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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
This is the same photo, but after I’ve used a blur filter on it in a photo editor.
This version shows a little bit more blurring.
And in this one, I used a different filter to totally “explode” the shapes.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
It’s time to share some background options that are not only fast and easy, but fun.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Next, I added dark blue. Once again, I outlined first, then shaded.
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.
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.
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.
Looking for an easy way to complete colored pencil work faster? Have you considered drawing on colored papers?
If not, you should.
One of the most frequent complaints about colored pencil as a medium is the amount of time needed to finish a piece. If the drawing is very large or if you work in a representational style, you can easily spend weeks on a single project.
Maybe even months.
Blending with rubbing alcohol or turpentine are two ways to create layers of vibrant, saturated color quickly, but there’s an even more basic method you might want to consider.
Drawing on Colored Papers to Reduce Drawing Time
Using a colored support is a great way to jump start your next colored pencil project. If you choose a color that provides a base color or a base complementary color to most of the drawing, you won’t need to draw that base as you would if you were to do the same drawing on white paper.
Art papers and museum quality mat boards are available in an array of colors from pastel tints to bright primaries.
An artist with an adventurous streak could spend a year doing the same drawing over and over on different colors and never use the same color twice.
Those two factors alone give you an idea of how much time you can save by drawing on colored paper. Let’s take a look at a few more.
Drawing on colored papers is a great way to set a mood from the start.
Let’s say you want to depict a landscape on a rainy day. You love the light of a gray day and those deeply saturated colors make you itch to draw them.
If you work on white paper, you’ll use a lot of grays and spend a lot of time creating the atmosphere of your subject on a gray day.
Choose light gray or light gray-green paper, on the other hand, and more than half the work is done before you put pencil to paper. Gray paper provides an excellent base for a gray sky or misty air with very little work. Gray-green paper is a good base for the greens in a landscape. Either way, you can skip most of the grays in your pencil box and focus on the subject.
Add a little texture to make color even more time saving.
If you choose a surface with a bit of texture as I did for West of Bazaar below, you can save even more time and still get great results by letting the tooth do some of the work for you. Especially if you’re drawing a rainy landscape or other subject with a soft focus look.
The same scene drawn on white paper, blue paper, or even a brighter paper, would produce different results, and create different moods.
August Morning in Kansas (below) was drawn on sanded art paper. Most sanded art papers are some shade of tan, though Uart now makes a dark gray version, as well.
The tooth of the paper and the color perfectly suited my idea for the hazy, hot August morning I wanted to draw. I could have gotten much the same results with a cream, gray or white paper, but it would have taken more time and effort.
Colored paper can provide a base color or middle values.
This drawing of Blizzard Babe was drawn on light gray mat board. The gray color provided an ideal foundation for this light gray filly and her black gear.
It also worked very well with the blue accents, and was a good foil for the flesh tones.
But the real time saver came in painting the blanket. Or rather, what I didn’t have to paint. Most of the work necessary involved adding highlights and reflected light, and the blue trim. Everything else? That’s the color of the mat board!
For Buckles & Belts in Colored Pencil, I chose light brown mat board with a neutral tint. The color provided a natural highlight color for the horse. It was also a great base color for all of the other colors in the horse’s coat.
I had to draw the facial marking and accent the eye and buckles, but did very little with the background. A light glaze of light blue to create the cool tint of a distant sky and it was done.
Since I painted this piece using the umber under drawing method, beginning with a surface that was already close to the middle values allowed me to concentrate on the shadows and darker middle values. A considerable time-saver for a complex subject like this.
Colored papers improve sketching speed by providing a second (or third color) for limited palette sketches or studies.
I’ve been drawing outside a lot.
Or looking through a window to draw something outside.
Many of my sketching happens while in the car, when I don’t have all of my pencils. Most of the time, I grab a handful of pencils when I leave the house and do limited-palette sketches and studies.
But even with just one or two pencils, I can make a realistic sketch in much less time by working on colored paper.
This drawing, for example. I used one brown pencil on Fawn Stonehenge paper to create this tree study in 30 minutes or less. I could have added a white pencil to draw highlights and made the drawing even more three-dimensional.
Drawing on Colored Papers is A Great Time Saver
No matter how you work or what you prefer to draw, drawing on colored papers can save you a ton of time and help you finish each piece faster. And you know what that means.
Dark backgrounds are great for putting emphasis on light-colored, brightly lighted subjects. You can draw dark backgrounds with colored pencil, but in this post, I want to show you how to speed up the process with India ink and colored pencils.
A Few Notes on India Ink
India ink (also known as Chinese ink) was once widely used for writing (think old-fashioned fountain or quill pens,) and printing. Its most common modern uses are for medical purposes, and drawing. It’s especially popular for inking in comic books and comic strips. I’ve used it to ink in line drawings after transferring them to canvas for oil painting.
India ink is available in black and a rainbow of colors, and is usually fairly translucent in nature. It’s naturally waterproof once dry, so you can add layer after layer for different affects.
When buying India ink, make sure to check the label. Binding agents can be added to the basic ink to make it non-waterproof. For the purposes I’m about to describe, you will probably want waterproof ink (though non-waterproof will also work.)
I use Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bombay inks. They’re lightfast (they won’t fade,) are permanent, totally waterproof, and can be used on a wide variety of surfaces. They are available in an astonishing 24 different colors including white.
Ink is available at Dick Blick and other online art suppliers, but they’re also available in many retail outlets such as Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby has a couple of sets of inks in 12 colors. A great way to get started with ink.
TIP: If you buy at Hobby Lobby, make sure to print out their coupon and get 40% off the most expensive item you buy in the store. I don’t know if the coupon applies with online purchases.
India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds
Here’s how I use India ink and colored pencils to make a dark background.
NOTE: You can use just India ink if you prefer. Mix colors by layering for the best dark values.
Begin by “painting” India ink over the background.
India ink is a water-based product, so it needs to be the first thing you put on paper.
It’s also translucent, so be prepared to use several layers.
You can use either a calligraphy pen or brush to apply the ink. I use brushes because that’s what I have, but I have used drawing pens in the past and some of the nibs would be good for this use. Especially if you need to draw around complex edges.
The brush I used was small sable round, but any type or size of brush can be used. If you’re not sure what to use, do a test sample on scrap paper.
This is the first layer of ink. You can see where my brush strokes overlapped. India ink dries quite fast, especially on absorbent papers, so blending is difficult, resulting in lots of visible brush strokes.
I’m using brown India Ink on Stonehenge paper. I got the broken color at the bottom of the tree by stroking a nearly dry brush sideways across the paper. You can get the same result by pulling wet ink across the paper from more saturated areas.
Keep layering India ink until you get the look you want.
After each layer, I let the paper dry. That usually took no more than five or ten minutes. Then I added another layer.
Here’s my drawing after two layers of ink.
Even though the background is darker, you can still see brush marks from the first layer. Make use of those marks to give your background a little variety if you’re planning to leave the ink layers showing.
If you’re going to cover them with colored pencils, it doesn’t matter what the ink layers look like.
For the following image, I did three more layers of India ink, working from the top down. It is quite a bit darker, but brush strokes are still visible.
If you’re serious about using India ink with colored pencil, get several colors, including black. It would be much easier to get a nice dark background by layering two or more colors, one over another, rather than multiple layers of the same color, as I’m doing.
You also create the opportunity for the lights and darks in each layer to interact layer to layer, providing interesting, random variations in color and value. You can’t plan those sorts of things!
Finish the background with colored pencils.
Once you’ve gone as far as you want to go with India ink, let it dry thoroughly, then start drawing. You don’t need to prep the surface in any way, although you can give the drawing a coat of workable fixative if you wish. The ink will not have filled up the tooth of the paper, so colored pencil can be layered right over the ink.
Consider how the color of the ink will influence the colored pencil, though, because it will have an effect.
I wanted a dark, almost black blue for this drawing, so I chose Indigo Blue. Dark browns and dark blues combine very well to create an even darker, near-black color, so I used a color of pencil that would combine well with brown ink. I layered Indigo Blue on the right side of the drawing, and you can it’s darker than the left side.
But the brown ink does still show through the blue, and will continue to do so unless I burnish the paper (which I don’t intend to do.) The brown under drawing gives the blue a warmth it wouldn’t otherwise have.
I also layered Indigo Blue with lighter pressure closer to the tree, where I want to create the glow of Christmas lights I hope to draw.
I finished up by burnishing with Indigo Blue, then Dark Green, and finally Indigo Blue again.
The result is a deep, rich blue-black around the edges that “brightens” into a warm glow around the tree.
One of the things I like about India ink is that it’s brush-able. As an oil painter, I love brush work. While India ink doesn’t get as dark as quickly as I might like, I do like the results of a little dry-brushing, such as I did on the tree itself.
It is also quick and fairly easy.
So if all you need is a way to fill in the paper tooth quickly, India ink and colored pencils might be for you.
Want to Learn More About Mixed Media with Colored Pencil?
If you’re interested in mixed-media colored pencil work, you don’t want to miss this two-part EmptyEasel series. The series describes how I used India ink with colored pencil.
The project is a small drawing of a quarter horse in a vignette portrait style. The support is vellum finish Rising Stonehenge 250 GSM paper in white and I started with an under drawing using brown India ink.
Each article includes step-by-step illustrations and descriptions.
I’m wanting to do a bokeh/blurred background in colored pencil for an image I’m working on…. Do you happen to have a tutorial on bokeh-like backgrounds in colored pencil?
For the sake of this tutorial, I’m using the word “bokeh” as being different from a simple blurred background. I’ll also be focusing on drawing circles. This method will work no matter what shape you choose for your background.
If you would like to see how to draw a blurred background, check out the palomino filly demo.
This is my reference photo. It’s a composition of a couple of images and is the result of combining the horse with several potential backgrounds using Photoshop 7. The horse is one I photographed. The background came from Pixabay.com photographer, pezibear.
I choose it because it was the most straight forward. Like many of you reading this post, this is my first attempt at drawing a bokeh-style background, so I wanted to keep things simple!
You also don’t have to browse bokeh photographs very long to discover the bokeh pattern can easily overwhelm your subject if you’re not careful!
I used Prismacolor pencils and Stonehenge paper in the Fawn color. Fawn, because it provided a natural color foundation for the background and the horse.
The drawing is 8×10, not that big, but I quickly discovered drawing a bokeh background is no hasty matter, so I’ll be focusing on the left side of the background for this demonstration.
How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil
Step 1: Prepare the Line Drawing
Develop a line drawing from the reference photo and transfer it to the drawing surface, in this case, Stonehenge Fawn.
Because this composition features light-colored objects against a dark background and flyaway hairs, I outlined the horse and most of the circles. You don’t have to do this if your transferred line drawing is crisp and clear (mine wasn’t) or if you don’t generally work over lighter areas (I sometimes do.)
If you do outline, match the color you use to the objects you’re outlining. I used dark brown for the horse and dark green for the upper circles. For the circles in the yellowish area (not shown), I used goldenrod.
Step 2: Color Selection
For this drawing, I selected two additional greens, and three additional yellows. Those choices were made by physically comparing pencils to the printed reference photo. The background was pretty basic. Dark green as the base with shades of olive green and dark brown.
The bokeh circles are not all the same color or value, though, so that’s why I chose additional yellows and greens. I ended up with dark green, dark brown, and goldenrod from the first step. Additional colors are olive green, limepeel, cream, sand, and jasmine.
Step 3: First Round of Color
Color layering began with the circles for the same reason I outlined them: preserving shape, placement, and value. Color placement is illustrated below. You’ll notice that I didn’t layer the same color over all of the circles.
Nor did I do the same number of layers. Part of the reason for that was so you could see the progression in work, but the circles are also different colors and values. No two of them are exactly the same color or value.
The background is dark green, with more layers and better saturation on the left side and fewer layers on toward the right. I worked around each circle to begin, then hatched and cross-hatched additional layers to get a smoother color field.
I continued layering dark green across the background.
At this stage, my main concern was getting down the first color and covering all of the background except the circles. I can’t do much with them until rest of the background is finished, so from this point, it’s a matter of building color layer by layer.
Step 4: Second Round of Color
Next, a layer of olive green over the top half. I extended the green a little further down on the right side of the drawing. I’m still using light pressure and a very sharp pencil, but I’m varying strokes in any way necessary to get good coverage.
Some of the areas are darker than others by design. For example, I want the area around the horse’s ears to end up lighter than the rest, so I barely touched it with olive green.
The smallest circle in the upper right hand corner was also glazed with olive green so it’s darker value than the two nearby circles.
Next is a layer of limepeel.
I layered limepeel over the left side of the upper background, and over the lower right. The upper right corner is more brown, so I didn’t add limepeel in that area.
I also layered limepeel over the small circle in the upper left, the larger circle behind the mane and the next to the rump, and the two smaller ones near the ears.
Step 5: Happy Surprises
You’ll also notice that the way I’m layering color is beginning to suggest new circles in other places, especially in front of the horse’s face. For now, I’m working around those to see how they work with the composition. If they don’t work, I’ll fill them in; if they do work, I’ll emphasize them a little more.
The next step was to darken the values in the areas that are darker, namely the upper corners. I alternated layers of dark brown and indigo blue in both corners and down the right side to create the deep rich green shown in the reference photo. The image below shows two rounds of those colors. Getting close but not quite there.
I followed up with another layer of olive green. This time I covered every part of the upper background except the three brightest circles behind the horse’s head. The next step is developing those circles more completely, so I laid the foundation for that by shading them with a layer or two of olive green applied with medium pressure and/or the side of the pencil.
I followed that up with a layer of goldenrod throughout the upper background and a little bit more into the lower background.
One thing of note is that I shaded a couple of layers of goldenrod in the larger shape adjacent to the horse’s rump. I also shaded goldenrod into some of the other circles to start pushing them into the background.
Step 6: Developing the Bokeh Effect
I began working on the circles with the larger circle above the horse’s rump. I used sharp pencils to layer color with small, circular strokes and medium pressure beginning with cream over all the of the shape except the right side, followed by limepeel, which I blended in the background.
The lighter area on the right end of this shape was drawn with Jasmine and slightly heavier pressure.
To further emphasize that shape, I layered limepeel, sepia, and marine green into the surrounding background.
Going in Circles
Now the focus shifts to individual circles. In the illustration below, I added a thin, wide layer of sienna brown around the edge of the largest circle and worked over the edge of the circle. I then layered marine green over the sienna brown, then burnished the lightest part of the circle with Jasmine, and the darker part with cream.
Next, I began alternating marine green and sepia in the background around that large circle. I used sharp pencils and heavy pressure. Some areas I did nearly burnish, but not all of them.
I also added a circle in the lower left by burnishing a partial circle with cream.
The combination to three overlapping circles near the piece of the mane curving upward were drawn as follows.
Limepeel only in the larger, outside circle, color applied with medium to medium-heavy pressure.
Limepeel and cream in the middle circle (visible as only a crescent), color applied with medium to medium-heavy pressure.
Small circle, color applied with heavy pressure.
For each of these circles, I either used my circle template or drew the circles freehand because they don’t need to be perfect.
I also worked the background and circles in each area at the same time so that no hard edges developed.
One thing I had to be careful of was making each circle solid. A glance at the reference photo shows that some of them are a solid color, but others are not.
There’s still a lot of work to do on this. I’ve spent over five hours over the past week working the drawing and even the most finished part is not completely finished.
A Few Closing Thoughts
I used no solvents. The same results can be achieved—more quickly—by using a solvent to blend colors after every few layers. Solvents I would suggest are rubbing alcohol for light blending, turpentine or odorless mineral spirits for more complete blending.
I kept the bokeh-effect simple, but the method described will work equally well for more complex designs.
If you’re using this style of drawing as a backdrop for another subject keep the design simple. Get it too fancy, and it will compete with the real subject of the drawing.
The most important thing you can do with this type of background is be patient. Take your time choosing and applying colors. Follow the colors in your reference as closely as possible, and concentrate on reproducing what you see in the reference.