Make your colouring pages more realistic

Colouring is a fun and enjoyable hobby that can also have really positive benefits for your mental health, but if you’d like to take your colouring pages to the next level, you may be wondering how you can create a more realistic effect on your favourite pages.

Achieving a high level of realism with your colouring pages can be challenging, but by practising certain techniques and taking advantage of the versatility of art supplies available to you, you can build layers and shading that looks three dimensional and textured – and deceivingly realistic! This guide will help you take your first steps on your journey to more layered and realistic artwork.

Reference pictures and pencils laid out on a table.

Use reference for your colouring.

Use reference for realistic colouring pages

Even though you’re colouring within a line drawing, it can be helpful to refer to real life references. Or as real as you can get – you might not be able to find a reference for a unicorn, but we’ll settle for a horse! This will allow you to draw the colours and shading that are actually there, rather than making it up in your head.

As colourists, we often think “dark on one side, light on the other”, but in real life, light is usually coming from several angles and it’s not as simple as that. Think about the three dimensional element of what you’re drawing – for example, a nose will have shadows down the side, and a little highlight along the top.

Unicorn colouring page by Elisabeth Wheeler from our Unicorns Special issue

Unicorn colouring page by Elisabeth Wheeler from our Unicorns Special issue.

Build layers slowly

If you want to achieve realism, you need to get comfortable using multiple layers in your colouring. Start with one light base layer to establish the main colour – make sure you have a good, consistent coverage but be careful not to press down too hard with your pencil or go too dark with your markers or paints.

Each layer, add a slightly darker colour and more detail, gently blending the darker areas into lighter ones. To blend, add more pressure where you want the colour to be darkest, and lessen the pressure as you reach lighter areas. This is also where you can use a blending tool to achieve that smooth gradient.

Choose colours carefully for realistic colouring pages

In real life, colours blend together so seamlessly that we barely notice. If you want to colour realistically, your drawings need to be the same! Don’t jump straight from yellow to red – go from a light yellow, to a deep yellow, to a light orange, to a deep orange, and so on. You don’t want the shading to look too extreme.

If you’re using marker or brush pens, this is especially important to ensure gradual blending. For watercolour paints, you can use a little water to help with blending two colours together – but don’t use too much, or you risk buckling your paper. It might be a good idea to leave each layer to dry before adding another one.

Create contrast between dark and light

Although you need to be subtle, don’t be afraid to keep blending and adding layers until you reach an appropriately dark colour! If you look at shadows around you now, many of them may be almost as dark as black, even if the surface they’re on is actually lighter in colour.

Your lightest highlights may be almost white, while your darkest shadows will be very dark. This stark contrast between the highlights and the shadows is what will make your drawings look three dimensional. Don’t be afraid to go in with an eraser or white marker/paint to add that bright white highlight.

Colouring page by Kathe Louie from our Fantasy Figures Special issue

Colouring page by Kathe Louie from our Fantasy Figures Special issue.

But don’t use black!

You shouldn’t be afraid to go dark with your colours to create that lovely contrast, but we recommend staying away from true black, as it can really flatten a drawing and make it look heavy and dark. Instead, try dark browns, a touch of grey, or deep blues and purples.

Although we think of shadows as grey, they are actually usually a dark but subtle colour. Check out this article from Will Kemp Art School about drawing realistic shadows, especially the section on colour.

Go back to basics with your colouring pages

If you can’t master the subtle shading and blending needed for realistic colours in your drawings, it might be the colours getting in the way! Try going back to your first ever art class when all you were given was a 2B pencil, and see what you can do – you’ll find you can be so much more versatile and creative!

As a fun activity, why not photocopy a few colouring pages you really like and try colouring them three times – once without trying any of these techniques, secondly only using a 2B pencil, and thirdly using the tips and techniques picked up in this article to focus on realism.

Enjoyed this colouring guide? You’ll love our other how to colour guides about colouring pencils and markers.

Coloured a beautiful page and want to share it with your friends and family? Take a look at this article about how to photograph colouring pages.

Think about your materials

There are so many amazing colouring supplies out there that can help you build realism in your colouring, from well-known tools like colouring pencils, erasers and markers, to more unusual items like blenders, brush pens and even watercolour.

We recommend experimenting and finding tools that work for you, but don’t feel like you have to splash the cash on the most expensive options – even a cheap set of watercolours can look beautiful when used in the right way, and in a squeeze, a cotton bud and Vaseline can be used in place of a proper blending tool!

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