Shading with Colored Pencils-For Beginners

If you are a newbie color pencil artist, you have already begun to experience the joy of using this wonderful medium.

Some of you may have an extensive collection of art pieces that you have completed in colored pencils or even just colorings you have done using colored pencil.

However, some of you may be wondering about exactly why your pictures may look flat

…or don’t have that 3-D look that you long to see.

This may be because although you know where the shadow should be you’re just not sure how to shade or specifically what colors to layer.

This article will help you improve your shading with colored pencils in such a way to achieve depth and that special feeling you get when you see 3-D.

Common Misconceptions About Color for Shading

So, first off I would like to address a couple of misconceptions of shading colors…

Just Use More of the Same Color?

Uh, that would be a “no“, sorry.

The reason that doesn’t work is that all it does is increase the intensity of the color but does not actually darken it or make it look shaded.

Please refer to the picture above.

I will be referring to this as I show you the difference in using one color, gray, black and something called complements.

So you can obviously see that on the squares on the left, I have just used the same main color to shade.

But instead of shading, it merely increased or intensified the main color. Not what you want!

No Black or Gray Please

Many people may think that shadows are just gray or black and they can simply use those colors to create shadows.

Trust me, this is not the thing to do.

Look at the swatches shown in the gray column.

See for yourself how the use of gray just dulls your color down without really creating a shadow.

Gray is great, however, when it’s being used to tone down the vibrancy of a color, but it’s not for shading.

The use of black is a surefire way to deaden your subject.

Notice how the swatches using black for shadow just look harsh and lifeless and doesn’t really work well as the black more or less overpowers it and makes it look – well, yuk!

Note: I will, however, sometimes add black to a shadow (never for light colors) to deepen the shadow color, but never by itself as a shadow color.

So….what to use?…drum roll, please…..

Thank Heaven for Complements

And I don’t mean “oh, hey, that’s nice shading!” (that would be compl-i-ment lol). I mean using complementary (opposite) colors from the color wheel.

Please don’t click off!! This is not going to be complicated; I promise!

It’s really very simple:

Look at this color wheel and read on and you will be all set. Yes, really! 

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Note: if you really want more in depth information on color theory (inquiring minds have to know – yes, I’m one of those people haha!), please refer to my post on color theory.

And, if you don’t have a color wheel of your own, click the link below:

==>get a very affordable color wheel here<==

On the color wheel:

Look for colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel—these are called complements. This is the easiest way to find a great shadow color that will result in deep, dark shadows.

For example, if you are working with red, green—which is opposite red—is a great shadow color to layer onto the red.

Blue is opposite orange and is a great shadow color to layer onto the orange.

Purple is the complementary color of yellow and is a good shadow color to layer onto yellow (go very lightly and tightly as you apply—especially the darker shadow colors).

You can see in the above referenced photo, the swatches where complements are used show a nice deep shadow.

See what I mean? Easy peasy, right?

You can now easily find a complementary color to use for your shadow color by finding it on the color wheel.

But please, read on for how to apply – your success depends on it!!!

How to Shade – The Sandwich Approach

Now that you have selected your shadow color, you just apply the shadow on top of the main color and forget it, right??


My go-to approach for shading is what I like to call the “sandwich approach”.

Specifically, remember what your end goal is.

Your end goal is to create a “shaded” or shadowy (now that’s a word, isn’t it? lol) version of the main color (or main color combination) you want to shade.

So you don’t want to necessarily be able to see the shadow color per se.

That is, you don’t want to layer it thick over the main color and leave it; it won’t look too good, trust me.

Special note: You may already know this, but most likely you’re combining a couple of colors for your main color—that is, if you just use one red, one green, etc. that could add to your picture being flat.

A mentor of mine told me—and most artists know—always mix and use at least two colors; your picture will thank you for it! 🙂

So your shadow color will be sandwiched between the color combination you used for your main color.

For simplicity, though, I will say “main color” which would be your main color combination.

The best way is to sandwich it between two layers of the main color.

Apply the shadow color lightly over your first layer of the main color.

Then later the main color over it.

And, you may have to do this a couple of times, repeating the layers – think double or triple-decker sandwich (OK, I’m getting hungry now!) – till you get the desired effect.

Here’s an Example:

This photo of my pepper drawing shows how all three peppers have the main colors on them plus the shadow colors.

So according to using the complements of each, I have blue on the orange pepper, green on the red one and red on the green one for the shadow areas.

Note that the shadow colors tend to stand out at this stage after applying them.

This is totally normal! It will look just fine after you layer the main color over top of it again.

So the next photo to the right shows just that – see what happens when you begin putting the main color over top the

shadow color?

You can see on the green pepper that I’ve begun layering the green back over the red, thereby “sandwiching” the red between two layers of green.

And voila! – beautifully shaded green!

Just look at how nice and deep the green looks and no one would be able to guess what you did to get that depth of color!

This next photo to the left shows the red pepper with the green having been layered onto the red in the shadow areas.

Then see what it looks like as I was applying the red back over the green.

The red just looks deep, dark red. And that is exactly what you want!

I did the same for the yellow-orange pepper using blue.

One special important note to repeat:

Please apply lightly as you apply shadow color, because you can easily overpower your main color underneath and it will look harsh and unnatural and you’ll be so mad at me!

So, here is the finished drawing so you can see the outcome of the sandwich approach.

It really works well and your shadows won’t look dull or flat.

Just be sure to try for a gradient with your shadows with the darkest area being the farthest away from the light and gradually lightening as you work closer to the light.

And blend the edge where you end the shadow!  Very important!

Colorless blender pencils and/or markers are great for blending the edge where the shadow ends.

Using Analogous Colors

The above method for shading using complements obviously is great for creating dramatic shadows.

However, you can also use what’s called analogous colors on the color wheel to create softer, more subtle colors.

This term, analogous refers to “neighboring” colors.

So look at the color wheel again – for orange, you could also use red, a nearby color, for a more subtle shadow.

Also, for green, you could use purple.

Here is a quick illustration of this.

You’ll see the green rectangle shows plain green on the left, then in the middle it’s shaded with purple, then at the right end shaded with red.

Notice how deep the right end is with red as the shadow, compared to the middle shaded with purple?

Likewise, notice on the orange rectangle, it goes from straight orange on the left end to red in the middle, then blue on the right end.

So, again you can see the middle is more subtly shaded than the end. See?

Easy, right? Told ya! LOL

Happy Shading

So there you have it!

Now you can go forth in confidence shading with colored pencils.

Remember, creating gradients and blending where the shadow ends is very important, and I know you can do it!

==>For more on Blending colored pencils, click here<==

==>For more on color theory, click here<==

Thanks so much for reading and if you found this article helpful, please share!

Also, all comments are enthusiastically welcomed (and I will never share your email!).

Have a colorful day!


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8 thoughts on “Shading with Colored Pencils-For Beginners”

  1. Thanks for sharing this article.shading is not really my thing but I so wish I can do it.a cousin of mine is into arts and he shades so good with coloured pencil.most artists know that  always mix and use at least two colors – your picture will thank you for it.i really learnt alot from your article and am gonna give it a try and see what I can do.

  2. I love art. I also love colored pencils. I buy all kinds of colored pencils. The are so versatile in pigment. I appreciate what you said about shading. Also, I don’t purchase color charts. I learned a long time ago how to make my own. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Elaine,
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion for art. I’m just getting back into drawing and love my colored pencils but I was lost in how to effectively get the look I wanted. I just applied a few of your techniques and I was thrilled with the results. I’m grateful. 😀

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Donna. I’m so happy the info helped you and you enjoy colored pencil art. I love a lot of mediums but colored pencil is my fav!
      Happy colored penciling!


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