WORKING THE BACKGROUND
I will break this topic into sections :
1/ General Points 2/
Backgrounds in pure wax type pencil,
and 3/ Backgrounds using other techniques
The background of an artwork needs to sit gently, half out of sight, and provide an appearance of what is
known as aerial perspective - distance. It throws the subject into prominence and gives some illusion of three
dimensions to the picture. For this reason we need the colours to be weaker than the rest of the picture, or the
definition less focused, so that our main subject stands forward and separate from the backcloth .
It is usually best to work the background first with a low level of colour so that any foreground subjects can be
worked over the top for a crisp edge, but this is by no means the only way of working.
I prefer to work a background as either a watercolour pencil wash or as dry watercolour pencil blended into
place. But then, I come to Coloured Pencils from Pastels & painting in Watercolours, so that is a natural way for
me to approach the problem !
BACKGROUNDS IN PURE DRY POINT PENCIL
Have a look at these work in progress images from Brandy Perez. They show a superb artist dealing with the
problem of an out of focus, but strongly coloured, background. This blended method is ideal for larger
You can see how Brandy sets out a general
underpainting of her main subject ( a Longhorn ) and
a deliberately patterned background - like a Paisley
In view 2 she has applied a blending coat over the top
so that the pattern fades away into a general out-of-
focus area of colour. This darkens towards the edge of
In view 3 she starts to apply the light colours to
provide a base for the detail on the animal.
Finally 4, you can enjoy the detail of the final piece.
Brandy uses a lot of pencil in her artwork.
This image is using Prismacolor on Colorfix paper
which has a sanded surface and will hold a lot of
Brandy’s example, above, is quite a large picture ( 16 inches x 20 inches ) so the grain of the surface, whilst always
important, is not so critical. When you are working a small picture, a smooth surface is essential.
My recommendation is that you use a print making paper like Stonehenge, Canaletto or a smooth HP watercolour
paper for small images where a fine background is required. The samples below are all in the range of 3 inches x
2 inches so the effect seen below is not as detailed as those above as the images are magnified rather than
reduced as with Brandy’s picture. .
First look at the difference between using a piece of plain white card (A) and a piece of Stonehenge (B) - these
original images are about the same size - 3 inches wide.
You can see that even though a layer of white CP has been put down first in both samples to try to lighten and
smooth the later blues, the grain of the card at (A) will make it impossible to get really smooth colour from the
pencil point, no matter how careful we are to put colour down with a light touch. Certainly the second example (B)
is better and you can see how the first white layer modifies the darker blue ( shown at the top ).
HOWEVER there are faster and better ways of putting down light smooth coverings of colour.
One of these is shown in the item on Skies. This uses a piece of white felt, using a palette of strong colour laid down
on a separate piece of cold pressed watercolour paper. Cold pressed paper is used to enable a strong layer of colour
to be removed from the pencil point and form a dense pool of pigment.
There is a second method which is also an excellent one.
This relies on taking a powder from the pencil tip with the blade of a knife. The blade should be sharp and held at
right angles to the long pigment strip so that colour is scraped off rather than sliced from the point.
You should get a collection of fine powder - or fine particles - it will depend on the softness of the pencil you are using
This item is also covered briefly in the Skills Topic ‘Working the Surface’
IF YOU USE EITHER OF THESE METHODS for your backgrounds,
It is better to apply the background colour FIRST and add the rest of the picture detail LATER, as you will not
easily get an accurate edge with either the ‘rubbed’ or brushed’ methods.
Clean off the edges (where you cannot work over the background colour) with a battery eraser, and if necessary
cut a piece of card to use as a shield to protect the background edge from accidental removal.
For real precision, use the Frisket film used for airbrushing. This is an ideal edge protection. The frisket comes
in rolls, is low tack, cuts easily with scissors or sharp knife, and is not too expensive See Artifolk for details of
the film and the Stabilo white or graphite pencil for marking out. I give more details below on using this film
USING FRISKET FILM FOR PROTECTING THE SUBJECT When working a rubbed or brushed in background
Low Tac Plastic Frisket film is used for protecting the working surface during airbrushing and can also be used in
a similar way when applying a powder layer of pigment in CP work. I have found that whilst it will work in
protecting an edge when brushing pigment into the working surface, the low tac nature of the film tends to lift
away from the surface if the brush is moved against the edge - it is better to brush outwards from the film on to
A more satisfactory method is to use a rubbed in technique as described above. For this, we scrape a stock of
pigment on to the work surface in the colours required, and then rub in the powder using an appropriate soft
material. I have heard of people using natural sponge, but I have used white felt. I use white to ensure that I
can re-use the felt later for another picture, but being white, I can see the patches used for the ‘wrong’ colours
and avoid applying (say) red to the middle of a blue sky !
The example shown is a small ATC sized picture ( 3.5 ins by 2.5 inches ) of a white nanny goat.A plastic frisket
was marked out with CP from the original picture and then cut out carefully using a scalpel knife.
The stages of this are shown below in a series of images
The subject was removed from the sheet of film, and the backing paper taken away leaving just the plastic goat.
This was applied to the paper.
Powdered pigment was then applied by scraping from the pencils ( Polychromos in this case - on to white
This was carefully rubbed in to the paper with the felt using outward strokes pressing the film down as I went to
keep it in position. The Film can then be removed and the background more detailed and darkened where
The subject ( Goat ) can then be completed with a few light strokes. This image has yet to be finished off, but
has been left so that you can see how the rubbed in area to the right compares with the area to the left which
has had further CP treatment.
BACKGROUNDS USING WATERCOLOUR PENCILS ( Aquarelles )
there are several articles on this site which detail methods for Aquarelles using a wet process.
Using Aquarelles is the simplest method for backgrounds, but as it relies of you having an ability with
watercolour washes, many artists may prefer to stay with a dry ( and erasable ) method.
THE EXAMPLE BELOW USES A NEARLY DRY METHOD WITH AQUARELLE (Watercolour) PENCILS
In the Spring of 2015, I was developing a picture to use as a demonstration piece to a couple of groups, and
decided to attempt a bird portrait - something virtually unheard of in these quarters !.
The original reference had a very out of focus background which highlighted the fine detail of the bird ( a
reference photo by the excellent Jo Goudie ).
I show the reference on the right
so you can see the challenge…..
Having drawn out the image on to a sheet of Fabriano 5 CP 300gsm
watercolour paper, I then started on the background and picked up
a selection of Aquarelles from Caran d’Ache ( Supracolor 2 soft ).
I built up the layers of background colour with fine shading keeping
I soon discovered that the built up surface could be blended with a
finger. The day was warm and the skin was moist but not wet, and
the pigment responded to the touch of my fingers and I was able to
continue with building up and blending colour without having to
resort to brush and water. I had not taken any photos of the
progress of the background so I can’t show you a stage by stage at
However, at the end of the day, I had started on the bird itself and
now had a good looking first step which I can show you.
The image here is of a picture approx 12ins x 8 ins
I think that possibly the relative softness of the aquarelle pencils
and their ability to dissolve with moisture, provides this possibility
of working a blended background without having to resort to
watercolour techniques. This is not posted as a complete solution -
merely as something your might like to try yourself.
I have posted up here a close up of the background as it was at the
I went on to develop the bakground and then to develop it to give
the impression of leaves and branches on a tree.
You can see from the final picture on the right how the image
I don’t think that it is an ideal method, but it is an alternative and it
plays to the particular strengths of Watercolour pencil in being
capable of being worked with a semi dry/ semi wet finger
Clouds are simply erased back
to the white of the paper.
Deeper colour comes from
adding further layers of colour
with the felt from the ‘palette’
Once again, we can use a small piece of thick
white felt to work the powder into the paper
surface. This will produce a less controlled
colour than the first method described above.
Cut out frisket
applied to paper
laid over image
and then worked
Colour then developed with polychromos or similar wax type
pencil. The image on the right is the finished work
it is 3.5 inches x 2.5 inches
Page last revised …. September 2017