Making Dark Backgrounds with Watercolor Pencils

Making Dark Backgrounds with Watercolor Pencils

This post continues a series on making dark backgrounds for colored pencil work. We’ve already looked at simply drawing the background or drawing on black or dark papers. The most recent post on the subject was about using India ink to under paint a dark background.

So it’s time to consider using watercolor pencils to make dark backgrounds.

Why You Might Want to Make Dark Backgrounds on Your Own

When Thanksgiving passed and Christmas lights began appearing in the neighborhood, I immediately thought about drawing them. Christmas lights are a particular joy, but I’ve never given much thought to drawing them. But sitting on my front porch and gazing down the street, an idea suddenly appeared.

The problem was that I didn’t have any dark paper. Just a full sheet of black Canson Mi-Teintes. I didn’t want to cut into that, but eventually did for the drawing above.

None of my other papers were very dark, so I decided to make my own dark backgrounds.

Over the next few days, I tried a number of different things, and that, naturally enough, led to this series.

I’ve been experimenting with water soluble colored pencils for under drawings, so when I decided to make a dark background, they were my first choice. One experiment was making a black background on Stonehenge paper, so I could do a drawing with white pencils.

This is the result.

How to Back a Dark Background with Water Soluble Colored Pencils - Tree

Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

But it might work for you, so here’s how to make a background like the one above, that you can draw over.

Making Dark Backgrounds with Watercolor Pencils

Step 1: Select the best paper for the job

It’s going to take several layers, and a fair amount of water to make a really deep, dark background, so it’s important to use paper that can handle the moisture.

Watercolor paper is your best choice, but Stonehenge is also a good selection. It handles dampness very well. In fact, unless you get it really wet, it dries flat.

This sample was painted and drawn on a 4.5 x 6 inch piece of Canson L’Aquarelle watercolor paper, 140lb hot press.

Tape your paper to a rigid support as shown above. Use a low-tack masking tape or painter’s masking tape.

Step 2: Select the colors you want to use

Even if you want a black background, it’s a good idea to use other colors with black. Those colors will give the black a depth and visual temperature that black alone cannot mimic. For example, if you want a cool black, a dark blue, dark violet, or dark, cool green are good choices.

For a warmer black, try dark brown and a dark green that leans toward yellow, like an olive green. Since my set of Derwent Watercolour Pencils is limited to 12 colors, I chose the darkest green, darkest blue, and black.

Each color will tint the the black, so select colors based on what you want to draw.

Step 3: Start layering

It doesn’t really matter which color you begin with. Layer each color with a sharp pencil and light to medium pressure. Derwent Watercolour Pencils are on the soft side. When you draw with them dry on this paper, they tend to go blunt quickly. That’s okay. You can continue to use them blunted if you wish, since most of the strokes will disappear when you blend with water.

I layered green in all of the negative space shapes (the background). I outlined each shape first, then filled in the color.

Making Dark Backgrounds - The Green Layer

Next, I added dark blue. Once again, I outlined first, then shaded.

Making Dark Backgrounds - The Blue Layer

The last dry layer was Black.

Step 4: Blend with Water

You can add more colors or more layers of the same color if you wish. I was happy with the look of the dry color after adding black, so I chose not to add more colors.

To blend with water, dip a small, sable round brush into clean water and “paint” it over the color on the paper. Be careful not to paint over the edges in those places where you want sharp edges.

As long as you stroke along the edges first, then paint the rest of each shape, you shouldn’t have difficulty with wet color running into the white areas. Working flat also helps prevent runs and drips, but I did work with the drawing at an angle part of the time and had no problems.

Making Dark Backgrounds - Blend with Water

Step 5: Add More Color if the Background Isn’t Dark Enough

Many colors get lighter as they dry, so my drawing looked good while it was wet, but was too light after it dried. So I added more color.

But I didn’t add dry color.

Instead, I dampened  a brush, then stroked the exposed pigment core on the pencil and brushed the color onto the dry paper. I continued to paint one shape at a time, and repeat the process until the background was as dark as I wanted it.

Making Dark Backgrounds - Layer and Blend

Some of the shapes are darker than others, but that’s okay. I wanted to finish the tree branches first, then I can make whatever adjustments are necessary afterward.

This is the drawing with the trees finished.

It didn’t turn out as I’d expected, but that’s okay. It’s not a bad drawing, and I have some ideas about what to do the next time to get the results I want.

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    1. Melanie,

      Thank you for reading this post and for your question.

      The answer is simple: I always expect my artwork to look better and more realistic than it turns out. But the problem isn’t with the artwork; it’s with me. My expectations are simply too high!

      What would I do differently? I would put more time into the tree branches so they look more realistic. They’re entirely too sketchy!

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