How to get soft shadows with coloured pencil in portraiture

The title basically says it.
When I draw portraits the shadows are very hard often greyish no matter the pencil brand or surface. It also does not matter if I start from light to dark or viceversa.
I watched the video in the course several times… didn’t help.
I will attach 2 examples
Any ideas are appreciated

I have only done an eye study in color (pastel pencils). i’ve done some skin color swatches with color pencils. I just know that I’ve used green and red to create shadows on skin. This works also with color pencils. Alternating LIGHT layers of dark green with red until I get the desired shadow. The color green tones down red and makes a more natural shadow on skin.
Otherwise my portraits have been graphite and charcoal. I hope this helps.
Also if you can use a pencil blender liquid, it will give the paper some tooth back to allow for a few more layers.



Thank you I will try this method. Your eye looks amazing! Unfortunately spirits are not an option but I will try alternating the colours

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Hello @Jennilein

I think you have done a really nice job here.

I just finished a portrait a couple weeks ago, it was critiqued by Matt.

I used the circling method very lightly and slowly went over the colors layering them to blend the skin tone. Though I didn’t go dark enough it was worth it to take it slow.

I made the colors really soft to not use up the tooth so I could use multiple colors and layers and blend them in for a transition.

The one I did was in polychrome-colored pencils,

Thank you.
I am not unsatisfied with my overall picture. However, I know that I need to work on my shadows.
I am really heavy handed. Even though, I never go dark enough! As I said the shadows seem more greyish for some reason. Do you remember how you layered the colours?
Which number was the critique? Unfortunately, I don’t have a membership right now. I had to cancel for the time being. However, I plan on coming back and when I do I would love to watch the episode. Also: what paper did you use?

Hello @ Jennilein

The critique is number 481 June 2nd.

I used Strathmore 400 series drawing paper. Mainly because I didn’t think it we turn out as it did. But I would use this paper again since I it responded well to the paper.

I did get some Strathmore 400 Series colored pencil paper to try out. This may work better, I will see and if I remember let you know.

I remembered Matts little rhyme Red yellow brown and white this will make your skin-color right then I added for my own benefit, also sometimes purple green and even blue, will help your shadow turn out too.

Since the person has pale skin, I used tints of the colors. If I remember correctly, I started very lightly with a Sanguine brownish red, Yellow Ochre and Naples yellow, bistro brown for the main skin color.

At the same time where the shadows were, I added a lavender and believe a light olive green, earthy color light green as well as the bistro brown. In the shadows of the dog, I added some blue into the shadows as well as the lavender, green and red.

If I remember I started with the Naples Yellow really lightly starting under the hair line working from the shadows area into the highlights. Then I added the brown and I went light. After that I added the Sanguine Red. I went really light with my applications, at first, I could not even see them.

With patience, and light circles I slowly worked into the highlights. In the highlights I used more the red and yellow and brown. I let the white of the paper be the white under the yellows. The shadow areas always a little darker.

Then I started to add in the light green and lavender. I always added a light layer of the brown in between and red to brighten it.

I think the shades/tints of the red, brown, yellow, purple and green, even blue if you see it would change depending on the skin colors. This person has very pale skin so I used colors leaning toward tints.

I hope this helps you out. Please let me know if this is not clear in the explanation.



Thank you for this very detailed post. I will have to ho through it slowly and take notes!

Thank you,
Yes my problem is indeed with the edges. As for paper: one was the bristol vellum 400 but the other was just some drawing paper.
I agree that I am too heavy handed and I believe that’s why I’m “losing layers”. I don’t use black or grey for the shadows, rather green or blueviolet or even dark brown. (I just love the colour walnut brown for some reason)
Thank you for the blending tip. I will definitely try this one and also try to have a more delicate grip in the future. I think this is probably my main issue.

Well, I guess it depends on the subject. I did a bird and I think the white of the paper helps the feathers come alive. However, I do prefer smooth paper these days. I also hear many people, including Matt saying that you need to fill the tooth. I guess, that’s constantly in my head.

Thank you, I havw seen the thread and put several papers on my wishlist for later. (I have a huge amount of remnants from former courses, so I decided to use it up first, unless it’s really bad paper :wink:)

@Jennilein @tanya
If you’re having problems with the background showing through, it is almost always because you need to keep adding layers with the colored pencils. This is the same for pastels.

Inexpensive papers may not have enough “tooth” for you to put on the amount of layers that are needed.

Most people here will agree that “PastelMat” is by far the best paper for colored pencils and/or pastels because it will allow you to put on several layers. The only negative is that this paper is expensive.

Many newer artists don’t realize that they stop drawing way to soon. The layers and multiple colors are the secret to success with these media. That’s why successful colored pencil drawings take so long to complete.

Terri Robichon

I don’t know how to feel about this layer issue, tbh.

Firstly, for me the white showing adds dimension to fur/feathers.
Secondly, and I had this with my current drawing, at some point I could not add colour to my portrait on bristol vellum strathmore 400 without getting little round smudges, and I had used around 5 layers. And no, I didnt rush through the process. I worked for several days, many hours each day…

It’s really hard to evaluate how something will look when it’s done when looking at it this closely. You’re probably being too hard on yourself. Art is always personal, so there is no right or wrong answer to anything. Just do your best, learn from the experience, and move on to the next challenge.

Terri Robichon

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Your artwork is to please yourself. Only you can decide if you like using colored pencils or not. I think personally, I like to try everything, because who knows what you might like if you haven’t tried it.

Terri Robichon


I do like using them. Doesn’t mean I can’t be dissatisfied with the outcome. :rofl:
I can clearly see an improvement to 4 years ago, so I think I can eventually get to where I want to be. But it’s a journey (and a long one).
At least they are easily accesible. Not much stuff needed.
Maybe I am too hard a critic, I tend to do that. I will keep on trying and probably failing, but that’s all right!


Oh sorry, I didn’t see that your second answer was adressing tanya, not me.

But you are absolutely right about me being to hard on myself…everyone else compliments me on my art, so I guess it’s not too bad. And I came a huge way, especially since December, when I started with 25 days to better drawing.