Drawing on Colored Papers to Finish Faster

Looking for an easy way to complete colored pencil work faster? Have you considered drawing on colored papers?

If not, you should.

Drawing on Colored Papers to Finish Faster

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.

Drawing on Colored Papers - August Morning in Kansas

August Morning in Kansas was my contribution to Ann Kullberg’s DRAW Landscapes book*. The book includes a step-by-step tutorial on this piece.

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.

Drawing on Colored Papers Buckles & Belts

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.

You can finish more pieces!

And isn’t that a goal to which we all aspire?

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India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils for Dark Backgrounds

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 1

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 2

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 3

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 4

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.

India Ink and Colored Pencils - Step 5

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.

Drawing with Colored Pencil over India Ink

Drawing with Colored Pencil over India Ink, Part 2

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil - Reference

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 01

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil - Background Colors

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 03

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 04

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 05

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 06

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 07

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 08

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 09I followed that up with a layer of goldenrod throughout the upper background and a little bit more into the lower background.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background in Colored Pencil - 10

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 11

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.

How to Draw a Bokeh Background with Colored Pencil 14

Circle Template

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.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

Do you know how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil?

Think carefully. There’s more to it than picking a nice blue and putting it on paper.

Don’t believe me?

Take a look at your box of pencils. Unless you have a small set of pencils, you probably have at least half a dozen shades of blue. Which one is the right one?

And you can’t pick one or two colors that work with every landscape drawing. Not all clear blue skies are the same shade of blue, after all. The color you see on any given day is determined by altitude, the moisture and heat in the air, and the time of year.

A winter sky doesn’t look the same as a summer sky.

Nor does a clear sky in the desert look the same as a clear sky in the mountains.

You can’t trust photographs, either. Not unless you took them yourself. Why? Because photographers—the serious ones—love filters and special lenses. Some of those lenses and filters enhance color and make a rather plain blue sky absolutely luscious.

So just how do you draw a clear blue sky in colored pencil?

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

General Tips on How to Draw a Clear Blue Sky

Lets begin with a few general tips that work no matter what type of blue sky—or any clear sky—you might be drawing. I’m using blues for the following illustrations, but the techniques will work for night skies and sunsets or sunrises, as well.

If You Have a Small Patch of Sky to Draw

If you’re drawing a very small section of sky—a bit a blue peaking through the trees, for example—or if you’re drawing is quite small, consider using a cotton swab or cotton ball to apply color. The result is smooth, very thin color with absolutely no pencil strokes.

The process is simple. Begin by using very heavy pressure to apply the colors you want to use to a piece of scrap paper.

Stroke the cotton swab or cotton ball across the color swatches to pick up color.
Next, stroke your drawing with the cotton swab or cotton ball with light to medium pressure.

Continue adding layers until the sky is the color and value you want. “Recharge” the cotton swab or cotton ball frequently by rubbing it against the color swabs.

If you want a clear sky with no variations, continue to layer color over every inch of the sky patch, and then blend with the cotton swab or cotton ball until the color is saturated and looks the way you want it to look.

I described the process more fully in Add Color to a Colored Pencil Drawing with Bath Tissue. The process is the same—but more precise—if you replace the bath tissue with cotton swabs or cotton balls.

If You Have a Large Sky Area to Draw

With larger areas of sky, the best method is drawing with your pencils.

Layer multiple colors with very light pressure. If you have difficulty drawing with light pressure, hold the pencil as close to the end as you can, and hold it so it’s nearly horizontal. Stroke lightly, with little or no pressure on the pencil. Let the weight of the pencil work for you.

Use the side of a well-sharpened pencil or a woodless pencil to cover larger areas.

Work in circular strokes to avoid the darker areas at the beginning and end of “back-and-forth” strokes.

Always make the sky slightly darker toward the top of your drawing and lighter at the horizon.

Optional: Blend between layers with a tissue or cotton ball to even out color and preserve paper tooth.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil

Let me show you step by step how I draw a clear sky. Here’s the reference I’ll be working from.

How to Draw a Clear Blue Sky with Colored Pencil Reference

Choosing the Right Colors

The first thing I do is compare the reference image with my collection of blue pencils. My preferred sky colors are Light Cerulean, Non Photo Blue, Powder Blue, Sky Blue Light, and True Blue, but I could see immediately that none of those colors were a good fit for the shades of blue in this summer-time sky. I’d have to do some blending.

TIP: Having trouble seeing the colors in your reference photo? If it’s a digital image, open it in Photoshop or whatever software you use for photos. Use the color picker and click on the area you want to draw. The color in that area will be displayed isolated from all the other colors and will give you a much clearer idea of the true color. Match your colored pencils to that color.

The lightest blue actually leans toward green. The closest color in my collection proved to be Light Aqua, a color I rarely use for drawing skies.

The lower sky is lighter than the rest, so I also selected a similar color in a lighter value. I made three choices, so I also made three color swatches with Light Aqua. Then I layered each lighter color over a color swatch, as shown below. It was easy to see that Sky Blue Light and Light Aqua provided the best combination.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Color Swatches

The Initial Layers

I outlined the trees with Light Aqua and light pressure. Whenever I draw background elements first, I outline any shapes that overlap it. All you need is a line that’s dark enough to show where the sky ends.

Next, I began filling in the sky with light pressure and careful, closely spaced strokes. Because the end goal is to draw even color with no visible strokes, I combined circular strokes with diagonal strokes and concentrated on a small area.

I always use very light pressure when beginning to draw skies (or almost anything else). Darkness and saturation are developed layer by layer. The topmost part of the patch of color shown below is the result of one or two layers of color. The more saturated area at the bottom is five or six layers, all applied with light pressure and a sharp pencil.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Layering Color

TIP: In the illustration above, my pencil should be sharper. I’ve worn down one side of it and simply turned it so I was drawing with the resulting sharp “edge.” But I’m sometimes a lazy artist, and didn’t sharpen the pencil instead. Laziness usually leads to more work.

Here’s what the area looked like when I finished layering Light Aqua.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Step 1 Finished

Adding Layers

I next layered Sky Blue Light over the lower portion with medium heavy pressure, both to smooth out the layer of Light Aqua and fill in the tooth of the paper.

There’s a warm cast to the lower sky, so I burnished with Cream in a small area at the bottom, and followed up by burnishing White into most of the same area to lighten it a little more.

Keep the edges soft and smooth. Color and value should change so gradually that there are no edges anywhere. Whether you work from one part of the sky to the next or cover all of the sky with every layer, be deliberate in how you apply color. When you find yourself getting sloppy or “just scribbling”, stop. Those scribbles will be difficult to cover so it’s better to take a break.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil - Burnished

Once the initial color is on the paper, continue building upward. Work with light pressure and multiple layers. If necessary, “weave” different shades of blue in with the original colors, layer by layer.

It’s important to remember that a well-drawn sky will be heavily saturated with color: There should be no paper holes at all if the sky you’re drawing is clear. When I stopped to take this photograph, I estimated I was one-third to one-half finished.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Multiple Layers

Building Saturation

As the sky progresses, I add new colors as well as more layers. The previous image shows True Blue at the top and Light Cerulean Blue throughout the sky from the top nearly to the bottom.

I also added a light layer or two of Ultramarine at the top in the following illustration.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Before Burnishing

A few more layers of True Blue, Non-Photo Blue, and Sky Blue Light.

Every layer was applied with light pressure and careful strokes to cover as much of the paper as possible. I have started increasing pressure a little toward the top, where the color will be the darkest, but I won’t use heavy pressure until the end, when I burnish the sky.

Even so, you can see the difference a few additional layers of color make even if they are applied with light pressure. The point? Don’t burnish too soon!

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Before Burnishing 2


Rather than use a colorless blender for burnishing, I used the same colors I used to color the sky.

When I burnished, I burnished from the top down with Non-Photo Blue, and from the bottom up with Sky Blue Light. Most of the strokes were horizontal and I blended the two colors together as much as possible for smooth transitions.

How to Draw a Clear Sky with Colored Pencil Burnished

And that’s how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil. At least that’s the way I do it.

There are variations on this theme and much of what I’ve shown you here is determined by paper color and other factors. If you begin with a blue paper, for example, there would be a lot less layering involved.

The type of paper (I used Bristol vellum) and pencils (I used Prismacolor) would also determine how you might need to change how you draw. Bristol vellum doesn’t usually take as many layers to cover because it’s so smooth. Stonehenge, on the other hand, will take more layers to produce the same level of color saturation.

Now that you know the basics of how to draw a clear sky with colored pencil, you can conduct your own experiments to see what works for you.

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What Is Bokeh and How Can I Use it with Colored Pencil?

I’m wanting to do a bokeh/blurred background in colored pencil for an image I’m working on, but the tutorials seem to range greatly between methods, and none of my practice samples look right. Some say all the circles much be the same size, some say different sizes, and still others say elliptical circles mixed with round ones. Some also say to start with the lightest highlights first, while others say do the dark outside first and leave the highlighted circles for last. Do you happen to have a tutorial on bokeh-like backgrounds in colored pencil?

Thank you for this question. While I’ve used blurred backgrounds in the past, I’d never before heard the term “bokeh”, pronounced bo-kay (like bouquet.) Research led to a wealth of information.

So much, in fact, that I decided to answer the question in two parts. I am planning a detailed tutorial on drawing bokeh backgrounds later this month, but today I’ll be exploring bokeh in a more general sense, as well as answering some of the questions that are easier to answer.

What Is Bokeh and How Can I Use it with Colored Pencil

What is Bokeh?

“Bokeh” is a photography term that refers to the blurry quality of backgrounds in photography. (Here’s the article I read. It won’t tell you how to draw bokeh, but it will tell you what it is and how it looks in photographs.)

Bokeh is the visual quality of out-of-focus areas of a photography. The term applies especially to the use of particular lenses, but can also be achieved if you use a shallow depth of field in taking photographs.

This photograph shows a blurred background. While this is not technically a bokeh-style background, it does show the effect of the method in emphasizing the flowers.

What is Bokeh Blurred Background

This photograph does not. The background is nearly as sharply focused as the flowers.

What is Bokeh Focused Background

The blurred background emphasizes the flowers by making the background look distant. When you draw a bokeh background, you’re doing essentially the same thing–pushing the background into the distance.

Quick Answers

Is Bokeh and Blurred the Same Thing?

They are similar, but they’re not the same.

This photograph shows a simple blurred background. The focus is on the foreground daisies, so the background daisies are out of focus, also known as soft focus. The edges are soft and get softer as the daisies get further away, but they’re still clearly daisies.

What is a Bokeh Background Blurred Daisies

In the following photograph, the background is a bokeh background. The shapes have been created by a lens attachment. They retain the colors of the objects in the background, but there’s no way to be certain whether those objects are tulips, stones, or sparkles on water.

What is a Bokeh Background Bokeh

What Shapes Appear in Bokeh Backgrounds?

Unless you use a special lens attachment, the shapes are generally going to be round. My theory is that the lens opening is round, so the blurred light also appears as round.

They may also be slightly oval.

However, there are lens attachments that create shapes such as stars, flares, and hearts.

Do All The Shapes Have to Be the Same?

If you’re using a lens to create bokeh photographically, the shapes will all be the same and are quite likely to be the same size because the function is in the lens, not whatever you’re shooting.

When it comes to creating a bokeh-like background by using a shallow depth of field, the blurred shapes will resemble whatever is in the background, so they will be different shapes and different sizes.

The Difference This Makes to Your Drawings

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but what does it have to do with art?”

Not much, since you can obviously draw whatever type of bokeh or blurred background you want. But it explains the method behind the photographic process and may help you determine how to draw a bokeh background in colored pencil.

It may also help you decide whether a standard blurred background might suit your subject better than a bokeh and when bokeh could be the best choice.

Video Tutorial

The best tutorials I’ve ever seen on this are from Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art. She works in many different mediums, including colored pencil. Many of her subjects are very sharply focused, up-close-and-personal compositions with bokeh-style backgrounds. They all look great. If you watch almost any of her bird or butterfly videos, you’ll see her using that type of background.

But she uses an air brush to get those affects (an amazing process all on it’s own.) Here’s one of the most recent videos showing the air brushing for the background and the colored pencil butterfly drawing. There’s a bit of a promotion on a photo service first, but it’s short. It is a time lapse demo, but Lisa offers commentary over the video.

Other Ways to Draw Bokeh/Blurred Backgrounds

As for myself, I’ve never used bokeh for backgrounds, but I have done quite a few blurred or soft focus backgrounds with colored pencil drawings. Sometime ago, I wrote an article on drawing soft-focus backgrounds for EmptyEasel, which you can read here.

You can also take a look at the tutorial on the palomino filly here. I used a soft-focus background for that.

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing?

[Backgrounds are] my weakness. I have a little confidence in drawing and painting subjects but have no confidence at all with backgrounds and don’t seem to have many ideas as to what to do. How can I tell what is the best background?

All too often, artists tend to think of the background as serving a minor role in their artwork. They may ignore it altogether, or skip over it quickly to get to the “fun part”: The subject.

But part of what makes good art good art is the way the subject and background work together to form a cohesive “whole”.

The Role of Background

The background should support the subject of the drawing. Whether you’re drawing a still life, a portrait, or a complex action scene, you should choose a background that “sets the stage” for the subject you’ve chosen.

I’m going to show you the five types of backgrounds I do most often, and explain why that type of background works with each subject.

What is the Best Background for Your Next Drawing

Five Types of Background and How To Decide What is the Best Background

There are more than five ways to do a background, but I want to focus on the five I use most often. I’ll explain each one, then share a couple of tips for when you should consider each background–and when you shouldn’t.

Plain Paper Background

This portrait has a plain paper background. The color of the paper is the background. I did nothing else with it.

What is the Best Background - The Plain Paper Background

This used to be my favorite type of background because it’s the easiest to do. Choose the right color paper, and you’re done with the background!

But it gets rather boring rather quickly, and there are subjects for which a plain paper background just doesn’t work. So although I still use a plain paper background sometimes, I use it sparingly.

Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a simple portrait or still life
  • You don’t have much time to finish a drawing

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The composition is very complex. It’s more difficult to make a plain paper background work well with complex designs.
  • If the only color paper you use is white

Tinted Background

One step up from a plain paper background, this background is essentially a plain paper background with a little bit of pencil work in selected areas. For Blizzard Babe (below), I shaded darker grays into the corners to focus the attention on the gray mare.

What is the Best Background - Tinted Background

The beauty of using this type of background is that you can let the color of the paper carry the weight of the background until the subject is finished or nearly finished. Then you can tint the background with a color (or colors) that go with or accent the colors in the subject.

You can also add color to the corners as I did here, or add color around the subject. In either case, you should use the background to spotlight the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • The subject needs a little more than a plain paper background, but would be overwhelmed by a more developed background.
  • To soften or reduce the starkness of a plain paper background

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject is very complex.

Tonal Background

The drawing below shows a tonal background. In this case, I wanted to create the illusion of a blurry landscape without actually drawing a landscape, so I used the same colors, but applied them randomly, then blended them until there were only color and value patterns.

Think of it like the backdrops used by portrait photographers.

What is the Best Background - Tonal Background

This type of background is more labor intensive than either a plain paper or tinted background, but it is very useful if you want to add color without getting into the detail of a more complex background. It’s very useful for portrait work, still life drawing, or a number of other subjects, so long as the subject is not overly complex.

Use This Background If:

  • Your subject benefits from a more varied background than tinted or plain paper, but not from a more developed background
  • You want a colored background, but prefer using white paper

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The subject of your drawing is very complex
  • You need to establish a setting for the subject

Nearly Landscaped Background

This background is the half step between a tonal background and a fully landscaped background. As you can see below, the landscape is more clearly a landscape and not just a mottling of color and value.

What is the Best Background - Near Full Background

However, it’s nowhere near as detailed as the fully landscaped background in the illustration below. This type of background is a good way to place your subject in a setting without having to draw a complete landscape. It’s also a great way to suggest mood, though you can do that with a tinted or tonal background, as well.

Use This Background If:

  • You would like the look and feel of a landscape, without all the detail
  • If a setting adds to the composition, but you don’t need a full landscape

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • You’re drawing a portrait with a single subject shown “up close” because the increased detail could detract from the subject.
  • The drawing is a “moment in time” drawing, in which you’re attempting to capture not only a subject, but the setting as well.

Fully Landscaped Background

This is just what it sounds like: A landscape with your subject in it.

What is the Best Background - Fully Landscaped Background

In a drawing like this, the setting is just as important to the drawing as the subject. It’s like a meal in a fancy restaurant compared to the same meal at home, on the couch, in front of the TV.

The subject paired with any other type of background would not convey the same emotional message to the viewer. Especially with portrait work, the background is just as much a part of what your client wants to remember as the subject.

Use This Background If:

  • You want to create a scene or tell a story with the artwork
  • The setting is as important as the subject

Don’t Use This Background If:

  • The drawing is a basic portrait such as Joker, or Blizzard Babe above
  • A full landscape will distract from the subject

Want to see how to try different backgrounds on a drawing?

Check out this video by Lisa Clough of Lachri Fine Art. She shows a step-by-step tutorial on trying different backgrounds with your subject before you start drawing. I found this video informative and helpful if you happen to use Photoshop.

Additional Reading

How to Draw a Dark Background with Colored Pencil

How to Draw the Focal Point in Your Next Drawing