Coloured Pencil Backgrounds

How can you create coloured pencil backgrounds when your pencil just draws a fine line? In order to lay down an even coat of colour as a background, we need to have some tricks up our sleeves.

We could "cheat" and use pastel, either from sticks, pencils or pans, but what if we are thinking of entering a competition that insists on pure coloured pencil only?

Do you need a background at all? If you are a botanical artist, then the answer to that last question is probably no. But how about if you do landscapes or still life?

What is the purpose of a background?

The background of an artwork needs to sit gently, half out of sight, and provide an appearance 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 principal subject is the centre of attention. 

When should we work the background?

It is usually best to work the background first with a low level of colour so that we can work any foreground subjects over the top, for a crisp edge. If the background is in place, we can also add flyaway hairs or fur over it more easily than trying to fill in the surrounding background. 

A pencil background example

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 pictures. 

You can see how Brandy sets out a general underpainting of her primary subject (a Longhorn) and a deliberately patterned pencil background - like a Paisley wallpaper. 

In this second view, 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 edges of the picture.

In view 3 she applies the light colours to provide a base for the detail on the animal. 

In the final image you can enjoy the detail. Brandy uses a lot of pencil in her artwork. 


Paper choice

Brandy used Prismacolor on Colorfix paper, which has a sanded surface and will hold a lot of material. It is a large picture (16 inches x 20 inches) so the grain of the surface, while always important, is not so critical. When you are working on a small picture, a smooth surface is necessary for this technique.

My recommendation is that you use a print making paper like Stonehenge, Canaletto or a smooth hot press watercolour paper for small images where you require a fine background.

Let's look at the difference between using a piece of plain white card and a piece of Stonehenge - the original images shown below are about the same size - 3 inches wide. 

I put a layer of white coloured pencil down first in both samples, to lighten and smooth the later blues. The grain of the card will make it impossible to get really smooth colour from the pencil point, no matter how careful we are to put the colour down with a light touch.

The second example is better, if not great, and you can see how the first white layer changes the darker blue as we go further down the image.  

Alternative methods for creating pencil backgrounds

However, there are faster and better ways of putting down light smooth coverings of colour for your pencil backgrounds. 

We demonstrate one method on the clouds page. This uses a piece of white felt and a palette of strong colour laid down on a scrap piece of cold pressed watercolour paper. The rough surfaced paper is used to enable a lot 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 choice. 

This relies on taking powdered pigment from the pencil tip with the blade of a knife. Hold the sharp blade at right angles to the long pigment strip and scrape the colour off rather than slicing it from the point. You could also use a metal tea strainer and rub the point of the pencil on this.

You should get a collection of fine powder or particles - this will depend on the softness of the pencil you are using.  

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. 

If you use either of these techniques for your pencil 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.

Clean off the edges (where you cannot work over the background colour) with a battery eraser and cut a piece of card to use as a shield to protect the background edge from accidental removal. 

Using Frisket Film

For real precision, use Frisket film as an ideal edge protection. 

The Frisket comes in rolls, is low tack, cuts easily with scissors or a sharp knife and is quite economical. 

Airbrush artists use low tac Frisket for protecting the working surface, and we can do the same when applying a powdered layer of pigment in coloured pencil work.

I have found that whilst it will work in protecting an edge when brushing pigment onto the working surface, the low tac nature of the film lifts away from the paper if I move the brush up to the edge. It is better to brush outwards from the film onto the paper.

A more satisfactory method is to use a rubbed in technique as described above. For this, we scrape a stock of pigment onto the working surface in the colours required and then rub the powder using an appropriate soft material.

I have heard of people using a natural sponge, but I use white felt. I use white to ensure that I can reuse the felt later for another picture as 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 (Artists Trading Card) sized picture (3.5 x 2.5 inches) of a white nanny goat. 

The images above show the sequence I used. 

I cut out the shape of the goat from the sheet of film and placed it in position on my white Stonehenge paper.

I then applied powdered pigment by scraping the Polychromos pencils onto the paper surface.

Taking care to use outward strokes, which pressed the film down as I went, I carefully rubbed the pigment into the paper with the felt. After removing the film, I added details to the pencil background and darkened it where required. 

I completed the work by adding a few light strokes of colour to the goat. 

Backgrounds using watercolour pencils (Aquarelles)

There are several articles on this site which detail methods for Aquarelles using a wet process. 

Using watercolours is the simplest method for backgrounds, but as it relies on 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 watercolour pencils. Peter takes up the narrative...

In the Spring of 2015 I was developing a picture to use as a demonstration piece to a couple of groups and attempted 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).

Having drawn out the image on to a sheet of Fabriano 5 cold pressed 300gsm watercolour paper, I then started on the background and picked up a selection of Aquarelles from Caran d'Ache (Supracolor 2). 

I built up the layers of background colour with fine shading, keeping it very abstract. 

I soon discovered that I could blend the built up surface with a finger. The day was warm, and my skin was moist, but not wet. Therefore, the pigment responded to the touch. I could continue building up and blending colour without having to resort to brush and water. 

I id not take photos of the progress of the watercolour pencil background, so I can't show you a step by step. But I have posted a closeup of the background as it was at the mid-stage. 

By 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 above is of a picture approx 12 x 8 inches in size. 

I developed the background to give the impression of leaves and branches on a tree. 

You can see from the final picture, how the image finished up. 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. 


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