How to introduce colour to your life drawings

Use of colour example

As you can see from the variety of technical topics on this site, there’s a lot involved with just drawing a figure, so why add another dimension to an already complex mix? Indeed many artists continue to focus on monochrome drawing and can continue to find new depths with one colour.

However, as you can see from some of the drawings in the gallery and elsewhere, colour can add so much to a drawing, and hopefully this article will demonstrate that introducing colour is very do-able.

After becoming familiar with monochrome drawing (i.e., with graphite pencil, charcoal, black/brown conté etc.), you can start to ”play with colour’, and playing is a good way to think of what should be a fun and experimental process.

Choosing colours

Which material you choose to use is a personal preference – we’ve outlined the characteristics of each below – but whatever one you go for, it’s essential to select a limited range of colours before starting your drawing.

A pose is often just 15 – 45 minutes long. Things can often go awry if you go into your drawing with a boxful of colours, hoping to select the best colours while you draw. Also many classes are held under artificial light, making it difficult to see the true colour of your materials. What looked like a natural flesh colour under the studio lights might actually give your drawing the ‘inflamed and diseased’ look or ‘tinge of jaundice’. So it’s good idea to try out and select your colour materials before a class, preferably on the same type of paper you use for life drawing.

The choice of colour you use will depend on the skin colour of the model, how the light is falling, your personal preference and your mood and the mood of the model. Colours can give your drawing a lively and dynamic feel, a tranquil and relaxed feel or make it very somber.


A range of earthy colours (i.e. yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, sanguine/English red) are a good foundation for any skin colour. Using vivid colours for the skin will be difficult, but they can be used to give an accent to the model or the drapery around them (if you’re feeling brave). Enjoy experimenting!

Highlight colours

You also need to consider highlight colours – these can be used to great effect where the light is falling on your model. Often life drawing artists will add one or two highlight colours to their otherwise monochrome drawings.


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Check out the pictures below by Mod White – she has her own style of using charcoal with white highlights on coloured paper for her quick poses.

2 minute poses by Mod White - great use of white highlight

2 minute poses by Mod White – great use of white highlight

The colour of the highlight will depend on the model. White is great, but you can also try pale pink and cream for fair skin, pale blue and green for dark skin. Once again though it’s also a matter of personal choice.

Materials to get you started with colour

      – Soft pastel

Soft pastel is a dry pigment mixed with a small amount of binder. Some people consider working with this material like painting because of the richness of expression it can achieve. However, it’s more time consuming to finish a piece of work with soft pastel and it’s difficult to achieve clean lines with pastel. Handling the material needs a fair amount of practice, so don’t expect success first time. It may be a good idea to start with hard pastel (conté type pastel is a good choice, it’s more manageable but still has good colour) or a mix of both soft and hard pastel.

Before starting the drawing with pastel, it’s a good idea to apply a thin layer of transparent Acryl gesso onto your paper. This layer will give the paper a little roughness which helps make soft pastel stay well on the surface. You could also add some colour to the acryl gesso then apply it to white paper to provide an interesting textured background.

If doing a quick drawing, use a very limited number of colours, perhaps just for highlighting a monochrome charcoal or conté drawing where the light is falling. If you have more than 30 minutes, you can try using several colours, layering one on top of another by cross hatching. Some people smudge pastel to cover larger areas of the paper quickly. Earth colours and some cool colours (not too strong) are a good starting point.

Here is a good site to explore pastels further:

    – Watercolour

A wash of watercolour after a rough sketch of the figure with graphite pencil can result in some beautiful life drawings. Watercolour requires more investment than other materials, because you’ll need not only paints but also good brush(es) and suitable paper, preferably watercolour paper. Also you need a pot of water and some tissue paper to bring to the class. Once again, some practice before the class is helpful to know the colour quality and amount of water you’ll need to dilute the paint to get desirable result.

Traditionally, sable brushes are considered the best choice for this material. However, if cost or animal rights are a concern to you (sable brushes are pricey and made from animal fur), then there are excellent nylon brush alternatives out there:

The first step is to build up a drawing with light pencil lines. Then start applying a brush loaded up with paint to a large area of the paper. Watercolour requires both bold brush strokes and fine delicate strokes. Getting the hang of these strokes becomes easier with practice, so it’s important to not be afraid of making mistakes.

Unlike soft pastel, you can use the whiteness of the paper as a highlight colour. If you feel the colour you have applied is too dark, you can wash it away using a clean wet brush immediately, then absorb the excess water with tissue paper or ideally large blotting paper.

  – Coloured pencils

Coloured pencils are an underestimated tool. People may have experienced too many of the widely available cheap and low quality pencils which don’t have much pigment in them. However there are some excellent artist-quality pencils out there and they can produce beautiful drawings. See the drawing below for an example of a coloured pencil drawing. Here is a good site to explore all aspects of coloured pencils:

Pencil figure drawing of sitting man
A coloured pencil drawing of an artist with easel

Coloured pencils combined with a watercolour wash:

This is a useful combination to try when the pose is 20~45 minutes. Draw with earth coloured pencils first (sanguine/red brown is good). Then apply a watercolour wash. An easy mix is yellow ochre or Naples yellow + white + a small amount of red earth. You can adjust the amount of each colour, according to the model’s skin tone. Some cool colours such as Cobalt blue, cerulean blue or Viridian are useful for shadows.

There are more choices of materials for adding colours, such as coloured ink, gouache, oil pastels and so on but the three outlined above are good places to start.

There are also myriad ways to use and apply colours. When we were kids, we all ‘coloured in’ outline drawings, and that is one approach. But you can also think about the colour as another tool to define texture and tone on the body, and apply the colour only where it is needed.



Experimentation is the golden word for colour (not ‘colour theory’!), and it’s important to stay cool. Even if your trials don’t work initially, try, try, try again. No failed experiment is a waste.

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