There’s nothing like a dark background to make a subject stand out. Especially a brightly lighted one. You have only to look at some of Cecile Baird’s colored pencil work to see how dramatic that can be. But what’s the best way to draw a dark background?
There are several ways to get a dark or black background for your colored pencil drawings. Colored paper, mixed media, and using colored pencil.
Colored paper—and especially dark paper—presents a set of drawing problems better left for another post.
Mixed media with India ink, acrylics, or air brushing are also topics for other posts.
That leaves drawing a dark background with colored pencil; a process that can be time consuming. But it doesn’t have to be, and I’ll show you one way I draw very dark backgrounds quickly.
How to Draw a Dark Background with Colored Pencil
I had in mind a head study of a running horse, but the true subject of the drawing was a long, black mane filled with light. The horse was a beautiful sandy bay in color, with a long, billowing mane.
It might seem counter intuitive, but I planned do a dark background layer by layer. The plan was to use light pressure to layer several different colors to develop a rich black. The process began with Prismacolor Peacock Green and I spent several hours working on it, with this as the end result.
A Change in Course
Before I got any further on the project, it was time to work on the next article for EmptyEasel. I chose to write about the use of masking fluid with colored pencil. That article needed a demonstration piece.
This drawing waited on the easel. I looked at all that mane, and considered the subject of the article.
I decided the horse–more specifically her mane–was the perfect subject for the article.
And so it was. I used both masking fluid and masking film on the mane, working on both at the same time to compare them. The part of the mane that is orange is masking fluid. The rest is masking film.
Drawing the Dark Background
I applied Dark Brown over all of the background using medium pressure (normal handwriting pressure). I added between two and five layers over the entire background, but wasn’t satisfied with the result. So I decided to try an alcohol blend on the left side (in front of the horse).
The alcohol blend removed most of the brown and reduced the background to a shade of green that was too bright. I set the drawing aside to dry overnight and thought about ways to overcome the setback.
Another Change in Course
The article was due within a couple days, so there wasn’t time for layering. There were also other problems to correct.
- The alcohol blend needed to be covered
- There were scratches embedded in the paper (probably by a gritty pencil early in the process). You can see them in the first two images, particularly under the head.
The best way to deal with those issues was heavy applications of color.
So instead of layering one color at a time with light to medium pressure, I chose three colors–Indigo Blue, Dark Brown, and Black–and applied them with medium-heavy to heavy pressure.
Working from one area to the next beginning at the upper right, I layered Indigo Blue and Dark Brown in random patterns. I then added Black. I used medium-heavy pressure for all three colors.
When I’d covered all of the background this way, I burnished it with each color. For most of the background, I burnished with all three colors, usually finishing with black. But I also burnished some areas with only Indigo Blue or Dark Brown, depending on whether I wanted cool tones or warm tones.
Finally, I burnished with Burnt Ochre to accent the head and to introduce the primary color of the horse into the background.
It took two days to finish the background with heavier layers of color. Although I don’t usually prefer this more direct method of drawing, it is a satisfactory look.
Ironically, this drawing never went any further. It lurks somewhere in the studio, waiting for resuscitation, but even if it remains unfinished, it served its purpose.
I know one more way to draw a dark background.
And now you do, too!
If you have a drawing you need to be finish quickly and you want deep colors and saturation, this method may very well be your solution.