Backgrounds are often (usually) an afterthought with artists. They paint the subject they’re passionate about, study their work and wonder, does it NEED something behind it? If so, what?

Good - Picking the perfect background may turn your ordinary painting into a breath taking masterpiece.

Bad - Picking the wrong color, wrong value, or overworking the background – can easily ruin your painting.

Here is a demo with some practical steps for applying dark, glowing backgrounds (with confidence) for any painting. As with all my lessons, feel free to download, paint, tell a friend, or teach a class. The reference photo is also available on my Flickr page and my Youtube channel has several videos on washes.

Get Ready

1. Practice washes. Make practice sheets about the size of writing paper and keep them in a binder. Do some flat washes of just one color. Do some graded washes of one color from dark at the top to light at the bottom. Try washes with several colors, just to see what happens. Label this with the pigments you use. When you’re thinking of a background, cut out a photo of your subject and hold it up against different background practice sheets to see how it looks.

2. Pick a palette of no more than five colors and stick to it. (This is for the entire painting, subject AND background.) If you can’t blend all the hues you want by mixing two or three colors, you’re using the wrong colors. You can mix thousands of different hues with five colors, and your painting will have a professional look.

3. Mix more paint for your wash than you think you’ll need. Wet the paper till evenly damp. Start on one side and mop the paint on with a soft wash brush, working across the area. Don’t use a lot of brush strokes – mop it on. Don’t go back into an area you’ve painted. If it’s uneven, use a misting bottle and physically turn the painting up and down, back and forth, to smooth out the color.

Get Set

Note I arranged the flowers into three groups of flowers that touch – a big, a medium and a small. I took artistic license to fill in the leaves on the right (by repeating some of leaves) and made a few flowers and leaves a bit larger. I'm working on Arches art board.

The Color Palette

• Quinacridone Red – PV19
• Lemon Yellow PY53
• Thalo Blue PB15
• Quincridone Gold PO49 or other mixes
• Perylene Green PBk31
• White gouache (Pro White by Daler Rowney or Bleed Proof White by Dr. Martin)


Start with the background - not the flowers.

Humans are not good at judging values against white paper and paint the flowers too dark. For the most impact and easiest progress, paint the flowers last.

(I often paint my darkest part first, to establish my value range. A convenient place is the small areas between the flowers and leaves. I paint these on dry paper with mixes of my greens and yellows.)

Washes Colors
• Purple (mix red and blue) – medium amount
• Red/brown – large amount (mostly red with a bit of blue and yellow)
• Greens for foliage – thalo + yellow, thalo + quin gold, perylene green, you can also mix your greens or add more yellow or gold to any of the mixed greens,

Mask the Edges

Masking the edges of the flowers lets you concentrate on the wash, while maintaining the crisp flower edges.

I use Pebeo drawing gum. I keep it in an old Elmer’s glue bottle, so I can squeeze out a line of mask, then use a cheap craft brush to pull the masking out to the flower edges. This is very quick and applies a thick layer of mask that is easy to remove when you’re all finished.

While I waited for the masking to dry, I started painting some of the leaf shapes.

On some leaves I painted the shadow areas first. Other leaves, I painted a light blue green, then added water or darker paint wet on wet for variety.

Note that I painted the top leaf bits yellow and left a line of white around some of the edges. Leaves have depth and depending on how they’re turned, you can see the edge on some. Paint what you see.

Usually I don’t try for really saturated color with my first washes on leaves, but may paint them several times, building up color. I also don’t paint each leaf the same color, but let my mixes of greens vary, staying more blue green than bright green or yellow green.

Once the masking was dry, I wet the background (evenly wet but not drippy) and painted purple mix at the top. (I wanted the background darker at the top, and the red/brown mix is not a very dark value. I could have painted the top with perylene green but I wanted a warmer dark, so I used the purple.)

The Big Dark Wash

  • Wet - I rewet the background by spraying it with my misting bottle.
  • Mop on - Starting on the left side, I mopped on my red/brown wash across the background, using a large brush. The mix was very thick – like heavy cream.
  • Mist and Tilt to smooth out - I used my misting bottle to keep it just wet enough to spread evenly, then I tilted the painting back and forth. (While that dried, I kept plugging away at the leaves.)

When that dried, I removed the masking. Some of the red color got on the tulips, but not enough to worry about.

Finally!!! - Painting The Flowers

Paint the tulips, red ones and pink ones (add white to red to make pink). Soften edges on the flowers farther in the background.

Keys For Dark Background Washes

1. Pick a limited palette (with transparent dark colors) for your subject and background, so it looks coordinated. Keep the background color muted so it doesn’t compete with your subject.

2. Mask your subject.

3. Mix up more paint that you think you will need, thick washes with paint right from the tube and only a little water. (And be careful not to keep dipping your brush in more water.)

4. Wet your surface evenly wet but not drippy.

5. Start at one side and work across. Use a large wash brush (hake brushes work well) and mop the color on. Use your misting bottle and turn the painting up and down or sideways to spread or even out the color. (The fewer brush strokes the better.)

6. If it dries lighter than you want, repeat until your color saturation is perfect.


Yes, I did run out of the red/brown color. I didn't mix enough, even though I used about half a tube of red for this painting. So, I mixed up more and put two washes on the background.

I hope your tulips turn out great. For dark background, remember - fewer brush strokes, better color choice, mist and tilt to smooth or spread.