How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

Let’s talk about one of the easier ways I know to draw dark backgrounds with colored pencils.

You’ve heard me talk about emphasizing your subject by creating contrast between the subject and the things around it. The sample for that article was a yellow flag, which I showed against a white background (not very exciting) and a black background (much more exciting.)

I’m not the only artist who uses dark or black backgrounds to put zing into their work. Cecile Baird has made dark backgrounds, backlit subjects, and high contrast her signature style. Take a look at some of her work and see for yourself.

That’s all well and good, you say, but what’s the best way to draw a black background? Black paper doesn’t give you the contrast that white paper does, and not every artist is comfortable using solvents to blend colors.

So what’s the answer?

How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

I’ve already mentioned that using a dark paper presents challenges that are best addressed in a separate post.

You could also try mixed media. Personally, I’ve tried India ink, watercolor, and watercolor pencils to make dark backgrounds. They’re fine for what they do, but none of them have ever been dark enough on their own. The watercolor pencils were the closest, but even with them, I ended up going over them again with regular colored pencils.

What does that leave? Plain, old colored pencils.

But that’s so much work, you say!

It can be. It doesn’t have to be. Let me show you how I do it.

One disclaimer before I begin: Colored pencils are a naturally slow medium. Even when I say a particular method is quick, remember that that’s compared to other methods. Okay? Okay!

I drew the background for this yellow flag with nothing but two colored pencils. Black over purple, which I chose because purple and yellow are complementary colors.

You need only two or three colors to make deep, dark backgrounds using only colored pencils.

A couple of layers applied with medium pressure or heavier to accent the yellow flag, and it was done.

Following is a quick, step-by-step demo to show you how to draw dark backgrounds with colored pencils. I don’t have a work-in-progress to use, so we’ll do the ever popular boxes!

Step 1: Decide on the Colors

That might seem painfully obvious, but black backgrounds can be very subtle. They may all look black, but you can give your work a more unified look by mixing the black with some of the colors in your subject.

Dark blues and dark greens layered with black give a slightly different black than dark browns. I like to pair horses with dark backgrounds that are a mix of black and some of the earth tones in the horse.

A green apple might be drawn against a background that includes dark green mixed with black.

On the other hand, you might want to try mixing black with the complementary color of the subject for a little, subtle zing (if there is such a thing as subtle zing.) A well-lighted subject against a black background has a lot of contrast built into it. Add a complementary color, and the contrast takes on a bit of added life.

For this demo, I chose four colors: Scarlet Lake, Olive Green, Dark Brown, and Indigo Blue. I did two or three layers each with medium pressure.

Draw Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils - Step 1
Step 2: Add a Layer of Black

Next, I layered Black over each color, increasing the pressure slightly to get the color to stick to what was already on the paper. I didn’t burnish, because I want to add more color after the black.

I also used the same stroke to add black that I used to add the other colors, but didn’t completely cover the other colors. That left areas where the red, green, brown, and blue show more clearly through the black.

You can create subtle variations in dark backgrounds by using more or fewer layers of the colors you use. If your dark background is very large, this can be a good way to add a little visual interest to the background without distracting from the subject.

So that we have a point of comparison between each of the dark colors I’m creating, I made a solid black box below each of the original four. I used only black for that and burnished with a blunt pencil to cover all of the paper.

Step 3: Layer the Original Color

Next, I increased pressure again, and added a couple of layers of each of the original colors. This time, I turned the paper so I was stroking opposite the original strokes to fill in the paper tooth more completely.

I used Bristol Vellum for this demo so there wasn’t much tooth to fill, but changing stroke direction is still a good way to draw smooth color.

Step 4: Finish with More Black

Finally, I layered more Black over each of the boxes. This time, I burnished to fill in as many of the paper holes as possible and to make the color smooth.

Take a look at the black samples below each of the larger boxes. The larger boxes would look black or nearly black on their own, but when you compare them to the smaller black boxes, they actually look quite different. Using only Black to make a dark background could be faster, but it could also look flatter and less interesting when the drawing is finished.

The Bottom Line

When you draw dark backgrounds, you can do more rounds of color than I’ve shown here. The more texture your paper has, the more likely it is that you will have to do more layers.

You can also use more than two colors. You can use as many colors as you want to use. I think the most colors I’ve ever used in one background is three, and you can read about that here. It’s based on a work-in-progress.

And you can use just Black if you prefer.

Whatever you decide to do, this simple method for drawing dark backgrounds can help you get drawings finished more quickly and still add spark to your work!

Who doesn’t want that?

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  1. Rose Viellieuz

    I have tried several tutorials but find I don’t have the exact colors or mfg set used by the artist so I’ve had to improvise. So far I have found Derwent Inktense comes the closest and by it’s nature I don’t have to use as many layers before burnishing. As they are wearing down I will need to replace them with colored pencils and/or water color pencils. Which brands do you recommend?

    1. Rose,

      What type of paper are you using. That will make a difference.

      Any brand of colored pencil should provide enough colors to do dark backgrounds, since it’s the colors, not the specific brands that are necessary. When I mention the brands I use, it’s for information only. Not because that’s the brand you have to use.

      You will get better results with better pencils, though. If you’re using scholastic or student grade pencils, it will be more difficult to get good results. Not impossible, but more difficult.

      Personally, I get faster results with wax-based pencils, because they’re softer as a rule, and lay down more color. Especially with medium pressure or heavier.

      You are doing the right thing by experimenting. Keep doing that, too. Trial and error is the best teacher there is.

  2. Rose Viellieuz

    Wow! Thanks for the fast reply. I am doing my colored pencil drawings on Mi-Teintes Pastel paper, as well as my pastels. I’m finding there are two different ‘tooths’ to the paper, depending on which side I use. I prefer the smoother side as I don’t have to use as much color. I’ve tried black paper, and am thinking about sanded paper but that costs a lot of money so I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. I have a set of Castle premium colored pencils which are wax based I believe.

    1. Rose,

      You’re quite welcome!

      Canson Mi-Teintes is a pastel paper as you know. The front has more texture and is made for pastel work. Some also do colored pencils on the front. It can be done, but takes a lot more work to get smooth color.

      I use the back, which has less texture. It’s still got enough tooth to take a lot of layers of colored pencil. I also like the thickness of the paper, and all those gorgeous colors!

      Check with Fisher, Uart and Clairefontaine. I’ve been able to get free samples from all three companies. The paper sizes are usually 7×9 or smaller, but that’s enough to tell you whether or not you’ll like a paper.

      I’d never heard of Castle Premium colored pencils so looked them up. They are oil-based, and are being marketed for adult coloring book artists, so are probably mid-grade as far as quality. Better than grade school colored pencils but not artist’s quality pencils. You should be able to get good results with them, but I’d suggest you get a few of your favorite colors in artist grade pencils. Faber-Castel Polychromos would be a good comparison, since they’re also oil-based.

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