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How to Draw Rocks With Colored Pencils

I've been creating and teaching art for several years and love helping new artists grow and find their own voice.

Cape Cod Poppies, drawn in Derwent AquaTone woodless watercolor pencils on paper, dry, by Robert A. Sloan. Photo reference from WetCanvas.com August Colored Pencils Challenge posted by draymond for the August 2009 Colored Pencil Challenge.

Cape Cod Poppies, drawn in Derwent AquaTone woodless watercolor pencils on paper, dry, by Robert A. Sloan. Photo reference from WetCanvas.com August Colored Pencils Challenge posted by draymond for the August 2009 Colored Pencil Challenge.

A Guide to Drawing Rocks With Colored Pencils

Rocks are one of the easiest subjects to draw for beginners—and also among the best for learning to draw anything realistically. They are forgiving. You can get the shapes wrong and still come out with a pile of rocks that looks like a well-drawn pile of rocks if you get the shadows right. But if you don't know how to get light and shadow on a three-dimensional object, it's going to be tricky to get them to look like rocks instead of eggs or random ovals.

Good drawing is essential for colored pencils drawing. It's the medium closest to general drawing that you can find; the difference is that you're adding color and often using several colors together to create not just the value (how light or dark) an area is, but the hue as well (what color it is). Rocks are often gray or brown.

When you have a lot of different pencils available, like a large set of Prismacolors, it's easy to pick out the pencils that come closest to the color of a particular area on a specific rock. When you don't, it becomes necessary to layer different colors to get the effects you want. Even very bright colors can layer lightly to create browns and grays in complementary combinations. Below is a color wheel and some combination patches of complements between the bright colors at the outer edges.

Try this exercise at home with your own colored pencils. Even a 12-color set will probably have the spectrum colors to mix, so if you don't have gray or brown, relax! It can be mixed!

Materials Needed

1. Colored Pencils in these nine colors:

  • Bright sunny yellow
  • Orange
  • Red
  • Purple or Violet
  • Blue (light sky blue)
  • Indigo or Dark Blue
  • Bright Green
  • Brown
  • Black

2. White drawing paper with a vellum surface.

3. Rocks to draw or a photo of rocks. Pebbles will do; their shapes are the same as huge boulders. Choose a variety of them with different colors and textures, including some rough and some shiny and polished.

I goofed and added an extra patch of blue-and-orange mix because I put orange where the blue swatch was supposed to go, but this is the general idea. Try this at home with the brightest six spectrum color pencils you have.

I goofed and added an extra patch of blue-and-orange mix because I put orange where the blue swatch was supposed to go, but this is the general idea. Try this at home with the brightest six spectrum color pencils you have.

Mixing Bright Colors

Mixing bright colors will give a richer result than using the brown or gray pencils in your set unless you're getting very subtle glazing already muted colors of Prismacolors over each other.

This is important to how to sketch rocks and draw them in sunlight because, in general, the shadows on rocks will have the complement of the exact color of the light in addition to the local color of the rock. If you have a bright white light, perfectly balanced like a daylight lamp, you will see all local colors (the color the object is) exactly as they are. If the light is leaning pinkish as it does at dawn or sunset, then the shadows will lean greener. If the light is golden the way it is in the late afternoon or early morning, then the shadows will be more violet.

On top of that, objects next to the rocks will reflect color onto them. So in composing a drawing, you have to pay attention to the colors of the things around the rocks as well as the rocks.

The bottom diagram shows just three primary colors mixed together to produce yet another interesting neutral color—so I'm going to switch to an even more limited palette of six Coloursoft colored pencils in Sun Yellow, Red, Green, Indigo, Dark Brown, and Black. If I was working on a tinted paper, I would add a White either from the same set or a white Derwent Drawing Pencil for its opacity.

Pick out similar colors from your own colored pencils collection. Be sure the blue is dark like Indigo rather than a light sky blue unless that's all you have.

Jelly Beans from a Reference Image Library photo by Olika on WetCanvas.com drawn in Koh-I-Noor Progresso colored pencils by Robert A. Sloan. Look at the reflected color in the shadows of these bright objects.

Jelly Beans from a Reference Image Library photo by Olika on WetCanvas.com drawn in Koh-I-Noor Progresso colored pencils by Robert A. Sloan. Look at the reflected color in the shadows of these bright objects.

Rock Shapes Are Defined by Shadows

In drawing rocks, look for the cast shadow. This shows where the light is; it's at an angle opposite to the cast shadow. Sometimes right below the darkest core shadow on the surface, there's a thin area of reflected light from the surface the rock is on, especially if that's a white or light surface.

Between the modeling shadow and the lit side, there's also a blurred area of penumbra, a partial shadow. Around the edges of cast shadows will also usually be a penumbra that's not as dark as the shadow or as bright as the area around the shadow. On a colored object, the penumbra is the most likely to be the pure local color of the object. The lit side will be faded and tinted by the light color; the shadow side will be darkened and tinted by the complement of the light color.

Still lifes look better with odd numbers of objects. I'm going to select three different rocks, each of a different color and size, then arrange them in a pleasing asymmetrical pattern on a white surface.

Read More From Feltmagnet

Photo reference for Drawing Rocks. You have permission to draw from this photo; however, you must credit me for the photo reference if you sell your art or post it online. Photo by Robert A. Sloan.

Photo reference for Drawing Rocks. You have permission to draw from this photo; however, you must credit me for the photo reference if you sell your art or post it online. Photo by Robert A. Sloan.

Step 1. Sketch the Outlines of Rocks and Cast Shadows

Sketch the outlines of all three rocks in dark brown. If you have erasable colored pencils, use them for this stage. It's much easier to adjust a sketch in erasable colored pencils. Draw very lightly so that the lines can easily be incorporated into a tonal area like the lit surface of the light yellowish small rock.

Don't worry about the blurriness. As mentioned earlier, you don't have to get the shapes exact. Just get close.

Sketch the outlines of the cast shadows lightly in indigo or dark blue. It will be a major component of the shadow mix, the darkest. So in a general sketch with the darkest color you'll use in your mixture and if at all possible, use an erasable colored pencil. Graphite pencils can work, but the graphite will mix with your colors.

This stage of underdrawing is called a contour drawing. If the contours are complicated, you can also outline modeling shadows. Sometimes on rocks it's easier not to. This demo we'll shade the modeling shadows and contours in without outlining.

This stage of underdrawing is called a contour drawing. If the contours are complicated, you can also outline modeling shadows. Sometimes on rocks it's easier not to. This demo we'll shade the modeling shadows and contours in without outlining.

Step 2. Shade the Contour Drawing With a Light Tonal Layer

In this demo, brown is included as a type of dark yellow. Mix yellow with black and the result is almost always olive green because most black pigments have a lot of blue in them. So shading down yellow with brown will keep its hue better. The reddish-brown large rock can also be shaded in brown because we'll modify that with red and some yellow and a little blue later on.

Be careful to go lightly on this stage. Try not to use long strokes. Small, circular strokes about the size of two-line widths done with very light pressure are one way to get smooth tonal layers. Another is small light zig zags with strokes no more than two or three line widths long. Barely touch the paper. Sharpen your point well before drawing.

That way, you can touch in and darken any light patches within a smooth area without losing the white specks that show the paper still has tooth. We will do many layers on this drawing, so don't press hard and use up the paper's tooth. Follow the shapes I've done on mine using brown on two rocks and some green with the brown on the light green crystalline-looking rock.

On the cast shadows, very carefully fill them in the way you see them using indigo. Leave the middle of the shadow of the green rock barely touched so that you can add other colors there.

Very lightly after shading the cast shadows, blur around them with hardly any pressure at all for a slight distance to suggest the penumbra. Then just that lightly go into the core shadows on all three rocks and touch them with the indigo to cool those core shadows. Core shadows are the deepest darkest parts of a modeling shadow. It's that curving line above the reflected light on the small rounded stone and the darkest part of the shadows on the biggest rock.

First tonal layers establishing cast shadows and core shadows on the rocks. Included are some dark little holes and cracks on the biggest rock.

First tonal layers establishing cast shadows and core shadows on the rocks. Included are some dark little holes and cracks on the biggest rock.

Step 3. Including More Color, Adding Red, and Creating More Contrast With the Background

Now it's time to start modifying these initial sketches with the other colors—the red and yellow and ultimately the black in the deepest darkest spots on the painting. We might not need the black other than accents, since black as a darkener isn't as effective as a mixed black done with indigo and brown. But we have it, so if any of the deep darks aren't dark enough at the finish we can go in with black to darken them.

Start by glazing a very light layer of red over the large back rock. Add a very little bit of it to the lighter one in front of it. Try to get the value closer to what it is without losing the shading established in the first layer—so barely touch it on the yellowish rock and only in some mottled ways, leave plenty of white between the pinkish touches.

Even on the green crystalline rock there are some slightly warmer patches, so I touched into them with red. Here's a scan of how it looks adding a red layer to everything. Lightly add red to the cast shadows but not their penumbra, just the darker parts. Fade it out before it gets to the penumbra.

This process is a lot like how your printer mixes color too. If you use Magenta for your red and Cyan for your blue and Black to darken things you can do it that way.

This process is a lot like how your printer mixes color too. If you use Magenta for your red and Cyan for your blue and Black to darken things you can do it that way.

Step 4. Continue With Yellow

It's easy to see now how much the yellow is needed. The rock at the top looks very pinkish, the light one also looks pink, and even the greenish mineral one that's so pale needs some more color—but not much yellow.

Glaze a layer of yellow over the large rock and the small round rock. On the greenish pale crystalline one, don't cover all the white areas; leave patches of it white. Some white areas on it stay white, especially on the left. Glazing is doing a smooth tonal layer over everything. I left some white patches exposed on the rock on the back because it has pale patches; these got light yellow glaze over them so they're not pure white contrast.

A light layer of yellow is glazed over almost everything except some white highlights on the green rock in the front. This includes the shadows, which are now muted to more neutral blue-gray rather than bright violet.

A light layer of yellow is glazed over almost everything except some white highlights on the green rock in the front. This includes the shadows, which are now muted to more neutral blue-gray rather than bright violet.

Step 5. Darken and Refine Everything

Using all the colors we used before, darken and refine everything to look closer to the photo reference or the true color of the rocks. The reference doesn't show quite how greenish that crystalline rock is, so look at my drawing as well as the reference for its true color and value. All of them are a lot darker than the white background.

The background in the photo appears darker because of the lighting and that it's my phone camera. In person, the white paper the rocks are on is very bright, much brighter than the highlights on the green crystalline rock. So I'll come somewhere in between and keep some of those highlights bright white too.

This is still a tonal drawing, not a fully burnished colored pencils painting. If I were using Prismacolors, I would start getting out the odd colors for this layer. I'd be using French Gray 10% or 30% here and there to establish value, then combining various muted colors over what's there in order to get the texture and hue just right.

The rocks should stand out more. All of them should be about as dark again as they are against the background.

At the very last, when everything's darkened, use black. Crisp up the tiny cracks and holes in the farthest-back rock, enhancing texture with black details. Go under all three of the rocks with black hard for a tiny core shadow where hardly any light gets in right under the edges of the rocks, then fade that out into the cast shadow. On the light green crystalline rock, only do this where the dark shadows touch the bottom edge—it's different because light is coming through its translucent body.

If you like, burnish over these rocks with a colorless blender for a smooth painted look, then refresh the dark details where they're blurred. Use white over the crystalline green rock if you do burnish, and then just touch up the darker areas.

Set out some rocks of your own—pebbles, polished stones, anything. If you use a highly polished rock, be careful to go around the shape of its bright white highlights carefully. That's what shows the shine, the shape of the reflecting highlights. You can mask them with masking fluid or Frisket film if you want; just be careful not to draw right to the edge of the mask, or you might move it with your pencil.

Enjoy! Rocks are challenging but rewarding—and you can mix any color you like just from a small well-chosen handful of pencils.

Three rocks from life in Coloursoft colored pencils on sketchbook paper by Robert A. Sloan.

Three rocks from life in Coloursoft colored pencils on sketchbook paper by Robert A. Sloan.

Comments

Nicole Burrell from Maryland on November 09, 2013:

pretty, enter to win cash $40,000 http://www.moolpit.com//?vcode=8AB1A52F058358B

caramellatte on June 14, 2011:

Pretty! The jellybeans make me hungry! I have colored pencils, I need to get to drawing.:)

Alok Sinha on August 17, 2010:

nice work

gerajiy on August 10, 2010:

kiuit

Ingenira on June 23, 2010:

Very nice and detail illustration. I will try it with my son.

Celina Vanhoozer on May 21, 2010:

Your art work is beautiful. I recently took a class in artII in college. Ha Ha Ha. It was kind of funny at first. I didn't know if the instructor would allow me in there. I had never taken part one or any other formal art class. I showed her my portfolio and she approved me for her class. That was an encouragement to me. I've always drawn for my self or my kids. If looked ok, then I was happy. But that class turned that around for me. I wanted to draw more, and I wanted to put more effort into it. Reading your hub definitely placed another perspective on things for me. I always thought, "Rocks oh my God! what if I get the shadows wrong?" But you actually cured that anxiety. Drawing rocks are the easiest thing I've every drawn. So Thank you for helping me realize that. Also, your work is very beautiful. Flowers are one of my favorite subjects. Keep up the good work.

MCWebster on April 29, 2010:

Great hub with excellent detail.

bonetta hartig from outback queensland on February 15, 2010:

I really enjoyed this hub and the illustrations weere veery

well placed - you do a good job of describing the process of using this medium - thank you for the read - I have postcards which I did with watercolour pencil as an experiment - put them in a hub - would appreciate your checking them out and leaving me a comment - I have broad shoulders when it comes to constructive criticism- how elsewill I learn

myownworld from uk on February 13, 2010:

you're very talented I must say. I was just going through all your other Art hubs. Fascinating work! And you have a great way of explaining things. Going to share these with some friends too, so thank you for sharing. Rated up!

Joseph Attard from Gozo, Malta, EU. on November 28, 2009:

Very vivid colours. I'm using watercolor pencils lately and I don't think one can produce such vibrant colouring with them. What's your opinion?

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on November 13, 2009:

Thanks, tim-tim. Yes, I do watercolor too using tubes, pans and watercolor pencils. November is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, so I'm hard at work on my November noveling. Thanks for a great Hub topic though. I can think of a dozen reviews, lessons, product reviews to write on watercolor.

Priscilla Chan from Normal, Illinois on November 11, 2009:

Nice drawing!Do you do water color? I love to see more of your work!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on November 06, 2009:

Thanks!

nikki1 on November 06, 2009:

awesome pic.s. great hub.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on October 01, 2009:

Way cool! Glad I could help, glowingrocks!

glowingrocks from New York on October 01, 2009:

Nice work.Thank you for posting this.I may have learned something for a book I am working on.

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on September 29, 2009:

Yay, so glad I inspired you to get out your Prismacolors again! Rediscovering them is a great way to break in a sketchbook and the dang things are addictive once you get going with them.

bloodnlatex on September 29, 2009:

I've been drawing for many years, and have a good understanding of color, light and shadows, but you have a way of making the reader take a step back and take a whole new look at it. I think I'm gonna have to dig out my old set of Prismacolors. I can't think of a better way to break in a sketchbook.

Great job!

robertsloan2 (author) from San Francisco, CA on August 26, 2009:

Thank you! I think of talent as enthusiasm. If you love the process enough to enjoy it while you're a beginner, you'll practice enough to get good at it. Holds true in music, art, anything like that -- it's funny how people believe that these complex skills just happen. Occasionally people learn in early childhood because kids learn anything faster than adults if interested, but a lot of people take up various arts later in life.

Sounds like you have other outlets for your creativity and self expression, like, oh, say, writing... hehehe... you write very very well!

Anath on August 26, 2009:

That's a lovely Cape Cod Poppies, drawing. I am not into painting, I do not have the talent but I do appreciate paintings.