It’s a good idea to give some thought prior to executing the colour in your finished drawing. Without a little planning ahead we could end up with a finished piece that looks flat with colours that don’t work well together.
You can keep your colours alive and finish with a very cohesive looking drawing if you plan ahead.
Here’s how I plan ahead with colour to give my ink drawings the best chance to look as good as possible.
Selecting Your Colours
Look at the subject you’ve drawn and think of all the colours that are associated with that image. We’ll use this owl I have drawn as an example:
I can see the owl’s feathers being a mix of brown with a little red in them. Definitely yellow for the eyes. The talons and beak might be grey or black. The tree branch he’s perched on could be brown with a little grey.
Though I haven’t indicated any leaves in ink, I know there will be green leaves and maybe a hint of blue in the background.
After you’ve done this with your own drawing take a look at all the colours you have selected. In this case, I’ve selected:
Minimise Your Colours
Take the colours you’ve chosen for your own drawing and now minimise your selections. Keeping your palette simple can be key to a beautiful and well-balanced drawing.
I always try to whittle down the colours I’ve selected to three or four that I’ll use to paint. Check out our Half-Pan Watercolour set to get started!
To do this, take a look at the initial colours you’ve selected for your image and then decide which colours you don’t really need by process of elimination. When possible, start by choosing any primary colours first.
With the colours I have selected for the owl as an example, I know the owl’s eyes are bright yellow so I chose lemon yellow for its brightness and intensity.
Cadmium yellow is bright too, but not as glowing as lemon yellow (while also being a little too orange for this owl's eyes if you ask me.) So that’s one colour!
The great thing about choosing colours is there’s no right or wrong. In fact, choosing your palette can reflect your mood and/or how you see something compared to the next artist.
This is at the core of why we visit art galleries right? To look at how various artists interpret with their choice of colour, line, subject, and more.
We’re all unique in the way we interpret lines and colours on paper or canvas. The second colour I’ll choose will be blue.
I’ll use a cobalt blue because it, too, is bright like Lemon Yellow. When we mix lemon and cobalt they make a brighter green than if we used ultramarine blue.
I probably don’t need red and brown because I can use burnt sienna. Burnt Sienna isn’t a primary colour but has both red and brown in it so that one colour takes the place of two.
Mixing burnt sienna with cobalt blue also makes a fantastic grey so we can confidently add grey to this image as well.
As far as black goes, I don’t personally use black other than the waterproof ink that comes out of my pen.
Prior to colouring any image, I always try to make the drawing as effective in black first so it can stand as a nice black and white drawing all on its own.
Our final colours for this owl are lemon yellow, cobalt blue, and burnt sienna.
Laying In Light Colour
When you begin colouring start with the lightest colour first before adding new lighter layers of different colours.
Don’t be so particular about where you put the colour either. Painting quickly in the general area of where you want the colour will leave empty white spaces that almost always seem to help keep the drawing alive.
I used Lemon Yellow for those eyes and toned it down just a bit with Burnt Sienna.
Getting a Little Bolder
One small trick I learned years ago was to lay in background colour but not on all sides of the character. You’ll notice the ear on the right side of the owl is not covered in the background colour.
This is just for design purposes as it helps the owl stand out a little more and adds interest to the overall look. Try it out the next time you are painting a character.
Drawings with an irregular shape like this owl are called a vignette. Most commissions from magazines ask me for an illustration in a vignette style so that text can be wrapped around it.
Again, this is for design purposes–it just looks better. Sometimes illustrations done in a square or rectangle shape are called for but they look pretty sterile on the page. I like irregular!
Keep moving the paint around until you cover as much of the background as you would like. Again, don’t be too concerned about those white areas that are not painted in.
I kept the green background light. You can always go darker later. Don’t be afraid of those accidental drips of paint either and when they do happen.
Celebrate it by splashing a little more intentionally around the area. It looks alive!
By keeping the background light I was able to paint in some leaf shapes with darker green colours and adding cobalt to make even darker greens. In a few places, I used watered down blue, just to add interest.
I added darker colour value underneath the owl’s beak and towards the bottom of the body.
Try using a white gel pen for additional layers and for adding highlights as I did here on the bird’s feathers. I like the added layer of colour pencil lines in the background too, but that’s just me.
Finally, we have an image that is well balanced with the colours all working together and it’s all because we only used three!
Kind of hard to get in trouble when you keep your palette simple don’t you think?
Years ago I started off using a #2 size, Series #7 Winsor & Newton sable brush, and a bottle of black waterproof ink.
I could pull consistent lines with tapered ends over and over again with a steady hand using a brush which helped me land a job inking for Archie Comics among a few other popular publishing companies.
The brush was my main tool and I relied on it big time! These days I start most drawings with either a pencil or a fountain pen but more often than not there are other tools I use to complete a drawing.
Let me share some of the tools I use more regularly to create black and white line drawings. Hopefully, there’s something here that you’ll be able to incorporate into your own drawings.
I didn’t completely abandon the brush after finding the dip pen, but I did fall in love with an ultra-flexible nib. I began using it all of the time and this helped to shape and influence the type of lines I put on paper today.
I love the look these ultra-flexible nibs give to a drawing and the pleasure of being able to create lines from hair-thin to really thick.
If you’re in need of one nib that provides this range of variation you might consider a dip pen. The downside to a dip pen is that they’re hard to travel with.
Having to carry a bottle of ink on the go and dipping while sketching isn’t exactly convenient. If you work with ink then your fingers are probably already stained but I can guarantee that using a dip pen will ensure the fashion statement.
Here’s a tip - when using a dip pen make sure to shake a little bit of excess ink off the nib back into the inkwell each time you dip it. This will save you from having too much ink on the nib and having to white out unwanted black blobs on your drawings.
Still, dip pens are great for serious line flexibility.
The really thin lines in the background of this cat were done with a Zebra G nib dip pen. This nib can produce hairlines in addition to ones much thicker because it’s super flexible.
Have you ever used a fountain pen? This is my go-to drawing tool because I don’t have to dip it, carry a bottle of ink with me, and it provides great line variation.
Some fountain pens even have super large ink reservoirs so you won’t have to fill them all the time. Line variation is important to me so I use a fountain pen with a flexible nib.
Try using the backside of your fountain pen too. Many times this will produce an even thinner line than the front of the nib!
This is helpful for noodling in minor details like hair, wrinkles, cat whiskers, or things way in the background that you don’t want competing with thicker lines in the foreground.
In addition, you can fill them with waterproof ink designed specifically for fountain pens so when you add watercolour to your black line you won’t have the concern of the ink bleeding into your colours.
Many fountain pen inks claim to be waterproof but they aren’t. Just because they say, “waterproof” on the label, doesn’t mean it is.
It seems as though many companies are using the word “waterproof” without much thought to whether it actually is.
I have completed drawings under deadlines for major publications using “waterproof” ink only for the drawing to be ruined after I applied watercolour.
Don’t let this happen to you. I understand that saying “almost waterproof“ on a bottle of ink wouldn’t help sales but as creatives, we need to know if our black lines will muddy our watercolours.
To me the definition of “waterproof” is when clean water is brushed over ink lines on 100% cotton paper 24 hours after the ink has dried and the lines don’t bleed...even a little bit! If it does, it’s not waterproof.
I’ve been using De Atramentis Archive Ink because it’s waterproof and made for fountain pens too. If you know of any other fountain pen inks that are truly waterproof, share it in the comments!
When you’re drawing in black and white it’s especially important to create textures along the way. Sometimes I use my thumb to spatter a little ink off the end of a toothbrush.
Doing so will breathe another layer of interest in your image. In this drawing of a cat, you can see how those little toothbrush spatters provide additional texture and feel to the drawing.
Try spattering with watercolour, acrylic, or any other liquid using a toothbrush to create this effect. Just remember not to put it back in the bathroom when you’re done!
Once upon a time, I used a liquid white-out to cover blemishes on my black and white line drawings. It’s the same white-out that is still used today to correct paper documents.
I used that until I realised it would dry and crack up into a thousand little pieces after a short amount of time and literally fall off the drawing.
It’s safe to say this product shouldn’t be used for your drawings. I’ll use white gouache or titanium watercolour to cover something unwanted.
For smaller cover-ups or to add highlights in windows and light bouncing off of leaves, I’ve been really happy using a white gel pen.
If you try covering up or adding to your drawing with white gouache, titanium white, or a white gel pen I think you’ll be happy with the results.
100% Cotton Paper.
There’s nothing better than working on 100% cotton paper. Hands down it’s the cream of the crop for artists. 100% cotton paper helps paint blend together revealing softer edges while maintaining the paint’s true colour.
It’s more durable to work on and will stand the test of time.
For drawings that require even more water, try using a watercolour block or illustration board made with 100% cotton paper to keep your drawing from warping and buckling. If you haven’t already, treat yourself because you deserve it!
I created this black and white drawing of a cat using the tools I mentioned above.
Share your thoughts with me because the tools you use for your black and white drawings can inspire other creatives!
I spent ten years drawing strictly with black ink on white paper. Trying to learn how to use black effectively in a composition that stops most eyes on the spot is challenging.
(Check out Part 1 of this blog: Varying Your Lines for Expression)
Using watercolour on top of black line can make our drawings look even more visually appealing but it also presents a new set of concerns.
Let’s take a look at how you can simply and effectively add colour to your black line drawing.
Keep It Simple.
I didn’t know very much about putting colour on paper early in my career, so I started at the beginning.
And I don’t mean “the beginning” as in learning about mixing primary colours like everyone should. I mean “the beginning”, as in using fifty colours from a ninety-six pan watercolour palette each time I painted. Yikes!
My current watercolour palette is pretty simple. It consists of 15 different colours that are transparent. I would highly suggest a more simple palette to anyone just starting out.
Consider using transparent watercolours so your black lines aren’t covered over by more opaque colours. Opaque colours leave a chalky look which is great but only if that’s what you’re looking for.
It took me a while to find the transparent colours I use and simplify my palette but I’m happy I did. Fifteen colours just feels like the right amount I can handle without getting into too much trouble.
There’s no right or wrong answer to how many colours you might choose to work with but here’s a tip - If you keep it simple, you’ll get to know the colours on your palette intimately and how they mix.
Any time you’re struggling with colour, remind yourself as I do most regularly, to keep it simple.
Try to choose just three primary colours to complete a painting. If you have to add a neutral or a sepia as a fourth colour that’s okay, but keeping it simple will help your finished painting have a more cohesive look.
The three colours I choose might be different each time I paint but it’s still just three out of the fifteen colours I know intimately in my palette. You might consider practicing this colour minimalism.
Background Colour or Underpainting First.
First, choose the three colours you’ll be using. Since this bird is really playful looking, I chose three primary colours that are bright and mix well together. This will help ensure that the colours continue the happy and playful look of the bird.
Start by applying water randomly around the main subject or subjects if your drawing is more involved. I started by laying in light blue around the bird.
The water helps to spread the colour out and create shapes as expressive as the black lines once it dries.
If you don’t want hard looking edges of colour, keep brushing more water on the outer edges of the blue background and there will be more of a balance between smooth and hard edges when it dries.
Focusing Your Point With Complimentary Colours.
Since I used blue for the background, I coloured a portion of the bird’s wing orange to compliment the blue and ensure that the viewer's eye will find the orange part of that multicoloured wing fast.
Since there’s some red in the wing too, I mixed blue and yellow to create a bright green on those fun looking tail feathers. Doing so will bring the viewer's eye back to the wing.
It’s only three colours but looks bright, happy, and they all work together well! Try using simple complimentary colours in your drawing to direct the viewer's eyes to what you want them to see.
Lines, Splashes, and Mistakes.
Drawing additional feathers in different colours with a brush or colour pencil in between the black lines really started to give the bird some life. You might consider leaving some open space to draw in lines with colour too.
Try to keep the colours loose and expressive all along the way so they match your expressive black lines. Let your colours run together and let the spatters or drips from your brushes and pens happen along the way.
I’ll add even more random splashes of colour to create more layers and texture which in my humble opinion makes the drawing more interesting to look at. I’ve always referred to the spatters I make and see in other artists' work as, “life”.
Here’s another tip - If you need to cover up something you don’t care for, you can do so with an opaque watercolour or white gel pen. Also, don’t be too concerned with your pencil lines if they’re not completely hidden.
I make a habit of not erasing all of my pencil lines. To me they represent where our drawings started. There's a feeling in those loose pencil lines that you don’t have to cover.
These pencil lines and things we have covered, although we can see them, serve as a map of how our creative battle played out.
The next time you’re looking at another artist's work, see if you can spot those skirmishes that happened on the creative battlefield. Not to mention, it’s a great insight on how that artist works!
After you lay in all the colour, you might need to go back and beef up a black line or two. Don’t let those chunky lines, like the ones on this bird take a back seat.
Drawing in little shapes with colour pencil or simply a few scratchy lines in the background really adds another layer of spontaneity. Try using colour pencils for light background texture that won’t overpower the subjects you have inked in the foreground.
These finishing touches and a few additional colour pencil lines will really help bring your drawing together.
Share your thoughts with me! We’re creative people who are eager to learn more about art and can do it together by sharing ideas, knowledge, and comments.
I was fortunate to have learned the importance of line variation early in my career. Before ever applying colour to my drawings, I worked for years with just black ink.
I made sure to vary the lines I drew so they would “speak,” thus holding the eye of the viewer for just a couple more seconds. Lines really do speak–which is why the pen has always been mightier than the sword.
Let’s face it, people visually digest images way before reading text–just like you probably noticed an image in this post before diving into the words.
Let me show you how to add line variation to your own drawings using this little bird I’ve drawn in my Etchr sketchbook as an example.
Thin and Thick Lines
I make sure to incorporate thin lines right next to others that are thick. This is always on purpose for line variation and expression. If all the lines were the same thickness it would have a completely different look and feel.
I’ve seen finished drawings with no line variation that work really well, but I’ve always been more attracted to expressive lines–hair-thin strokes next to large, fat, tall, and shorter lines. I love the look of lines that appear as though they accidentally happened onto the paper.
You can practice making line variation by holding your pen or brush lightly as you sketch or ink a drawing. I used dip pens for years but in the last few have converted to fountain pens with very flexible nibs.
(I still enjoy using dip pens but they’re a little messy so I don’t travel with them.)
Brushes are great for producing the thickest of the lines. Applying more pressure here and there and creating a "bounce" with your fountain pen or brush while making your way through the drawing will give it some life.
Adding a line that is thicker will speak louder amongst the thinner ones, so think about what you’re trying to “say” or portray in your drawing. Feathers, summer dresses, leaves from trees or plants, and jewellery can all be drawn to look light and airy with thinner lines.
Remember that applying too many lines with the same weight can result in a flat-looking drawing. Maybe this is what you’re trying to achieve.
If not, try to use thicker lines to weigh down heavier subjects and to put an emphasis on importance. Lighter and thinner lines show delicateness, calmness, and can also be used for perspective to push things further into the background.
Swirly and Straight Lines
Swirly lines are fun! Giving some swirly lines to eyelashes or to the feathers of a little female bird can help create a more "feminine" look.
Think of the whiskers on a cat, or someone with wispy hair blowing in the wind. This effect can be conveyed in your drawing by holding your pen lightly and swirling in some thin lines.
If you try outlining those swirly lines with small dots, you’re likely to produce a delicate lace-like feel to that subject like I have here on the bird's feathers. Try adding some swirl for more expression in your next finished drawing.
At least to me, straight lines seem to be the odd ball out. This is the person in a three piece suit who stands in the corner of the room during a dance party.
These lines definitely have their place and I wouldn’t not want them, but loosen up! Have you ever noticed how the straight lines of a building when drawn a little crooked adds character?
Scratchy-looking bold lines are probably my favourite lines to include in drawings. They can add some serious feelings to your drawing! Large, scratchy, and bold lines can visually say I’m angry, happy, irrational, confused, solid, or emotionally heavy.
These lines mixed in with thinner ones are often the loudest, and many times the very first lines viewers will see. You can easily add scratchy and bold lines to a part of your drawing by feeling what it is that you’re applying ink to.
What is it that you want the viewer to look at? Ask yourself, “What needs to look heavy? What needs to jump out?” Putting a little extra pressure here and there on your pen or brush, especially in areas that you want people to look, at will create “louder” lines.
If you are trying to anchor an elephant in your drawing to the ground you could draw large bold lines on those huge feet to solve that problem.
Using bold and scratchy looking lines around the parts of an angry dog's face always seems to make an angry dog appear even angrier.
Or maybe you’re simply trying to weigh down a little bird who might otherwise float off the paper because of all the light lines you composed it with. Adding just a few bold lines on the underneath of that bird's belly will help.
Spice Up Your Drawing
We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but being able to channel your emotions onto paper through an expressive line that’s powerful enough for the viewer to feel is magic!
So the next time your drawing needs a certain area or subject to appear more delicate, consider conveying that feeling by holding your pen lighter to create thinner and more wispy lines.
In the same drawing if there’s something that needs weight or you just want to say “Look at this, it’s important!” then add some pressure to your brush.
Line variations are a lot like adding spices to our favourite dish–a little sprinkle of this and a little bit of that, but most important is to not overdo it with any one spice, or line, in this case.
Have you given these methods a try, and how did the result come out? Tell me about it in the comments!
My name is Mark Brewer. I’ve been drawing and painting things I find humorous for 30 years. I’m excited to have my own chapter on Etchr's blog with creative friends from around the world. I’ll share what I've learned about drawing, color, and the tools I use.