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How to Paint Dark Watercolor Backgrounds

Updated on September 27, 2015
Gayle Dowell profile image

Gayle Dowell is a jewelry and watercolor artist. She currently teaches art to a homeschool co-op highschool class.

Painting Dark and Luminous Watercolor Backgrounds

I've been painting with watercolor for over ten years. I like to use a lot of paint, and I especially like to paint dark backgrounds. My painting style has evolved over time, including how I paint my backgrounds. I started out just painting my subject first and leaving the background for last. It is always exciting to paint the cool stuff first, right? Well, when I saved the background for last, I always ended up asking the question: "Now what do I do?" I've learned over the years to plan and incorporate my subject into the background first before I do anything else. The following tutorial is my way of painting backgrounds, and I am sure that it will evolve more as I continue to paint.

All artwork by Gayle Dowell

My Old Way of Painting Dark Watercolor Backgrounds

No Depth or Luminosity

The watercolor painting on the right is one of my first using a dark background. I painted my subject first and then painted around the Columbine flower using a thick coat of Indigo Blue. It was successful at the time I painted it as it gave me a nice dark background, but I was limited in my ability to vary the background color and to add depth to the painting.


My New Way of Painting Watercolor Backgrounds

Achieving Depth and Luminosity

This is a painting that I did last year with the new way that I paint dark backgrounds. It takes a little more planning and time, but it is very easy to do.

The following tutorial shows pictures of how I paint using thin layers of paint (or glazes) of the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. Using thin layers and mixing my own colors on the paper gives me a more luminous background as you can see all the different layers of color together.

The following tutorial will show you step-by-step how I do this.


Start with the Best Watercolor Paper

When layering many layers of watercolor paint, start with a paper that will stand up to the layering and repeated wetting of the paper. There is nothing more frustrating than to get halfway through a painting and the paper starts to breakdown. My choice of paper for watercolor is Arches 140# cold press paper. Always use 140# or thicker paper.

Drawing My Image and Painting the First Layer

Step One

The following series of the dogwood painting shows how I paint and plan my background. I sketch in my subject, paint my subject, then start painting around my subject (negative painting). On this painting, I started with antwerp blue for the background.

Adding Yellow to the Background

Step Two

Next, I added a glaze of aureolin yellow. Each time I let the watercolor layers dry thoroughly before adding the next layer. It is important that when painting on top of other layers, that a light touch is used so that the previous layers are not disturbed.

Adding Red to the Background

Step Three

I then paint a layer of quinacridone rose. Pick out primary colors that will mix well together. Some colors do not mix well and give muddy results. I will be adding a tutorial in the future on how to mix colors and pick colors for your pallet.

Starting Over With the Blue Layer

Step Four

At this point, I go back to the antwerp blue, but this time I sketch more into the background. Waiting for this point to add more elements in the background makes the background branches recede, because they are now a darker, more muted color than the foreground dogwood flower.


Continue to Paint in Repeated Layers of Watercolor

Step Five

After the antwerp blue layer, I repeat the aureolin yellow, painting around the background branches as well as the foreground. Using this method slowly builds the darkness and depth of the background.

Adding Only Certain Colors to the Background

Step Six

At this point, I can see that I'm getting close to the desired darkness that I want. Now I try to control my color by adding more blue and yellow and leaving out the red so that I can have a predominantly dark green background.


Watercolor Paints

The three primary colors that I've used in the above tutorial are: Antwerp blue, aureolin yellow, and quinacridone rose. Other hues of primary colors can be used, but some combinations may give muddy results. Experiment first before using colors of choice on the final work. I use Daniel Smith paints for most of my work. Any artist grade paints will give you the best results.

Another Dark Background Example

Created by DesignsbyDowell
Browse other Gayle Dowell Postcards.

Final Touches

Last Step

In this last step, I added some dark tree limbs in the background to add even more depth to the painting, and then I painted in some shadows around the flower and branches.

There is great symbolism in the dogwood flower. I got the idea for this painting from the legend of the dogwood that states the petals of the dogwood flower represent the cross of Christ and that the petal indentations represents where the nails were placed on Christ's hands and feet.

Painting backgrounds layer by layer takes much more time than adding a few layers of one color, but I think the results are much more luminous.


Questions or Comments about My Watercolor Technique?

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    • Gayle Dowell profile image
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      Gayle Dowell 3 years ago from Kansas

      @christopher-nicholson-3154: Thanks for your comment Christopher, and I'm glad that you benefitted from the lesson. I'm sure that this technique would work with the acrylic when used transparently as watercolor. I would love to hear your comments on how it works for you with the acrylic. And yes, when I submit to the cross of Christ, my life takes on a whole new meaning of blessing.

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      christopher-nicholson-3154 3 years ago

      Hi Carol, I didn't know you could do so many layers with a wash. I paint full time, my subject of choice is birds of prey - in acrylic but used like watercolors. Enjoyed your subject and dogwood flower - cross, it is amazing that as we bring our frailties to the cross and embrace the plan God has for us that things really work out.

      Great lesson, will get started in the hope of doing backgrounds of this standard.

    • CrazyHomemaker profile image

      CrazyHomemaker 3 years ago

      Your watercolor lenses are making me want to try watercolors. I always thought they were too tricky to use but you are making it very easy to understand. Another great lens! Thanks.

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      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      Both ways are beautiful to me. I haven't really worked with watercolors much, but this makes me want to try. It really is different than oils. Well deserved purple star.

    • Gayle Dowell profile image
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      Gayle Dowell 3 years ago from Kansas

      @Carol Houle: Thank you, Carol. Watercolor painting is so much different than oil painting. Each layer you let dry before you add more color. The foreground flower was dry before I painted the background so that the colors would not run together.

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