How to decide whether to add colour or not

October 27, 2023 | 12 Comments

On Wednesday I posted the above image to Instagram and asked if I should add colour. The response was decisive: 78% Yes vs 22% No.

However, I decided not to add any colour and I thought you might find it interesting to know why.

How I made my decision in this instance applies to any situation and there are five considerations:

1. How does this sketch fit within the context of my sketchbook?

I consider how much colour or white space exists on the other sketches on a page and on the previous pages of my sketchbook. I’m always thinking of a sequence of pages and trying to create a nice balance between coloured areas and white space. I explain this in detail inside my Sketchbook Design course.

2. Are the lines telling the story?

What did I want the story of my sketch to be and are the lines saying enough? I often think about this concept mid-way through a drawing and consciously make the decision to add more details with ink. My preference is for the lines and the colour to ‘share the load’ in terms of story-telling and so I typically don’t like drawing everything in ink before adding colour. These are concepts that I explain inside my Edges course.

3. How important are the shapes?

Here are three shape-based considerations:

  • If there are some strong shadow shapes then I’m more likely to add colour.
  • If the lighting is flat I’m more likely to stick with lines.
  • If there are some fun colour combinations in the shapes I’m obviously more likely to add colour.

Refer to Lesson 4 of Watercolour for more about these ideas.

4. How much time do I have?

As my sketching normally fits into my everyday life (I rarely go out for dedicated sketching sessions) time is often a big factor. Often I access my schedule and make a decision about what I’m going to do with a sketch mid-way through. This is something I discuss in my Watercolour On Location course.

5. What is my intuition telling me?

Sketching for me is all about working intuitively (in fact I wrote about this topic earlier this year about a sketch done in this same location – see here). I work without planning and let the sketch evolve organically – trying to get into the flow. I’m always listening to the conversation in my head and when I start asking myself ‘what should I do next?’ this is the point at which I often stop.

So if I find myself pausing and then asking ‘should I add colour?’ this is a cue to me that perhaps I shouldn’t.

In a similar way when I start asking myself ‘what should I do next… when should I stop?” I normally stop. The fact I’m asking myself these questions is a sign that my flow has ended and I need to be careful before proceeding.

In this case…

1. A simple ink sketch with lots of white space felt good when I considered the pages before and what I planned to do with the next page

2. This sketch was done as the Outdoor Exercise for Lesson 2 of Buildings and so I wanted to describe the details (the thicknesses and depths) with my pen. So as a result I started drawing more lines than usual – this led me to decide to keep it as a line drawing. BTW for those of you doing the Live Version of Buildings, I was more interested in ‘the left fan’ than I was in thicknesses and depths!

3. It was overcast at the time and there were no shadow shapes so I didn’t feel compelled to add colour or value. Also, the row of terrace houses were all painted the only yellow-cream colour – another reason why I didn’t feel it needed colour.

4. I had plenty of time but actually wanted to do another sketch for the Lesson 2 Outdoor Exercise (using a finer pen) so that meant that I did want to keep moving.

5. My intuition was telling me to leave it as an ink drawing!

Final thought: for me the best way to eliminate the dilemma of whether to add colour or not is to start with it! In addition, beginning to sketch with coloured shapes (watercolour, or marker or neocolor crayon) is much more fun than starting with ink 🙂

I hope that you have found these thoughts helpful. Is this something that you struggle with?

(If you are reading this via email, please click on the article title link below and add a comment on my blog. Thanks!)


  • Cath Youngman says:

    I struggle with this concept too. Also sometimes when I do add colour I ruin the sketch. I end up over colouring it. Thank you for your thoughts.

  • Jan Kraus says:

    It’s always so helpful to hear the ways you think through the how, what, when and why of a sketch. Thank you for sharing all those details about this one.

  • Paul says:

    Appreciate your clear listing of considerations and rationale for your choice in this circumstance?. Thanks for sharing!

  • Marta says:

    Is Instagram your favorite social media? I don’t find it very friendly. Why do you use insta? is it becose more people are there?

    • Liz Steel says:

      My favourite place to publish is here on the blog – but so few people take the time to leave a comment (so thanks for your comment!!!!)
      If I want a quick response to a question I’ll post on Instagram first or if I’m posting while out and about – but normally blog first, Instagram second.

  • Fiona says:

    So helpful, I struggle with this all the time! Also I am not very good with adding colour and usually ruin what I had and then leave it half done. I must try starting with colour, thanks Liz

  • Susan Shirley says:

    Liz, as others have said, I appreciate you sharing your thought process. Ot provides me with a structure as to how to think about things. This post is particularly valuable to be. I will be pondering these point for a while.

  • Jamie C says:

    Those lines do tell the story, and color may have distracted from that! Gorgeous sketch!

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