13 Awesome Watercolor Backgrounds & How to Paint them!

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Whether you are a watercolorist looking for a new background solution to a painting idea you have, or you’re an art journalist wanting to paint watercolor backgrounds on your art journal pages, there are options for everyone.

There is indeed a myriad of ways to paint a watercolor background!

I have included watercolor background ideas for beginners and professional artists, watercolor background ideas for hobbyists, and those of us who are involved in card making and crafts! You can even use these ideas to paint your own mobile phone watercolor background!

It is beneficial to have some reference ideas to work from when you are developing a background for an artwork or a craft piece, so hopefully, this selection of watercolor background ideas gives you a good sense of what you would like to achieve with your painting.

To give you some extra help, I have also included step-by-step instructions on how to go about painting your watercolor background, as well as a list of the materials and tools you will need so that you can paint your own!

Practicing painting watercolor backgrounds like the examples in this article will give you a good idea of what you can achieve with watercolor and help you to become better at watercolor painting. It also allows you to become better at problem-solving – being an artist and creating artwork is so much about finding creative solutions!

13 Awesome Ideas for Watercolor Backgrounds & How to Paint them!

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Gentle Watercolor Gradient

Painting a watercolor gradient is a lovely way to create a soft and simple background for lettering, embossing, or as a background for mixed media art and art journaling.

gentle blue watercolor background gradient

Steps to Follow

  1. Create a clean, white border around the edge of your watercolor paper by sticking down artists masking tape.
  2. Choose a color to use. You can either use a color straight from the tube or pan set or mix colors together to create another color. I have chosen to use Ultramarine straight from the tube.
  3. For this watercolor background, I used the wet-on-dry watercolor technique. I loaded my brush with ultramarine blue and started painting from the top of the page moving down to the bottom.
  4. Paint in a vertical motion as you slowly move down the page. Add water to your paint as you continue. This will water down the pigment you are picking up on your brush – this means the color will get lighter and lighter as you continue painting.
  5. Once I had done the first wash, I loaded my brush with more ultramarine and painted a second layer over the top part of the background so that it was darker and had a more obvious gradient. You can continue to do this as many times as you want in order to get the desired effect. Bear in mind that watercolor paint tends to be brighter when wet, and becomes lighter as it dries. It is a good idea to wait for it to dry between layers.

Dripping Watercolor

You can use a paintbrush, syringe, dropper, or any tool that creates a drip-like mark on your page. This is a fun background and you can also use this technique to create a sense of some sort of dense background. The green together with the mottled drip pattern makes me feel as though I could create an artwork featuring a leafy bush, or some sort of foliage emerging in the background.

green drips watercolor background

Steps to Follow

  1. Load your brush, syringe, or dropper with paint and allow it to drip onto the surface of the paper. Experiment with both the wet-on-wet and the wet-on-dry watercolor techniques and explore the different effects.
  2. If you have dripped too much water and you are worried about the paint running, then you can take the corner of a paper towel, or tissue and gentle touch the watercolor droplet to “suck” up or absorb the excess watercolor paint. Choosing to dab a few of your droplets creates an interesting result because some will be lighter and some will be darker!

Read this super helpful article by Erika Lancaster on how to mix believable and interesting greens with watercolor…

Blending Watercolor

Pink and purple blended watercolor background

Steps to Follow

  1. Choose two or more colors to blend. In this example, I chose two colors – Opera Pink and Dioxazine Violet.
  2. Start by painting one of your colors on the one half of your watercolor paper.
  3. While the first color is still wet, paint your second color on the other half of your watercolor paper.
  4. Move the colors into one another to allow them to blend.
  5. Keep layering washes of each color and allowing them to blend.

Scumbling/ Dry Brushing Watercolor Paint

dry brush brown and green watercolor painted background
  1. Using a dry brush, rub off some slightly wet paint from your palette. You can use a spray bottle to lightly activate your watercolors so that you can pick up some pigment.
  2. Using a circular and a ‘rubbing’ motion, you can scrub the surface of the paper with your paintbrush.
  3. This creates an interesting texture and you can use several different colors to build up your background.

Wet-On-Wet Watercolor Background

Wet-on-wet is a watercolor technique where you apply wet paint onto a wet paper surface. You are able to create whimsical effects where the pigment seems to magically move and bloom on the paper surface. I always find it very exciting to watch how the color moves and dries when you paint in this way. It really teaches you to let go!

red and yellow wet-on-wet painted watercolor background
  1. Using a clean watercolor brush, paint clean, fresh water over the paper surface.
  2. Load your brush with activated (wet) watercolor.
  3. Touch the wet surface of the paper and watch the colors bloom. In this example, I used two colors (Permanent Rose, and Lemon Yellow) and allowed them to blend.

Coarse Salt on Watercolor

Sprinkling coarse salt onto a wet watercolor surface creates fascinating speckles, and patterns when it dries.

blue watercolor painted background with coarse salt

Steps to Follow

  1. Paint the surface of the paper using your chosen watercolor hue.
  2. While still wet, sprinkle coarse salt (even table salt will create an interesting effect) onto the watercolor and allow to dry.
  3. Once dry, rub off the salt.

Watercolor Stencil Background

Stenciling is a fun way to create a watercolor background. You can make your own stencils or even buy stencils online to get the desired effects. There is a huge range of stencils to choose from – flowers, to animals, to lettering!

green and purple flower watercolor stencil painting

Steps to Follow

  1. Create a clean, white border around the edge of your watercolor paper by sticking down artists masking tape.
  2. Decide on the position of your stencil on your page.
  3. Use repositionable spray adhesive on the back of the stencil and then stick it onto your sheet of watercolor paper.
  4. Mix your chosen color and start painting the surface of your paper. I find that you need to manipulate the brush so as to get into the small spaces in the stencil.
  5. It often happens that the watercolor might bleed beneath the stencil – and to be honest, I quite like that effect!
  6. Once the watercolor paint has dried you can gently remove the stencil.
  7. I like to further work in to the stenciled watercolor painting by using permanent pens, pastel, or colored pencils.

Splatter Watercolor Painting

This is a fun way to create an energized watercolor background. I chose to use some Opera Pink mixed with Permanent Rose to get a ‘hot’ splatter background. You can use any tool from a wet paintbrush where you can ‘throw’ paint, or an old toothbrush to flick the pigment onto your surface.

red and pink watercolor paint splatter background

Steps to Follow

  1. Create a clean, white border around the edge of your watercolor paper by sticking down artists masking tape.
  2. Using your tool of choice (I flicked my brush onto the paper), spray the paint onto the paper.
  3. If you have dripped too much water and you are worried about the paint running, then you can take the corner of a paper towel, or tissue and gentle touch the watercolor droplet to “suck” up or absorb the excess watercolor paint. Choosing to dab a few of your watercolor sprays creates an interesting result because some will be lighter and some will be darker!

Watercolor Shadow

Choosing a simple shadow grounds your painted subject and add a sense of realism to your painitng. Here I have added a soft shadow behind each of the watercolor gooseberries I painted. I wanted this painting to have a naturalistic feel to it, and I think the shadows really helped.

Gooseberry watercolor and pen painting with subtle shadow

Steps to Follow

  1. Decide where your light source is coming from. If the light source is coming from the right-hand side, then the shadows will fall on the opposite side behind the subject. Make sure your shadows are all falling in the same general direction to create a more realistic effect!
  2. Using a touch of the main color in your subject, add a touch of black and white watercolor paint and mix these together to create the color of a shadow. I used a touch of the sienna color in my gooseberries and added it to a black and white mix to create the gray shadow color I used.
  3. Shadows will often be darker the closer they are to the object.

Watercolor Grass/ Ground

To give your subject a context it is a good idea to add some sort of ground, like grass! Here is an example of how I added a grass and greenery sprouting out from the ground beneath my poppies.

watercolor painting of poppies sprouting out from a grassy patch

Coffee Splashes & Stains

I painted this fox in coffee – an unusual but exciting medium to work in! I decided to create a coffee stain or coffee splash effect. Using these kinds of design elements can make your painting really interesting. There are so many shapes, patterns and creative ideas you can explore in the background of your watercolor paintings!

[Related Article: Let’s Explore Painting with Coffee!]

painting of a fox in coffee paint with coffee stain effect and splashes in the background

Simple Fade-Out Watercolor Background

This was a sweet little pangolin illustration I completed as a commission. I decided that I wanted the focus to be on her, so I painted a soft, simplistic wash of color that faded into the background. This grounded my subject and placed her in a natural context, without taking too much focus away from her.

watercolor illustration of a pangolin with a faded watercolor background

Minimalist Blank or White Background

There is no hard and fast rule about what sort of background you should be adding to any painting. In fact, many people prefer to have a clean, minimalist background. This really works well with botanical artwork!

watercolor painting of fuchsias flowers on a white background

Materials & Tools for Painting Watercolor Backgrounds

300gsm Watercolor paper (a good idea to use a heavier paper so that it doesn’t warp or buckle when you apply watercolor paint)

Watercolor paint (tubes or pan sets)

Soft bristle brushes (round or filbert)

Syringe

Masking Tape

Coarse Salt

Hair Dryer or Heat Tool

Top Tips for Painting Watercolor Backgrounds

Do you paint the background first with watercolor?

Often people want to know whether they should paint the background or the subject of their watercolor painting first. This really depends on what sort of painting you are doing.

Professional watercolor painters will often start working on the subject first in order to keep their edges clean. Watercolor backgrounds in painting are often very flowing, light-filled, and impressionistic and as a result, many people prefer to paint a focus area with more detail first and then develop ideas for the background.

That being said, this is completely up to personal preference. Painting the background first can help to give you an overall sense of where your painting is going. You can use masking fluid, or tape to block out the elements in your painting that you wish to remain blank so that you can paint those later on.

When you are creating a poster or a design with lettering or embossing it is a good idea to paint the watercolor background first.

How do you spread watercolor?

When you first start painting with watercolor, you use a method known as wet-on-dry. Essentially, you do this by dipping your paintbrush into activated, wet watercolor paint and applying it to a dry paper surface. This method offers you more control and it is the basic, standard method used in all painting.

The second method is called wet-on-wet. This is where you dip your brush into wet, activated watercolor paint and then apply it to a wet paper surface. You can also drip, splatter, or spray the paint onto the wet surface.

The wet paper surface holds the newly applied pigment and ‘moves’ it along the surface. We call this bleeding or blooming. The watercolor pigments create beautiful shapes or blooms. This process cannot be controlled by the artist and you have to let go and enjoy the results. This can be very exciting!

Can you paint watercolor on top of watercolor?

You can absolutely paint watercolor on top of watercolor! We can this layering washes. Essentially, you paint a wash of watercolor paint and then allow it to dry before painting another wash on top of it. You can keep doing this to build up depth of color and develop your shadow areas.

Other Watercolor Articles You May Enjoy

[How to Paint Watercolor Palm Trees]

[How to Paint a Cherry Blossom Watercolor]

[Pen and Ink Watercolor Flowers]

[Best Watercolor Sketchbook]

[Best Watercolor Set For Beginners]

13-Awesome-Watercolor-Backgrounds-And-How-to-Paint-them-Yourself

Conclusion

Practicing painting watercolor backgrounds like the examples in this article will give you a good idea of what you can achieve with watercolor and help you to become better at watercolor painting. It also allows you to become better at problem-solving – being an artist and creating artwork is so much about finding creative solutions!

Before you go I would LOVE to hear about any creative projects you are working on at the moment! Send me an email or drop me a comment below!

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