How to Draw a Blurred Background

During December’s question and answer session, a reader asked how to draw a blurred background. I gave a general answer and a few tips, but didn’t have more specific information.

Today’s post is a step-by-step showing how I drew a blurred background.

How to Draw a Blurred Background

Although quite long, this tutorial covers only the background. Watch for the cat in a few weeks.

I’m working on Clairefontaine Pastelmat for the first time. The color is Sienna, which is very close to the same color as Prismacolor Yellow Ochre. Just a bit more orange.

I’m using a combination of pencils, but mostly Prismacolor and Faber-Castell Polychromos.

The reference photo is one of my own, and is of our oldest cat, which we lost due to the infirmities of old age on August 21, 2019.

How to Draw a Blurred Background - The Reference Photo

How to Draw a Blurred Background

Creating and Transferring the Line Drawing

I roughed in the initial sketch using Dan Duhrkoop’s drawing method as described in How to Draw Exactly What You See. I described that process in a previous post, which you can read here.

When the drawing was correct, I made a sheet of homemade transfer paper to try on the Clairefontaine Pastelmat. It worked well enough to draw a border with medium-heavy pressure, but couldn’t transfer the drawing with medium light pressure.

So I switched to a Verithin pencil and used medium-heavy to heavy pressure. The transfer worked best if I drew short, straight lines, but I had to go over some of it twice. I also had to clean up smudges afterward, but that was easily done with mounting putty.

How to Draw a Blurred Background - The Line Drawing

Getting Started

To establish the blurred background, I alternated layers of Prismacolor Cool Grey 20% and Slate Grey in the area behind Thomas’ head, beginning with Slate Grey in the corners, then Cool Grey 20% over all of that. I covered the paper with two or three layers of each, then added vague shapes with Slate Grey.

Then I lightly sketched the tree shapes in the rest of the background with Slate Grey.

I layered Prismacolor Slate Grey over the tree shapes with medium-light pressure, and the pencil held at about 45-degrees. I used circular strokes and did a couple of even layers for the base value, then went over the shadows with a couple of additional layers.

Smooth color layers is essential to drawing believable blurred backgrounds.

Then I used the side of the pencil, medium-light pressure, and circular strokes to add a few more shapes loosely based on the reference photo. Mostly to break up the larger negative areas.

I kept the edges soft by working over those I’d sketched earlier.

First Layers of Color

Next, I layered Cool Grey 20% over all of the background (including the trees) with medium-light pressure and circular strokes. This blending layer unified the background and softened the edges nicely.

Circular strokes left somewhat mottled color layer, though, so I switched to a vertical, back-and-forth stroke for the next layer. That created a much nicer, smoother color layer and a far more pleasing appearance.

To finish the session, I layered White over the negative spaces in the background, using medium-light pressure and small, circular strokes. I layered White almost to the bottom so that the negative spaces (which are sky in the reference photo) were lighter in value at the top than at the bottom.

Sometimes, shading the negative spaces is the best method for establishing a blurred background.

Laying in the Sky

Next, I layered Prismacolor Mediterranean Blue into the upper portions of the sky. I continued using medium-light pressure and a blunt pencil, but added only one or two layers in the darker areas at the top, and only one layer further down. I didn’t add blue toward the bottom, because this blue is too dark and gray.

After that, I layered Polychromos Ultramarine into the upper portions of the sky. I used light to medium-light pressure and whatever stroke or combination of strokes best filled in each area.

Dry Blending to Blur the Shapes

After the previous step, I dry blended the sky with a bristle brush in three stages. The first stage was with a corner of the brush and blending each shape individually.

For the second stage, I used the flat of the brush and blended across all the shapes horizontally, and the third blend was with the flat of the brush and vertical strokes. Working over the tree shapes helped blur them and make them look more distant and out-of-focus.

In the areas where I had several layers of color, the result was very pleasing. The color smoothed out nicely, creating a beautiful foundation for the blurred background I wanted.

But in those areas where I had only two or three layers of color, the dry blend accomplished very little.

The Next Round of Color

I used Slate Blue with medium pressure, and rough, open vertical strokes to shade the larger trees.

I continued shading the trees and larger branches with Slate Blue using medium pressure and firm, vertical strokes. The tree behind Thomas’ mouth is next closest, so I used the same strokes, but made the strokes less defined.

For the larger branches criss-crossing the background, I layered Slate Blue with no visible strokes. I used fewer layers on branches that are further away so that they were lighter in value.

To darken the shadows on the three closest trees, I used Black Raspberry applied in vertical strokes.

Next, I used medium-heavy pressure and the side of a sharp pencil to blend the largest trees with Yellow Ochre. I chose Yellow Ochre because the light is golden, evening light, and because it matched the color of the paper.

Using the side of the pencil softened the strokes already on the paper and working over every part of each tree unified the shapes.

Darkening the Darkest Values

Beginning with Dark Umber in the shadows on the trees, I layered color with medium-heavy pressure and strong, vertical strokes. I applied Light Umber in the same way into the highlights and lighter middle values. In some areas, I worked over Dark Umber with Light Umber, while using neither color in other areas.

I next added more Dark Umber with a diagonal stroke to soften the edges between light and dark.

I finished the two large trees (for now) by layering Light Umber over most of the lighter areas with medium-heavy pressure and diagonal strokes.

Correcting Mistakes on Pastelmat

At this point, I realized I’d made a mistake in drawing one of the trees. That tree is one of my favorite life drawing subjects and I’d totally misdrawn it.

And I immediately discovered another benefit to Pastelmat. It’s easy to correct mistakes. With a mistake like this on any traditional paper, I would’ve had to start over or live with the mistake. Or at best with a partially corrected mistake.

I sketched in the right shape with Light Umber.

Next, I filled in the shape with even color, then added two darker areas, still with Light Umber.

The correction was completed by blending the new branch into the existing tree. It’s impossible to tell where the correction is!

Koh-I-Nor Pencils on Pastelmat

I then decided to try Koh-I-Nor Progresso Woodless pencils to see if I could layer color fast, then dry blend it. I layered Sky Blue over the top half of the sky using medium-heavy pressure with horizontal strokes.

Next, I layered Light Grey over the sky using medium-heavy pressure and a mix of horizontal and vertical strokes. Then I added two layers of White over the whole thing, one layer with horizontal strokes, the second with vertical strokes.

For all of those colors, I used medium-heavy pressure. I also worked over all but the largest trees.

Multiple layers and varied strokes help create saturated color for blurred backgrounds.

I used a well-worn bristle brush to blend the layers together. To begin with, I used the corner of the brush, but that didn’t do much good, so I used the flat edge with short, vertical strokes to push the layers together and pull one color into another. Circular strokes dislodged more pigment dust than it blended.

Back to Polychromos & Prismacolor

It never hurts to experiment, even when the experiments fail. I didn’t like the Progresso pencils, so went back to Faber-Castell Polychromos.

I also started working the background section by section, something I should have done from the beginning.

The first Polychromos color was Sky Blue, which I layered from the top down. Cold Grey I was next, layered from the bottom up with firm pressure and short horizontal strokes. I overlapped the two colors in the center.

For the branches, I used Brown Ochre, then blended that area with Gamsol and a small round sable, using tapping strokes.

While those areas dried, I added Sky Blue and Cold Grey I to the areas between and in front of Thomas’ ears. This time I tried blending pigment dust with a bristle brush, then with my fingers. Neither method appeared satisfactory.

Mixing brands of pencils as well as colors is helpful in drawing a blurred background.

The Final Layers

To finish the blurred background, I added Faber-Castell Cold Grey I into the sky holes with medium-heavy or heavier pressure and a variety of strokes. My main goal now was smooth color and soft edges.

I used touches of Olive Yellowish-Green and Indianthrene Blue in some of the larger branches that are further away. For other branches, I worked around the branches so they showed up blue with no brown.

Next, I switched to Prismacolor French Grey 20% and burnished the sky holes, starting at the bottom. I used a blunt pencil and a variety of strokes to fill in the paper holes.

When I finished the sky, I used French Grey 70% and Slate Blue to rough in more trees. I sketched in branches of different sizes, values, and colors, and in different directions to fill in the background a little more.

Finally, I did a light solvent blend with a small round sable brush. I wanted to soften the edges between sky and branches, so I stroked in the direction the branches grew and started at the base of each branch or twig, and stroked outward.

This blurred background is ready for a final review.

Drawing a Blurred Background on Pastelmat

Whew!

This started out as a simple tutorial on drawing a blurred background. What a journey it’s turned out to be!

Even so, I hope you enjoyed it and learned from it. And I hope you’ll try drawing a blurred background of your own. Hopefully, it will go more smoothly than mine!

This tutorial was drawn on Clairefontaine Pastelmat. I’ve also written a blurred background tutorial for EmptyEasel, which was drawn on regular drawing paper. Read How to Draw a “Soft Focus” Background with Colored Pencil for more tips.

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