Simple Approaches for Backgrounds—A Five-Part Series: Part 5 Lifting Off Color

May 4, 2018
Pen and monochromatic watercolor portrait in a Hahnemühle Watercolor Sketchbook. Color lifting is relatively easy on this paper.

This is Part Five 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.

I’m going to end this series with the simplest approach to background texture—color lift off.

To do this you need a paper with sufficient surface sizing to stop the paint from sinking into the paper completely. Most watercolor papers will allow you to do this. 

You want to use non-staining pigments whenever possible, for ease of lifting.

You’ll also want to use saturated applications of color so that when you lift color there is sufficient contrast between the before and after!

I also recommend that you let the background paint dry before you go into it and try to lift it. Too much work on a paper that is wet will lead to a distressed paper surface at best, and pilling and wear at worst.

Here’s a detail of the main image today so that you can see the brush strokes. It’s not what I’m writing about today, but I really enjoyed working with a series of flat brushes to build this face, before doing some small details with a round. I was using Mahogany brown in my mixes—it’s a granulating pigment and that can also bee seen in the background where it was mixed with Indanthrone blue. (Entire backgrounds can be with granulating pigments as mentioned earlier in this series.)

Make a plan—are you lifting random sections? Creating a pattern? Or establishing a lighting construct? 

Experiment with different tools for lifting. You can wet the painted background with a thin calligraphic brush charged only with water. Wait a few seconds (this will depend on the paper and pigment you’re working with) and blot with a paper towel. Your brush strokes will lift off revealing a light design in the darker wash surrounding the strokes.

Spread the hairs of your flat apart and let them stroke into the dry color for an interesting pattern. (You can see some of this effect in the top right quadrant of this image.)

Experiment with other tools that can be wet. Sea sponges, paper towels, and cloth also leave delightful textures.

Stencils placed on a dry background can act as masks as you wet and lift off the exposed areas of the stencil design.

Not all papers lift off well.

Brush pen sketch with color injected into the background, in a Stillman & Birn Zeta journal.

Experiment with the papers in the journals you use.

Just because they don’t release the pigment easily doesn’t mean you can’t inject variation into simple backgrounds made upon them.

In today’s final image you’ll see that when I was working in the Stillman & Birn Zeta journal the paper didn’t want to release the background pigments. The paper even showed odd streaky damage from a flat brush applying the background. (Odd damage because it was a super soft squirrel brush.)

I decided to capitalize on the distressed nature of the paper and the resultant background wash forming on this paper. I accentuated the streakiness by adding more water and lifting with broad strokes using a folded paper towel.

I also washed other colors into the background (like the light yellow green at the bottom of the page, and some blues at the top of the page) to create more variation. I think the background works with this simple sketch that takes its texture from the hair, eyebrows, and beard.

So don’t give up, keep playing with it. You’ll find approaches that work for the paper you’re working with.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of five posts about simple approaches to backgrounds in your journals and paintings. There is nothing wrong with a lot of white space around a portrait or street of buildings or whatever. But I encourage you to experiment to find ways that you like to play with color, composition, and focus.

Extra Challenge: Remember, changing a background is a great way to bring color harmony and design throughout your journal, across your page spreads, one after the other. A little preplanning can create a system of color changes that leads the eye forward through your journal. 




    • Kathleen
    • May 4, 2018

    Thanks for this series , Roz.

    1. Reply

      So glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading the blog.

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