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Watercolor paints are a beautifully versatile medium that can be bold and striking or soft and subtle. After you’ve experimented with the basics, you might be wondering how to add depth and interest to your watercolor art pieces. How about creating a background for your subject? Learn how to paint a watercolor background effectively, and your bouquets, lettering, or landscapes will never have a bland background again.

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How to Paint a Watercolor Background

watercolor trees
A forest and sky scene by Silvia M. for Fun and Easy Watercolor Backgrounds: Part 1

First thing’s first: You shouldn’t try painting a background after painting the main act. Instead, you’ll start with the background, leave it to dry, then progress to the foreground details. 

Follow these steps to paint a beautiful night sky background. Once you’ve learned the technique, you can adapt it to other colors and subjects.

Step 1: Gather Your Materials

watercolor pallette
Some essential watercolor painting materials.

For any watercolor painting project, you’ll need:

  • Watercolor paints (a pan or tubes)
  • Paint brushes—round tipped are best for watercolor paints
  • Mixing palette
  • Watercolor paper
  • Paper towel or cloth
  • 2 jars for water
  • Masking tape 

Optional but recommended extras for this night-sky background are metallic watercolor paints and a fine-tipped permanent pen.

Step 2: Find a Reference Photo

night sky google search
Inspiration for night sky backgrounds.

This step is optional, as you might prefer to work from your imagination or memory, but following a photo can give you inspiration and ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise think of. Just Google “night sky,” or something similar, and browse the results until you find one you’d like to work from.

Step 3: Wet Your Paper with Water

watercolor supplies
Wet your watercolor paper.

If you’ve done some watercolor painting before, you might be aware that there are two main techniques: the wet on wet technique, and the wet on dry technique. For painting watercolor backgrounds, you’ll usually want to use the wet on wet technique, meaning that you’ll be painting with wet paint onto a wet surface. The colors bleed together more with this technique, so it’s better for covering larger areas of paper, but less suited to painting finer details or defined outlines (for that, use wet on dry).

Tape your paper down onto your work surface to prevent it from curling up when it’s wet. Wet a thick brush thoroughly with clean water and brush it all over the paper, making sure to wet every part of the paper.

Step 4: Start with Your Lightest Paint Color

watercolor painting
Start painting with your lightest paint color.

Using your reference image as a guide, start painting with your lightest color, or colors. Dab it around to create a speckled or dappled effect, like clouds. Avoid sweeping the brush over the paper in long brush strokes, as this will give more of a stripy effect, which isn’t what you’re going for here. Continue until about half of the paper is covered.

Step 5: Add Darker Colors

Add darker colors next.

Using the same dabbing technique as above, continue painting with some darker colors. Make sure the colors blend together well and that there’s no clear boundary lines between the different colors by adding more clean water to the paper.

Watercolors tend to lighten as they dry, so this background will be painted in two layers. Leave your paper for a few minutes to dry—it’s OK if the paper remains damp, but you don’t want large wet puddles of a particular color. Then, go back over the light and medium colors in the same areas to intensify the depth of color.

Step 6: Add the Darkest Colors

Paint the darker colors in.

Next, you’ll add the darker paint colors. Make sure there are no hard edges between the shades here, too, by blending with clean water. Let dry again and repeat with a second layer to intensify the colors.

Step 7: Add Details

Painting in silhouette details.

Although it’s not fully the job of the watercolor background to be too detailed (that’s what the foreground or main act is for), you might want to add a few small touches. In the case of a night sky, including silhouettes of trees or mountains can make a good base; pinpricks of light from stars also give a nice effect. The wet-on-dry painting technique would be best here, so there’s no need to re-wet your paper.

Step 8: Use the Finished Product as a Background

painting with trees
The finished night sky background.

You might end up loving your results and not wanting to paint over it—and that’s perfectly fine! But if you’d like your project to be the background rather than the full work of art, simply add your inspirational quote or other foreground-level subjects once the background is fully dry.

More Background Inspiration

A night sky won’t always be the look you’re going for, but you can use the same general technique above for other backgrounds—just change the colors to suit your tastes and the needs of the project.  

watercolor painting of sunset
Be imaginative with your colors.
A black sky background doesn’t have to be boring.
watercolor words
Wise words against a pretty watercolor background.
abstract pink watercolor
An abstract paisley background by Skillshare student Ronit Ziv.
green and blue watercolor
An ethereal background by Ronit Ziv.
gray watercolor
A simple background ready for hand lettering by Skillshare student Kelsey Eason.

Don’t Fade into the Background

Live Encore: Painting Dark Watercolor Backgrounds