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Do you go from light to dark with colored pencils?

When using colored pencils, a common question is whether you should start with light colors and layer darker colors on top, or vice versa. The general rule of thumb is to start light and add darker colors later. There are some techniques that allow starting dark and building up to light, but starting light tends to be easier for beginners.

Why Start Light and Layer Darker?

There are a few key reasons why starting with light colors and layering darker colors on top tends to work better:

  • It’s easier to hide light colors under dark colors. If you make a mistake or want to completely cover a light area with a darker color, you can simply layer the dark color on top. But it’s very difficult to cover up a dark color with a lighter color.
  • Starting light allows more flexibility and forgiveness. You can slowly build up colors and shading, tweaking along the way. If you start too dark, you may end up over-committing too early.
  • The texture of the paper shows through light layers more. By starting light, you allow the tooth of the paper to contribute to the texture of the drawing. This can create nice visual effects.
  • Light base layers help the colors appear more luminous. The colors “pop” more when applied over a lighter base layer.
  • It mirrors a more realistic light-to-shadow rendering process. In real life, shadows are created by an object blocking light. It makes logical sense to start light and then add shadows.

Of course, art techniques are flexible with no absolute rules. But for those learning colored pencil drawing, starting light and layering dark tends to be the recommended default approach.

Layering Darker over Lighter

When layering darker colored pencil over existing lighter layers, it’s important to continue using light pressure. This allows the undertones to show through for a more natural, luminous effect. Heavy pressure can create an uneven muddy look.

Blending and smoothing the transitions between light and dark can also help. Using tools like colorless blender pencils, a tortillon, or just a tissue can softly melt the colors together. Don’t over-blend though, as some texture provides visual interest.

It’s best to build up color and value gradually in thin layers. Be patient and allow enough time for each layer to fully dry before adding more. Rushing the process can cause muddiness and waxy build up.

Advanced Techniques for Starting Dark

While starting light and layering dark is generally easier, there are some colored pencil techniques that involve beginning with dark:

  • Burnishing – This uses heavy pressure to completely layer darker colors over lighter ones. The dark colors will completely cover and obscure the lighter layers. Can create very saturated, glossy results.
  • Underpainting – This first layers dark pencil lines to establish basic forms and shading. Lighter colors are then added on top. The dark base layers remain visible in places to help define forms.
  • Sgraffito – Darker colors are applied first. A scratching tool is then used to scratch away color, revealing lighter undertones. Creates light textures and patterns.

These techniques take more skill but allow for rich, dramatic results. They are popular with advanced colored pencil artists looking to expand their approaches.

General Guidelines

To summarize some general guidelines on whether to start light or dark:

  • For beginners, starting with light colors and layering darker colors on top tends to be the easiest and most forgiving approach.
  • Build up color gradually using thin, light layers. Let each layer fully dry before adding more.
  • Blend colors softly between layers to create smooth transitions.
  • For dramatic effects, try advanced techniques like burnishing, underpainting, or sgraffito. But these require more skill.
  • Don’t feel absolutely bound to only one approach. Experiment and find what works best for your specific needs and style.

While starting light is the typical recommendation, colored pencil techniques allow for flexibility. Find the approach that suits your current skill level and desired outcome.

Tips and Tricks

Here are some additional quick tips for working from light to dark with colored pencils:

  • Choose a set of pencils with a good range of light to dark tones. Having many gradations to work with helps.
  • Take it slow and don’t rush. Building up slowly creates the best results.
  • Pay attention to undertones. Even “dark” colors like blues and purples have light and dark shades.
  • Don’t apply heavy pressure. Maintain a light touch when layering to allow undertones to show through.
  • Use a colorless blender to aid in smooth blending between layers.
  • Limit over-blending. Some texture provides visual interest, avoid creating uniform muddy color.
  • Utilize an electric sharpener for precision points and smooth application.
  • Burnish selectively for small accents of drama and contrast.

Layering Other Mediums

Colored pencils can also be layered with other drawing media to build from light to dark. Some options include:

  • Graphite – Dark graphite pencil underlayers can define forms. Colored pencil is then layered over it.
  • Colored ink or marker – Light washes of ink can be built on with colored pencil.
  • Pastel – Light pastel base layers can establish color and texture. The pastel’s tooth grips colored pencil layers.
  • Watercolor – Thin colored pencil over watercolor washes can create luminous blends.

Experimenting with combining colored pencils with other media can produce interesting effects. The light-to-dark layering approach remains effective.

Choosing Palette and Color Harmony

When deciding on your specific color palette, keep in mind the principles of color theory and harmony. Some tips:

  • Complementary colors create vibrancy and drama – red/green, orange/blue, yellow/purple are lively complements.
  • Analogous colors are calm and harmonious – groups of hues next to each other on the color wheel.
  • Triadic colors use hues equally spaced around the color wheel for energetic color harmony.
  • Monochromatic palettes (all tints and shades of one hue) are sophisticated.
  • Choose a suitable dominant color that fits your subject matter.

Selecting pencils in a harmonious range of shades within a well-planned palette results in more unified, professional looking work.

Practical Exercises

To practice effective light-to-dark colored pencil drawing yourself, try these beginner exercises:

  • Draw basic geometric shapes starting with a middle tone then add shadows and highlights.
  • Create a basic still life drawing outlining in light then filling in shadows.
  • Focus on creating realistic light effects on simple reflective objects like fruit or glass.
  • Try a portrait study, carefully layering skin tones from light base tones to darker shades.
  • Draw backlit subjects like leaves or flowers to practice bold lighting.

Exercises like these help build an intuitive understanding of light-to-dark colored pencil techniques. Study the work of master artists for inspiration too.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

When working from light to dark, watch out for these common beginner mistakes:

  • Applying colors too heavily or quickly, not allowing gradual build up.
  • Pressing too hard when layering darker over light, causing muddy unevenness.
  • Allowing oil from skin to get on the paper, preventing proper layering.
  • Smudging or touching the drawing surface unintentionally.
  • Over-blending colors into uniformity, losing vibrancy and light effects.
  • Scratching the paper surface with sharp pencil points, leaving white gouges.
  • Allowing some areas to be too light to support successful layering of shadows.

Be patient, apply colors lightly, and avoid smudges for best results. Use protective sheets if needed.

Troubleshooting Issues

If any issues emerge when starting light and layering up, try these troubleshooting tips:

  • If colors get muddy, lightly brush the area with a kneaded eraser to lift and re-brighten.
  • For areas that are too light for further layering, lightly apply complementary color then re-layer shadows.
  • If emphasize is uneven, re-wet with colorless blender to soften transitions.
  • If strokes are messy, sand area lightly with fine sandpaper/block then rework.
  • If paper is damaged, carefully cut or trim area before damage worsens.

With some practice and patience, you can master smoothly layering colored pencils from light to dark.


Starting with light colored pencil layers and slowly building up to darker tones is generally the recommended approach, especially for beginners. It allows flexibility, forgiveness, and the ability to craft shadows over bright undertones. But experienced artists can also utilize advanced techniques like underpainting and burnishing for more dramatic effects.

Whichever method you choose, working in gradual layers with a well-planned palette, utilizing color theory, and avoiding common mistakes will lead to success. With some exercises and practice, light-to-dark colored pencil drawing can become intuitive. Just remember to have patience and enjoy the meditative process.

So develop your colored pencil skills and see where your unique drawing style can take you. Starting light and delicately layering in shadows and details opens up a world of colorful, luminous possibilities.