A background isn’t always necessary as part of a drawing. In fact, drawings often look better and more striking when there is no background and the main subject takes centre stage with nothing to fight for its attention.
However, the reference photograph for my latest project had an out of focus, blurred background that contrasted really well with the bold tones of the detailed foreground. I really liked the contrast and decided I wanted to include the background in my drawing.
In this post I’m sharing my top tips for creating a blurred background in a drawing.
Start with the right materials
Choosing the right materials for the job is as relevant when it comes to drawing as it is for anything else.
You don’t often need a lot of supplies, even for detailed drawings, but high quality art supplies that are suited to your style of drawing will make it easier for you to achieve the end result you’re aiming for.
For this project I used:
I used Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black pencils. These pencils have a special lead combination of carbon and graphite, meaning they smudge slightly less, and create a more matt, black finish than standard graphite.
A variety of lead degrees mean a wide variety of tones and values can be achieved, making for a more interesting drawing. I used 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B pencils for this project.
The paper you choose for graphite drawing isn’t quite as important as for some mediums, such as watercolour, but it can still make a large impact on your finished drawing.
For this project, I used Daler Rowney heavyweight smooth cartridge paper. Smooth paper is perfect for both detailed drawing and smooth blending. Rough paper would have created a more textured looking finished drawing. It is an Artist quality paper, which means it is archival and acid-free.
Tortillions are tight rolls of paper used to smudge and blend pencil, charcoal and graphite. They are great for blending large areas, and the pointed ends can be used for blending smaller sections too.
Paper Stumps are available too, which are very similar, except without such a pointed end, making them more useful for blending larger areas.
I used a putty eraser in this drawing to lift out highlights and the areas where I’d gone too dark too early.
Putty erasers are kneadable so can be moulded to create a point for erasing small areas. However, when creating this background I used it as a ball and rolled it over areas to lighten them.
Observe your reference
Even when a background is blurred, it’s important to observe your reference photograph, especially if the blurred elements are still recognisable, as they are in the reference I used for this project.
I started the drawing with a light sketch, including sketching out the recognisable parts of the background so I had a guide when I started adding my pencil layers and shading.
As I worked on the drawing I moved around in sections, starting with the tree and sky sections, and finishing with the fence and ground.
Keep values light
A background of a drawing should help enhance and draw attention to the foreground. In the reference photo I used for this drawing, the background is paler than the foreground, which, along with the blurring of the details, helps to make the foreground pop and grab the viewer’s eye.
I started the drawing with a 2B pencil, which is the hardest in my Staedtler Mars Lumograph Black set. Harder pencils create paler tones, which is why I always start by using my harder pencils.
Build up the layers
Creating a wide variety of values and tones in a drawing is always achieved through lots of patience building up lots of layers.
I worked through each section of background, repeating the process of starting with a 2B pencil, then adding multiple layers with my 4B and 6B pencils to make shading darker where it needed to be.
In some areas I went too dark too soon and had to use my putty eraser to lighten them up again.
It’s hard to lighten graphite pencil, but it’s easy to make it darker so it’s best to keep your layers light to start with. If you finish your drawing and decide after you’ve added your detailed foreground that the background is too light, it’s easy enough to make it darker if you need to.
Avoid hard edges
The most obvious difference between drawing something deliberately blurred and creating detailed drawings like I normally do is the need to avoid crisp, hard edges and texture.
To keep the edges of the objects in the backgrounds fuzzy I:
- Kept my pencils blunt
- Shaded with scribbly lines
- Blended the edges of different tonal areas together
As I worked on the drawing I started each section by shading the area with light scribbly lines in all different directions. By keeping my pencils blunt, it was easier to blend the lines together just with the pencils, but if I thought the lines were too obvious I used my tortillion to smudge them together.
For the areas that were recognisable objects, such as the tree and the fence, I shaded the middle of the branches and fence posts or the parts that needed to be shaded the darkest, then blended out the tones so they became lighter at the edges where they blurred into the pale sky.
My advice to anyone who asks me how to get better at drawing is to keep practicing.
However, it can also help to follow tutorials and demos, or take online classes.
If you’re interested in taking online classes, I highly recommend Skillshare, which is where I have my own Pet Portrait drawing class published.
To learn more about Skillshare and discover which classes I recommend for improving your drawing skills and learning how to draw realistic people and pets, head over to this blog post: Top 10 Skillshare Classes to Improve your Drawing Skills