Wednesday, May 13, 2009



After reading many books on techniques, and trying many ways that didn't work for me, I have finally come to a place where I know what I need to do to achieve a certain look in my backgrounds. The particular method I am going to demonstrate is what my daughter calls my "batik backgrounds" as they remind her of batik material which has that watercolor look, and which we have used when quilting. (Yes - Kim and I are both artists in several different disciplines, one of which is quilting.) This demonstration is how I created the background for Common Redpoll, shown here. 

You will want to decide the areas you wish to be dark, and where the light source is coming from before you begin.

The first thing I do is mask off with making fluid any parts of my painting I need to protect from the background washes.

Have your paint colors already mixed and ready to go. I suggest having a different brush for each color you are laying in so that the colors do not muddy one another when you are placing them on your painting.

Next, I lay a wash of clean water over the areas which will be painted as the background.
I saturate the entire area, going over it side to side and top to bottom to ensure there is even coverage. Pick up your painting and hold it to the light to check that you have not missed any spots.

Continue to check the shine until it begins to fade. This is the point at which you will begin to apply paint. This wet into wet technique is simple, yet very effective...

For the background you will see here, I am using Paynes Grey, Oxide of Chromium and Quinacridone Gold. As the shine begins to fade from the paper, I load my brush with pigment which is of a somewhat "creamy" consistency. It is not nearly as thick as the last demo, but it is thicker than the paint I will use for the rest of my painting.

As you lay down your first color, you can "charge" the background with a second and third (or more) color, allowing the pigment to mix on the paper, or mixing it with your brush if you are sure the colors won't blend to create "mud". You can pick up your paper and move it around to cause the colors to blend smoothly.

Here I have combined the Paynes Grey and the Oxide of Chromium on the upper left side of the painting to achieve a darker area.

When you have completed your first coating of paint, allow the paper to dry.

Here you see what the painting looks like after drying.

But fear not - we are going in again to build another layer of color. Spray the surface so that it is wet again. You can spread this sprayed water with your brush, but be very careful as you can drag the dark colors over the bright light colors, and you don't want to lose that transparency, or lift too much color off the paper.

Now I have gone back in and used the same colors to add another layer of pigment, but also added some Winsor Green in the lower right corner. I can repeat this process as often as I need to, but generally, I have my background set within 2 - 3 washes.

Here you see the final result for this demonstration.

As you can see here in Common Redpoll, this is exactly how I did this background. 

For the same process with a slightly different look, check out the background in Sunny Trio here.

Hope this post has helped you! I practiced a lot on small pieces of paper to get a feel for the amount of water and pigment I needed to achieve the look I wanted. You might need to do that too - it also helps to get your color combinations right before moving to your actual painting.

If you have anything you would like me to cover in watercolor techniques and tips, just let me know in the comments section, or send me an e-mail: 


Kim said...

Thanks for sharing this. FINALLY!!

Joanne said...

You have been a very patient daughter in waiting to learn this background technique! Thanks for asking me to do some posts about the way I paint with watercolor!

Jean Victory said...

Thanks for sharing your watercolor looks like a lot of work. I think I'll stick to oils and pastel. I also love the broken egg shell painting you have listed...nice! Take care!

Joanne said...

Hi Jean,
Yes - there is a lot more to watercolor than many people realize. I think it is a very unpredictable, uncontrollable medium which takes lots of patience and practice... but the rewards are so worth it! You can achieve effects in watercolor that are unrivaled by acrylic or oil. Each medium has its challenges and rewards - I would never be able to handle pastel like you do... in your hands it is absolutely beautiful!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Very cool tutorial!


Didi said...

Thanks for your interesting tutorial. It will certainly inspire me to try the technique as backgrounds are 'the band of my existence.' I have been constantly frustrated by my good drawing technique ruined by the shoddy background.

Joanne Giesbrecht said...

You are welcome Didi! I hope your backgrounds are fantastic following this method!

Anonymous said...

hi there, i am new to watercolour and your tutorial has been very helpful!
i'm a bit confused though: once you have lifted the masking fluid and are ready to paint the foreground/details, won't the edges of the subject's colours still potentially run together with the background?
or can you use the masking fluid overtop of your background paint as well?

Joanne Giesbrecht said...

Hi Jaxs,

You could mask the background around the edges of your subject if you want to. Just be very careful that the paper is bone dry when you apply the masking, and that you are extra careful when removing the mask as you won't want to lift the paint you have already laid down. A better idea is to paint your subject with a drier mix of pigment and water, so that it is controllable, not runny. Then the paint will not bleed into the background. You can paint almost up to the edges of the subject and then coax the color to the edge if it is more fluid than how I paint. Or, you can paint your background after painting the subject...many ways to achieve the same results. I wish you lots of success with your watercolors!

Anonymous said...

oh great, i'm getting started right away.. thank you for your quick reply of helpful advice, and for your awesome inspiring work!

Joanne Giesbrecht said...

Hi Jaxs,

I'd love to see your piece when you are done! If you get stuck, just let me know and I'll try to help. :-)