How to Shade with Colored Pencils

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Things You'll Need

  • Colored pencils, including white, orange, red, green, gold, buttery warm yellow, dark blue and purple.

  • Drawing paper or sketchbook

  • HB Pencil (normal pencil)

  • Ebony pencil or 6B pencil

  • Kneaded eraser

  • Workable matte fixative

Bird of Paradise by Robert A. Sloan

Color shading is a bit like shading in black and white--but it has its own tricks. You can set mood, change lighting, make the world of your picture a prettier place with color shading. Colored pencils can create perfect photorealism, muted harmony or jazzy Impressionist effects, and it all begins with color shading. In ten easy steps you can try colored pencil realism!


Step 1

Bird of Paradise value sketch in 6B graphite pencil

First, let's do a value drawing of something we want to try in color. It helps to know the shape of your subject and where the light, medium and dark shades fall on it. Flowers are good, because they have dramatic colors and you can vary the colors, so my example is a tropical flower with subtle color changes that demand good shading to look their best.

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My photo reference is in "Artist's Photo Reference: Flowers" by Gary Greene, which is available at Amazon. I've linked to the book in Resources at the bottom of this page, but you can use other photo references such as gardening guides or florist catalogs, or just copy my Ebony pencil sketch.


I chose the Bird of Paradise flower because it has big dramatic petals full of shading, and bright colors that will shade into each other including complements. Your sketch does not need to be perfect. Just shade it where it's darkest and leave it light where it's not. You can trace the basic design from a photo or printout of a drawing if you like.


Spray your value sketch with workable matte fixative so that it doesn't smudge. Keeping it handy will help a lot with doing the final drawing.

Step 2

Bird of Paradise contour drawing to be done lighter under the colored pencil

Copy or trace the lines of the sketch with your HB pencil (standard No. 2 pencil) or harder H rated pencil. Only copy the outlines of the shape. My example is drawn darker so that you can see it, but I will repeat this under my color drawing with a lighter line. Copying is a little better than tracing at this point, because you can make changes to any lines you didn't like in the first sketch and improve the sketch.


Drawing any subject several times will usually mean your last drawing is a lot better than the first. Practice the contour drawing a couple of times until you have the shapes right. Remember that individual flowers vary a bit, so you don't have to have the exact angle of the petals the same in every sketch. These are contour drawings, just to establish outline.



If you turn your reference upside down and draw it upside down, sometimes it will come out a lot more accurate. At this stage you are creating a coloring book page for yourself with a contour drawing, although the lines are lighter and won't show under the colored pencil.

Step 3

Bird of Paradise contour drawing in color, based on the photo reference

Use the kneaded eraser to lighten the lines of your final contour drawing till you can barely see them. Spray with a light coat of workable matte fixative as a barrier, so that the gray graphite won't mix with your colors.


Draw over the outlines in the colors of that section of the drawing on your photo reference. Notice that the bottom line of the big pod under the flower turns from red to green and stays green out to the end. This will take some fancy color shading to get it right! But we can practice color shading too, separately, before doing the flower drawing itself.


Step 4

Color shading tests and pencil point diagram for sharp vs. angled point

On another sheet of drawing paper, practice shading red into green. Draw any shape you want shaded green on one side and red on the other. Make it wider than the pod on your bird of paradise drawing, so there's more room to change it and make mistakes.

Start on the red side and shade heavily. Turn the pencil at an angle so that the side of the point is at more of an angle and you're not pointing it straight down on the tip. This will wear the point down to a flatter chisel shape than a sharp point, so this color shading practice will also prepare your pencils.


Practice shading with the other colors in the project too, to prepare the pencils. They should have a tip that's flattened at the side like the diagram I've drawn.

To shade smoothly as I have done, press lightly and overlap the previous stroke halfway like mowing a lawn. Go in both directions very lightly. On the red and green egg shape, my first strokes were very heavy in the middle and soft at the ends, lifting up from the page at the end to make a broad area of full color that was smooth. I started following those with more C shaped strokes that were lighter. Then started doing horizontal strokes heaviest at the start and flicking off the page at the end.

Smooth tonal shading takes practice. There is no getting around that. Whether you do your strokes curving to fit the shape of what you're shading, or zigzag back and forth lightly and just add more layers where it's darker, you will find your own best way to do smooth tonal shading. Don't press hard at all. Where some strokes are darker and show up, gently go between them to darken that area and make it gradual. The lightest red shading and the lightest green shading overlap in the middle.

Draw shading bars with orange and dark blue to get them smooth and gradual. Make them lightest at the middle and dark at both ends. The orange petals are shiny enough to have some white highlights, so don't connect the orange bar in the middle.

Shade a blue to purple bar, mixed in the middle. I tested the gold and the warm yellow over orange to see which color would mix better. Preparing like this before the actual drawing gives you the best mixtures too. Gold might look good over the middle of the green to red section though.

Step 5

Green areas shaded on colored contour drawing

Now we'll start coloring the stem and lower side of the pod. Just do the green shading as shown, following the value sketch for how dark but also paying attention to the photo reference or my example. This green in my set looks closer to the photo reference when some gold is put over it -- see the last bar in my illustration for Step Four.


With practice, you can get so used to your colored pencils set that you know which pencils will mix to make the colors in a photo or on a real object. But it always helps to test all mixtures before shading.

If you get it too dark, press with your kneaded eraser and lift. You can lighten colored pencil very far with pressing and lifting a kneaded eraser on it. Never rub the way you normally would to pick up graphite though, since that will grind some color into the paper in a way that's almost impossible to get out, and create an ugly texture.

Step 6

Base layers of orange and blue are shaded

Shade the orange petals with orange, leaving some white highlights to show they're shiny. They are pretty strong color except for the highlights, so leave them medium-dark and don't use shading as light as we did on the green areas. Shade a little orange on the pod right where it leaves the green stem.

Shade the blue petals darker where it's shown and lightly over the rest between the outlines, that lighter area will get some purple shading.

Step 7

Orange petals burnished with yellow, blue shadows added to show depth.

Draw a thin line of blue for the shadow on the lower orange petal, and on the second petal to the right to make a thin shadow. Using a complement makes these shadows pop out, rather than just using brown. Don't go over the blue shadow with the yellow.


Burnish over the shaded orange areas with buttery bright yellow. Butter yellow is the warmer, more orangy yellow versus lemon yellow, which is almost greenish. Yellow-Orange can be substituted for this step, or plain Yellow if it's compared to Lemon and more orangy.

Burnishing is the second important skill in color shading with colored pencils. The entire drawing can have a "drawing" texture with tonal layers that fade to white, or it can look textureless if you draw over all white areas with white and overlap lighter tonal layers by burnishing with a lighter color or white. Yellow over orange makes a brighter orange that shades redder at its darks.

To burnish, shade heavily the way you do at the end of shading bars, just use a lighter color than the base color.

Step 8

Red shading added on pod mixing with green, purple shading over blue on blue petals

Shade the red side of the pod down over the light shading on the green, most of the way. Leave some pure green shading. Add a hard red line on the other side of the pod, that little bit of orange that shows behind it is the folded other side of the pod. Shade purple over the blue petals except for the white highlight on the left one, go medium tone on the light part and full heavy shading over the dark blue part where it's solid. This changes the color to more of a blue-purple and shows some purple areas.

Step 9

Green stem and pod burnished with gold, gold details added to stems of orange petals

Add a heavy layer of gold over the green and go over the mixed red and green area with it. The pod is not as shiny as the orange petals. Go a little past the tip of the green stem where it points up with the gold, extending the point and browning it a bit. Use a little gold on the stems of the orange petals.

Step 10

Bird of Paradise done, white burnishing completed for the last step.

Burnish over all the highlights with white. This will bring in a little of the neighboring color, softening them. Clean off your white pencil between the orange petals and the blue ones by scribbling on scratch paper till no color shows, so that you don't put blue into the orange or vice versa.

Sign your Bird of Paradise drawing and spray with workable matte fixative. This protects colored pencil drawings from "wax bloom" which may make them look faded and grayish over time. If you get wax bloom, you can easily wipe it off gently with a soft cloth, restoring the original colors, but it's better to use a light layer of workable fixative to prevent it as soon as you finish a colored pencil drawing.

Colored pencil realism isn't that hard, it's just time consuming to cover large areas with exact color mixing and shading. The larger your set of colored pencils, the easier it is to exactly match the colors in your subject, whether it's a photo reference or an actual object.

You can use these techniques for colored pencils on unfinished wood too. The colors may behave differently but colored pencil drawing on a wooden box can be gorgeous, especially if you cover it later with a heavy clear polyurethane stain to protect it.


Try out all the color combinations that might work when planning a colored pencil piece. The more color swatches and shading bars, the better you'll know just what your colored pencils do. Every brand of colored pencils has its own proprietary colors, it's not the same shade of orange or blue unless you used Koh-I-Noor Progresso Woodless colored pencils for your project. So choose the colors that look like what you want and make notes on your set until you know it so well you can mix intuitively. Whenever you buy a new set of colored pencils, make color swatches of every color in the set and try shading bars that mix any combinations that look interesting. Browns can sometimes darken warm colors without changing their apparent hue (what color it is), and grays can sometimes darken cold colors without changing their apparent hue. Experiment and fill sketchbook pages with mixing tests till you know what your new pencils can do. Test your colors all over again if you use colored art paper. It will change how they perform, and you may get some surprises! Consider purchasing a set of 72 or 120 colored pencils if you can afford it, some brands are very inexpensive especially online. The more colors you have to begin with, the easier it is to shade smoothly between near neighbors or pick out precisely the right complement. It also helps to have lighter and darker shades of the same hue instead of just relying on shading a dark color to light by pressure. You will get very rich effects if you have dark, medium-dark, medium, light and pale versions of a color and shade a large area gradually, burnishing each full-color area with the next lightest and then shading that one out a little farther than the last. Burnishing highlight areas with Cream and shadow areas with Lavender will make any drawing look richer, no matter what colors the subject is. That will make the sunlight warmer and the shadows cooler, as well as making the whole piece look a little more vivid. Try a colorless blender if you want to burnish over dark colors without lightening them at all.


Scan your color tests if you plan to post your art online. This will show if your scanner changes the color or causes some colors to drop out. Mine drops lemon yellow and yellow-green and sometimes darkens colors. You can also use this to adjust your scanner settings to get truer color. Never try to erase colored pencil by rubbing. Press a kneaded eraser down hard on the area you want lighter, then peel it off. Repeat to get it as light as you can. Most often it won't go all the way back to white, but you can get it light enough to go over it with other colors. Do not use metallic gold for the gold in the shading, that should be a yellow ochre sort of color, a brownish dark yellow.


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