Blending Backgrounds with Powder Blender

Blending backgrounds with powder blender can be faster and easier than drawing blurred backgrounds with traditional drawing methods.

Today’s post is about my first attempt at blending backgrounds with Powder Blender.

This is my second attempt using Clairfontaine Pastelmat Sienna colored paper. I described my first experience here. If you’re interested in traditional drawing methods on Pastelmat, then you’ll want to read How to Draw a Blurred Background.

For this piece, I followed Alyona Nickelsen’s method of colored pencil painting, which is based on the Flemish Seven-Step method. I used many of her Brush & Pencil products, including Powder Blender, ACP Textured Fixative, and Titanium White.

The portrait is 6 inches by 8 inches. As mentioned above, I’m using Clairfontaine Pastelmat.

Blending Backgrounds with Powder Blender

I’m reading Colored Pencil Painting Portraits, and wanted to try the step-by-step background method described in that book.

I didn’t want to just practice, though. I wanted to do an actual work. This portrait was ready for background work, so I decided to work on it.

Since this is a teachable moment, I chose one of the tutorials in the book, and followed it step-by-step. Here’s how that worked.

Step 1: Apply Powder Blender to the Paper

Alyona recommends applying Powder Blender to the paper before you add any color. According to the book, you can use sponge applicators, a brush, or even your finger if you wear a cot.

I chose a #6 sable round brush to apply Powder Blender to the background. It’s very easy to do. Simply lightly touch the Powder Blender with the brush, then brush it onto the background.

You don’t need a lot of Powder Blender. A little bit goes a long way, so use it sparingly.

Powder Blender is a white powder, but it disappears on paper. Even on colored paper like this Sienna Pastelmat.

Step 2: Layer Color

Next, I layered Faber-Castell Polychromos Sky Blue over the background with light to medium-light pressure and big, bold strokes.

My understanding was that I didn’t need careful strokes in order to get smooth color with Powder Blender. So I used light pressure, but essentially scribbled color onto the paper in just a few minutes.

I didn’t even bother covering all of the paper, since I want a blurred look for the background.

Blending Backgrounds with Powder Blender

Step 3: Blend with Powder Blender

Next, I used the same brush to blend the color, which is one of the ways to blend described in Alyona’s book.

Blending with painterly strokes stirred up pigment, but didn’t blend well, so I tried a stippling stroke. Stippling strokes (tapping strokes) pushed pigment down into the tooth of the paper instead of spreading it around.

Most of the strokes blended out nicely, but I wasn’t able to cover all of the paper. That was okay, though. It showed me that I needed more color on the paper for effective blending.

Step 4: Continue Layering Color

I layered more Sky Blue over parts of the background, and then added Earth Green Yellowish in some areas. The additional color will create the look of blurred foliage in the background.

I alternated layering and blending several times without adding more Powder Blender.

The more color on the paper, the more satisfactory the blending process, but you can still see a lot of paper showing through the background. At this stage in the drawing, that doesn’t bother me. I’ll be able to continue layering color until the portrait is complete.

I continued working on the background with Sky Blue and Earth Green Yellowish to build color. I also added Deep Cobalt Green for a darker cooler green, and Dark Indigo to create even darker values. When the greens got too bright, I toned them down with Bistre.

I tried a blending layer with Cinnamon, which is very close to the color of the paper. Blending layers often work on other projects, but I didn’t care for the look of it this time.

When the background was finished, I did a final blend with Powder Blender and the color was ready to be “fixed into place.”

Blending Backgrounds with Powder Blender

Step 5: Spray with ACP Textured Fixative

After finishing with layering and blending, I lightly sprayed the drawing with ACP Textured Fixative.

Two light coats with half an hour of dry time between the two coats. Then I put the drawing away for the day.

My Thoughts on Blending Backgrounds with Powder Blender

So what’s my opinion of Powder Blender? Favorable! I clearly need practice with this new tool, but I need practice with every new tool. We all do.

Overall, I like this background much better than the blurred background I drew on the same paper using traditional methods.

It also took far less time to do this work. Less than two hours total, while it took several hours over a period of days to do the traditional background. Even if the only place you use Powder Blender is the background, it’s well worth the investment.

I blended with a sponge applicator until I noticed spongy part was coming apart due to friction with the paper. Sanded papers are hard on sponges!

So I went back to my sable brush, but wasn’t getting much good out of that. The next brush, a stiff bristle brush, worked so well that I put the sable brush and the sponge applicators away.

Drawing Rich Black Backgrounds

Drawing Nice Rich Black Backgrounds Featured

Today, I’d like to talk about drawing rich black backgrounds with colored pencils.

I’ve received variations on this question from many readers over the years, and I’ve struggled with it myself.

There are a variety of methods available to colored pencil artists, some of which are simple but take time, and some of which are quick, but require special tools and/or papers.

So rather than give an in-depth answer covering one solution to this problem, I’ll describe four alternatives and provide links to more detailed articles.

Drawing Nice Rich Black Backgrounds

Drawing Rich Black Backgrounds

There are many ways to get rich black backgrounds, so I’ll focus on the four that work best for me.

Let’s begin with the most basic method. Layering.

Layering to Get to Black

Simply putting one layer of color over another is the simplest solution, and the most automatic. You’re layering color anyway, so just keep layering.

However, I can share a two tips to make this process shorter and more productive.

Tip #1: Use More Than One Color

Mix two or more dark colors with black to get rich black colors that don’t look flat. My favorite combination is a dark brown like Prismacolor Dark Brown or Dark Umber and a dark blue like Prismacolor Dark Blue. Brown and blue mixed make a great dark no matter what medium you prefer. I used to make beautiful blacks by mixing brown and blue paint.

I also add a layer of Black now and again to speed up the process. If I want a true black, black will be the final layer. For a cool black, I finish with the blue (or cooler color,) and if I need a warmer black, I finish with the brown (or warmer color.)

This sample shows the progression of layers using Dark Brown, Indigo Blue, and Black (Prismacolor.) The comparison strip along the top is Black applied with very heavy pressure.

I started with light pressure and increased pressure as I filled the tooth of the paper. I burnished the final layer.

But you can use any two dark complementary colors. The final color varies depending on the colors you use, but the end result will be a dark color.

So how many layers should you use?

There is no set number of layers, because a lot depends on the paper and the affect I want to get. The sample above shows eight distinct layers, but I went over the paper several times for each “layer.”

Smooth paper requires fewer layers than toothier papers, but the bottom line is that you need to keep layering until the tooth of the paper is filled.

For more on this method, read How to Draw Rich Black Colors. This isn’t specifically an article on backgrounds, but the principle applies to background drawing.

Tip #2: Blend with Solvent

You can speed up the layering process by blending with solvent every few layers. The solvent breaks down the binding agent in the pigment, allowing the pigments to “flow together” and sink into the tooth of the paper.

It doesn’t take much solvent to smooth out color, but make sure you have enough pigment on the paper for the solvent to blend.

Also make sure you’re using paper that stands up well after being dampened. Stonehenge will dry flat, but only if it’s taped securely to a rigid support before you use solvent on it.

In this illustration, I used solvent on the bottom part of the sample. You can see how much difference it made on some of the lighter layers. It made very little difference on the darkest layers.

NOTE: On the right, I burnished a section with Black (top,) Dark Brown (center,) and Indigo Blue (bottom) to show how much difference the final color makes.

Once the paper is dry, you can add more layers of color and blend again. Continue layering and blending until the background looks the way you want it to look.

How to Blend for Smooth Color describes blending with solvent in more detail.

Use Black or Dark Colored Paper

The easiest (and most difficult) way to get smooth black backgrounds is by drawing on dark paper.

When you use black paper, you can use the color of the paper for the background. You can even layer black over it to make the color a little deeper, depending on the paper you choose.

Drawing on black paper is more difficult because you have to adjust the way you draw everything else. Essentially, you have to draw the highlights and preserve the shadows, instead of preserving the highlights and drawing the shadows, as you do with lighter papers.

But it can be very effective, and is an excellent solution for the problem of smooth, dark backgrounds.

Even dark colors other than black make great backgrounds. I used a dark blue paper for this portrait.

In Tips for Drawing on Black Paper, I describe the basics of drawing effectively on black paper, or any other dark paper.

Mixed Media

Combining media to draw the background is the final option I’ll share today.

You can use any media you prefer from watercolor pencils or watercolor to PanPastels to InkTense pencils or blocks.

If you choose wet media, use a paper made for wet media. 140lb hot pressed watercolor is my recommendation, but any other surface designed for watercolor should also work.

Do all the work with water-based media that you want to do first, and then layer colored pencil over it. The water-based media colors the paper completely without filling up the tooth.

India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds shows you step-by-step how I used India ink under colored pencils. This method will work with any other water-based media.

You have a little more flexibility if you use PanPastels, but I have no personal experience with them, so cannot offer more specific advice.

4 Ways of Drawing Nice Rich Black Backgrounds

There are many other ways to draw rich black backgrounds, of course. The key is finding the method that works best for you and gives you the results you want.

So if one of these methods doesn’t work for you, keep exploring!

Is there a Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

Colored pencils are unlike almost every other artistic medium out there. In a lot of ways, they turn the drawing process upside down. Is there a benefit to starting with the subject, instead of the background?

Here is today’s reader question:

Is there benefit to starting with the subject vs. the background?

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

In the past, there wasn’t much doubt about the answer. But new papers, new tools, and new products have given colored pencil artists brand new ways to use their colored pencils.

Is there Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

So let me answer this reader’s question in two parts.

The Old Way of Using Colored Pencils

I spent 40 years as an oil painter. The first 30 years were exclusively oil painting. It was the medium I learned first and remained my favorite medium all those years.

The advantage to oil painting and most other forms of wet media is that you can paint over the background. That makes it extremely easy to do the background first, and add details over it. I painted horses mostly, so had lots of manes and tails to paint over the background.

For this portrait, I painted the mane two or three times, each time after working on the background. The background was one of the first things I did. The mane was one of the last.

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

You can’t do that so much with colored pencils.

At least not the way I learned them.

Traditional colored pencils used on traditional types of drawing paper eventually make the paper surface slick. When the paper gets too slick, it’s difficult to add color.

If I haven’t yet drawn a windswept mane before my paper gets slick, I’ll have a hard time adding it.

So all those manes and tails I painted so easily over oil backgrounds now have to be worked around with colored pencils.

This colored pencil portrait is similar to the oil portrait above. But in this case, I had to do the horse first, then draw the background around the horse. Yes. Even all that lovely, gorgeous mane.

That’s the biggest benefit to starting with the subject. It’s easier to draw the subject first, and then work around the edges to add the background. Even with more complex subjects.

That’s one reason why I do so many animal drawings with no background!

The New Way of Using Colored Pencils

Thanks to years of research and trial-and-error by Alyona Nickelsen, there is a new way to do colored pencils. Alyona is the artist behind Brush & Pencil.

You’re still using the same pencils. That hasn’t changed.

Alyona developed a line of products she uses with sanded art papers to make colored pencils behave more like wet media. From Powder Blender to ACP Final Fixative, these produces allow artists to use more painterly methods with colored pencils.

Her method, which I’m now learning, allows me to do a background first (working around the subject.) When the background is finished, I seal it with ACP Textured Fixative, then do the subject.

The fixative not only seals the previous layers of color; I can draw over it. So when I draw a horse, I can work around the main edges of the horse with background, seal the background, then add the finer details over the sealed background.

Benefit to Starting with the Subject

This portrait is in-progress. I did the background first, but I didn’t have to work around all of the cat’s hair. Instead, I’ll be able to continue building color saturation and detail step by step by sealing each phase of work before moving on to the next.

The exciting thing is that what works on the edges between background and subject also works within the subject.

So now you have more options.

Is there Benefit to Starting with the Subject?

Starting with the subject still has benefits even when you use Alyona’s methods, but the benefits are not as great.

If nothing else, these new products give you more flexibility and a greater ability to move back and forth between the subject and background.

But if you still prefer traditional methods (and there’s nothing wrong with that,) then the benefits of starting with the subject first are tremendous.

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

Nothing looks more dramatic than a luminous subject against a dark or black background. But what’s the best way to get dark backgrounds with colored pencils?

A reader asked that very question.

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

Because the question was general, I’ll answer by sharing three ways to get dark backgrounds based on personal experience.

How to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

The best way I’ve found to get really dark backgrounds is by layering several dark colors one after another. I include black, but also use dark blues, dark greens, dark purples, and dark browns. The colors I choose affect the final color, but I always end up with a dark background.

I also build up color through multiple layers, and use light pressure for as many of those layers as possible.

Sometimes, I blend with solvent, but I almost always layer more color over the top of the blended color. I simply prefer the look of colored pencil over the look of solvent blended colored pencil.

You can, of course, use just black for the background and get good results.

Now, for a couple of examples using other methods.

How I Made a Dark Background with Colored Paper

The fastest way to make dark backgrounds is to use a dark or black paper. That’s what i did with this portrait.

Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

But I also shaded some of the background with black to deepen the darkness and add emphasis to the portrait.

Black paper comes with its own challenges, though. It can be difficult to get bright brights because the color often seems to disappear. That’s because colored pencils are translucent. The color of the paper shows through the color on the paper, sometimes even after you fill in all the paper holes.

This problem can be overcome with sufficient layers of color. But it’s still difficult to get the same results on black or dark paper you get by drawing a dark background on white paper.

How I Made a Dark Background with Mixed Media

I under painted this portrait with brown India ink. India ink is not opaque, so I let it dry, then added another layer, and went through that process two or three times.

When I couldn’t get the ink any darker, then I layered colored pencil over it. But I didn’t use just black. Instead, I mixed Indigo Blue, Black, then Sienna Brown.

Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

This method is faster than doing the background with colored pencils, but I haven’t used it again. Mostly, I suppose, because I prefer colored pencils.

If I were to use India again, however, I’d mix colors the same way I mix colors of colored pencils. India ink comes in enough colors to mix a dark that’s dark enough to stand on it’s own.

If you decide to try this, either layer individual colors one over another, or try mixing ink as you might mix paint. Let the paper dry completely between layers.

How I Drew a Dark Background with Nothing But Colored Pencils on White Paper

In 2019, I drew outside often, drawing from life any subject that happened to catch my attention. One of those things was a plain, yellow utility flag.

I was drawing on white paper, so after I drew the yellow flag, I decided to add a dark background to create contrast with the flag. What’s more, I used only two colors—black and dark purple. This is the result.

When you make a dark background with just colored pencils, you have a couple of choices.

First, you can use only black and layer color until the paper is completely filled in. If you use light pressure, it takes a lot of layers to build up color. But if you carefully mark off the subject, you can use heavy pressure to apply a couple of layers of black and fill in the tooth of the paper quickly.

As mentioned above, I prefer using more than one color, and often choose three or four colors to mix by layering until I have a nice, dark background. You can do the same thing when drawing your dark backgrounds.

There Are Many Ways to Get Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencil

I’ve listed only a few of those I’ve used successfully. But you can solvent blend, use other mediums like watercolors, pan pastels, or markers to make dark backgrounds.

Will these samples I’ve described work for you? Absolutely.

Will they be your favorite method for drawing dark backgrounds? That depends on your usual drawing methods.

One thing will always work and that’s to experiment, whether you experiment with these methods or others!

How to Decide Background Colors for Portraits

One of the most important decisions for portrait artists is choosing the color of the background. Especially if the background is a simple color. So today, I’d like to share a tips on how to decide background colors.

While these tips are directed at portrait artists, they work equally well for any non-portrait subject with a plain background. Yes, even a still life!

But first, here’s the question.

I just finished a colored pencil portrait. I now [need] to add some background color. How do I decide what colors would compliment the portrait? And is there a “theory” on how to properly do a background, such as lighter values around the face, or darker values? I am a bit puzzled as to which direction to go.

Your help is much appreciated!



Thank you for a good question, Teresa!

How to Decide Background Colors

I spent over 40 years creating portraits of horses and other animals for clients. Many of them were simple backgrounds, so I learned what worked and what didn’t.

Let me assure you it isn’t as complicated as it seems at first glance.

How to Decide Background Colors for Portraits

Choosing the Best Colors

One way to choose a good color for the background, is to choose a color that’s in the portrait itself, but not necessarily a main color.

For Portrait of a Black Horse below, I decided in advance to draw this black horse on medium gray paper. The paper color provided the middle values and base color for the horse, but also made an excellent background. It also saved time because I didn’t have to do anything with the background!

If you’re working on white paper, though, use a color that appears in the subject. In the illustration above, I might do a medium or low brown background with some of the colors in the bridle if I chose white paper.

Or maybe a light blue background with some of the colors in the blue accents.

Another way to decide on background colors is to choose a color that contrasts with the subject. Portrait of a Bay Quarter Horse was drawn on white paper, but I made the background dark to throw all the light on the horse. The black mane and forelock serve as transition areas between the dark background and brightly lighted horse.

While this method can be very effective, it requires a well-lighted subject for best results. Using a dark background like this on a subject that’s moderately lighted results in a ho-hum portrait, and I’m sure you don’t want that!

Highlighting the Subject

Another thing to consider is how you highlight the subject. You don’t have to highlight the subject at all, and can instead do a plain background such as the two examples above.

But you can also use values within the color you choose to throw the spotlight on your subject like I did with this oil portrait.

How to Decide Background Colors

The horse is a dark brown, so I used lighter values around the head and upper neck. The values around the rest of the horse are darker. This puts the emphasis on the head and especially the eye, which is the center of attention.

But also notice that the darker values around the lower neck and shoulder offset the bright middle values in the lower neck and shoulder. The combination keeps that part of the horse from disappearing altogether.

The shift in values is less dramatic in this portrait, but the slightly darker areas in the right upper corner and lower edges still makes the head the center of interest.

How to Decide Background Colors

If your subject is lighter in color, you might consider making the background darker around the head and lighter around the edges. That’s what I did with this dog portrait. Combined with a backlit subject, the mottled background puts all the attention on the white dog.

Eye Appeal is Also Important in Choosing Background Colors

Those principles are sound technical advice, but in the end, my decisions on background color usually come down to one simple thing. Eye appeal.

When two colors work equally well, I always choose the one I like the best.

And sometimes, I just go with a color that appeals to me, and let the rest take care of itself.

If you’re new to portrait work, that probably doesn’t help you much right now, but choosing background colors will become intuitive. It did for me and it will for you, too.

Thank you again for the question!

How to Draw a Blurred Background

During December’s question and answer session, a reader asked how to draw a blurred background. I gave a general answer and a few tips, but didn’t have more specific information.

Today’s post is a step-by-step showing how I drew a blurred background.

How to Draw a Blurred Background

Although quite long, this tutorial covers only the background. Watch for the cat in a few weeks.

I’m working on Clairefontaine Pastelmat for the first time. The color is Sienna, which is very close to the same color as Prismacolor Yellow Ochre. Just a bit more orange.

I’m using a combination of pencils, but mostly Prismacolor and Faber-Castell Polychromos.

The reference photo is one of my own, and is of our oldest cat, which we lost due to the infirmities of old age on August 21, 2019.

How to Draw a Blurred Background - The Reference Photo

How to Draw a Blurred Background

Creating and Transferring the Line Drawing

I roughed in the initial sketch using Dan Duhrkoop’s drawing method as described in How to Draw Exactly What You See. I described that process in a previous post, which you can read here.

When the drawing was correct, I made a sheet of homemade transfer paper to try on the Clairefontaine Pastelmat. It worked well enough to draw a border with medium-heavy pressure, but couldn’t transfer the drawing with medium light pressure.

So I switched to a Verithin pencil and used medium-heavy to heavy pressure. The transfer worked best if I drew short, straight lines, but I had to go over some of it twice. I also had to clean up smudges afterward, but that was easily done with mounting putty.

How to Draw a Blurred Background - The Line Drawing

Getting Started

To establish the blurred background, I alternated layers of Prismacolor Cool Grey 20% and Slate Grey in the area behind Thomas’ head, beginning with Slate Grey in the corners, then Cool Grey 20% over all of that. I covered the paper with two or three layers of each, then added vague shapes with Slate Grey.

Then I lightly sketched the tree shapes in the rest of the background with Slate Grey.

I layered Prismacolor Slate Grey over the tree shapes with medium-light pressure, and the pencil held at about 45-degrees. I used circular strokes and did a couple of even layers for the base value, then went over the shadows with a couple of additional layers.

Smooth color layers is essential to drawing believable blurred backgrounds.

Then I used the side of the pencil, medium-light pressure, and circular strokes to add a few more shapes loosely based on the reference photo. Mostly to break up the larger negative areas.

I kept the edges soft by working over those I’d sketched earlier.

First Layers of Color

Next, I layered Cool Grey 20% over all of the background (including the trees) with medium-light pressure and circular strokes. This blending layer unified the background and softened the edges nicely.

Circular strokes left somewhat mottled color layer, though, so I switched to a vertical, back-and-forth stroke for the next layer. That created a much nicer, smoother color layer and a far more pleasing appearance.

To finish the session, I layered White over the negative spaces in the background, using medium-light pressure and small, circular strokes. I layered White almost to the bottom so that the negative spaces (which are sky in the reference photo) were lighter in value at the top than at the bottom.

Sometimes, shading the negative spaces is the best method for establishing a blurred background.

Laying in the Sky

Next, I layered Prismacolor Mediterranean Blue into the upper portions of the sky. I continued using medium-light pressure and a blunt pencil, but added only one or two layers in the darker areas at the top, and only one layer further down. I didn’t add blue toward the bottom, because this blue is too dark and gray.

After that, I layered Polychromos Ultramarine into the upper portions of the sky. I used light to medium-light pressure and whatever stroke or combination of strokes best filled in each area.

Dry Blending to Blur the Shapes

After the previous step, I dry blended the sky with a bristle brush in three stages. The first stage was with a corner of the brush and blending each shape individually.

For the second stage, I used the flat of the brush and blended across all the shapes horizontally, and the third blend was with the flat of the brush and vertical strokes. Working over the tree shapes helped blur them and make them look more distant and out-of-focus.

In the areas where I had several layers of color, the result was very pleasing. The color smoothed out nicely, creating a beautiful foundation for the blurred background I wanted.

But in those areas where I had only two or three layers of color, the dry blend accomplished very little.

The Next Round of Color

I used Slate Blue with medium pressure, and rough, open vertical strokes to shade the larger trees.

I continued shading the trees and larger branches with Slate Blue using medium pressure and firm, vertical strokes. The tree behind Thomas’ mouth is next closest, so I used the same strokes, but made the strokes less defined.

For the larger branches criss-crossing the background, I layered Slate Blue with no visible strokes. I used fewer layers on branches that are further away so that they were lighter in value.

To darken the shadows on the three closest trees, I used Black Raspberry applied in vertical strokes.

Next, I used medium-heavy pressure and the side of a sharp pencil to blend the largest trees with Yellow Ochre. I chose Yellow Ochre because the light is golden, evening light, and because it matched the color of the paper.

Using the side of the pencil softened the strokes already on the paper and working over every part of each tree unified the shapes.

Darkening the Darkest Values

Beginning with Dark Umber in the shadows on the trees, I layered color with medium-heavy pressure and strong, vertical strokes. I applied Light Umber in the same way into the highlights and lighter middle values. In some areas, I worked over Dark Umber with Light Umber, while using neither color in other areas.

I next added more Dark Umber with a diagonal stroke to soften the edges between light and dark.

I finished the two large trees (for now) by layering Light Umber over most of the lighter areas with medium-heavy pressure and diagonal strokes.

Correcting Mistakes on Pastelmat

At this point, I realized I’d made a mistake in drawing one of the trees. That tree is one of my favorite life drawing subjects and I’d totally misdrawn it.

And I immediately discovered another benefit to Pastelmat. It’s easy to correct mistakes. With a mistake like this on any traditional paper, I would’ve had to start over or live with the mistake. Or at best with a partially corrected mistake.

I sketched in the right shape with Light Umber.

Next, I filled in the shape with even color, then added two darker areas, still with Light Umber.

The correction was completed by blending the new branch into the existing tree. It’s impossible to tell where the correction is!

Koh-I-Nor Pencils on Pastelmat

I then decided to try Koh-I-Nor Progresso Woodless pencils to see if I could layer color fast, then dry blend it. I layered Sky Blue over the top half of the sky using medium-heavy pressure with horizontal strokes.

Next, I layered Light Grey over the sky using medium-heavy pressure and a mix of horizontal and vertical strokes. Then I added two layers of White over the whole thing, one layer with horizontal strokes, the second with vertical strokes.

For all of those colors, I used medium-heavy pressure. I also worked over all but the largest trees.

Multiple layers and varied strokes help create saturated color for blurred backgrounds.

I used a well-worn bristle brush to blend the layers together. To begin with, I used the corner of the brush, but that didn’t do much good, so I used the flat edge with short, vertical strokes to push the layers together and pull one color into another. Circular strokes dislodged more pigment dust than it blended.

Back to Polychromos & Prismacolor

It never hurts to experiment, even when the experiments fail. I didn’t like the Progresso pencils, so went back to Faber-Castell Polychromos.

I also started working the background section by section, something I should have done from the beginning.

The first Polychromos color was Sky Blue, which I layered from the top down. Cold Grey I was next, layered from the bottom up with firm pressure and short horizontal strokes. I overlapped the two colors in the center.

For the branches, I used Brown Ochre, then blended that area with Gamsol and a small round sable, using tapping strokes.

While those areas dried, I added Sky Blue and Cold Grey I to the areas between and in front of Thomas’ ears. This time I tried blending pigment dust with a bristle brush, then with my fingers. Neither method appeared satisfactory.

Mixing brands of pencils as well as colors is helpful in drawing a blurred background.

The Final Layers

To finish the blurred background, I added Faber-Castell Cold Grey I into the sky holes with medium-heavy or heavier pressure and a variety of strokes. My main goal now was smooth color and soft edges.

I used touches of Olive Yellowish-Green and Indianthrene Blue in some of the larger branches that are further away. For other branches, I worked around the branches so they showed up blue with no brown.

Next, I switched to Prismacolor French Grey 20% and burnished the sky holes, starting at the bottom. I used a blunt pencil and a variety of strokes to fill in the paper holes.

When I finished the sky, I used French Grey 70% and Slate Blue to rough in more trees. I sketched in branches of different sizes, values, and colors, and in different directions to fill in the background a little more.

Finally, I did a light solvent blend with a small round sable brush. I wanted to soften the edges between sky and branches, so I stroked in the direction the branches grew and started at the base of each branch or twig, and stroked outward.

This blurred background is ready for a final review.

Drawing a Blurred Background on Pastelmat


This started out as a simple tutorial on drawing a blurred background. What a journey it’s turned out to be!

Even so, I hope you enjoyed it and learned from it. And I hope you’ll try drawing a blurred background of your own. Hopefully, it will go more smoothly than mine!

This tutorial was drawn on Clairefontaine Pastelmat. I’ve also written a blurred background tutorial for EmptyEasel, which was drawn on regular drawing paper. Read How to Draw a “Soft Focus” Background with Colored Pencil for more tips.

How to Draw a Blurry Background

Today’s subject is how to draw a blurry background. Here is the reader question.

I would like to know how muted backgrounds are done. It’s where all the background looks like it’s melted. No specific item is clear. Please help.

I am understanding the question to refer to soft focus, blurred, or bokeh backgrounds. If I’m in error, please correct me, Mardy.

How to Draw a Blurry Background

I’ve already written on drawing a bokeh background, which is one form of a blurry or muted background. So I’ll talk about soft-focus or blurry backgrounds in this post.

What Makes a Blurry Background Blurry

The edges you draw determines blurriness. The softer the edges, the blurrier the drawing looks. Whether you draw intentional edges that are crisp, or whether they just happen due to overlapping strokes, the sharper and clearer the edges are, the less blurry the area looks. That’s because sharp focus brings things forward, and softer focus pushes things into the background.

Here’s a landscape photo. I cropped it but that’s all.

How to Draw a Blurry Background
This photo shows the landscape in crisp focus, the way you’d see it if you were looking at it in person.

This is the same photo, but after I’ve used a blur filter on it in a photo editor.

The edges have been blurred slightly in this photo. You can still tell all the trees apart, but they all have softer edges and are out of focus.

This version shows a little bit more blurring.

A little more blurry. It’s more difficult to see individual trees in the background. The main tree still stands out, but now it’s more because of shape and color than because you can clearly see the edges.

And in this one, I used a different filter to totally “explode” the shapes.

In this photo, none of the trees are distinguishable as trees, let alone as separate trees. Instead, the landscape is reduced to colors and vague shapes with no clear edges.

How to Draw a Blurry Background

The same principles apply to drawing a blurry background. The more you soften the edges of shapes, the blurrier those shapes appear. So when you want to draw a blurry background, avoid creating sharp edges either between colors or values.

How do you do that?

By overlapping the light and dark areas in the background, and fading one color into another.

One Way I Draw a Blurry background

Here’s a quick demo of one way I draw blurry backgrounds. In fact, it’s my favorite “blurry background” drawing method.

I usually begin with a medium- or light-value color as a base. I use light pressure and a sharp pencil to layer color randomly, leaving some areas untouched while others have multiple layers.

How to Draw a Blurry Background

Repeat the process with the next color.

If there’s a pattern in your background, such as vague shapes of trees, you can follow that pattern, but don’t make it too obvious.

Apply colors in multiple layers. If I’m using four colors for a background, for example, I’ll go through all four colors two or three times, always with light pressure, often in the same order. That’s not a hard and fast rule, by any means, but it’s a place to start.

And don’t repeat edges. Overlap them enough to keep them from getting too crisp.

Continue layering one color over another until the background is the way you want it.

The process is described in full in the palomino horse tutorial.

Here is the finished drawing.

How to Draw a Blurry Background - Finished Drawing

Two other things you might also try

After a few layers, use a neutral color as a blending layer. If I’m using Faber-Castell Polychromos, I often use Warm Grey II for blending. If Prismacolor, French Grey 20% is a good blending color.

The blending layer smooths out the previous layers of color. Use light pressure and draw even color. You want all the layers to be smooth, but this layer should be especially smooth.

If, after you’ve put all the layers you want on the paper, it still doesn’t look right, try burnishing.

When you burnish, you use heavy pressure to grind the colors together. You can use a colorless blender for this, but I usually prefer to use a light color. My favorite burnishing colors are light neutrals such as Cream or Light Umber, but use a color that goes with the colors you’ve already used.


I hope that explains how to draw a blurry background.

Drawing a blurry background may look intimidating at first, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. Don’t worry too much about duplicating your reference photo exactly or getting everything perfect, and it will be much easier!

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.

How to  Draw Dark Backgrounds with Colored Pencils

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?

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.

How to Draw Dark Backgrounds

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.

When you Draw Dark Backgrounds

You can, of course, 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?

Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

When we talked about background options sometime ago, I intended to talk about fast and easy backgrounds for colored pencil drawings. Then a few reader questions on the topic led me in different direction.

So we talked about how to draw a clear sky, how to draw a bokeh background, and tips for deciding the best background for your next drawing. All good topics, but not much that’s fast or easy.

It’s time to share some background options that are not only fast and easy, but fun.

More Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve shared ideas for fast and easy backgrounds here and on EmptyEasel. Ideas you may have thought of already, but some that may be new to you. Things like using pencil shavings or your favorite beverage to color a background.

Read Fast & Easy Background Options for Colored Pencil Drawings on EmptyEasel.

I’ve also written about fast and easy backgrounds using India Ink, and graphite.

But for the most part, those articles were all about backgrounds created with a plan in mind.

Today, I want to share three backgrounds I made with no plan in mind. The fact of the matter is that I was just playing around at the end of the day on a Saturday because I needed a drawing for the week.

Fun, Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

So let’s take a look at each of these backgrounds and I’ll tell you how you can make your own.

Each of the following three samples are on Canson L’Aquarelle 140lb hot press watercolor paper. I had three small pieces cut and decided to play around with watercolor pencils, to see what happened.

Watercolor Pencil Scribbles Etc.

I wet the paper throughly, then stroked a wet brush on the pigment core of a couple of pencils and brushed the color onto the paper.

The yellow isn’t very vibrant, but in some areas, it mixed with blue to make an interesting green.

While the paper was still wet, I drew the loops with a dry pencil. Then I dipped a brush in clean water, and spattered color by stroking the brush across a pencil. When the bristles snapped over the pencil, they threw pigment everywhere (and I do mean everywhere. A drop cloth is advisable.)

More Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencils - Watercolor Scribbles

After the paper was well dry, I painted the tree with oil paints just to see if I could. That was one of two tests combining oils and colored pencils, and you can read Can You Oil Paint Over Colored Pencil? for more on that.

On to the second experiment.

Watercolor Pencil Spatters

I wetted this paper thoroughly as well, but didn’t do washes. Instead, I spattered two or three different colors as described above. The wetter the brush, the bigger and more random the spatters appeared. As the brush dried, the spatters became more intense in color, smaller, and more uniform in shape.

Some of the color bled together to create washes. If you want washes like this, make sure the paper is as wet as you can make it.

You can also alter the shape of the spatters by changing how and where you hold the pencil and brush. I worked from almost directly over the paper. If you hold the pencil closer to the paper or to one side, the spatters will be more elongated.

More Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencils - Watercolor Spatters

Later, I drew the circles and created a spacescape of sorts. The spatter method is ideal for paintings of this type, but you could also use it to create backgrounds for other subjects.

Watercolor Pencil Shavings

The final experiment was a little more daring (to my way of thinking.)

I’ve dissolved chips of watercolor pencil in water to create fluid pigment and it works quite well. It would be another great way to make a fast and easy background for colored pencil.

But this time, I used an X-acto knife to pare shavings directly onto wet paper. That didn’t accomplish much other than partially dissolving some of the smaller pieces of pigment.

When I washed the paper with a wet brush after it had dried, however, it produced a pastel wash of the blended colors. The chips of color remained mostly undissolved, but they also appear to be more or less permanently attached to the paper.

Only time will reveal whether or not that’s true, but they stayed in place while I drew the tree with dry colored pencil.

More Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencils - Watercolor Shavings

Useful Tips

If you try any of these suggestions, tape your paper down first. Since I was just playing around and didn’t expect to create great works of art, I didn’t bother taping any of the pieces of paper. They all curled a little, but since they’re 140lb watercolor paper, they all dried pretty flat.

Tipping a piece of paper after you’ve added color and before it dries is a good way to create random blending. The paper needs to be wet enough for color to “run” for best results. I didn’t try that because I’d used up all my pieces of paper, but it is something I may try the next time I want to do something fun.

Finally, if you know what you plan to draw on the paper, it’s probably a good idea to put the drawing on the paper, then mask it before using any of these techniques. As you can see from my samples, the drawing I put over the background didn’t cover anything that was already on the paper unless I put down a lot of color or used heavy pressure.

Still More Fast and Easy Backgrounds for Colored Pencil Drawings

The EmptyEasel article I mentioned earlier isn’t the only one I wrote. A couple of years later, EmptyEasel published a second article. Read all about more fast and easy backgrounds on EmptyEasel.

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.

Making Dark Backgrounds with Watercolor Pencils

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.

How to Back a Dark Background with Water Soluble Colored Pencils - Christmas Light Drawing

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.

Making Dark Backgrounds - Tape Your Paper to a Rigid Support

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.

Making Dark Backgrounds - The Black Layer

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.

Making Dark Backgrounds - Finished Drawing

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.