Today, I’d like to talk about drawing rich black backgrounds with colored pencils.
I’ve received variations on this question from many readers over the years, and I’ve struggled with it myself.
There are a variety of methods available to colored pencil artists, some of which are simple but take time, and some of which are quick, but require special tools and/or papers.
So rather than give an in-depth answer covering one solution to this problem, I’ll describe four alternatives and provide links to more detailed articles.
Drawing Rich Black Backgrounds
There are many ways to get rich black backgrounds, so I’ll focus on the four that work best for me.
Let’s begin with the most basic method. Layering.
Layering to Get to Black
Simply putting one layer of color over another is the simplest solution, and the most automatic. You’re layering color anyway, so just keep layering.
However, I can share a two tips to make this process shorter and more productive.
Tip #1: Use More Than One Color
Mix two or more dark colors with black to get rich black colors that don’t look flat. My favorite combination is a dark brown like Prismacolor Dark Brown or Dark Umber and a dark blue like Prismacolor Dark Blue. Brown and blue mixed make a great dark no matter what medium you prefer. I used to make beautiful blacks by mixing brown and blue paint.
I also add a layer of Black now and again to speed up the process. If I want a true black, black will be the final layer. For a cool black, I finish with the blue (or cooler color,) and if I need a warmer black, I finish with the brown (or warmer color.)
This sample shows the progression of layers using Dark Brown, Indigo Blue, and Black (Prismacolor.) The comparison strip along the top is Black applied with very heavy pressure.
I started with light pressure and increased pressure as I filled the tooth of the paper. I burnished the final layer.
But you can use any two dark complementary colors. The final color varies depending on the colors you use, but the end result will be a dark color.
So how many layers should you use?
There is no set number of layers, because a lot depends on the paper and the affect I want to get. The sample above shows eight distinct layers, but I went over the paper several times for each “layer.”
Smooth paper requires fewer layers than toothier papers, but the bottom line is that you need to keep layering until the tooth of the paper is filled.
For more on this method, read How to Draw Rich Black Colors. This isn’t specifically an article on backgrounds, but the principle applies to background drawing.
Tip #2: Blend with Solvent
You can speed up the layering process by blending with solvent every few layers. The solvent breaks down the binding agent in the pigment, allowing the pigments to “flow together” and sink into the tooth of the paper.
It doesn’t take much solvent to smooth out color, but make sure you have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to blend.
Also make sure you’re using paper that stands up well after being dampened. Stonehenge will dry flat, but only if it’s taped securely to a rigid support before you use solvent on it.
In this illustration, I used solvent on the bottom part of the sample. You can see how much difference it made on some of the lighter layers. It made very little difference on the darkest layers.
NOTE: On the right, I burnished a section with Black (top,) Dark Brown (center,) and Indigo Blue (bottom) to show how much difference the final color makes.
Once the paper is dry, you can add more layers of color and blend again. Continue layering and blending until the background looks the way you want it to look.
How to Blend for Smooth Color describes blending with solvent in more detail.
Use Black or Dark Colored Paper
The easiest (and most difficult) way to get smooth black backgrounds is by drawing on dark paper.
When you use black paper, you can use the color of the paper for the background. You can even layer black over it to make the color a little deeper, depending on the paper you choose.
Drawing on black paper is more difficult because you have to adjust the way you draw everything else. Essentially, you have to draw the highlights and preserve the shadows, instead of preserving the highlights and drawing the shadows, as you do with lighter papers.
But it can be very effective, and is an excellent solution for the problem of smooth, dark backgrounds.
Even dark colors other than black make great backgrounds. I used a dark blue paper for this portrait.
In Tips for Drawing on Black Paper, I describe the basics of drawing effectively on black paper, or any other dark paper.
Combining media to draw the background is the final option I’ll share today.
You can use any media you prefer from watercolor pencils or watercolor to PanPastels to InkTense pencils or blocks.
If you choose wet media, use a paper made for wet media. 140lb hot pressed watercolor is my recommendation, but any other surface designed for watercolor should also work.
Do all the work with water-based media that you want to do first, and then layer colored pencil over it. The water-based media colors the paper completely without filling up the tooth.
India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds shows you step-by-step how I used India ink under colored pencils. This method will work with any other water-based media.
You have a little more flexibility if you use PanPastels, but I have no personal experience with them, so cannot offer more specific advice.
4 Ways of Drawing Nice Rich Black Backgrounds
There are many other ways to draw rich black backgrounds, of course. The key is finding the method that works best for you and gives you the results you want.
So if one of these methods doesn’t work for you, keep exploring!
Really good tips here Carrie, thank you for sharing them. I love doing the rich black backgrounds because they really make the other colors pop.
Thank you, Gail.
Dark backgrounds can be very dramatic. Of course they work best on white paper because the subject really stands out.
I’m looking forward to trying something like that on Lux Archival or white Pastelmat. It’s so easy to make nice, dark, solid backgrounds with Powder Blender or PanPastels.
The Pan Pastels are something I have yet to try. I have seen them with CP and they set it off beautifully as a background medium.
Fantastic tips & very helpful. Thanks.
Thank you, Bob!