Simple Approaches for Backgrounds—A Five-Part Series: Part 2 Multi-color Backgrounds

April 27, 2018
Pen and watercolor sketch with a Montana Marker background (pink). I decided the background, which went well with the colors in the sketch, didn’t emphasize the lighting situation, so I painted over the pink acrylic marker with gouache in a dry brush fashion allowing some of the Fabriano paper texture to come through. (Handbound pamphlet book.)

This is Part Two of a five-part series on executing simple backgrounds in your journal or other artwork. Part One of this series can be found at this link.

One of the simplest, yet most interesting approaches to a background, especially for a portrait, is to have broken color. This means that one or more colors is used in the background but the application of color is not even and areas of one or the other color come through at any space in the background.

In this opening image you can see that after I completed the sketch I used a 15 mm Montana Acrylic Marker to apply a pink background around the face and off the edges of the page.

The clue to how this background was achieved can be seen around the hair. There is a white area of paper color at the “ends of the hair.” The watercolor of the portrait works within those lines, the background which is pink comes up to the hair, but leaves some of that white paper. 

Left alone at that point there would have simply been one layer of color and the dramatic lighting on the face would not have been supported by the background.

When you go in and add the dark neutral to the background this creates support for the lighting concept and keeps the emphasis on the face.

In this detail from the first image we can see the dry brush effect exposing the texture on the left in the background.  Immediately adjacent, you’ll see in blow up is a dry passage of red. By not mixing your paint thoroughly you can have different pigments on different areas of your brush coming into contact with the paper and creating different emphasis as you move across the page. You can also see the way glazes of watercolor were laid into the portrait in this detail.

The dark neutral consists of a warm-ish red and Phthalo Turquoise gouache lightly mixed, i.e. not mixed to an homogenous mixture. Look closely at the image in blow up and you can see the streaks of red and Phthalo Turquoise. They are not complementary colors, but they are close enough that they neutralize each other while still generating a purple tone which supports the purples and cool reds used in the portrait. This gouache blend sets up a nice juxtaposition with the pink background’s vibrancy and temperature.

If you look again at the area around the hair you see that the pink peeks out beneath the darker strokes, another tip off as to which went down first. 

Also around the image at the edges and near both cheeks there are areas where the texture of the paper allows for interesting peeks at the underlying color.

In this 8 inch square (approximately) pen and watercolor portrait. You can see in the background how broken color is used again. See text for details. (Stonehenge Aqua 140 lb. Cold Press watercolor paper in a hardbound book.)

This is possible because today’s first sketch was created on Fabriano Artistico cold press watercolor paper. The effect was further made possible because I used a large FILBERT brush to apply the opaque, not very dilute. mixture of gouache. I held the tip and body of the filbert very flat to the paper so that I could slide over the peaks of the paper’s texture and let the paper texture break up the color application. If you want to break up the texture of your paint cold press paper is the best choice. (Yes you can do this on smooth papers as well, it’s just easier to do it on textured paper.)

Leaving the white of the paper in various areas of the face, especially the forehead, the beard, and the shirt, increases the lighting effect.

In the second image in today’s post you see a woman with a green knit cap. 

Once again the brush pen sketch was made (here a Sakura Pigment Professional Brush Pen was used). Next watercolor was applied throughout the sketch in glazes using a large flat brush. Only then was the background added. 

This background is also a broken color approach. The first stage of the background is the dark pink that covers most of the page. It was applied with a 15mm Montana Acrylic Marker. I used the texture of the cold press sheet to achieve a dry-brush effect in the application of that acrylic marker paint. You can see areas not only at the edges of the pages, but within the background where bits of white paper are allowed to show through. You can also see that I was making random strokes in the background, not going for a flat finish.

Depending on the paper you’re working on you can choose to take a smoother approach to application. Some papers will absorb the marker strokes and the smoothness you can achieve is limited by how fast you can work before the paper absorbs the strokes. (Some papers have no give at all.)

With most watercolor paper the sizing intended to float watercolor paint in suspension for the brilliance we love in watercolors will also give you a bit of breathing space to make overlapping strokes in an even fashion.

I found that the Stonehenge Aqua Watercolor paper was a bit resistant to the marker. Smooth applications, even when I wanted them, were difficult and painstaking. But on this particular day that wasn’t may goal. (I will have a review of the Stonehenge Aqua Watercolor paper either at the end of May or beginning of June.)

Detail of the hat, because I really love how I used watercolor to create this fun textured knit hat. Also this view allows you to see the watercolor brush pen on our left side of the face. The red in the hat is red watercolor applied with a traditional brush.

While applying the pink marker I worked as close to the pen lines as possible.

Next I took a magenta Bienfang Speedball Watercolor Brush pen and applied thin brush strokes of color around the face on our left, with a little bit at the bottom right side of the face. You can read more about these pens at the post linked here, however, one of my readers has told me that Cheap Joe’s isn’t selling these pens any more so you’ll have to search for them.

I used this brush pen because I wanted the thin strokes it would make. I felt these would mimic the hair and give additional visual interest to the portrait. Even in the application of this magenta watercolor you will see that I have kept the color application broken to give it more depth.

Broken color using paper texture. Working with water-soluble crayon and acrylic marker on a toned paper.

Finally, I assessed the sketch with a fresh eye and realized that in the forehead just below the hat, the lip highlight, and the pupil highlight I was not able to lift back to paper color. I resorted to using a white Sharpie Paint Marker (water-soluble). The one I was used was old and it dripped on (our) right side of the portrait in two large places. I debated on letting those drops stand, but then decided to blot them up. They were just crusty enough to leave traces and I like that additional mottling to the background texture.

I chose to build up mottled color in both those examples because it is what suited me for the portrait I was working on. You can use smooth color on one layer and dry brush on another. There are endless ways that you can use color around your main subject to create an interesting background. Keep in mind the colors used within your subject so that your background colors support the overall color palette.

Before I end today I want to remind you that sometimes the broken color coming as it does from a toned piece of paper, will give you a different effect. Keep that in mind as you select a paper on which to work.

In the final image today you can see how I sketched a portrait using water-soluble crayons.

Detail of today’s final image. I wanted to give you a closer look at the rich color of this paper and the lovely fiber flecks it contains. This is a wonderful paper for wet media and mixed media. I really encourage you to give it a try.

My original plan had been to then add gouache throughout the portrait. But it was late and I looked at the portrait and really enjoyed the contour lines against the tan paper. 

The tan paper is the marvelous Strathmore 400 Series Toned Mixed Media paper. It’s great for gouache and water-soluble crayons. Available in tan and gray, in both pads as well as hardbound and softbound Smyth sewn journals, I strongly recommend Strathmore 400 Series Toned Mixed Media Paper. 

If you click on the image and see the enlargement you will be able to see the wide 15mm strokes of my light blue Montana Acrylic Marker. I could have waited for the paint to dry and added another l ayer, but I liked the ghosted tan color coming out of the background. It’s a matter of what you want, especially when you’re working with a quality paper that will give you a sturdy and workable surface!

More Simple Background Approaches To Come

I hope this post has given you additional ideas on how to create simple backgrounds, this time with broken color which takes into account paper texture and the interplay of your pigments. This weekend when you are out and about take out your brush and start working on a flat color with a dry brush texture. Start injecting your backgrounds with some energy through the use of your strokes and color.

I’ll be back on Monday with Part Three of the Simple Background series. Things get a little weird with pattern!











    • Kathy Clark
    • July 7, 2018

    I had been following your blog for several years. Just happened to find you again, glad to see you’re offering online classes. Loved the photo of young you and Dick. Adorable couple.

    1. Reply

      Thanks Kathy, and I’m glad that you are back reading the blog.

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