Carrie L. Lewis, Artist

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 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.

Valuable Lessons for Using Colored Pencils

Everyone reaches a point in life when they wish they would have known earlier what they know today. That describes me. There are some lessons for using colored pencils that I would have liked to have known from the beginning.

When I first started dabbling with colored pencils, I’d already been oil painting for many years. I didn’t want a replacement medium, I just wanted a medium that was easier to travel with AND allowed me to create the kind of detailed work I was painting with oils.

Valuable Lessons for Using Colored Pencils-3

Colored pencils checked both those boxes. They were definitely easier—and neater—to travel with than oil paints, and they were made for detailed work.

What they weren’t made for was speed. A background that took 30 to 60 minutes to paint with oil paints took hours to draw with colored pencil. Even then, they never looked finished in colored pencil—there were always specks of paper showing through. Disappointed, I gave up on colored pencils after just a few weeks.

Actually, I gave up on them several times.

Fortunately, something kept drawing me back (pun intended) and I’ve learned some valuable lessons about colored pencils that I’d like to share with you today. Read the full article on EmptyEasel.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

Do you know how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil?

Think carefully. There’s more to it than picking a nice blue and putting it on paper.

Don’t believe me?

Take a look at your box of pencils. Unless you have a small set of pencils, you probably have at least half a dozen shades of blue. Which one is the right one?

And you can’t pick one or two colors that work with every landscape drawing. Not all clear blue skies are the same shade of blue, after all. The color you see on any given day is determined by altitude, the moisture and heat in the air, and the time of year.

A winter sky doesn’t look the same as a summer sky.

Nor does a clear sky in the desert look the same as a clear sky in the mountains.

You can’t trust photographs, either. Not unless you took them yourself. Why? Because photographers—the serious ones—love filters and special lenses. Some of those lenses and filters enhance color and make a rather plain blue sky absolutely luscious.

So just how do you draw a clear blue sky in colored pencil?

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

General Tips on How to Draw a Clear Blue Sky

Lets begin with a few general tips that work no matter what type of blue sky—or any clear sky—you might be drawing. I’m using blues for the following illustrations, but the techniques will work for night skies and sunsets or sunrises, as well.

If You Have a Small Patch of Sky to Draw

If you’re drawing a very small section of sky—a bit a blue peaking through the trees, for example—or if you’re drawing is quite small, consider using a cotton swab or cotton ball to apply color. The result is smooth, very thin color with absolutely no pencil strokes.

The process is simple. Begin by using very heavy pressure to apply the colors you want to use to a piece of scrap paper.

Stroke the cotton swab or cotton ball across the color swatches to pick up color.
Next, stroke your drawing with the cotton swab or cotton ball with light to medium pressure.

Continue adding layers until the sky is the color and value you want. “Recharge” the cotton swab or cotton ball frequently by rubbing it against the color swabs.

If you want a clear sky with no variations, continue to layer color over every inch of the sky patch, and then blend with the cotton swab or cotton ball until the color is saturated and looks the way you want it to look.

I described the process more fully in Add Color to a Colored Pencil Drawing with Bath Tissue. The process is the same—but more precise—if you replace the bath tissue with cotton swabs or cotton balls.

If You Have a Large Sky Area to Draw

With larger areas of sky, the best method is drawing with your pencils.

Layer multiple colors with very light pressure. If you have difficulty drawing with light pressure, hold the pencil as close to the end as you can, and hold it so it’s nearly horizontal. Stroke lightly, with little or no pressure on the pencil. Let the weight of the pencil work for you.

Use the side of a well-sharpened pencil or a woodless pencil to cover larger areas.

Work in circular strokes to avoid the darker areas at the beginning and end of “back-and-forth” strokes.

Always make the sky slightly darker toward the top of your drawing and lighter at the horizon.

Optional: Blend between layers with a tissue or cotton ball to even out color and preserve paper tooth.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

Let me show you step by step how I draw a clear sky. Here’s the reference I’ll be working from.

How to Draw a Clear Blue Sky with Colored Pencil Reference

Choosing the Right Colors

The first thing I do is compare the reference image with my collection of blue pencils. My preferred sky colors are Light Cerulean, Non Photo Blue, Powder Blue, Sky Blue Light, and True Blue, but I could see immediately that none of those colors were a good fit for the shades of blue in this summer-time sky. I’d have to do some blending.

TIP: Having trouble seeing the colors in your reference photo? If it’s a digital image, open it in Photoshop or whatever software you use for photos. Use the color picker and click on the area you want to draw. The color in that area will be displayed isolated from all the other colors and will give you a much clearer idea of the true color. Match your colored pencils to that color.

The lightest blue actually leans toward green. The closest color in my collection proved to be Light Aqua, a color I rarely use for drawing skies.

The lower sky is lighter than the rest, so I also selected a similar color in a lighter value. I made three choices, so I also made three color swatches with Light Aqua. Then I layered each lighter color over a color swatch, as shown below. It was easy to see that Sky Blue Light and Light Aqua provided the best combination.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Color Swatches

The Initial Layers

I outlined the trees with Light Aqua and light pressure. Whenever I draw background elements first, I outline any shapes that overlap it. All you need is a line that’s dark enough to show where the sky ends.

Next, I began filling in the sky with light pressure and careful, closely spaced strokes. Because the end goal is to draw even color with no visible strokes, I combined circular strokes with diagonal strokes and concentrated on a small area.

I always use very light pressure when beginning to draw skies (or almost anything else). Darkness and saturation are developed layer by layer. The topmost part of the patch of color shown below is the result of one or two layers of color. The more saturated area at the bottom is five or six layers, all applied with light pressure and a sharp pencil.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Layering Color

TIP: In the illustration above, my pencil should be sharper. I’ve worn down one side of it and simply turned it so I was drawing with the resulting sharp “edge.” But I’m sometimes a lazy artist, and didn’t sharpen the pencil instead. Laziness usually leads to more work.

Here’s what the area looked like when I finished layering Light Aqua.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Step 1 Finished

Adding Layers

I next layered Sky Blue Light over the lower portion with medium heavy pressure, both to smooth out the layer of Light Aqua and fill in the tooth of the paper.

There’s a warm cast to the lower sky, so I burnished with Cream in a small area at the bottom, and followed up by burnishing White into most of the same area to lighten it a little more.

Keep the edges soft and smooth. Color and value should change so gradually that there are no edges anywhere. Whether you work from one part of the sky to the next or cover all of the sky with every layer, be deliberate in how you apply color. When you find yourself getting sloppy or “just scribbling”, stop. Those scribbles will be difficult to cover so it’s better to take a break.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Burnished

Once the initial color is on the paper, continue building upward. Work with light pressure and multiple layers. If necessary, “weave” different shades of blue in with the original colors, layer by layer.

It’s important to remember that a well-drawn sky will be heavily saturated with color: There should be no paper holes at all if the sky you’re drawing is clear. When I stopped to take this photograph, I estimated I was one-third to one-half finished.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Multiple Layers

Building Saturation

As the sky progresses, I add new colors as well as more layers. The previous image shows True Blue at the top and Light Cerulean Blue throughout the sky from the top nearly to the bottom.

I also added a light layer or two of Ultramarine at the top in the following illustration.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Before Burnishing

A few more layers of True Blue, Non-Photo Blue, and Sky Blue Light.

Every layer was applied with light pressure and careful strokes to cover as much of the paper as possible. I have started increasing pressure a little toward the top, where the color will be the darkest, but I won’t use heavy pressure until the end, when I burnish the sky.

Even so, you can see the difference a few additional layers of color make even if they are applied with light pressure. The point? Don’t burnish too soon!

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Before Burnishing 2


Rather than use a colorless blender for burnishing, I used the same colors I used to color the sky.

When I burnished, I burnished from the top down with Non-Photo Blue, and from the bottom up with Sky Blue Light. Most of the strokes were horizontal and I blended the two colors together as much as possible for smooth transitions.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Burnished

And that’s how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil. At least that’s the way I do it.

There are variations on this theme and much of what I’ve shown you here is determined by paper color and other factors. If you begin with a blue paper, for example, there would be a lot less layering involved.

The type of paper (I used Bristol vellum) and pencils (I used Prismacolor) would also determine how you might need to change how you draw. Bristol vellum doesn’t usually take as many layers to cover because it’s so smooth. Stonehenge, on the other hand, will take more layers to produce the same level of color saturation.

Now that you know the basics of how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil, you can conduct your own experiments to see what works for you.

4 Tips for Presenting Your Art to Galleries

Now that you’ve decided gallery representation is for you and have found a few galleries that are a good fit for your art, the serious work begins. It’s time to present your work to the gallery manager or director.

Speaking as both an artist and a former gallery director, the single most important advice I can offer is to treat contacts with galleries just like you would treat an interview with a corporation for whom you really want to work. And I mean really want to work for. It’s not just another job, it’s THE job for you.

You need to:

• Act professional
• Look professional
• Make a professional presentation

Read the full article on EmptyEasel to break those down.

How to Use Found Texture to Create Visual Interest in Your Colored Pencil Drawings

One way to create great visual texture in your artwork is by placing your paper on top of texture that you find in real life, and roughly scumbling over it to transfer that texture onto your paper.

This article is the first in a series on using various “found” textures from around my studio and house. I’ll begin with the wood flooring in my entryway. Read the full article.

What Is Bokeh and How Can I Use it with Colored Pencil?

I’m wanting to do a bokeh/blurred background in colored pencil for an image I’m working on, but the tutorials seem to range greatly between methods, and none of my practice samples look right. Some say all the circles much be the same size, some say different sizes, and still others say elliptical circles mixed with round ones. Some also say to start with the lightest highlights first, while others say do the dark outside first and leave the highlighted circles for last. Do you happen to have a tutorial on bokeh-like backgrounds in colored pencil?

Thank you for this question. While I’ve used blurred backgrounds in the past, I’d never before heard the term “bokeh”, pronounced bo-kay (like bouquet.) Research led to a wealth of information.

So much, in fact, that I decided to answer the question in two parts. I am planning a detailed tutorial on drawing bokeh backgrounds later this month, but today I’ll be exploring bokeh in a more general sense, as well as answering some of the questions that are easier to answer.

What Is Bokeh and How Can I Use it with Colored Pencil

What is Bokeh?

“Bokeh” is a photography term that refers to the blurry quality of backgrounds in photography. (Here’s the article I read. It won’t tell you how to draw bokeh, but it will tell you what it is and how it looks in photographs.)

Bokeh is the visual quality of out-of-focus areas of a photography. The term applies especially to the use of particular lenses, but can also be achieved if you use a shallow depth of field in taking photographs.

This photograph shows a blurred background. While this is not technically a bokeh-style background, it does show the effect of the method in emphasizing the flowers.

What is Bokeh Blurred Background

This photograph does not. The background is nearly as sharply focused as the flowers.

What is Bokeh Focused Background

The blurred background emphasizes the flowers by making the background look distant. When you draw a bokeh background, you’re doing essentially the same thing–pushing the background into the distance.

Quick Answers

Is Bokeh and Blurred the Same Thing?

They are similar, but they’re not the same.

This photograph shows a simple blurred background. The focus is on the foreground daisies, so the background daisies are out of focus, also known as soft focus. The edges are soft and get softer as the daisies get further away, but they’re still clearly daisies.

What is a Bokeh Background Blurred Daisies

In the following photograph, the background is a bokeh background. The shapes have been created by a lens attachment. They retain the colors of the objects in the background, but there’s no way to be certain whether those objects are tulips, stones, or sparkles on water.

What is a Bokeh Background Bokeh

What Shapes Appear in Bokeh Backgrounds?

Unless you use a special lens attachment, the shapes are generally going to be round. My theory is that the lens opening is round, so the blurred light also appears as round.

They may also be slightly oval.

However, there are lens attachments that create shapes such as stars, flares, and hearts.

Do All The Shapes Have to Be the Same?

If you’re using a lens to create bokeh photographically, the shapes will all be the same and are quite likely to be the same size because the function is in the lens, not whatever you’re shooting.

When it comes to creating a bokeh-like background by using a shallow depth of field, the blurred shapes will resemble whatever is in the background, so they will be different shapes and different sizes.

The Difference This Makes to Your Drawings

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what does it have to do with art?”

Not much, since you can obviously draw whatever type of bokeh or blurred background you want. But it explains the method behind the photographic process and may help you determine how to draw a bokeh background in colored pencil.

It may also help you decide whether a standard blurred background might suit your subject better than a bokeh and when bokeh could be the best choice.

Video Tutorial

The best tutorials I’ve ever seen on this are from Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art. She works in many different mediums, including colored pencil. Many of her subjects are very sharply focused, up-close-and-personal compositions with bokeh-style backgrounds. They all look great. If you watch almost any of her bird or butterfly videos, you’ll see her using that type of background.

But she uses an air brush to get those affects (an amazing process all on it’s own.) Here’s one of the most recent videos showing the air brushing for the background and the colored pencil butterfly drawing. There’s a bit of a promotion on a photo service first, but it’s short. It is a time lapse demo, but Lisa offers commentary over the video.

Other Ways to Draw Bokeh/Blurred Backgrounds

As for myself, I’ve never used bokeh for backgrounds, but I have done quite a few blurred or soft focus backgrounds with colored pencil drawings. Sometime ago, I wrote an article on drawing soft-focus backgrounds for EmptyEasel, which you can read here.

You can also take a look at the tutorial on the palomino filly here. I used a soft-focus background for that.

Prepping a Used Masonite or Wood Panel for a New Painting

Last week on EmptyEasel, I shared my method of removing an old, unfinished painting from a panel so you could re-use the panel. That’s only the first step of the process. Prepping a used Masonite or wood panel for a new painting is just as important. In most cases, you can’t just paint over it.

Acrylic paint is one of those mediums that seems to always be ready to paint over without a lot of prep work.

But what your preferred medium is oil paint? What’s the best way to prepare a used panel so you know new paint will adhere to the panel?

Prepping a Used Masonite or Wood Panel for a New Painting

I’m a frugal artist (some might say cheap), so I hate to throw art supplies away if there’s any hope at all for making further use of them. Consequently, I have more used panels in storage than I have brand new ones.

Over the years, I’ve found several things that don’t work—just painting over the old paintings with a nice, fresh layer of paint, for example. The new paint will peel off the panel, taking your new painting with it.

But I’ve also found a method that does work most the time.

And here’s a bonus! It works for breathing new life into unfinished paintings that have set around for a long time.

The process begins with an onion slice or half, and proper conditioning of the panel’s surface. It’s an easy process and well worth trying before you toss those old panels. Read all about it on EmptyEasel.

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing?

[Backgrounds are] my weakness. I have a little confidence in drawing and painting subjects but have no confidence at all with backgrounds and don’t seem to have many ideas as to what to do. How can I tell what is the best background?

All too often, artists tend to think of the background as serving a minor role in their artwork. They may ignore it altogether, or skip over it quickly to get to the “fun part”: The subject.

But part of what makes good art good art is the way the subject and background work together to form a cohesive “whole”.

The Role of Background

The background should support the subject of the drawing. Whether you’re drawing a still life, a portrait, or a complex action scene, you should choose a background that “sets the stage” for the subject you’ve chosen.

I’m going to show you the five types of backgrounds I do most often, and explain why that type of background works with each subject.

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing

Five Types of Background and How To Decide What is the Best Background

There are more than five ways to do a background, but I want to focus on the five I use most often. I’ll explain each one, then share a couple of tips for when you should consider each background–and when you shouldn’t.

Plain Paper Background

This portrait has a plain paper background. The color of the paper is the background. I did nothing else with it.

What is the Best Background - The Plain Paper Background

This used to be my favorite type of background because it’s the easiest to do. Choose the right color paper, and you’re done with the background!

But it gets rather boring rather quickly, and there are subjects for which a plain paper background just doesn’t work. So although I still use a plain paper background sometimes, I use it sparingly.

Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a simple portrait or still life
  • You don’t have much time to finish a drawing

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The composition is very complex. It’s more difficult to make a plain paper background work well with complex designs.
  • If the only color paper you use is white

Tinted Background

One step up from a plain paper background, this background is essentially a plain paper background with a little bit of pencil work in selected areas. For Blizzard Babe (below), I shaded darker grays into the corners to focus the attention on the gray mare.

What is the Best Background - Tinted Background

The beauty of using this type of background is that you can let the color of the paper carry the weight of the background until the subject is finished or nearly finished. Then you can tint the background with a color (or colors) that go with or accent the colors in the subject.

You can also add color to the corners as I did here, or add color around the subject. In either case, you should use the background to spotlight the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • The subject needs a little more than a plain paper background, but would be overwhelmed by a more developed background.
  • To soften or reduce the starkness of a plain paper background

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject is very complex.

Tonal Background

The drawing below shows a tonal background. In this case, I wanted to create the illusion of a blurry landscape without actually drawing a landscape, so I used the same colors, but applied them randomly, then blended them until there were only color and value patterns.

Think of it like the backdrops used by portrait photographers.

What is the Best Background - Tonal Background

This type of background is more labor intensive than either a plain paper or tinted background, but it is very useful if you want to add color without getting into the detail of a more complex background. It’s very useful for portrait work, still life drawing, or a number of other subjects, so long as the subject is not overly complex.

Use This Background If:

  • Your subject benefits from a more varied background than tinted or plain paper, but not from a more developed background
  • You want a colored background, but prefer using white paper

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject of your drawing is very complex
  • You need to establish a setting for the subject

Nearly Landscaped Background

This background is the half step between a tonal background and a fully landscaped background. As you can see below, the landscape is more clearly a landscape and not just a mottling of color and value.

What is the Best Background - Near Full Background

However, it’s nowhere near as detailed as the fully landscaped background in the illustration below. This type of background is a good way to place your subject in a setting without having to draw a complete landscape. It’s also a great way to suggest mood, though you can do that with a tinted or tonal background, as well.

Use This Background If:

  • You would like the look and feel of a landscape, without all the detail
  • If a setting adds to the composition, but you don’t need a full landscape

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a portrait with a single subject shown “up close” because the increased detail could detract from the subject.
  • The drawing is a “moment in time” drawing, in which you’re attempting to capture not only a subject, but the setting as well.

Fully Landscaped Background

This is just what it sounds like: A landscape with your subject in it.

What is the Best Background - Fully Landscaped Background

In a drawing like this, the setting is just as important to the drawing as the subject. It’s like a meal in a fancy restaurant compared to the same meal at home, on the couch, in front of the TV.

The subject paired with any other type of background would not convey the same emotional message to the viewer. Especially with portrait work, the background is just as much a part of what your client wants to remember as the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • You want to create a scene or tell a story with the artwork
  • The setting is as important as the subject

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The drawing is a basic portrait such as Joker, or Blizzard Babe above
  • A full landscape will distract from the subject

Want to see how to try different backgrounds on a drawing?

Check out this video by Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art. She shows a step-by-step tutorial on trying different backgrounds with your subject before you start drawing. I found this video informative and helpful if you happen to use Photoshop.

Additional Reading

On EmptyEasel: Fast & Easy Colored Pencil Backgrounds

How to Draw a Dark Background with Colored Pencil

How to Draw the Focal Point in Your Next Drawing

How to Scrape Down an Old Painting so You Can Re-use the Panel Underneath

If you’re like me, you have at least a couple paintings lying around somewhere that will never be finished. They started out with a grand and glorious idea, but went astray somewhere. Or maybe you started them over on a different panel, and are left with the old, used panel.

You hate to throw the panels away because you paid good money for them, but there’s no hope for that abandoned painting, and you just aren’t sure it’s safe to paint something new over it.

Is there any hope for those old panels?

How to Scrape Down an Old Painting

There most certainly is, and in this article written for EmptyEasel, I describe the steps I take to remove old paintings from rigid supports. It’s not as difficult as you might think!

So get those half-painted panels out, and dust them off. It’s time to breathe new life into them! Read How to Scrape Down an Old Painting so You Can Re-use the Panel Underneath on EmptyEasel.

How Can I Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting?

What are the best ways to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting?

Whenever anyone asks me this question, it’s almost certain they want to know about color application, method, and so on. That is, after all, what we usually think about when it comes to colored pencil: Method.

There are a couple of ways to get an oil painting-like result with colored pencils that involve method, but that’s not where the process begins if you truly want your colored pencil drawing to look like an oil painting.

How to Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting

Choosing a Support

The process begins at the beginning, with the support you use. You can, of course, use the paper you usually use and the methods I’ll describe in a moment will work. But you’ll still have to frame the drawing under glass. No matter how painterly your drawing, it will still clearly be a drawing.

So the first thing you need to consider is drawing on a rigid support. Something like Pastelbord, or a gessoed panel that doesn’t need to be framed under glass.

There are plenty of options from which to choose, so pick one or two (or three or four), and try them. Find one that works well with your drawing methods and suits your needs, and you’re ready!

Choosing a Method

Almost any method of drawing is capable of producing “painterly” colored pencil work. Why? Because styles of painting range from very loose and minimal to very detailed and complex. I usually think of realistic styles when I want to make a colored pencil drawing look like an oil painting, but that’s not your only option.

Two Options for Saturated Color

I’m going to make a huge assumption here, and say that most of the readers who ask how to make their colored pencil drawings look like oil paintings want to know how to draw rich, saturated color, with no paper holes. I have two suggestions for you!

(If you want to make your drawings look like oil paintings, but not with saturated color, let me know!)

Option 1: Layer, Layer, Layer

The method I prefer is multiple layering. Not five or six layers or even a dozen, but twenty or thirty.

Start with light pressure and careful color application, then gradually increase the pressure with successive layers. Burnish toward the end and alternate burnishing with additional layers of color.

My preferred paper for this kind of work is Stonehenge. It’s a relatively soft paper, but it can take a lot of color. If you use a heavier weight such as 120 lb. (320 gsm), it can also take some abuse. It is a printmaking paper, though, so it is rather susceptible to impression. You can very easily make a mark in it accidentally.

NOTE: Using this method on Stonehenge will produce wonderful color saturation and no paper holes—just like an oil painting—but you will still need to frame it under glass to protect the paper.

Option 2: Solvents

The second method—which I have used but don’t prefer—is the use of solvents.

Turpentine or rubber cement thinner are what I usually use, but only sparingly. You can usually get a couple of good blends with either. I used rubber cement thinner to blend the background on this drawing.

Make a Colored Pencil Drawing Look Like an Oil Painting - Background

I choose this sample, because the blended background looks like a background painted with oils, but the unblended horse is clearly colored pencil. You can clearly see the difference a solvent blend makes in color saturation. In order to make this drawing really look like an oil painting, I’d need to add more layers on the horse, and then possibly blend with solvent.

Other artists use odorless paint thinner or a powder blender, but I don’t personally recommend those, since I have no experience with either.

Tips for Using Solvent to Blend

If you use a solvent to blend, you need to have a lot of color on the paper first, so multiple layers are still important.

You also need a heavier paper. Paper mounted to a rigid support is best, because it will stand up to the fluid solvent better.

Keep gradations in value and color smooth and subtle. Consider the way you put color on the paper, too. Careful strokes, usually following the contours of the subject, but also using other strokes to cover the paper.

NOTE: Using this method on a rigid support will allow you to frame the finished work without glass, which will enhance the similarity to an oil painting.


Those are the best suggestions I can make. It is possible to do a portrait in colored pencil that looks like an oil painting. Though my portraits are usually horses or dogs, I have been able to do some that are difficult to distinguish from an oil painting, even when hanging next to an oil painting.

Except for the glass, of course. The glass is a dead giveaway. Most artists just don’t frame oils under glass!

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