How to Draw a Soft Background

How to Draw a Soft Background

Today’s Q&A post is all about how to draw a soft background with colored pencils. The reader asked about a specific type of soft background, but I’ll also talk about other types.

First, here’s the question.

Hi Carrie,
How do you get a soft ‘out of focus’ background? I often choose a colored paper and let that be the background. I would like to get that soft mottled background that looks like watercolor paints have been used.

How to Draw a Soft Background

The method you use to draw a soft background depends a lot on the paper you use. It also depends on the type of soft background you want.

Let’s look at the paper first.

The Type of Paper You Use
Sanded Art Papers

If you use a sanded art paper (Pastelmat, UART, etc.), all you have to do is layer the color on the paper, then blend it with a paper stump. Paper stumps are very useful on sanded art papers. You can blend one or two layers or many more layers.

A bristle brush or solvent are also good blending tools, but I’ve had the best results with a paper stump.

You can also add more color after blending, and then blend again.

Traditional Art Papers

If you use a traditional paper (Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, etc.), you probably won’t be able to blend as easily with a paper stump but you will probably be able to blend that way.

A good way to get soft backgrounds is by layering color softly, with light pressure and careful stroking.

Stonehenge and Canson Mi-Teintes can handle a little bit of solvent blending, so you could blend and soften the background colors with solvent. But you will need to tape the paper to a rigid support first, so it dries flat.

You can also rub the background colors with a piece of paper towel or bath tissue to soften the edges between the colors. This doesn’t fill the tooth of the paper as much as a deeper blend, but it can really soften the background colors and make them look really blurry.

A colorless blender is another good way to blend colors for a blurry background. The biggest disadvantage to this is that it’s often difficult to layer more color after you’ve blended with a colorless blender. This is especially true if you’re using a waxy blender and if you also burnish.

Watercolor Papers

If you use watercolor paper, you can always use either watercolors or water-based colored pencils to layer the background colors, and then use a bit of water to soften the colors and blend them together. Watercolors and watercolor pencils are also good options because you can add regular colored pencils over them very easily.

The Type of Background You Want

If you want a soft background with gentle gradations around the subject like that shown below, layer the colors evenly. Use a very sharp pencil and careful stroking.

Then blend the color with paper towel or tissue paper for velvety smooth color.

This method works best on smooth paper. This drawing is on Strathmore Artagain paper.

On textured paper like Pastelmat, layer the color on the paper, then blend it.

If you want a mottled background (as this reader does), layer colors in such a way that none of the colors cover all of the background. Then use an ordinary paper stump to blend the color, push it down into the tooth of the paper, and soften the edges between the colors.

You can then add more layers and blend again as many times as you wish.

Both of these examples are on smoother, traditional papers. Keep in mind that blending smooth, blurry backgrounds is easier on sanded art papers.

But as you can see from my examples, it is possible to get smooth backgrounds on smooth paper.

Now let’s look at some other options.

Special Tools & Mixed Media

You could also use Brush & Pencil’s Powder Blender on sanded art papers. But I’ve found the paper stump works just as well. Paper stumps are also less expensive, and don’t require that you seal the drawing afterward.

PanPastels are also another great way to get soft, mottled backgrounds. They work a lot the same way that the first method does except you can cover more area more quickly. They blend with a sponge applicator and if you apply them lightly, you can put colored pencil over them. You will need to use a paper made for pastels, though. Otherwise, the pastel is likely to fall off the paper or require sealing with fixative.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot more ways to draw soft backgrounds than these. I could write a separate post and not cover all the options.

But the real key is finding the combination of paper type, methods, and tools that work best for you. I hope I’ve given you a place to start, if nothing else.

Got a question? Ask Carrie!

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