Color in art

As a wildlife artist who primarily engages in drawing and sketching, my approach to color in art is both subtle and sparing. While my art might lean more towards monochromes and washes, the application and understanding of color play a pivotal role in the depth and emotion of each piece.

Key points

  1. The subtlety of color choice in wildlife sketches can significantly influence the viewer's emotional response, emphasizing the importance of selecting the right hues to convey the desired atmosphere and emotion.
  2. Utilizing monochrome and wash techniques allows for the exploration of volume, texture, and mood in art, proving that even minimal color usage can communicate complex narratives and details.
  3. Even sparse use of color in sketches carries emotional weight, enhancing the storytelling aspect of art by drawing attention to focal points and enriching the viewer's experience with subtle emotional cues.

The subtlety of color in art

Even in the simplest art forms, the choice of color—or the decision to use very little of it—can dramatically alter the viewer's perception and emotional response.

For my wildlife sketches, selecting the right hues, even if it's just a single wash of color, is a deliberate process. It's about capturing the core feeling of the subject, whether it's the warm tones of a macaw's feathers or the cool shadows cast across a crocodile in the moon's light.

Often I'll use simple washes to give a simple suggestion of a background because I'm not too interested in drawing landscapes. Either way, simple washed can add a lot to your sketchbook pages. Sometimes, if you're bored of a blank page before you even start drawing, laying down a wash first is a great way to break up the monotony you sometimes run into with sketching.

Monochrome and wash techniques

Monochrome doesn't have to equate to monotony.

By experimenting with different shades of a single color or applying gentle watercolor washes, you can bring out the volume, texture, and mood in your sketches. Try using these techniques to capture the essence of your wildlife subjects—illustrate the softness of fur, the sleekness of feathers, or the rugged texture of scales.

With just a subtle application of color, you'll find that your art can communicate a lot.

The importance of color, even in minimal use

Color, even used sparingly, carries emotional weight.

A subtle touch of color can warm up a scene, making it feel inviting, or cool it down to evoke a sense of detachment or melancholy. It's this emotional depth that turns a simple sketch into a compelling story.

With strategic use of color, I can guide the viewer's eye to the focal point of my art. Even a minimal application can highlight key areas, drawing attention to a specific part of your sketchbook page.

Color, in its subtlety and restraint, remains a powerful tool in my artistic arsenal.

It's not just about making the art look pretty; it's about using color to breathe life, convey emotion, and tell a story. Even in my primarily monochrome and washed sketches, understanding and applying color principles enhance the realism and emotional impact of my wildlife portraits.

The simplest art can possess depth and resonance through the thoughtful application of color.

How to use color in your sketchbook

In my journey as a wildlife artist, I've found that using color in a minimal way within my sketchbook can profoundly impact the overall feel and depth of my sketches.

Here’s how I approach this technique, focusing on drawing and sketching wildlife:

  1. Start with the basics: Before introducing color, I ensure my sketch has a strong foundation by focusing on the elements of art. This includes understanding the line work that outlines my subject, the shape that forms its basic structure, and the form that gives it volume and three-dimensionality.
  2. Consider the texture: The texture of my subject influences my color choices. For instance, the rough skin of a reptile might inspire a more gritty, earthy color wash, while the soft feathers of a bird could lead to using smoother, lighter hues.
  3. Experiment with mark making: I explore mark making and materiality in my sketches, which involves experimenting with different tools and materials to apply color. A soft brush can apply a wide wash, while a fine pen can add small, precise marks of color.

Steps to apply color minimally

  1. Identify your focal point: Decide what part of your wildlife subject you want to highlight. This could be the eyes, a pattern in the fur, or any feature that stands out.
  2. Choose your color wisely: Select a single color or a very limited palette that resonates with the mood you're aiming to convey. Think about the emotional weight colors carry; blues and greens can evoke calmness, while reds and oranges might add vibrancy.
  3. Apply color with purpose: Use your chosen color to subtly enhance the focal point or to add depth to the form. This could mean adding a slight wash over the area you want to highlight or using minimal strokes to accentuate details.
  4. Evaluate and adjust: Step back and look at your sketch. The minimal use of color should enhance, not overwhelm, your subject. If needed, adjust by adding more details or diluting your color wash with water for a more subdued effect.

The power of black and white: Graphite and ballpoint pen

In the realm of wildlife sketching, the use of black and white mediums like graphite and ballpoint pen holds a unique and compelling power. These tools, in their simplicity, offer a stark contrast and depth that color sometimes cannot capture, bringing a different dimension to wildlife art.


Graphite, with its range from soft to hard leads, allows me incredible flexibility in shading and texture. It's perfect for the soft fur of a fox or the intricate details of feathers on a bird. The varying degrees of pressure I apply can create a spectrum of shades, from the lightest grays to the deepest blacks, enabling me to depict the subtle nuances of light and shadow. This interplay of light and darkness is crucial in giving form and volume to the animals I draw, making them leap off the page with a lifelike presence.

Ballpoint pen

The ballpoint pen, on the other hand, brings its own unique strengths to black and white wildlife art. Its precision and the ability to produce consistent lines make it an excellent choice for defining sharp details and textures.

Unlike graphite, which allows for gradual shading, the ballpoint pen challenges me to think in terms of stark contrast and bold lines, forcing a focus on the structural integrity of the subject. This medium is especially effective in capturing the dramatic interplay of light and shadow, giving each piece a distinctive clarity and depth.

Working in black and white strips away the distractions of color, compelling the viewer to focus on the subject's form, texture, and the emotion conveyed through composition and contrast. This can often lead to a more appeal to the artwork, as the absence of color encourages a deeper engagement with the subtleties of the drawing.

The timeless appeal of black and white

Black and white art carries a timeless look, offering a sense of permanence and tradition that I've found a lot of my art collectors prefer.

Also, the simplicity and depth of graphite and ballpoint pen has not only honed my skills but also deepened my appreciation for the natural world's inherent beauty. The challenge of conveying life and texture without color has made my work more deliberate and, ultimately, more expressive.

The power of black and white in wildlife sketching lies in its ability to distill the subject into pure form and contrast. Whether through the soft gradients of graphite or the defined lines of a ballpoint pen, black and white mediums offer a unique lens through which the complexity of wildlife can be explored through sketching.