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How to Draw Rocks With Colored Pencils

Updated on April 11, 2016

Cape Cod Poppies

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.

Drawing rocks isn't as hard as it seems

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.

Above is a colored pencils drawing I did for the August 2009 Colored Pencil Challenge on WetCanvas.com, from a reference posted by WC member draymond to the Reference Image Library. One of the great advantages of the WetCanvas community is access to thousands of excellent reference photos taken by artists who understand what is needed in a good reference photo. They're shared with members only but membership is free. 

WetCanvas also offers classes in drawing and sketching that are incredible, covering every aspect of realistic drawing. I highly recommend joining and working through the classes if you have any trouble drawing anything. They are moderated by volunteers who will help, answer questions, cheer and give critique no matter when you join in on the classes. Other classes in other forums are available on specific mediums like acrylic, oils, colored pencils or pastels.

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.

These neutral colors are very forgiving. You can achieve them by combining complementary colors - the ones opposite each other on the color wheel -- or by using brown, gray and the more muted colors of colored pencils like that wonderful Grayed Peach in Prismacolors or the brownish-gray French Grays. 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. I used the same Derwent Aquatone colored pencils for this one as I did in Cape Cod Poppies. 

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.

Mixing Complements

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. The principle still works even if the colors you're mixing are Grayed Lavender and Sand rather than bright purple and bright yellow.

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 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. You can test this by setting a white or gray rock out on a table under your lamp. Then move a bright colored book near it, just hold it up and look at it. You will see beautiful reflected color bouncing off the rock surface. If it's brown, it'll still get sometimes a very strong color reflection from the nearest objects.

So in composing a drawing, you have to pay attention to the colors of the things around the rocks as well as the rocks. When I did Cape Cod Poppies, the flowers were soaring way over the rock fence, too far away for reflected color to really affect the stones. But the greenery and some greenery in front of the rock wall that didn't show in the reference photo did affect the color of the stone wall, so I glazed over it with the same greens I used in the greenery. I also paid special attention to patches of it in the shadows because reflected color shows more in shadows usually.

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

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. Clear or translucent rocks will show refl
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. Clear or translucent rocks will show refl

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. If the rock is at all shiny, it will have a bright highlight like these jelly beans at the opposite side from the cast shadow. It will also have modeling shadows where the surface is darker because less light falls directly on it. 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, 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. Ignore the USB cord if you want to work from my photo reference.

Photo Reference for Drawing Rocks

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. Just say that you drew it or painted it from my refer
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. Just say that you drew it or painted it from my refer

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. I will be drawing from the real rocks but I've done the outlines from the same photo reference you're using.

Don't worry about the blurriness. As mentioned earlier, you don't have to get the shapes exact. Just get close. The more practice you have drawing irregular rock shapes true to their proportions, the easier it is to start doing things like human faces or cat heads accurate to their proportions. I got pretty close in my sketch.

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 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 may not matter much on rocks that might be gray to begin with, but on brighter colored still life subjects like those jelly beans it can make a big difference. It's better to get in the habit of using erasable colored pencils for sketching right at the start. I prefer Sanford Col-Erase to the various children's ones available. You could even do the whole step by step demo using Col-Erase, they're decent student grade colored pencils.

Indigo isn't in the 12 color set but it's in the 24 color set and it's available in open stock. It's also one of the most useful sketching colors -- the darks always are. Tuscan Red, Indigo and Dark Green are some of my most often used Prismacolors.

Contour drawing in Brown and Indigo

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.

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. Since it's leaning so far toward red and yellow, we won't add any blue or green till the values are established in a tonal sketch.

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 is 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 even though it's a tonal drawing rather than a burnished painting, 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. We are just using the colors we started with on this, except for adding green to the light crystalline green rock.

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

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.

More color, adding red, create 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.

Red Added

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.

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. We will go back with green again after the yellow stage.

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. Now let's see how it looks again.

Yellow Layer Glazed On

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.

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. But let's keep it simpler than that and just use this limited palette for a good tonal drawing.

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. I prefer to leave mine as a drawing rather than burnish it as a painting and try to create a detailed background.

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 in Colored 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.

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    • Anath profile image

      Anath 7 years ago

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

    • robertsloan2 profile image
      Author

      robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      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!

    • profile image

      bloodnlatex 7 years ago

      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 profile image
      Author

      robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      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.

    • glowingrocks profile image

      glowingrocks 7 years ago from New York

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

    • robertsloan2 profile image
      Author

      robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Way cool! Glad I could help, glowingrocks!

    • nikki1 profile image

      nikki1 7 years ago

      awesome pic.s. great hub.

    • robertsloan2 profile image
      Author

      robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Thanks!

    • tim-tim profile image

      Priscilla Chan 7 years ago from Normal, Illinois

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

    • robertsloan2 profile image
      Author

      robertsloan2 7 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      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.

    • NewHorizons profile image

      Joseph Attard 7 years ago from Gozo, Malta, EU.

      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?

    • myownworld profile image

      myownworld 7 years ago from uk

      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!

    • bonny2010 profile image

      bonetta hartig 7 years ago from outback queensland

      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

    • MCWebster profile image

      MCWebster 6 years ago

      Great hub with excellent detail.

    • Celina Vanhoozer profile image

      Celina Vanhoozer 6 years ago

      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.

    • Ingenira profile image

      Ingenira 6 years ago

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

    • profile image

      gerajiy 6 years ago

      kiuit

    • profile image

      Alok Sinha 6 years ago

      nice work

    • caramellatte profile image

      caramellatte 5 years ago

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

    • burrell1975 profile image

      Nicole Burrell 3 years ago from Maryland

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

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