How to Draw a Tonal Background

How to Draw a Tonal Background

The last question for this month of reader questions comes from a reader how wants to know how to draw a tonal background. Here’s her question:

‌Could you please expand on tonal backgrounds – show a few examples of what they can look like and how to draw them? I know it’s a daft question but bokeh and blurry backgrounds are so popular these days that other techniques tend to disappear. Sadly.

First, I need to offer a bit of clarification, since this reader also pointed out that I used two different terms when describing the background on the piece below. In the post, What is the Best Background, I referred to this type of background as a tinted background. That’s what I used to call a background like this, in which I just tinted parts of the background to emphasize the subject.

In a more recent post, I referred to the same background as tonal. The difference is a change in name on my part. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point, the word tonal seemed to be a more accurate name than tinted.

Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get to the question itself.

How to Draw a Tonal Background

I’m going to show you two ways to draw a tonal (or tinted if you prefer) background. First, I’ll show you the process on Pastelmat, since that’s the paper I use most often these days.

Then I’ll show you the process for a smoother paper like Canson Mi-Teintes by making a tonal background on the back of the paper.

Since I have no current projects ready to go, my “backgrounds” will actually be on blank pieces of paper. But that’s all right, because the process is the same.

Drawing a Tonal Background on Pastelmat
Step 1

Choose the colors you want to use in the background. For my demo, I used Caput Mortuum Violet on the left and Caput Mortuum Violet and Dark Indigo on the Right. Ordinarily, I’d choose colors based on the colors of my subject, but for this demo, I just picked two colors.

I also chose to use Pastelmat Buttercup because the color shows up better than on white Pastelmat.

Whatever color or colors you choose, start by layering color into the corners of your drawing. I used scumbling (circular) strokes, but you can use any type of stroke.

On the left, I put down at least three layers of Caput Mortuum Violet in the corner, and decreased the number of layers and the pressure toward the center of the paper. But I used light pressure throughout.

In the right corner, I layered Caput Mortuum Violet, then Dark Indigo, then more Caput Mortuum Violet. Again, I made the darkest color in the corner and faded it toward the center of the paper. I also used light pressure for this.

With textured papers, keeping your pencil sharp is not absolutely necessary. You also don’t need to create smooth layers of color. You can clearly see some of the strokes in my sample.

Step 2

When you’ve added as much color as you want, dry blend it with a bristle brush, paper stump, or paper towel.

I used a piece of facial tissue on this sample. If you choose to do that, make sure you use tissue that does not have lotion in it. Also be aware that the Pastelmat will shred the tissue to some extent. Brush or shake off the shreds of tissue paper when you finish blending and you’re good.

How to Draw a Tonal Background

Pastelmat leaves a very fine texture in the color, which gives the background a bit of pizzazz if that’s what you want.

You can also continue to layer and blend color until the texture disappears. You can also layer and blend a color that’s closer to the color of the paper to hide the texture.

Or you can consider the background finished and move on to the subject.

Next, making a tonal background on Canson Mi-Teintes.

Drawing Tonal Backgrounds on Canson Mi-Teintes
Step 1

When drawing a tonal background on Canson Mi-Teintes or any smooth paper, you need to be careful to layer color smoothly. You will be able to blend a little bit, but the smoother you layer color, the smoother the blending will be.

So keep your pencil sharp and use light pressure.

I used scumbling strokes and light pressure to layer Caput Mortuum Violet into each corner, but I applied two to four layers. For each layer, I started in the corner and worked toward the center of the paper. With each successive layer, I worked a little further toward the center, so the color faded gradually.

You can use whatever stroke or combination of strokes that gives you the smoothest color.

Also, I used only one color in this sample, but you can layer more than one color.

Step 2

If this is all the tone you need, you can either leave it as it is or blend it with paper towel or bath tissue. A paper stump and bristle may also work depending on the paper you’re using, but I’ve found them to be less effective on smooth paper than they are on textured papers like Pastelmat.

I blended the upper left corner with tissue. The right corner hasn’t been blended, so you can see the difference.

How to Draw a Tonal Background

If you want to add more color, you can add more now or blend, then add more color.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the process is basically the same for textured papers and smooth papers.

I made these samples without a subject, but I usually create backgrounds like this after I’ve worked on the subject. That way, I have a better idea of just how much color I may need in the background.

But you can do a background like this before you work on the main subject or while you work on the main subject. It’s a very flexible process.

One key thing to remember is that the smoother your paper, the more smoothly you have to layer the color.

But no matter what type of paper you prefer, adding a tonal background to portraits or other subjects can be an easy way to showcase your subject.

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