Starting to use colour in your life drawings

At the beginning of the year, I asked you what your artistic challenges were. An enormous number of you confessed to not knowing how to get started with color! Kenzo & Mayko from stepped up to the plate to provide this wonderful primer on getting started with color in your figure drawings. Thanks so much, Kenzo & Mayko! Be sure to check out for more of their stuff.

Warm tone figure drawing

Why add colour?
A stick of charcoal or a graphite pencil can do so much. Often I much prefer to see the monochrome preparatory sketches that artists do before their finished piece of work. Mastering the range of tones and different types of lines that can be achieved with one colour could take a lifetime. So, it certainly isn’t a necessity to be able to use colour.

However, when used well, colour can add a new level to a drawing. Colour gives a drawing a powerful sense of the mood – bright and vibrant, dark and sombre and so on. Colour can be used to highlight particular areas and make them jump out. You can use colour to bring your drawing closer to reality – since colour is a big part of what we see – or use it to express something beyond what you are seeing. From the ‘what is your artistic challenge’ post comments on this site, it seems that many of you are interested in how best to introduce colour to your drawings.

Getting started with colour

It’s important when starting with colour to not expect things to work well first time, and to be ready for a ‘trial and error’ process – i.e. be okay with making errors. This is especially important because colour materials like pastel or even coloured pencil can’t be rubbed out as easily as a graphite pencil, so there isn’t really an ‘Undo’ option when using colour.

There are various ways you can start to apply colour and lots of materials you can try. I tended to think of adding colour as simply ‘colouring in’ an outline, but of course colour can be used in so many other interesting ways. You could use colour sparingly, to highlight areas where light is falling, or to add depth to areas of shade. You could use colours which don’t match the tones of the skin, but add texture and tone to the drawing. You could apply colour in flowing and energetic pastel lines or large swathes of watercolour paint.

Materials and their characteristics

A good place to start with colour is coloured pencils – most of us are familiar with them. You might think that coloured pencils are a little rudimentary or tacky, which is probably because many of the coloured pencils out there are low quality. A good coloured pencil applied well can create magical effects.

Pastels are, at first, a step up in terms of difficulty. It’s hard to achieve clean lines with pastels, and they aren’t suitable to all styles. It might be easier to start off with a hard pastel and then move on to softer pastels which are more difficult to manage. You may have to experiment with adjustments to your style if you are used to the precision of a pencil.

During a quick sketch, it’s helpful to limit yourself to a few colours – perhaps even just one highlight colour for areas of light. Pastels provide a lovely, rich colour and the challenges they present are worth the effort. For a longer sketch, you can try layering multiple colours on top of one another with cross-hatching, perhaps even smudging them together.

When using pastel, applying a layer of acryl gesso to your paper will give it a nice rough surface that seems to work well with pastel.

Watercolours are used by many artists to dazzling effect. You’ll need to make a bit of effort with these – watercolour paper, a little cup of water, some tissue, some brushes and the paint. A good way to start is by applying watercolour to pencil sketch. You’ll need to master light and delicate brush strokes along with bold use of the brush covering large areas. If you apply paint too strongly, you can wash it away to some extent by applying a clean, wet brush followed with some blotting paper. Watercolours can be used in combination with coloured pencils.

cool tones figure drawingChoosing colours

It’s a good idea to test your materials in good light on a piece of paper before starting your drawing and narrowing down your colour selection. If you go to a life drawing class, for example, the artificial lighting sometimes doesn’t let you see the true colour of the materials you’re using. If you pre-select a few colours before you start your drawing, it help to make the process more manageable. You’ve taken care of some decisions already.

A good basis for skin tones are earthy colours like yellow ochre, burnt sienna, raw sienna, burnt umber, raw umber, sanguine/English red. Pure white is good as a highlight colour – for where the light is falling on the model. It’s especially good on a piece of coloured paper.

Your paper has a colour

Whether you are using white or coloured paper, it’s useful to see the paper as one of the colours making up your drawing. You can experiment with different paper colours – they can bring out your white pastel highlights. Applying a coloured wash to a piece of paper before starting can give you a great texture as well as interesting background colour. I find that the slightly rougher surface and the tones you get with a wash applied to an entire sheet of paper is great for charcoal drawings for example. You can also start using the paper’s colour as part of your colour palette – leaving certain areas without any pencil, pastel or paint to hightlight them, for example.

We really hope we’ve been able to help you on your journey to using colour in your life drawings. If you have any questions, please post them below and we’ll try to answer them.

Kenzo & Mayko


Chris breen (unregistered visitor)

Oh god, thank you so much for this, this is really going to help my sketchbooks. :)

Nina Abouzeid

Thank you so much for the tutorial! It helped me be more motivated to use colors! :) But I have a question. Just like you said above in the text, color affects the mood and environment of the drawing. Is it possible if you can explain the meaning or mood of each color?

Thank You :)

Robert Gentry (unregistered visitor)

Your introduction to adding colour encourages a novice like myself greatly.

Thank you :)


Thank you for the advice, need help with color.

halfday (unregistered visitor)

thanks you so much for this website ..

delma rebecca (unregistered visitor)

quite helpful..thanks

Anastasia (unregistered visitor)

thank you for this lesson, it's really helpful for me and my drawings)))

Jim (unregistered visitor)

Thank you for giving all these amazing tutorials and tips, I think I've learnt more on here than they ever taught is at Art school :) thank you all

Ale (unregistered visitor)

Sadly I'm colorblind... But whatever I still enjoy drawing haha

Michell LOL

Gosh... i really think my color use is so awful. but thanks for teaching me anyway.

Lexa (unregistered visitor)

Thank you sooo much for this,, I'm struggling with colors a lot so it helped me so much~


You can also take photos of your work and check how they look in a black and white filter. If you do this enough, you will automatically see the values of colour, which will help you make better choices when creating your coloured works.

I love working in colour, but mainly for longer poses and formal works.

All the best,
JCML Fine Art.

eonleaves (unregistered visitor)

I'm starting to use color and recently bought Prismacolor pencils (which are great). Following colored pencil tutorials are sometimes difficult but the main idea is still there. My issue is how do you know what colors to use when sketching/drawing without a tutorial? How do you know the values and colors that would mix and make the drawing look realistic?

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