Five ways of underpainting to achieve colour depth

Underpainting helps with one of the hurdles that the coloured pencil artist has to overcome - the need to get a strong vibrant amount of colour down on the paper without losing definition. 

If your paper has any depth of 'tooth' in the surface there will also be the difficulty of getting an even layer of colour with no little white specks showing. These arise due to the fact that the pigment fails to fill the valleys of the paper surface. 

1. Layering colours

The traditional approach for coloured pencil art involves the multi-layering of colours. This is the pure wax coloured pencil method and it relies on the fact that successive layers intensify the colour depth. 

You can use a balanced collection of similar tints...

  • reds and oranges
  • greens and yellows
  • blues and reds 

...depending on the final colour result you are aiming for. The differing colours will compliment each other and progressively intensify the result. As you get more and more pigment down, any white coming through from the grain of the paper will tend to disappear.

Layering sequence of coloured pencil

The example above shows the development of 8 layers of Luminance wax pencil on card. Specks of white card surface can still be seen after the 8th layer of colour. 

If there are any areas of thin or absent colour, this can be dealt with by burnishing the surface with a firm pressure using an appropriate coloured pencil. Alternatively, you can use a blending or burnishing pencil which has a transparent core.

The french word Grisaille translates to a method of painting the first layer in grey monochrome. However, any neutral coloured pencil could be used to create this underlayer. The picture is then worked in full colour on top. 

You may wish to use a complimentary colour for each section of your underpainting. For example blue under orange for a tangerine, and green under red for a rosy red apple. 

Underpainting in complimentary colours

The examples above used Derwent Artist pencils in the colours shown, on Strathmore Colored Pencil paper. A single layer of each colour was used with firm pressure. 

A complementary colour is one from the opposite side of the colour wheel

Tips for underpainting with pencils

  1. The softest pencils will prove to be most effective in achieving strong colour
  2. If you have more than one brand and type of pencils available, and wish to use a selection, use the hardest pencils first, then lay the softer ones on top
  3. Make sure you have a good amount of pigment down on the paper before you consider adding any blending layers
  4. Make sure that you get your areas of darkness and shadow defined as early as possible
  5. For areas of pale colour, consider putting down a base of white or cream pigment, to reduce the take up of colour from later layers
  6. Some papers will take colour better than others*

Choose your paper carefully and trial it first to see how your pencils respond on the surface with a build up of colour layers. Check out the papers section of the site for more information. 

2. Dissolving with solvent

Wax pigment can also be taken into the paper surface by the gentle application of solvents. This is helpful as an aid to getting a greater number of layers on to a given surface as the pigment beds down into the paper, helping to eliminate the white specks, and making it more receptive to further layers.

Suitable solvents include ‘Zest It’ and Low Odour Thinners sold for oil painting.

A treated surface must be left to dry thoroughly before further coloured pencil is applied.

Zest It is citrus based and absolutely non toxic and non flammable so is my preferred solvent for pencil. It tends to dry more quickly than the thinners and leaves little, if any, residue. 

3. Aquarelle underpainting

Another option is to use watercolour pencils for the underpainting. The pencil is used dry and then washed in with a damp brush.   

A low cost, nylon watercolour brush is suitable as it has enough strength to move the pigment around on the paper. The brush can also be used to scrub at the paper surface which is then blotted with kitchen paper to reduce colour depth if necessary. 

This technique used to fulfil the requirements of the ‘Pure’ coloured pencil artist who required all pigment to come from an accepted source when entering exhibitions. However, those rules have now changed and watercolour pencil is only permitted if used dry.

If you are not intending to exhibit you are at liberty to use whatever combination of pencils you wish of course. 

4. Liquid watercolour underpainting

You could also choose to use traditional pan or tube watercolour, or washes of liquid watercolour pencil for the ‘under painting’.

Traditional watercolour produces a work which is strictly speaking ‘mixed media’ but either of these choices can be the combination which produces the strongest colour and combines the best elements of watercolour with the fine detail achievable with coloured pencil.

It is essential to use a good watercolour paper for this and to have it stretched on a board. Arches and the smooth Hot Pressed surfaced quality papers are good.

For years I suggested Fabriano papers as they offered a good combination of features, but in 2016 the Italian Factory ran into problems with their art papers, and many complaints were recorded about the paper surfaces - the most important part of the material for pencil artists. I can only suggest that you go for a good brand of hot pressed paper and if you meet any surface problems, complain. Most manufacturers will replace faulty stock.

CARE ! Plan your picture carefully and ensure that the watercolour is accurately applied as you will find it difficult to correct edges which are in the wrong place.

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

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

Below is Peter's finished work, a scene of the ford and packhorse bridge at Allerford in Somerset. 

Finished coloured pencil painting

5. Monochrome underpainting with watercolour or ink

You can use diluted Indian ink or a watercolour wash to create a monochrome underpainting.  Use less water for the darker areas, and more for the lighter.

The monochrome ink picture is then overlaid with wax coloured pencil and the colour of the top layer will still show, even over the darkest underlayers. 

Watercolour will have the same result as ink. A blend of Burnt Sienna and French Ultramarine will produce a good purple grey which works well. Different colours of paint could be selected depending on the subject matter. 

Using a coloured monochrome base can give a good uniformity of colour through to the final work as shown Peter's example below. 


Monchrome underpainting
Beginning to add coloured pencil
Completed painting

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