Carrie L. Lewis, Artist & Teacher

Helping You Create Art You Can be Proud Of

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil

I’m wanting to do a bokeh/blurred background in colored pencil for an image I’m working on…. Do you happen to have a tutorial on bokeh-like backgrounds in colored pencil?

For the sake of this tutorial, I’m using the word “bokeh” as being different from a simple blurred background. I’ll also be focusing on drawing circles. This method will work no matter what shape you choose for your background.

If you would like to see how to draw a blurred background, check out the palomino filly demo.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil

This is my reference photo. It’s a composition of a couple of images and is the result of combining the horse with several potential backgrounds using Photoshop 7. The horse is one I photographed. The background came from Pixabay.com photographer, pezibear.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil - Reference

I choose it because it was the most straight forward. Like many of you reading this post, this is my first attempt at drawing a bokeh-style background, so I wanted to keep things simple!

You also don’t have to browse bokeh photographs very long to discover the bokeh pattern can easily overwhelm your subject if you’re not careful!

I used Prismacolor pencils and Stonehenge paper in the Fawn color. Fawn, because it provided a natural color foundation for the background and the horse.

The drawing is 8×10, not that big, but I quickly discovered drawing a bokeh background is no hasty matter, so I’ll be focusing on the left side of the background for this demonstration.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil

Step 1: Prepare the Line Drawing

Develop a line drawing from the reference photo and transfer it to the drawing surface, in this case, Stonehenge Fawn.

Because this composition features light-colored objects against a dark background and flyaway hairs, I outlined the horse and most of the circles. You don’t have to do this if your transferred line drawing is crisp and clear (mine wasn’t) or if you don’t generally work over lighter areas (I sometimes do.)

If you do outline, match the color you use to the objects you’re outlining. I used dark brown for the horse and dark green for the upper circles. For the circles in the yellowish area (not shown), I used goldenrod.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 01

Step 2: Color Selection

For this drawing, I selected two additional greens, and three additional yellows. Those choices were made by physically comparing pencils to the printed reference photo. The background was pretty basic. Dark green as the base with shades of olive green and dark brown.

The bokeh circles are not all the same color or value, though, so that’s why I chose additional yellows and greens. I ended up with dark green, dark brown, and goldenrod from the first step. Additional colors are olive green, limepeel, cream, sand, and jasmine.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil - Background Colors

Step 3: First Round of Color

Color layering began with the circles for the same reason I outlined them: preserving shape, placement, and value. Color placement is illustrated below. You’ll notice that I didn’t layer the same color over all of the circles.

Nor did I do the same number of layers. Part of the reason for that was so you could see the progression in work, but the circles are also different colors and values. No two of them are exactly the same color or value.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 03

The background is dark green, with more layers and better saturation on the left side and fewer layers on toward the right. I worked around each circle to begin, then hatched and cross-hatched additional layers to get a smoother color field.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 04

I continued layering dark green across the background.

At this stage, my main concern was getting down the first color and covering all of the background except the circles. I can’t do much with them until rest of the background is finished, so from this point, it’s a matter of building color layer by layer.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 05

Step 4: Second Round of Color

Next, a layer of olive green over the top half. I extended the green a little further down on the right side of the drawing. I’m still using light pressure and a very sharp pencil, but I’m varying strokes in any way necessary to get good coverage.

Some of the areas are darker than others by design. For example, I want the area around the horse’s ears to end up lighter than the rest, so I barely touched it with olive green.

The smallest circle in the upper right hand corner was also glazed with olive green so it’s darker value than the two nearby circles.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 06

Next is a layer of limepeel.

I layered limepeel over the left side of the upper background, and over the lower right. The upper right corner is more brown, so I didn’t add limepeel in that area.

I also layered limepeel over the small circle in the upper left, the larger circle behind the mane and the next to the rump, and the two smaller ones near the ears.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 07

Step 5: Happy Surprises

You’ll also notice that the way I’m layering color is beginning to suggest new circles in other places, especially in front of the horse’s face. For now, I’m working around those to see how they work with the composition. If they don’t work, I’ll fill them in; if they do work, I’ll emphasize them a little more.

The next step was to darken the values in the areas that are darker, namely the upper corners. I alternated layers of dark brown and indigo blue in both corners and down the right side to create the deep rich green shown in the reference photo. The image below shows two rounds of those colors. Getting close but not quite there.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 08

I followed up with another layer of olive green. This time I covered every part of the upper background except the three brightest circles behind the horse’s head. The next step is developing those circles more completely, so I laid the foundation for that by shading them with a layer or two of olive green applied with medium pressure and/or the side of the pencil.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 09I followed that up with a layer of goldenrod throughout the upper background and a little bit more into the lower background.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background in Colored Pencil - 10

One thing of note is that I shaded a couple of layers of goldenrod in the larger shape adjacent to the horse’s rump. I also shaded goldenrod into some of the other circles to start pushing them into the background.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 11

Step 6: Developing the Bokeh Effect

I began working on the circles with the larger circle above the horse’s rump. I used sharp pencils to layer color with small, circular strokes and medium pressure beginning with cream over all the of the shape except the right side, followed by limepeel, which I blended in the background.

The lighter area on the right end of this shape was drawn with Jasmine and slightly heavier pressure.

To further emphasize that shape, I layered limepeel, sepia, and marine green into the surrounding background.

Going in Circles

Now the focus shifts to individual circles. In the illustration below, I added a thin, wide layer of sienna brown around the edge of the largest circle and worked over the edge of the circle. I then layered marine green over the sienna brown, then burnished the lightest part of the circle with Jasmine, and the darker part with cream.

Next, I began alternating marine green and sepia in the background around that large circle. I used sharp pencils and heavy pressure. Some areas I did nearly burnish, but not all of them.

I also added a circle in the lower left by burnishing a partial circle with cream.

The combination to three overlapping circles near the piece of the mane curving upward were drawn as follows.

  • Limepeel only in the larger, outside circle, color applied with medium to medium-heavy pressure.
  • Limepeel and cream in the middle circle (visible as only a crescent), color applied with medium to medium-heavy pressure.
  • Small circle, color applied with heavy pressure.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 14

Circle Template

For each of these circles, I either used my circle template or drew the circles freehand because they don’t need to be perfect.

I also worked the background and circles in each area at the same time so that no hard edges developed.

One thing I had to be careful of was making each circle solid. A glance at the reference photo shows that some of them are a solid color, but others are not.

There’s still a lot of work to do on this. I’ve spent over five hours over the past week working the drawing and even the most finished part is not completely finished.

A Few Closing Thoughts

I used no solvents. The same results can be achieved—more quickly—by using a solvent to blend colors after every few layers. Solvents I would suggest are rubbing alcohol for light blending, turpentine or odorless mineral spirits for more complete blending.

I kept the bokeh-effect simple, but the method described will work equally well for more complex designs.

If you’re using this style of drawing as a backdrop for another subject keep the design simple. Get it too fancy, and it will compete with the real subject of the drawing.

The most important thing you can do with this type of background is be patient. Take your time choosing and applying colors. Follow the colors in your reference as closely as possible, and concentrate on reproducing what you see in the reference.

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2 Comments

  1. Vickie C.

    Good tutorial, Carrie. Thanks for taking the time to guide us through this one; I can’t wait to try it! I want to mention another blender possibility, and that is a powder blender for a soft blurry look. This can be gotten through brushandpencil.com. I’ve just ordered it and will be practicing lots of Bokeh backgrounds!

    • Vickie,

      Thank you for your kind words. I was a little concerned the post ended too abruptly, but I just ran out of time. Your comment is very encouraging.

      I’m going to continue working on this piece, since it’s a cool background treatment and is the perfect subject for a series of lessons and maybe an eBook. I plan to post an image of the finished upper background when it’s completed.

      But next month’s theme is blending, so I’m also planning to blend it as a demo for one or two of those posts.

      Powder blender is an option, but needs to be used with rough or sanded paper. I’m drawing on Stonehenge, so powder blender wouldn’t work.

      I’ve heard great things about it, though, and want to try it.

      Thanks again.

      Carrie

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