Starting to use colour – video demonstration

This video/article is for anyone that would like to introduce colour to their figure drawings, but isn’t sure how to start. The video is probably better since it shows the demonstration, but we have also written out the tutorial with screenshots below.

We grabbed a reference photo of a hand from the wonderful resource Croquis Cafe for the demo. Check out their channel, and do some practice with their videos after watching this one! Here Mayko is demonstrating what we think is a good starting point for using colour in a figure drawing.

Starting to outline the figure with the darker of our two main colours

Often figure drawing artists keep their drawings greyscale, using materials like graphite or charcoal. If that’s you, then you’ve developed your ability to vary marks to show dark and light areas – also called value or tone – using hatching or smudging or just varying the intensity of the marks, but you may not be sure how to add colour to the drawing. Lets start by using your familiarity with value, which is a big part of using colour as we will find out.


    The big mistake that led to all my other mistakes

Colour can be intimidating. Colour has various dimensions like hue, chroma & saturation and value which interact with each other, combining to create varying effects. You may have heard of useful concepts and tools like complementary colours, colour wheels and colour theory. These are things that can help you understand colour, but while it’s not a crazy amount of information to learn, it is a lot to actually start using effectively in drawing. So, we are going to keep things much simpler for now.

The darker colour will be used for most of the structure and for the shaded areas – varying as you normally would with hatching or by varying the intensity of the marks

To get started, let’s try introducing colour using the materials that you already have. We thought the most common colour material available to people would probably be coloured pencil – a great medium – so we went with those for this demo, but if you have pastels or something else, that’s fine too.

So, one thing that’s worth understanding early on about colour is that each colour has a different value – in other words they fall in different places on the scale of dark to light. Black would be the darkest colour and white would be the lightest. Then in the middle, there’s all sorts of colours. We don’t need to know the entire scale, lets just keep things simple for now.

It’s almost time to start introducing our second main colour – the lighter, warmer one

A darker blue is towards the darker end, and a warmer pink would be towards the lighter end – that makes sense even just intuitively right? Now, you don’t have to use a cool colour for the dark end or a warm colour for the light end. There are warm, dark colours and cool, light ones. But this is a good combination to start – a cool, darker colour like this blue, and a warmer, lighter colour like this peach. We don’t want to be too close to black on the dark end, or too close to white on the white end for the two main colours we are going to use.

We need to understand that little bit about the value of the colour we are using, because it’s value that is going to give form to the figure. It is going to tell the viewer’s eye, regardless of what the actual colours are, the 3D shape is. So, in terms of capturing the form, the values of our chosen colour is what we need to worry about. We don’t need to worry too much about trying to match the colours we are seeing in the skin and so on.

So looking at this hand, we can see the darker areas on the back of the hand, and so we are going to apply our darker colour here, as well as for outlines in other areas. There is a lot of tension in the hand, so we can show that by being fairly heavy and dense with the marks. We don’t have to be gentle in varying the strength of the blue – it can be more harsh – because we are getting across that tension. A more relaxed hand with this level of strongly applied detail probably wouldn’t look very relaxed.

Starting to introduce the lighter, warmer colour. Going with dark first then lighter colours may not work as well if using something like watercolour as it’s so transparent

You can start your drawing in the way you normally would, using the darker colour. The blue can be applied to the darkest areas, the dark areas, outlines and it can gently move in on the mid-tone areas too. It’s going to be the structure of the drawing as well as the shadow areas. If the colour you are using isn’t dark enough to give depth to the very darkest areas, then you could add some black pencil or maybe some graphite pencil, or if you are using pastel, add a darker pastel. But be sparing with it.

The warmer colour, in this case a peach colour, is going to be applied to the mid-tones and move in towards the lighter areas. For the lightest areas, one option depending on the medium is to use the white of the underlying paper – this is great for watercolour for example.

It could work with coloured pencil too, but here Mayko covered too much and needed to apply some extra white to help bring out the lightest areas properly. She used a wax crayon to do this, feeling that pastel doesn’t work well with coloured pencil.

So, we have now done a drawing with two colours – a big jump from a greyscale drawing. We have not tried to just match the exact colours we are seeing, but instead we were concerned mostly with value, just like we would be with a greyscale drawing.

We used a cooler, darker colour for the darker areas, helping to draw the eye into the drawing in those places, and for the main outlines. We used a warmer, lighter colour for the mid-tone to light areas, coming out of the drawing towards us. Then we used some white to highlight the very brightest places. In future videos, we will expand on this, but this is great way to start drawing figures with some colour.

Starting to use colour is a big step, but with this approach, hopefully it will be really doable. Even keeping things simple like this, you first drawings with colour may not work that well – it’s just the nature of trying new things. You’ll have to persevere, practise and experiment a little bit, but the results will be worth it.

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