Drawing Smooth Dark Backgrounds

Drawing Smooth Dark Backgrounds

Drawing smooth dark backgrounds with colored pencils is a time-consuming process, especially if you’re drawing on white paper or a light-colored paper.

Today’s question comes from a reader who is trying to draw dark backgrounds. Here’s what she has to say:

Dark or even black backgrounds are tedious to accomplish using lots of glazing and still maintaining a light touch. I use Stonehenge paper which also has a fine tooth. I have also used OMS to blend and force the color into the pockets. Small areas are easier but large areas are a challenge. Can you help?

I can, but I have to say first that there is no quick fix on this. The keys are practice and patience.

I know. Not what most of us want to hear!

So let me help a little more than that by suggesting two things you can practice.

Drawing Smooth Dark Backgrounds

Layer Different Colors

Even if you want to draw a black background, it’s helpful to alternate different colors. My favorite color combinations for dark backgrounds are dark blue and dark brown with a layer of black thrown in here and there. Dark blues and dark browns make quite nice dark colors that are neither blue nor brown. The black adds a bit more punch.

What’s more, you can alter the color temperature quite easily by finishing with blue if you want a cool color or brown if you want a warm color.

Greens, purples, and dark reds can also be added (or mixed together) for interesting variations on dark backgrounds.

Here’s an example.
Adding a dark background with complementary colors creates contrast that can give your drawing extra zing.

I drew this utility flag on white paper. After the flag was finished, I decided it needed a dark background in order to make the flag really stand out.

Placing complementary colors next to each other also creates visual zing, so I alternated layers of black and dark purple. You can see bits of purple around the edges.

The paper I used for this plein aire drawing had more tooth than I usually use, so I didn’t bother filling in all the tooth. Instead, I focused on the area around the flag, and let the dark colors fade out around the edges.

You can use only one color to make dark backgrounds like this, and layer color until the paper is filled in.

Or you can mix two or more dark colors. I prefer mixing colors because I think it produces a better dark color. Mixing colors also allows me to create variations in the color and shading of the background if I want to. This is especially effective for portraits, where you might want to “frame” the subject with color or value.

Use a Light Touch

The reader mentioned working on Stonehenge. Stonehenge is a smooth paper with a velvety touch, so it’s relatively easy to lay down color smoothly.

But it’s also a bit delicate. It’s oh-so easy to scuff the surface if you’re not careful. So use a light touch for as many layers as possible.

This illustration shows three stages in drawing of a dark background that involved many, many layers. I used several colors starting with a light blue-green and working my way up to Black, dark browns, and other earth tones. This drawing is on mat board so I was able to increase the pressure until I burnished the last couple of layers.

I drew this background with a lot of layering, working from light colors through the darkest colors.

You can burnish on Stonehenge, but don’t burnish until the final layer or two. Otherwise you’ll have difficulty adding all the layers you need.

If you don’t scuff the paper before that.

These Two Things are Key to Drawing Smooth Dark Backgrounds

You can also solvent blend, use other mediums like watercolors, PanPastels, or markers to make dark backgrounds. Just make sure if you do anything that dampens the paper to tape it securely to a rigid surface first. Stonehenge will dry flat, but only if it’s taped down.

Also remember to use moderate amounts of solvent or water unless you’re working on watercolor paper.

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!

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!


  1. Gail Jones

    I layer the colors you mention and then use a black Stabilo Aquarellable pencil for burnishing the last layer. That gives a really beautiful, smooth, black finish.

  2. Gail Jones

    My apologies Carrie, the pencil is called Stabilo All Stabilo. It can be used for writing on glass. Cynthia Knox uses them for many of her black backgrounds.

  3. Richard A Steffens

    On some [of] those dark backgrounds, you might consider carefully using soft pastels. I do, often times. Use cotton balls to add dark blues, blacks, greys, etc. I learned to be patient doing this so I didn’t smear on the picture itself or get it all over me. Once I’ve got it on the way I like it, I put a sprayed clear coat [glossy] on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *