold for oil painting. Zest It is my personal favorite because it's citrus-based, non-toxic, and non-flammable. Plus, it dries quickly and leaves little to no residue.

3. Aquarelle underpainting

For a different approach, you can use watercolor pencils for your underpainting.

Simply use them dry and then wash over them with a damp brush. A nylon watercolor brush works great for moving the pigment around on the paper.

If you need to reduce colour depth, you can scrub the paper surface with the brush and blot it with kitchen paper.

Just note that watercolor pencils are only permitted if used dry when entering exhibitions, but if you're not planning to exhibit, feel free to go wild with your combination of pencils!

An underpainting completed with watercolour pencils brushed with water is shown below, along with the colours used. 

Watercolour pencil underpainting
Watercolour pencils on a palette
Liquid  watercolour pencils in palette

4. Liquid watercolour underpainting

If you want to mix things up even more, you can use traditional pan or tube watercolours or washes of liquid watercolour pencil for your underpainting. This combination of watercolour and coloured pencil gives you the best of both worlds—strong colour and fine detail.

Make sure to use a good watercolour paper, like Arches or smooth hot-pressed papers, and stretch it on a board for the best results.

Just a heads up, Fabriano papers used to be recommended, but they've had some issues with their surfaces in recent years. So, opt for a reliable brand and don't hesitate to reach out to the manufacturer if you encounter any problems.

5. Monochrome underpainting with watercolour or ink

Lastly, you can create a monochrome underpainting using diluted Indian ink.

Use less water for darker areas and more water for lighter areas. Then, overlay it with wax coloured pencil, and the colours of the top layer will still shine through, even over the darkest under layers.

Watercolour works just as well, and you can experiment with different colours depending on your subject matter. This technique helps bring a sense of uniformity to your final piece.

Remember, when underpainting, it's essential to plan your picture carefully and apply the watercolour or ink accurately since it can be challenging to correct misplaced edges. But with a bit of practice and experimentation, you'll be able to achieve some incredible colour depth in your coloured pencil artwork. You got this!

Monchrome underpainting
Beginning to add coloured pencil
Completed painting

Wrapping up

In conclusion, achieving stunning colour depth in your coloured pencil artwork can be achieved through various techniques.

By layering colours and using underpainting methods like Grisaille, you can intensify the vibrancy of your artwork while maintaining definition.

Additionally, dissolving wax pigment with solvents and using watercolour pencils or liquid watercolours for underpainting can add depth and richness to your pieces. Lastly, creating a monochrome underpainting with ink can bring a sense of uniformity to your final artwork.

Remember to choose the right pencils, apply a good amount of pigment, and consider the characteristics of the paper you're using.

Experimentation is key to finding the techniques that work best for your style and desired effects. With practice, planning, and a bit of creativity, you'll be able to achieve incredible colour depth in your coloured pencil artwork. So go ahead and unleash your artistic potential!

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