How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

Nothing looks more dramatic than a luminous subject against a dark or black background. But what’s the best way to get dark backgrounds with colored pencils?

A reader asked that very question.

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

Because the question was general, I’ll answer by sharing three ways to get dark backgrounds based on personal experience.

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

The best way I’ve found to get really dark backgrounds is by layering several dark colors one after another. I include black, but also use dark blues, dark greens, dark purples, and dark browns. The colors I choose affect the final color, but I always end up with a dark background.

I also build up color through multiple layers, and use light pressure for as many of those layers as possible.

Sometimes, I blend with solvent, but I almost always layer more color over the top of the blended color. I simply prefer the look of colored pencil over the look of solvent blended colored pencil.

You can, of course, use just black for the background and get good results.

Now, for a couple of examples using other methods.

How I Made a Dark Background with Colored Paper

The fastest way to make dark backgrounds is to use a dark or black paper. That’s what i did with this portrait.

Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

But I also shaded some of the background with black to deepen the darkness and add emphasis to the portrait.

Black paper comes with its own challenges, though. It can be difficult to get bright brights because the color often seems to disappear. That’s because colored pencils are translucent. The color of the paper shows through the color on the paper, sometimes even after you fill in all the paper holes.

This problem can be overcome with sufficient layers of color. But it’s still difficult to get the same results on black or dark paper you get by drawing a dark background on white paper.

How I Made a Dark Background with Mixed Media

I under painted this portrait with brown India ink. India ink is not opaque, so I let it dry, then added another layer, and went through that process two or three times.

When I couldn’t get the ink any darker, then I layered colored pencil over it. But I didn’t use just black. Instead, I mixed Indigo Blue, Black, then Sienna Brown.

Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

This method is faster than doing the background with colored pencils, but I haven’t used it again. Mostly, I suppose, because I prefer colored pencils.

If I were to use India again, however, I’d mix colors the same way I mix colors of colored pencils. India ink comes in enough colors to mix a dark that’s dark enough to stand on it’s own.

If you decide to try this, either layer individual colors one over another, or try mixing ink as you might mix paint. Let the paper dry completely between layers.

How I Drew a Dark Background with Nothing But Colored Pencils on White Paper

In 2019, I drew outside often, drawing from life any subject that happened to catch my attention. One of those things was a plain, yellow utility flag.

I was drawing on white paper, so after I drew the yellow flag, I decided to add a dark background to create contrast with the flag. What’s more, I used only two colors—black and dark purple. This is the result.

When you make a dark background with just colored pencils, you have a couple of choices.

First, you can use only black and layer color until the paper is completely filled in. If you use light pressure, it takes a lot of layers to build up color. But if you carefully mark off the subject, you can use heavy pressure to apply a couple of layers of black and fill in the tooth of the paper quickly.

As mentioned above, I prefer using more than one color, and often choose three or four colors to mix by layering until I have a nice, dark background. You can do the same thing when drawing your dark backgrounds.

There Are Many Ways to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencil

I’ve listed only a few of those I’ve used successfully. But you can solvent blend, use other mediums like watercolors, pan pastels, or markers to make dark backgrounds.

Will these samples I’ve described work for you? Absolutely.

Will they be your favorite method for drawing dark backgrounds? That depends on your usual drawing methods.

One thing will always work and that’s to experiment, whether you experiment with these methods or others!


  1. Gail M Jones

    Hi Carrie, love the info for getting rich, dark backgrounds. One little helpful tool for rich black backgrounds was recommended by Cynthia Knox in some of her tutorials. It is the black Stabilo pencil. When you use it over several layers of other colored pencils and burnish with it, it gives a solid finish to any black background on white paper. I use it a lot for my black backgrounds.

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