These are the main Sections of the Site

These are the other Topics within this section


I will break this topic into sections :    1/ General Points       2/ Backgrounds in pure Dry Point 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 !


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 main subject ( a Longhorn ) and a deliberately patterned background - like a Paisley wallpaper.  

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 the picture.

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 material

1 1 detail 2 3 4

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 as when you are working a small picture.  In that case a smooth surface is essential.  

My recommendation is that you use a print making paper like Stonehenge, Canaletto or a smooth HP watercolour paper like Fabriano 5 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 has already been shown in the item on Skies.  This used 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.

The second method 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 earlier Topic  ‘Managing Pigment’


Take a cheap fairly stiff brush  - I used an cheap art brush that had originally been sold for acrylic or oils - and gently move and press the colour into the paper surface with a scrubbing motion.

I use an old clean brush, because it is not easy to clean it again afterwards.  I keep one that has been used for blue to re-use later for other pictures.

Don’t use too coarse a brush or you may find that the results are not as smooth as shown here

I have a pack of cheap brushes bought from a discount store, they cost under 20p each.  If they have long bristles, cut them down shorter and give the end a flat look - straight across, just as you would use a stencil brush.   The flat style brushes work well up to an edge.  I do know that someone has successfully tried this technique with a piece of natural sponge.

It is possible to remove excess colour from a good paper with a battery eraser and this has been done in both of the examples shown to the right.  

The first example is using the relatively soft

Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils.  

The second is using the much harder Staedtler karat watercolour pencils.  

You can see they both work well.

Once again, the samples are approx 3 inches wide and you can see the greatly improved result.

This brushed powder technique offers a wide range of options for backgrounds using an entirely dry process.

You can also use felt or a soft fabric to rub in the powder though this may not give you an accurate edge


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 of 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 method


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 the paper.

A more satisfactory method is to use a rubbed in technique.  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 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 Stonehenge )

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 required.

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.

Original picture of Nanny Goat & Kid                                        cut out frisket film                     in position on paper with pigment

 Rubbed in pigment with added dry point pencil colour

Finished ATC image  3.5 ins x 2.5 ins


The white of the goat is the white of the paper

Next Page


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

You can find these on the following pages :   Aquarelle Pencil Techniques - Underpainting

and   The Step by Step introduction pages 1 and 2

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.


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 below 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 very abstract.

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 this time

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 mid stage.

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 below 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 tool  ( the finger ! )


( Wax & Oil Based pencils )

There are a number of approaches using Solvents.& Blending powders .  

Solvents bring in the problem of liquids - which have to dry and can leave ring marks on the working surface at the edge of the dissolved area.

Some solvents are dangerous and have to be used in well ventilated areas.

In 2015 there has been the introduction of Blending powders which avoid the need for adding liquid.  It is still early days on this new introduction and people are still experimenting.  In the USA, Alyona Nickelsen is marketing a blender powder through ‘Brush & Pencil’ brand and she demonstrates this on her website and You tube.  This product can be laid down on the paper and the wax pencil laid over the top, or the powder introduced on top of the laid down pencil. The effect is to turn the wax pencil into something similar to Pastel which can be blended and mixed on the paper..  The resultant coloured surface needs to be fixed and Alyona markets two types of fixative spray for this purpose.

I haven’t tested this product which is not available in the UK and is quite expensive.  The fixatives and powder are only available at present via ground surface mail in the USA

In the UK and Europe we have the alternative in a similar colourless powder sold as part of the Pan Pastel range of accessories.

This has been tested by Deb Stanley and more details are given on the Burnishing and Blenders page. This powder is available from Jacksons Art for around £6 plus P & P and can be used with a fixative such as Spectrafix ( also available from Jacksons).