Simple Approaches for Backgrounds—A Five-Part Series: Part 1

April 25, 2018
Pentel Brush Pen and Schmincke Watercolor on Fluid 100 Cold Press Watercolor Paper, with a Molotow Acrylic Marker on the background. See the comments in the text of today’s post.

I was organizing my images for blog posts and noticed that I had a lot of common themes, some not as obvious. 

What do the images in today’s post and those referenced (linked) all have in common?

Well all but one have backgrounds painted AFTER the sketch is made (and typically even after the sketch is painted). 

I am known as someone who loves to pre-paint my pages so that when I land on a page I have a wonderful texture to paint and sketch upon. I even teach a class in creating textures. (The Textures class is over for 2018, but it will be back in 2019; please watch the class listings.)

Today, as I was going through the images I wanted to  use on my blog it struck me that I don’t often write about simple backgrounds—those that go on after a sketch or painting is finished. (Though keep in mind you can do anything that I’m writing about in this series on your page before you sketch and paint your image just keep your dry media for over any water-soluble media you might use as a background.)

Single Color Backgrounds

The first image in this post is a single color background. It was made with a Molotow Acrylic Marker filled with paint from Montana Markers. Wet Paint (where I buy my markers) didn’t have a Cyan Montana pen the day I went shopping. They didn’t have any empty Montanas in the 15 mm tip either, so I bought the Montana paint refilled and the Molotow 15mm empty pen. I had wanted to test the tip of the competing line of markers anyway. 

I’ve found that the Montana and Molotow paint is interchangeable and only have a preference for the Montana because I bought it first and have the most invested in that line. I feel that the 15mm tips in the Molotow line are sturdier, but don’t feed paint (even their own) as fast as the Montana. If that bothers you weigh it against the fact that their tips will last longer. It’s a toss up. Sometimes we need more than one brand to get all the features we want on a given day. 

In today’s first sketch I exploited the slower feeding of the marker’s tip along with the paper’s cold press (bumpy) texture to get a mottled surface.

Always consider your paper surface. How is the tool you’re using going to cover the surface? Will it respond to the texture in an interesting way that is a counter point for the rest of your painting?

For me, the light pressure on the cold press textured paper allows for some of the paper white to show across the surface making a mottled appearance. This would look different if the paper were a smooth or hot press paper. Here to me it helps focus attention on the smoothness of the beard. But at the same time the strokes are in a sort of circular rotation around the head, mirroring the movement in the beard. 

Maybe too much movement? This is why you try things out. I typically do smooth backgrounds with the acrylic markers—that’s the advantage of working with the wide 15mm tip or the 30mm tip. On this pigeon sketch I made from life at the Minnesota State Fair, I actually sat down after I had the sketch finished, and added the marker background while seated—so I could be as smooth as possible. I was working in a Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Journal. The paper has a slight texture but is fairly smooth. Given that I’m working with the book in my lap in less than ideal conditions I think the pen and paper worked well together for my intention.

Don’t forget that backgrounds added after the sketch can minimize and draw attention away from wonky portions of your sketch—like the stray body line in the “Homer” sketch.

Think about your preferences when adding a single color background. Here are some things to consider. You need to ask yourself not only whether you like these things but whether or not these aspects of the background approach suit your vision of what you want your finished sketch to look like.

Here’s a quick chicken sketch on lined journal paper. I’ve tried to keep the coverage of acrylic marker even to create a solid field of color the chicken can emerge from. If you like pattern and texture you can take a different approach. Here the smoothness of the lined paper helps me. I’m working quickly and if I miss a little bit of paper space near the pen lines I’m not sweating it—but on another day I might go back in with the marker and redo those areas. You get to decide what you like.

First—To Leave an Outline or to Butt the Color to the Edge of Your Sketch?

I have a preference for not leaving outlines. As you can see in the images in this Project Friday Sketching post—I like to close the gap, leave little white, and even cut in close around the hair. Scroll down to see all the examples. In the sixth example in that post I intentionally leave some white around the left side of the face where the beard is lit. An outline of brush pen there would have been harsh—leaving some white paper helps sell the lighting in the image.

Second—Smooth or Rough Application of Background Paint?

In those sketches I made while watching “Ironclad” you’ll also see that I’m working on pages in my favorite Japanese Lined Journal. I want the paint to be smooth in these sketch spreads because I want to counter act the busy look of the page’s printed lines, but also because the treatment of the ink washes on the face is smooth. I know from experimentation that the paper will buckle a lot when used in this way, and the smoother the application of this marker paint, the more uniform things will appear.

That doesn’t mean that on another day I might not have rough areas of coverage, like the right side of this sketch.  It just means that I’m making decisions intentionally. And in the image linked in this paragraph I decided that the rough white of the paper in the top right works with the lighting of the piece and the texture in the beard.

Third—Texture of the Paper?

Paper texture will influence the texture you’re able to achieve in your background. Cold press or rough texture will make it more difficult to apply a smooth marker background. But if you’re using watercolor with a brush the wash can flow into all the paper peaks and valleys. Then the use of granulating pigment is the strongest influence on smoothness of appearance—that and of course your skill with laying in washes over large areas.

OK this isn’t a single color background. Two colors used on other pages had their tips cleaned on this page. Then I bulked out the areas covered and sketched on the top of the marker. It’s a little more visually confusing than I typically do my backgrounds, either pre- or post-sketch. But I like the roughness. It was worth the experiment. Be willing to experiment.

Tip On Laying In Large Wash Areas

If you want to lay in a large wash of watercolor and are working on a watercolor or wet media paper make a large puddle of paint in the color you want. Set it aside for a moment. (Over time you’ll learn how much liquid you need to cover a specific area. Make more than you think you’ll need if you want a consistent color and don’t want to have to remix a color part way through your wash as your paper dries!

Next do a prewash of clean water first. That means you put water everywhere you want your color to go. In the portraits I’m showing you that would be everything up to the portrait’s outer contour line.

Try to avoid putting water over your ink lines because the paint will settle there and dull the lines.

Once you’ve put water everywhere check that areas haven’t dried. You want the paper to be evenly moist. 

Then drop in the color. It will “flow” with the water and go right up to the lines where the water stops. Move the paint as little as possible—let it settle naturally. Any edges where pigment migrates will fall near the black ink lines and not be visible and you’ll be left with a very smooth wash.

Experiment with getting even more smoothness by preparing  your paper this way, but then laying the paint in as if you are going to create a graduated wash—straight strokes of paint across the length of the wash area, with a bead of color at the base of the stroke, diluting that bead every few strokes so that the color lightens as you work, creating the gradation. (Confused about this? Any standard watercolor book will give you step by step photos.)

Fourth—How Much of the Surface Should I Cover?

In the links I’ve added to this post you’ll be taken to past journal pages using marker pens. In those examples I’ve used the markers to cover certain areas of a spread and not others. These were decisions I made based on how I was going to use the full page (leave space for journaling for example) or how I wanted to break up the image to emphasize certain portions of it (the pigeon at the State Fair’s chest size for instance). Keep all of these aspects of design and use of space in your mind as you work.

Not the Final Word

As I mentioned in the opening of this post, this is part one of five for simple backgrounds. I hope you’ll stop by to check out the rest. (Subscribe by using the subscription form at the base of any of my blog’s pages and posts. Then new-post notices will come directly to you.) 

In the meantime take a moment to look at what you have for tools right now. Start asking yourself how you can make a background that supports your sketch with those tools. Start making intentional choices about how you handle your backgrounds. 

Don’t forget—If you’re not sure how something is going to look do some thumbnail sketches. Block in a color area in a postage stamp size thumbnail to get a quick sense of whether you’ll get the desired look.

At first when you use thumbnails you might feel you don’t have enough to judge by, but keep it simple and minimal. Over time you will be able to make quick judgements about the success of an approach or not just with a thumbnail. That doesn’t mean you still won’t go ahead and “break” some sketches that looked great in thumbnails. Remember—it’s all practice and learning and now you’re closer to your goals.

Don’t let indecision stop you! If you find it difficult to work with thumbnails think about photographing or scanning versions of your work at that key background decision moment. Then compare versions to learn which you like best. I write about this in a post earlier this month.






    • Linda Rose
    • April 25, 2018

    thank You. I’m finding this so helpful.

    1. Reply

      I’m so glad. Thanks for letting me know.

    • Paul
    • April 25, 2018

    Great stuff Roz, really looking forward to this background series of posts.

    1. Reply

      Thanks so much.

    • Carroll
    • June 6, 2018

    Great information! Very usable. I saved to several Pinterest boards and will be sharing with my high school art students in the fall.

    1. Reply

      I hope your high school students will enjoy experimenting!

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