VIDEO: How to Create Dynamic, Colorful Backgrounds with Watercolors

By admin in Art Tutorials > Video Tutorials

When painting from a photograph (or from life) it’s not always necessary to include the exact background that appears behind your subject. In many cases a more abstract, two or three-color background can be more pleasing, and help focus the viewer’s attention on your subject.

In the following video, Arleta Pech, a watercolorist, shows how she adds those kinds of dynamic, colorful backgrounds to her floral studies. Take a look:

For more watercolor painting instructions, check out Arleta’s full-length video from Creative Catalyst Productions.

Transcription of “Creating a Painting with a Dynamic Watercolor Background”

[Arleta speaking] Now that we’ve gone through the basics of getting our painting ready to be worked on, and to be painted, I thought we would talk about background choices.

Background colors―I never worry about what’s in the reference photo when it comes to backgrounds. My backgrounds are my most happening piece that just complement my subject matter.

In this one it’s a lot of black and different green leaves and things, but what I really want to complement is the subject matter itself: the flowers the colors in the blossoms.

So I chose for my colors―I’m going to use cobalt blue, permanent rose, and Quinacridone Gold, and―I’m going to move this out of the way. You can pick analogous colors which are similar to your subject matter, such as, I’m putting the Permanent Rose in the background because I know I’ll be using Permanent Rose in my flower.

The blue and the cobalt blue and the Quinacridone Gold will make a nice soft green that will complement the the flower. And what I’m going to do is mix up my colors here. This is Cobalt Blue. And I paint my backgrounds with probably the deepest value that will be in my painting, first, because that way I can judge all my other values against that background value.

I find it works much better for me that way than leaving the background to last, and then having the terror of doing a background around a beautiful flower, and with the possibility of messing up the background.

So, this is permanent Rose and then the Quinacridone Gold is the yellow.

A lot of times I will do a little sample swatch of color before I ever apply it to the painting, just to make sure I have the colors I want and the intensity that I want.

I’m going to now mix some Quinacridone Gold into this blue. I’m going to actually make a soft green, and with this color combination you need to be careful because if you make the colors equal it’s not a very pretty green. So you either need to stay to the gold side or the blue side. The blue side keeps a cooler background, yellow side makes a warmer background.

So we’re going to stay just a little more to the yellow side, and one more puddle and I will have my palette prepared for the background―this is just a pure puddle of Cobalt Blue―and you’ll notice that I have a brush just about for every puddle. That keeps me from having to rinse my brush out between and I can just use these puddles as I paint.

And I avoid white paper just like everybody else does so this is me mixing more color because the white paper is staring at me. So you never quite get over it, but I also want to make sure I have a big enough puddle because I’m going to work with just this moisture.

I work on dry paper when I do my backgrounds, and one of the things that I like is having elements touching off the page. This is a design element that gives me interesting negative shapes in the background. It also gives me stopping and starting places so that I can take a breath, or mix more paint.

That’s always a good thing. [Laughs]

Okay, here we go.

So there’s a leaf going off here―I’m going to start this way and work away and you’re going to notice me turn my paintings. I always keep my hand comfortable so I’m working my hand this way, and so I turn my paintings to make that happen, and make it more comfortable for my hand.

As I get over to this area, this will be a light value area such as you see in the original.

And this is a bit of “leave a little heavier paint” kind of a puddly area, and then pull it a little thinner so that there’s a value change.

Changing brushes, this is just right into some Cobalt, and that’s the one beautiful thing about watercolor is every background is unique, you never know what they’re going to look like until you’re done.

So that’s why I say it’s one of my most “happening” areas of my paintings because each one is unique, and I don’t plan on where I paint each color―I just kind of let it happen and just kind of intuitively have a good time.

Playing with the blues and the greens predominantly down in here. This also gives me a chance to keep my edges cleaner on my subject matter.

This was a way for me to eliminate having to use Miskit or masking fluid.

And I’m going to probably be a little quieter here just to concentrate.


As I’m coming up around the side I’m going to start working into some of the yellows and the pinks a little more. You’ll notice I’m not going back to my water bucket just working with the moisture that’s on the palette.

Changing colors―ooh, that wasn’t a good choice. Kind of went very brown there so I’ll go back into some blue, take it back to the green side.

The bigger the area the faster you have to move and the broader sweeps you want to do with your brush.

Again, just kind of rinsing out my brush and just pulling at the pinks―I want to have a range of value changes happening.

Kind of have a peachy pink color over here.

I’m going to go into a soft green and we need to make the transition back to the deeper values right across there. But this is just a playful scumbling of paint playing with color lighter values and then we’ll work back into some darker.

I start picking up a little bit darker. . . just kind of letting it happen.

Not real fond of what I just did right there, so I’m going to just kind of feather it just a little bit, with the damp brush.

This is an unusual background for me because I’m known for my really dark backgrounds where it’s completely dark all the way around, so this is kind of a variety for me.

Back into some of the deeper colors in here. Don’t worry about going back in―if I see something happening that I don’t like, unless there’s some shine to the paper, I leave it alone because if you go back into a background at this stage you usually make more problems. It’s better to let it completely dry and then deal with the problem that you don’t like, go in and fix it, or glaze over an area.

So we’re back into the values that we started with―so hopefully we have a nice transition of going from darker all the way around to lighter. And, I do my big background shapes first, then if there was like windows, small little areas between petals that were showing into the background, then I paint those last.

And a lot of times I’ll change to a smaller brush and go in and paint the darker areas such as like in here: that would be dark background. They would be painted last, because if you try and do them as you’re doing this part, then you can lose control of the background and you can get a dry edge.

So that is how this background was done, and you just have to watch the shine of the paper and keep pulling your moisture as you go around.

[end of video]


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