To Background—or Not to Background
Deciding how to color the background can be one of the hardest decisions to make when coloring. Every coloring artist has experienced the frustration of coloring a beautiful sheet only to not know what to do with the background. Some intricate drawings such as mandalas are best suited to a white or solid colored background in order to give the eye a place to rest in the composition. Other times, a solid background can spoil an otherwise beautifully colored page.
Few things in nature appear in a solid color. You may notice that he sky, for example, appears to be darker directly overhead and gradually lighter as it approaches the horizon. Landscape appears darker and more muted or gray in the distance and gets lighter, brighter, and more detailed in the foreground. For this reason, coloring sheets of nature drawings might benefit from a graduated background that suggests the sky with or without landscape details. Other types of coloring sheets may turn out more polished and professional-looking if done in a graduated background using complementary colors.
Coloring the Background First
Many coloring artists wait until last to color the background; however, coloring (or at least planning) the background first can improve the outcome of your project. Coloring in the background first allows you to determine the direction of the light source in your composition. This decision alone will improve your shading and result in a more polished project. Additionally, coloring in the background first allows you to choose and highlight an area of your sheet. You can emphasize a strong central element by coloring a lighter, brighter background around it.
Or, you might choose to emphasize a visual “sweet spot” in the composition. In order to find a “sweet spot,” imagine your coloring equally divided in to thirds in every direction—like a tic-tac-toe board. At each place a line would intersect is a “sweet spot.” If there’s not an element in the drawing at one of the intersection points that would make a good highlight, then anywhere along one of the imaginary lines would make a second-best choice. Choosing something off-center to highlight is visually appealing and helps to lead the viewer’s eye around the composition.
Use the Color Wheel
The next important decision to make a graduated background work for your project is to determine a color scheme. One choice is a monochromatic background. This is a good way to make the appearance of a sky. You can use multiple pencils in a single color family, such as blues, or you can use one pencil and vary the amount of pressure and the number of layers of color you put down. In all graduated backgrounds, pencil pressure helps provide variation and achieve smooth blending.
Another possible choice is a graduated background that uses complementary colors to enhance your drawing. An important tool for this is the color wheel. You can pick up an inexpensive color wheel at your local craft supply store, or you can make your own (search for “color wheel” online for an example to follow). There are two kinds of complementary color schemes: direct and split. Direct complementary colors are positioned exactly opposite each other on the color wheel—for example, red and green. Direct complementary colors bring a high degree of visual contrast and tension to your project.
Split complementary colors are positioned adjacent to the direct complementary color. For example, yellow is the direct complementary color of purple, but orange, which is next to yellow, is one of the split complementary colors of purple. Choosing split complementary colors for your background maintains a good visual contrast, but with less tension. You might decide to create a feeling of sunset or twilight by using orange and yellow with purple or to bring out the cooler tones of water using blue and green with purple. A good rule is to choose three or four colors or shades of a single color. Using too many colors can be difficult to blend.
Color a Good Sky
As children, we learned that the sky goes all the way from the top of the page to wherever the “ground” happens to be drawn. What we didn’t learn is that the sky is not all the same color. As a rule, the sky gets lighter as it approaches the horizon. Different areas of the sky may also appear to be more or less saturated depending on the presence of clouds and haze. A good sky can bring perspective and depth to a coloring sheet.
- Choose your shades wisely. Pick out three shades of blue that are of a similar hue. Don’t be afraid to use a deep shade as one of your choices. You will be putting down several layers of color using a light touch and then going back to deepen as needed.
- Find the horizon. Use your lightest shade of blue to color in the area nearest the horizon. Use a light touch to put down a soft layer of color.
- Color in the middle. Use the medium shade of blue to color in the middle of the sky area. Again, just put down a light wash of color that you will go back and deepen later.
- Color the dark. As before, put down a wash of the darkest color across the top of the sky. Allow the perspective of the line drawing to guide how wide to make the strips.
- Blend, blend, blend. Using the lightest color, start at the horizon again and lay down a second layer of color. As you approach the middle tone, blend some of the lighter color into the darker color. Use a heavier pressure and small, circular strokes as you blend the lighter color into the darker. Switch to the medium shade and repeat the process, blending the medium color into the darkest color. Lay down additional layers of each shade until you achieve the saturation you want.
Blend some more. Finally, use a white pencil to go over the entire sky. Using small, circular strokes and heavy pressure, burnish the colors together over the entire sky. The white pencil will melt the layers of wax underneath and redistribute the pigments until they are completely blended. The white pencil will also lighten everything underneath, so don’t be afraid that the dark layer is too dark. You can lighten it as you burnish the shades together.
A Background Tutorial
Now that you’ve practiced the technique on a sky, let’s try a split complementary color scheme. The steps are the same, but the blending takes a little more finesse. For this tutorial, our color scheme will be purple, orange, and yellow to evoke the feeling of a sunset.
- Lay out a shape for the area you plan to highlight. Use the highlight color (yellow) to lightly sketch in the shape of the highlight. If you are highlighting a strong, central element, you might want to use a roughly circular shape and then blend your colors out in concentric circles. If you are working with a picture that depicts a landscape or a seascape, you might choose to use horizontal stripes to represent the land, sea, and/or sky. Leverage the layout of the drawing as you choose the highlight shape. If you have a drawing with a lot of foliage, such as some of Johanna Basford’s drawings, you can use the layout of the drawing to help determine what should be highlighted. In general, remember that what you highlight will come forward and what you put into shadow will be pushed backward. Allow the drawing on the coloring sheet to be your guide. Also keep in mind that the highlight will suggest the direction of the light in your project and will determine your shading.
- Lightly color in the highlight area. If there are drawing elements in the way, color right up against them. Using a light touch is important in this step. Remember that you can always put down more layers of color, but it’s hard to take up color if you make a mistake.
- Color in the transition color. For our sunset, so we’ve chosen a warm orange. Remember to use a light touch in this step. Color right up to the boundary of the highlight area and right up to any drawing elements that are present. You are not doing any blending at this point, only laying down the first layer of each color.
- Color in the darkest color. For our sunset, this is a deep purple or plum. For a sky, this would be the deepest blue. Keep a light touch and just put down a wash of color all the way to the edges of the coloring page.
- Blend and deepen the colors. You won’t always have to blend. If
the color transitions from the highlight to the mid-tone in an area where there is a lot of drawing detail, just allow the colors to butt up against the drawing elements without blending. In nature, there are sometimes sharp transitions of color. If there is an open area, use small, elliptical or round strokes to layer some of the yellow over the orange. Most high-quality coloring book pages can withstand four or five layers of colored pencil before the paper starts to break down, so you can lay down a total of three or four layers in this step. (If you’re coloring on Bristol board or another high quality art paper, you can lay down as many as ten layers). Continue layering until the colors are as saturated as you would like and blended thoroughly in the overlapping areas. Repeat the process to blend the purple and orange where they meet. You will want the purple to be the darkest in the corners of the page, so really use a lot of pressure and lay down two or three layers in these areas.
- Perfect your blend with a blender pencil. Use a white colored pencil or a colorless blender to go back over the areas where you want the colors to be completely blended. White will lighten the tone of the colors you’ve already put down, so you may need to deepen the colors before you add white to the mix. The colorless blender (a wax pencil without any pigment) will allow you to blend pigments without changing the tone. Use the burnishing technique with heavy pressure and small, circular strokes so that the friction will melt and redistribute the pigments that are already on the paper.
Using these techniques, you are now equipped to color a wide variety of unique and creative backgrounds. If you get into the habit of planning how you will color the background of your project first, you will improve the outcome of your project by highlighting an important area of the composition. You will also add depth and realism to your finished project by determining the direction of the light to improve your shading. Instead of potentially ruining your finished project, coloring the background first can take your project to the next level of coloring artistry.