How To Add Color To A Graphite Drawing: The Complete Guide

How To Color a Drawing

Have you ever wondered how to add color to a graphite drawing? Drawing or painting in color is very different than working in black and white, so if you are a little hesitant to take the plunge, that's understandable. 

Many of the best artists who have mastered black and white art struggle to add color to the mix? Why is that? It's due to the fact that when you work in black and white, you are artificially converting the colors that you see around you into a greyscale image. 

We all see in color, so when you spend a lot of time learning how to focus on value instead of color, it can be challenging to add color back into the mix.

Fortunately, it is possible to develop the skills it takes to add color to a graphite drawing. How do you do it?

Organize Your Color And Select A Color Scheme

Before you start adding color to your graphite drawing, you need to figure out your color scheme. Do you want to work with a more limited color pallet? Or do you want to work with a full range of colors? When determining what the color scheme of your artwork should be you need to look at the subject matter of the piece, and think about the effect you are hoping to achieve. 

Adding color to a graphite drawing doesn't mean that you have to do a full-color piece. Adding a bit of color here and there and spot color can make a huge impact and create a visually striking image.

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Try Not To Smear The Graphite Beneath Color Pencils

How To Add Color To A Graphite Drawing
How To Add Color To A Graphite Drawing

No matter what medium you decide to use to add color to your graphite drawing, you'll need to be careful to not smear the original pencil artwork. 

This is especially true when you are working with color pencils since the pressure that you apply will tend to cause graphite to smear. If the graphite smears when you are adding color, you are going to encounter two problems. 

First, the line drawing you created will be smeared and less clear, which means that all of the time and effort you spent creating it was for nothing. Second, graphite mixed with color leads to a grey, muddy-looking mess. 

So, how do you keep the graphite from your original drawing from smearing? A workable fixative is an excellent option. A Workable fixative will keep your original drawing from smearing while allowing you to put color on top of it.

I recommend the following color pencils which offer excellent coverage. Prismacolor Colored Pencils Box click to read the latest reviews on Amazon.

When using a workable fixative, make sure that you use it in an area with plenty of ventilation since the fumes can be harmful. You should also avoid using hairspray as a substitute since it will yellow over time. 

Mix and Layer Primary Color To Create Custom Colors And Shades

One mistake that you must avoid when working with color is using any color straight out of the tube. Or, in the case of colored pencils, directly on the paper without any other colors blended into it. 

The colors that you start out with when using paints or colored pencils should be your starting point.

They should be a way for you to start layering color, they should not be the final colors that you use. When you blend and layer colors, you will get a deeper and more vibrant look.

Another way to use color is to work with complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors that are opposite one another on the color wheel. For example, red and green, yellow and purple, blue and orange. 

These colors, when used next to each other, create an interesting visual dynamic. Many artists use complementary colors in their work.

But not as many artists take advantage of the unique look at a complementary underpainting can create.

Using complementary colors in an underpainting is simple, you just use the opposite color of the color you want an object to be, then render in the shadows using that color. After finishing, you place the final color over the complementary color, giving you a rich final layer of color.

Test Your Colors On A Separate Piece Of Paper

The one thing you definitely do not want to do on a drawing you have spent a lot of time and effort completing is to experiment on it. 

If you've spent a lot of time working in black and white and are just starting to branch out into color, there are times that you need to tread carefully.

Adding color to a finished graphite drawing that represents a lot of time and effort is one of those times. 

The last thing you want is to ruin your drawing when adding color to it. This won't just frustrate you. It could also make you more hesitant to trying to work in color in the future.

When adding color to a drawing, there are two things you need to be on the lookout for. 

First, you need to see how the medium you are using is going to react with the surface you are working on. Second, you need to see how the color scheme you are planning is going to work for the drawing you have created.

To see how the medium you are using is going to react to the surface you have drawn on, you can use a small piece of the same type of paper as a testing ground for your technique. 

Take a small piece of paper, sketch out something using approximately the same tones with graphite, and fix it in place like you did with your finished drawing. Then add color over the top of it to see how it reacts. 

It the color doesn't adhere properly or muddies up the charcoal, then you've just dodged a bullet. You avoided ruining your drawing. Now, you can spend some time refining your approach, test again, then proceed once the testing goes well.

To see how the color scheme you are planning on using will work with your drawing, you can take advantage of modern technology with one of two approaches.

With approach number one, you make a photocopy of your drawing, then add color on top of it to see how it looks. 

With approach number two, you scan your drawing then use photo manipulation or digital painting software to add color to it. In either case, you are going to be able to see how your chosen color scheme looks before committing to it.

This will allow you to adapt and change it as needed to get the look you are going for.

Don't Overwork a Successful Piece Drawing

One common mistake that artists of all skill and experience levels make is to overwork a drawing. It's easy to get carried away and spend too much time blending your colors. 

When you over blend and work a drawing, you will destroy the range of values that you need to create an interesting-looking piece. You'll basically end up with a colored version of a muddy mess. 

What's important to remember is that the eye of the viewer will do a lot of the work for you. When you place similar colors next to each other, it's natural for the human eye to blend them together. 

So, if you are overworking a drawing or painting, you are failing to take advantage of this. On top of that, overworking a drawing or painting will result in a plain and flat looking piece. 

How can you stop yourself from overdoing it? Try taking a break from a piece that you think might be finished for a day or two, then go back and look at it again. 

Taking a mental break can help you to put things in perspective and get more clarity when deciding whether or not a piece of art needs more attention.

Add Color At The Start Of The Drawing Not At The End

Rather than trying to add color to a finished graphite drawing, why not start with color from the beginning? No rule says that you have to work in black and white and then add color after the fact. 

There are two ways you can do this. First, you can start by tinting the paper with a color or colors, then adding graphite over the top of it. Watercolor or ink both work very well for this. 

If you are planning to use wet media on top of the graphite drawing, then waterproof ink is a better option since it won't bleed when wet. By tinting your paper, you can add color before you start with your drawing giving you an excellent base to build on.

You can tint your paper and work with only graphite, you can work with color on top of it, or you can skip tinting your paper altogether and just start working with color. There's really no limit in the different ways you can combine different types of mediums and techniques to get the look you are going for.

Test Colors To See How They Dry On The Paper

When working with paints, the one thing you need to be cautious about is how the color might change from when the paint goes on wet, to when it finished drying. Acrylic paints are particularly notorious for this and frequently dry considerably darker than they are when they are applied. One way to avoid having a change in color ruin your drawing is to do a test run. 

Paint some of the colors you are planning on using on a scrap of the same paper that your drawing is on. Wait for those colors to dry then compare them to how they looked when wet. 

If there's little to no color change, you are probably safe to proceed. But, if there was a significant color change, then you need to make some adjustments. You can lighten or darken your paints, then test them again and again until you get the final color you are looking for.

Practicing Layering Color Instead Of Using Flat Color

If you want to create an interesting visual dynamic in your drawing, make sure that you don't ever use large areas of flat color. 

Flat color is boring. Flat color will make a drawing or painting look dull and, well, flat. Even if you are drawing or painting something that seems to be a uniform color, you need to break it up. Nothing is the same color uniformly. Just take a look around you, squint your eyes, then see the variations in color caused by light and shadow. The world around you doesn't have any flat colors in it, so don't draw or paint that way.

Mix And Combine Different Types Of Color Materials In The Same Drawing

Mixed media drawing and painting involves using more than one type of medium when creating artwork. For example, if you draw something in graphite, then add ink to the drawing, you have created a mixed media piece of art. 

Mixed media art is exciting and unique because it allows you to think outside of the box and do something new and creative. When mixing media, make sure that you experiment and try different things. 

Don't experiment on a drawing you've spent a lot of time on, experiment with sketches, and on scratch paper. Mixing media lets you develop a unique style that will help you to stand out from other artists.

Apply Highlights at The End of a Drawing

One of the things that many young artists struggle with is adding really dark shadows and really bright highlights. Without these shadows and highlights, your drawing will look flat and lifeless. 

How can you add highlights after you have finished most of your drawing? There are a few techniques here that should work well for you. You could use a kneaded eraser to remove pigment from areas you want to highlight, but this will give you more of a soft highlight than a bright one. 

A better option is to use white paint on top of your drawing for highlights. If you want to make things easier on yourself, a white paint maker will work wonders when adding bright white highlights to a picture.

Create Art With My Favourite Drawing Resources

General Drawing Courses. I like Udemy if you want to develop your knowledge of drawing techniques. Udemy is an excellent choice due to its wide range of creative courses and excellent refund policy. They often have monthly discounts for new customers, which you can check here. Use my link.

Sketching and Collage. Take a look at this sketching resource I have created. Use this link.

Proko. Is one of my favorite teachers who surpasses in the teaching of Anatomy and Figure drawing. Prokos course breaks down the drawing of the human body into easy-to-follow components aiding the beginner to make rapid progress. For this, I really like Proko.

Art Easels. One of my favorite ways to draw is by using a drawing easel, which develops the skill of drawing on a vertical surface. The H frame easel is an excellent vertical way to add variety to the style and type of marks you create when using a drawing board.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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