How to Paint Dark Watercolor Backgrounds

Updated on November 10, 2017
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 above 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 painting above is one 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.

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.

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
Created by DesignsbyDowell

Questions & Answers

    Questions or Comments About My Watercolor Technique?

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      • Gayle Dowell profile image

        Gayle Dowell 5 months ago from Kansas

        No, I don't wet before adding the background paint. Just get enough paint and water at a consistency on heavy cream. Keep a bead or line of paint at the bottom while painting. It helps to paint with your board and paper at a slight incline. This helps in keeping your paint from drying as you paint around your subject.

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        Jan Simon 5 months ago

        Do you wet the original paper before beginning background?

      • profile image

        Ashley 7 months ago

        Thank you! I was looking for tips to make my focus "come out" of the background. Not really in a 3-D way but just in a way that it seems to be coming out. If you get what I mean. I like this post and tutorial. I think I'll have to add to my background now.

      • Gayle Dowell profile image

        Gayle Dowell 4 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.

      • profile image

        christopher-nicholson-3154 4 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 4 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.

      • favored profile image

        Fay Favored 4 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

        Gayle Dowell 4 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.

      • Carol Houle profile image

        Carol Houle 4 years ago from Montreal

        I see from this, you added the dark background after the main foreground flower.. It's confusing me, cuz with oil I do the background first. Doesn't the water color bleed into your flower space? Still, I love your paintings.

      • makingamark profile image

        Katherine Tyrrell 5 years ago from London

        A very nice step by step lens. I totally endorse the fact dark backgrounds really make flowers "pop".

        I also heartily recommend the Arches blocks - my favourite watercolour painting surface - love the fact there's no need to stretch!

      • profile image

        anonymous 5 years ago

        I have usually had problems with doing backgrounds. They either look muddy or just plain ugly and ruins the picture. I am trying your method. Thank you.

      • CozyKitty profile image

        CozyKitty 5 years ago

        These watercolors are gorgeous! Thanks so much for a great tutorial - I'll have to try this *one of these days* lol :)

      • delia-delia profile image

        Delia 5 years ago

        Great instructional lens...I have a student that I have introduced w/c layering to and think this tutorial example would be a great project...of course I have to let her choose the subject (on her insistence) ;-)

        ~d-artist Squid Angel Blessing~

      • Fox Music profile image

        Fox Music 5 years ago

        Thank you for sharing this lens "How to Paint Dark Watercolor Backgrounds"

      • profile image

        dessertlover 5 years ago

        These are so beautiful! I love watercolors. So pretty!

      • artsybookmom profile image

        artsybookmom 5 years ago

        Great tutorial. Thanks. I paint watercolor portraits and am just learning to use the glazing method.

      • profile image

        mecheshier 5 years ago

        Fabulous lens. You have some wonderful tips. I love watercolor. Thanks for sharing.

      • LaPikas profile image

        LaPikas 5 years ago

        When I am able to create something unique and beautiful as your paintings, I will very happy!! Thank you for sharing your experience =)

      • profile image

        anonymous 5 years ago

        Really great lens- stay creative!

      • profile image

        recyclinrob 5 years ago

        Wow that is amazing seeing it all come together step by step such beautiful artwork!

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        Came back to bless this wonderful lens.

      • profile image

        johnsja 5 years ago

        You are so talented! The walls of your home must look amazing! Thanks for sharing.

      • profile image

        julieannbrady 5 years ago

        My one sister is the artist in our family. I have always longed to be a painter -- perhaps one day. I would love to start here!

      • kathysart profile image

        kathysart 5 years ago

        Great tips for watercolor artists! YAY!!

      • rawwwwwws lm profile image

        rawwwwwws lm 5 years ago

        WOW I love the water color paintings shown. I love painting with water colors.

      • shahedashaikh profile image

        shahedashaikh 5 years ago

        Lovely helpful art lens.Thanks for visting liking commenting on my lens Puppets and making them I am angel blessed.

      • John Dyhouse profile image

        John Dyhouse 5 years ago from UK

        Returned to take another look at this great tutorial lens, it has helped me to create some interesting art, thanks. This time I am able to leave a little angel dust - blessed.

      • profile image

        anonymous 5 years ago

        Beautiful lens with good, clear instruction

      • Escapes2 profile image

        Escapes2 5 years ago

        My daughter loves to paint with watercolors. I will be forwarding her this information.

      • sagebrushmama profile image

        sagebrushmama 5 years ago

        Beautiful! My Dad loves watercolor painting, my daughter is exploring the medium. I have no painting talent at all. Thanks for visiting my "Motion Mindset" lens!

      • profile image

        Doc_Holliday 5 years ago

        Reminds me a bit of a TV episode which I saw recently of Rolf Harris painting Queen Elizabeth. He splashes large areas of background, then slowly adds layers to narrow the detail. His material has always fascinated me.

      • pheonix76 profile image

        pheonix76 5 years ago from WNY

        Your paintings are lovely! I loved seeing how your technique has improved. Thanks for sharing your talent with us. :)

      • Ardyn25 profile image

        Ardyn25 5 years ago

        Wow these are beautiful, you have talent. Thanks for stopping by my lens.

      • Melissa Miotke profile image

        Melissa Miotke 5 years ago from Arizona

        I wish I could paint like that. Great lens!

      • profile image

        anonymous 5 years ago

        I'm trying to start painting right now. and I will try this technique

      • TheManInTheHat profile image

        TheManInTheHat 6 years ago

        This is a great lens, I'm glad I found it. There are some great tips here. Achieving dark, rich colors in watercolor background can be tricky! As you say each one has to find the method that works best for you...but this certainly helps! :)

      • intermarks profile image

        intermarks 6 years ago

        Very nice painting. I wish I will be able to draw like you too. Thanks!

      • OhMe profile image

        Nancy Tate Hellams 6 years ago from Pendleton, SC

        Thank you for this great tutorial on painting a dark watercolor background. I have been working on a painting with a dark background and playing around with some ideas so this will be very helpful.

      • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

        ElizabethJeanAl 6 years ago

        Beautiful lens. I love to paint, but I'm not very good at it.

      • profile image

        dream1983 6 years ago

        Beautiful lens, very interesting reading! Well done

      • printingray lm profile image

        printingray lm 6 years ago

        Adorable paintings. Designed in dark background is an amazing thing, especially color combination inspires me.

      • bjslapidary profile image

        bjslapidary 6 years ago

        Again, love your paintings. Will have to try this way of glazing in the background. I like what happens. Thanks so much for this lens.

      • bjslapidary profile image

        bjslapidary 6 years ago

        Again, love your paintings. Will have to try this way of glazing in the background. I like what happens. Thanks so much for this lens.

      • WriterJanis2 profile image

        WriterJanis2 6 years ago

        So very beautiful. Blessed!

      • profile image

        anonymous 6 years ago

        Wow! I adore your paintings, especially the color palette you choose for most of them (like the blue-purples)! Beautiful lens!

      • Gayle Dowell profile image

        Gayle Dowell 6 years ago from Kansas

        @cdevries: You are welcome. I'm glad that you can adapt the info. to meet your need for your theater sets. This is why I love sharing information on Squidoo!

      • cdevries profile image

        cdevries 6 years ago

        I think your advice may turn out to be very useful to me... I design theater sets and usually need a dark background for renderings, but one that's not too harsh. This may let me "fade out" into darkness in a nice way. Thanks!

      • profile image

        cmadden 6 years ago

        Stopping back to take another look at your beautiful watercolors. I love your style of painting.

      • BLemley profile image

        Beverly Lemley 6 years ago from Raleigh, NC

        Beautiful stamps! Love your art work ~ the symbolism with the Cross behind the flower is wonderful ~ it would make a great stamp for Easter! Great visual step-by-step. I am interested in learning to use watercolor pencils, so I enjoyed being let in on your secret ~ maybe I can use your technique, too ~ great lense! B : )

      • nickirc lm profile image

        nickirc lm 6 years ago

        Beautiful painting!

      • davenjilli lm profile image

        davenjilli lm 6 years ago

        Water coloring is so different from oils. This is a wonderful tutorial on layering to get the desired affect. "blessed"

      • TTMall profile image

        TTMall 6 years ago

        beautiful photos! like ur lens!

      • profile image

        anonymous 6 years ago

        Nice lens.

      • Richardryder profile image

        Risteard O'Marcahain 6 years ago from Wales

        This is great info Thanks

      • Doggitude profile image

        Doggitude 6 years ago

        Very good tutorial and advice!

      • profile image

        myraggededge 6 years ago

        Brilliant! What a great tutorial, Simple and clear. You have inspired me - my backgrounds are usually rubbish!

      • TolovajWordsmith profile image

        Tolovaj Publishing House 6 years ago from Ljubljana

        Watercolor technique is not my favorite, because it produce too vague and foggy results too often. I your lens you proved this is not always true. Despite dark colors the pictures are light and full of life. Thumbs up!

      • iijuan12 profile image

        iijuan12 6 years ago from Florida

        Neat lens! Beautiful!

      • profile image

        mumsgather 6 years ago

        Thats a beautiful tutorial with amazing results!

      • profile image

        kosmicfashions 6 years ago

        Love the tutorial..I have been a DIY enthusiast for long time..and though I am no expert, I do paint frequently..Adding textures and colors to the background was something that I never was able to do like a pro, but your tips make it seem viable..Thanks!!

      • noel rocs profile image

        noel rocs 6 years ago

        I really like your watercolor lens :) I hope that you'll consider posting videos one day, because you have a lot of talent! great work on the lens and painting(s)

      • profile image

        hzwill 6 years ago

        So beautiful work.


      • ashroc profile image

        ashroc 6 years ago

        Thank you for your well explained tutorial. I have learnt a lot!

      • sockii profile image

        Nicole Pellegrini 6 years ago from New Jersey

        Excellent tutorial on watercolor painting and building layers of luminescent color!

      • darciefrench lm profile image

        darciefrench lm 6 years ago

        Lovely, I've got a watercolor paint kit to dive into so am sussing out tips. Thanks so much :)

      • profile image

        sheezie77 6 years ago

        What a beautifull lens! Thank you for posting thumbs up!

      • BunnyFabulous profile image

        BunnyFabulous 6 years ago from Central Florida

        Excellent lens and beautiful artwork! Thanks for sharing your background technique. Dark ones are definitely trickier, and this is helpful.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 6 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        What you did with the background really works. There is more depth.

      • profile image

        luckyjinx 6 years ago

        I used to do watercolor paintings in the past and i'm thinking of doing some more soon...Thanks for the tips...

      • profile image

        Jezmun 6 years ago

        Nice tips. I lkie the use of your old technique as well.

      • dpethealth lm profile image

        dpethealth lm 6 years ago

        This is awesome. My new year resolution to learn watercolor painting. This will go on to my guide list.

      • profile image

        Jezmun 6 years ago

        I really like how you have shown a pic of your old method as well :)

      • Eddie20112011 profile image

        Eddie20112011 6 years ago

        beautiful beautiful paintings!

      • profile image

        baby-strollers 6 years ago

        I wish I could be an artist like that!

      • flycatcherrr profile image

        flycatcherrr 6 years ago

        This series of tutorials is terrific. Last night I dug out my watercolour gear and dusted it all off, thanks to you... now just need the courage to get back into painting something more creative than my kitchen walls. :)

      • John Dyhouse profile image

        John Dyhouse 6 years ago from UK

        Revisited to check out your method of painting dark backgrounds, still enthused over this method. Thanks for an intersting and informative lens. Blessed

      • John Dyhouse profile image

        John Dyhouse 6 years ago from UK

        Revisited to check out your method of painting dark backgrounds, still enthused over this method. Thanks for an intersting and informative lens. Blessed

      • profile image

        seedplanter 6 years ago

        I've always said that the next-best thing to nature photography (my passion) is painting. It amazes me at the skill and great detail that goes into your work - and how you make it sound easy when I know it is not! Loved this lens so much. Thank you!

      • profile image

        fullofshoes 6 years ago

        Gorgeous paintings, gorgeous lens!

      • girlfriendfactory profile image

        girlfriendfactory 6 years ago

        Just beautiful! Of course, even your old way far outshines anything I can do, but your new way is just gorgeous! Lovely work and thanks for sharing!

      • profile image

        anonymous 6 years ago

        I loved this before and returning to love it again...

      • curious0927 profile image

        curious0927 6 years ago

        I love your Watercolors and your technique! I've been an amateur artist most of my life. I'm drawn to everything creative (except food and the kitchen). Watercolor being my biggest challenge of all, you have really cleared up some problems, gave me some confidence to try again! Thanks for your tremendous lens! You have been blessed by a Squid Angel! If you have never seen works by "Paul Jackson", there are a couple of sites out there with his work. Just Google his name. I had the honor of featuring one of his watercolor's on one of my lenses, with permission of course. I love yours as well and bookmarked your page!

      • Nanciajohnson profile image

        Nancy Johnson 6 years ago from Mesa, Arizona

        I really like the dark background of this watercolor. I have been considering taking up either watercolor or acrylic painting again after many years of not touching a brush. Your lense just gives me a little more of a nudge to dive in and paint again. I will watch for more technique tips from you soon.

      • profile image

        jeremykim2011 6 years ago

        I wish I could paint. Thanks for sharing, though.

      • LiteraryMind profile image

        Ellen Gregory 6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

        Nice lens and very useful information.

      • profile image

        seosmm 6 years ago

        Beautiful work and very nice lens!

      • goo2eyes lm profile image

        goo2eyes lm 6 years ago

        beautiful watercolor works of art better than the works of other over-paid artists in the world.,

      • kimark421 profile image

        kimark421 6 years ago

        Very nice lens. I wish I could paint/draw...

      • profile image

        JoshK47 6 years ago

        Wonderful information - thanks so much for sharing. :)

      • spider-girl profile image

        spider-girl 6 years ago

        Very inspiring lens! You're very talented, keep up the good work!

      • profile image

        pawpaw911 6 years ago

        You are very talented. I love the Columbine. I always wished I had some talent in the area of art, but not that lucky. I have to enjoy the work of others. Nicely done.

      • profile image

        DesignZeal 6 years ago

        Another exceptional art tutorial! beautiful art :)

      • bikerministry profile image

        bikerministry 6 years ago

        What an amazingly beautiful lens and technique. I need to get my paints out quick! Blessings.

      • squidshe profile image

        squidshe 6 years ago

        I've just taken up painting (one stroke). Images look really nice.

      • PastorSam LM profile image

        PastorSam LM 6 years ago

        Very Nice Lens

      • DianeStafford profile image

        DianeStafford 6 years ago

        Lovely artwork and lens info :-) thanks for sharing your technique, Diane

      • bjslapidary profile image

        bjslapidary 6 years ago

        Very good info. Always ready to hear what others are doing in the artwork. Like your new way of doing the backgrounds. Thanks for sharing.

      • SciTechEditorDave profile image

        David Gardner 6 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

        I've always enjoyed sketching and painting (atlhough I'm not good at it and haven't had any training in it). My daughter is an aspiring artist and is very good at it. I'll pass along this information to her. Good stuff! Congratulations on a Squidoo masterpiece!

      • profile image

        anonymous 6 years ago

        I forgot to mention that I did my backgrounds after the flowers, kept making a mess so I started doing a background first, thanks for sharing your technique :)

      • profile image

        anonymous 6 years ago

        Beautiful artwork, I do dabble in watercolors sometimes, I took an online class and really enjoyed it. It was more whimsical flowers than yours , nothing so professional, and we used a sumi brush. You can see it on my lens about Where to take Mixed Media classes online if you are interested :) *Blessed


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