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How to Paint Dark Watercolor Backgrounds

Gayle Dowell is known as the Prairie Jeweler. She creates jewelry using prairie grasses and wildflowers in fine silver and 22k gold.

How to paint dark watercolor backgrounds

How to paint dark watercolor backgrounds

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

My old way of painting dark watercolor backgrounds: no depth or luminosity

My Old Way of Painting: 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 add depth to the painting.

My new way of painting watercolor backgrounds: achieving depth and luminosity

My new way of painting watercolor backgrounds: achieving depth and luminosity

My New Way: 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.

How to Paint a Dark Watercolor Background

Step 1: 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.

Use the best watercolor paper you can.

Use the best watercolor paper you can.

Step 2: Draw the Image and Painting the First Layer

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). In this painting, I started with antwerp blue for the background.

Add a yellow glaze.

Add a yellow glaze.

Step 3: Add Yellow to the Background

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, a light touch is used so that the previous layers are not disturbed.

Next, add red over the yellow.

Next, add red over the yellow.

Step 4: Add Red to the Background

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.

Next, start adding blue.

Next, start adding blue.

Step 5: Start Over With the Blue Layer

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

Continue to paint in repeated layers

Step 6: Continue to Paint in Repeated Layers of Watercolor

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.

Controlling the color

Controlling the color

Step 7: Add Only Certain Colors to the Background

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.

Last step: final touches

Last step: final touches

Step 8: Final Touches

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 represent 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 paint will give you the best results.

Another dark background example

Another dark background example

Questions & Answers

Question: Can you use masking fluid to protect the main subject while watercolor painting?

Answer: I don't use masking fluid as I've not had much success with using it. For me, it was too time consuming and I didn't like the effect afterward. It looked like I had used it. Some artists can use it with much success. I don't happen to be one of those.

Question: What background colors did you use in the second painting in this post?

Answer: Quinacridone, aureolin yellow, and indigo blue.

Questions or Comments About My Watercolor Technique?

Gayle Dowell (author) from Kansas on March 30, 2019:

If I remember correctly, I used aureolin yellow, quinacridone rose and indigo blue.

Judi on March 23, 2019:

What colors did you use in your second painting?

Gayle Dowell (author) from Kansas on January 06, 2018:

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.

Jan Simon on January 02, 2018:

Do you wet the original paper before beginning background?

Ashley on November 21, 2017:

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 (author) from Kansas on December 09, 2013:

@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.

christopher-nicholson-3154 on December 08, 2013:

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 on October 29, 2013:

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.

Fay Favored from USA on September 17, 2013:

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 (author) from Kansas on August 24, 2013:

@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 from Montreal on August 24, 2013:

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.

Katherine Tyrrell from London on June 07, 2013:

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!

anonymous on April 11, 2013:

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 on February 23, 2013:

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

Delia on February 15, 2013:

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 on February 12, 2013:

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

dessertlover on January 29, 2013:

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

artsybookmom on December 10, 2012:

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

mecheshier on November 23, 2012:

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

LaPikas on November 23, 2012:

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

anonymous on October 28, 2012:

Really great lens- stay creative!

recyclinrob on October 28, 2012:

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

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 21, 2012:

Came back to bless this wonderful lens.

johnsja on October 12, 2012:

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

julieannbrady on October 12, 2012:

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 on October 07, 2012:

Great tips for watercolor artists! YAY!!

rawwwwwws lm on September 23, 2012:

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

shahedashaikh on September 18, 2012:

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

John Dyhouse from UK on September 10, 2012:

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.

anonymous on August 16, 2012:

Beautiful lens with good, clear instruction

Escapes2 on August 13, 2012:

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

sagebrushmama on August 12, 2012:

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!

Doc_Holliday on August 12, 2012:

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 from WNY on August 10, 2012:

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

Ardyn25 on August 03, 2012:

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

Melissa Miotke from Arizona on August 03, 2012:

I wish I could paint like that. Great lens!

anonymous on July 26, 2012:

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

TheManInTheHat on June 19, 2012:

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 on June 16, 2012:

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

Nancy Tate Hellams from Pendleton, SC on June 14, 2012:

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 on May 27, 2012:

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

dream1983 on May 23, 2012:

Beautiful lens, very interesting reading! Well done

printingray lm on May 22, 2012:

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

bjslapidary on May 21, 2012:

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 on May 21, 2012:

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 on May 19, 2012:

So very beautiful. Blessed!

anonymous on May 04, 2012:

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

Gayle Dowell (author) from Kansas on May 02, 2012:

@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 on May 02, 2012:

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!

cmadden on April 25, 2012:

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

Beverly Lemley from Raleigh, NC on February 29, 2012:

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 on February 27, 2012:

Beautiful painting!

davenjilli lm on February 25, 2012:

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

TTMall on February 16, 2012:

beautiful photos! like ur lens!

anonymous on February 05, 2012:

Nice lens.

Risteard O'Marcahain from Wales on February 02, 2012:

This is great info Thanks

Doggitude on January 31, 2012:

Very good tutorial and advice!

myraggededge on January 30, 2012:

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

Tolovaj Publishing House from Ljubljana on January 24, 2012:

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!

Shannon from Florida on January 20, 2012:

Neat lens! Beautiful!

mumsgather on January 20, 2012:

Thats a beautiful tutorial with amazing results!

kosmicfashions on January 15, 2012:

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 on January 15, 2012:

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)

hzwill on January 14, 2012:

So beautiful work.


Jen Wood from Australia on January 13, 2012:

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

Nicole Pellegrini from New Jersey on January 13, 2012:

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

darciefrench lm on January 13, 2012:

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

sheezie77 on January 12, 2012:

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

Erin Hardison from Memphis, TN on January 12, 2012:

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

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 12, 2012:

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

luckyjinx on January 12, 2012:

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

Jezmun on January 11, 2012:

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

dpethealth lm on January 11, 2012:

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

Jezmun on January 11, 2012:

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

Eddie20112011 on January 11, 2012:

beautiful beautiful paintings!

baby-strollers on January 11, 2012:

I wish I could be an artist like that!

flycatcherrr on January 11, 2012:

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 from UK on January 11, 2012:

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 from UK on January 11, 2012:

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

seedplanter on January 10, 2012:

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!

fullofshoes on January 10, 2012:

Gorgeous paintings, gorgeous lens!

girlfriendfactory on January 10, 2012:

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!

anonymous on January 09, 2012:

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

curious0927 on January 09, 2012:

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!

Nancy Johnson from Mesa, Arizona on January 09, 2012:

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.

jeremykim2011 on January 08, 2012:

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

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on January 08, 2012:

Nice lens and very useful information.

seosmm on January 08, 2012:

Beautiful work and very nice lens!

goo2eyes lm on January 04, 2012:

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

kimark421 on December 29, 2011:

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

JoshK47 on December 29, 2011:

Wonderful information - thanks so much for sharing. :)

spider-girl on December 28, 2011:

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

pawpaw911 on December 12, 2011:

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.

DesignZeal on December 08, 2011:

Another exceptional art tutorial! beautiful art :)

bikerministry on December 04, 2011:

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

squidshe on December 01, 2011:

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

PastorSam LM on November 13, 2011:

Very Nice Lens

DianeStafford on November 07, 2011:

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

bjslapidary on November 03, 2011:

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.

David Gardner from San Francisco Bay Area, California on November 02, 2011:

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!