The Background Dilemma

I think the dilemma that all colorists have regardless of their experience is the background. When I was a beginner, I admired in awe how people can do a solid black background without streaks. I searched for the ideal media to do a solid color background. As my experience grows, so is my desire to do more advanced looking background. I have to say the stress to achieve a perfect background is very real. Even the decision to leave it blank is a decision that doesn’t come lightly. So I’d like to show you some of my background decisions in the pieces that I completed lately and talk a bit about the thoughts behind the decisions I made.

The ultimate complicated

In the featured image above, I added koi fishes as background with pebbles beneath. I’d say it’s the ultimate complicated background I have ever done.

I watched a video by “Let’s make art” on YouTube on how to paint koi fish with watercolor one day and I remembered this beautiful illustration of Water Lily in the book Daydreams by Hanna Karlzon. It’s a light bulb moment – of course it makes perfect sense to have koi fishes in a lily pond. Watercolor doesn’t always work like it should with non-watercolour paper. Wet on wet technique to have amazing colors blending into each other does not work well on coloring book paper. Luckily Hanna’s books have high quality thick paper so at least it can withstand a reasonable degree of wetness. I just have to remember to not over drench it. As you can see the result looks pretty good.

Painting Koi fish as a background by Betty Hung -

I loved the fishes so much that the background dilemma haunted me again. This time it was how not to ruin a background with another background. I contemplated just doing a deep dark greenish/blueish color to give a sense that it’s water but I got ambitious and decided to do pebbles. The pebbles had to be kind of blurry because they were under water. Hence I used colored pencils with a very light touch.

Drawing pebbles as background for the Koi fish pond by Betty Hung -

I am really happy with the result and definitely proud that I took the risk of ruining my fishes. The technique I demonstrated on YouTube about creating rocks still applies in creating these tiny pebbles, I just had to go really light and used colored pencils only to tone it down. Here’s the blog about rocks.

Background first or after

Someone asked me if I have a strategy when I approach a piece. The honest answer is I usually have a vision of what I think I want the page to look like. What mood I wanted it to convey. That determines a lot of things such as the color palette, how I approached the background. When I looked at an illustration, sometimes I immediately know what I want to do for the background like this piece in Imagimorphia by Kerby Rosanes. I loved the classic feel of the string/brass instruments and the background color has to be a deep rich brown. So for this piece, I completed the background first. I have to admit that doing the background first somehow gives me relief like whew now that’s out of the way.

The Musical Conch from Imagimorphia by Kerby Rosanes, colored by Betty Hung,

There are times that I have no idea what I wanted to do with the background before I completed the main “characters. This is usually a piece that I selected because I love the drawing so much. Here’s a couple of examples to show the before and after background look. Usually when this happened, I was terrified of doing a bad background and wasted all my efforts with the main.


Collage of before and after background coloring by Betty Hung -

No background

There were some cases that I kept looking at the piece after I finished coloring the illustration and I couldn’t think of a background that can enhance the piece. I even felt quite strongly that a background would distract the beauty of the piece. I want you to know it’s perfectly fine to leave a white background.

"Purple Girl" from Magical Dawn by Hanna Karlzon, colored by Betty Hung -

"Little piggies" from Menuet de Bonheur by Kanoko Egosa, colored by Betty Hung -

A different approach

In the piece below that I haven’t finished yet, I avoided the question of background first or last by doing both everything simultaneously. See how I completed the work from left to right?

How to color both background and foreground at the same time by Betty Hung -   How to color background and foreground together by Betty Hung -

Now seriously, not every piece is suitable for this approach. If you have a lot of empty space for a background, you can’t split it up using this method. This is a fun way of coloring but only suitable for pages where you have a lot of different things going on and the background coloring method you desire is repeatable easily.

Happy Coloring

I would love to hear your background stories/experiences. I think colorists have a love/hate relationship with backgrounds. The most important thing is to keep experimenting, dare to try something you haven’t tried before. A pure black background can get boring after a while. Mind you, I totally respect black background, it’s not easy to have a perfectly colored black background. Above all, have fun my fellow colorists.









6 comments on “The Background Dilemma

  1. Fantastic work as always. Thank you for your inspiration.

  2. Thank you so much! I would love to see a tutorial on how you did the gorgeous background in the face with butterflies picture! Did you use pastels? Colored Pencils? Inktense?

    • Hi Jane, that particular background was done with 90% watercolor with a bit of colored pencil touch up along the edges of the figure. In order to achieve that kind of effect, it is best to work on watercolor paper (90 lb will do). I have permission from the artist to photocopy onto the watercolor paper as the paper of the book will not like that much water.

  3. Beautiful examples showing your approach to backgrounds! I struggle with them at times and on more than one occasion, have left it alone, incomplete, until the mood strikes and I figure out what to do with it. I have started playing around with watercolors a little more for backgrounds now. I always admire how you add your own details to the backgrounds of the pieces you work on, Betty. Those inclusions give the art your own touch of personality and take your coloring to a higher level. Stunning work. 🙂

    • Thanks Susan, I think I’ve come a long way in terms of confidence. I have become more daring and this is something that won’t happen overnight. So I hope people don’t see my backgrounds and said oh I can’t do that. I only hope to inspire others to think out of the box with my examples.

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