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The above painting was done on a surface that I kind of made up myself. I have long admired paintings done on backgrounds that have been disturbed in some way, maybe by other mediums or by textures added with paper, etc. I studied several different journal artists’ videos and a couple of water media artists’ videos in order to come up with this. I like backgrounds with glued-in and sanded papers but was not able to come up with a background that the watercolor worked easily on. Those backgrounds seem to require some use of acrylics, also. I wanted to avoid that since I teach watercolor and I wanted my students to be able to experiment with this.

If you are interested, I have outlined the steps we took for creating a grunge background for our portraits.


We began by splattering or brushing on coffee. We dried this stage with a hairdryer before moving to the next application.


Next, we splattered and brushed on gesso. We did this in two different ways.  We watered down some of the gesso 50/50. That was so the marks would only partially show through the watercolor pigment. We, then, applied some of the gesso straight, knowing that our paint would slide off of it and reveal the white of the gesso. We then dried this, completely, before moving to the next stage.


In the next step, we watered down waterproof black ink and splattered that onto the paper. We could soften some of these marks by spritzing them with a spray bottle. This stage is better when you follow the less is more policy. Allow this stage to dry completely before proceeding.


After preparing the surface, we all looked for a portrait that might work well with the background we had come up with. We chose portraits just because it is a portrait class we are in right now. This kind of background would work for any subject. Once we found our portrait reference we wanted to use, we turned our splattered paper around until we found the best imagery in the splatter for what we wanted to paint on it. Note that I turned my paper around 180 degrees for my subject. We drew the portrait on in graphite.


The above is an example of my first washes. We just begin painting the portrait as we normally would.


When I arrived at this point, I began to make decisions about placing more darks and bringing the image of the toy and girl out of the background more. I really liked how the gesso and the ink added abstract effects that I had very little control over. We were able to go back in with gesso, coffee and ink if we wanted to. I was getting good results with just what I had. We also knew we could collage and use colored pencil or wax resist in areas we may need to.


The above is my finished portrait.

I hope this gives you something new to try or consider when you sit down to paint. I decided I would not be so hasty, in the future, to throw away a stained or soiled piece of watercolor paper. It may just be that it would add to a painting rather than detract!



  1. Awesome Leslie! So much movement. No need for ones imagination to visualize just how much fun that Magnificent Toy is! Thanks for sharing.

    • You are right about movement. Every painting my students did showed evidence of more movement with this type of background. That toy was one my daughter gave me for Christmas two years ago. She knows how much I like puzzles so thought I would be able to solve the advanced level. Ha! I’m still working on it. This is my Granddaughter working with it. Thank you, Susan.

  2. Love the detail in the pants, it’s an amazing painting of my beautiful sydney!!

    • Ha! Working on those pants was funny trying to figure out everything. I finally just had to go with what I could see. Thank you, Corey! I think it looks like her, too! 🙂

    • I agree!

  3. The magnificent toy is a magnificent painting. You are so adventurous with all your mixed media. I love the use of coffee in the beginning. I love the way the child (Sydney) is looking at the toy in wonder. Another beautiful portrait. Thanks for always providing the steps for your paintings.

    • Thank you, Carol. It really reminded me of the splatter paintings you taught me to do. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to attempt this without having first tried those. I like both techniques and will use them both in the future. You are welcome about the steps. Just in case anyone else wants to try it ever.

  4. This looks magical Leslie! Each step stirred up my curiosity wondering what you were up to ! Do you think I can use such a technique for oils? Thanks for making me think for a new direction!

    • I wish I knew the answer to that, Padmaja. I have only worked in oils once and recall that each layer I applied covered or lay next to an existing layer. I think it works with watercolor because of the transparency of the pigment. Some pigments are a little more opaque and wash out the background some but not completely. Thank you for this comment!

  5. what a fun painting. The smile on the models face is enjoying the object in her hands. Love the flowing hair….Another successful experiment with watercolors

    • Now I’m wondering, after reading your recent post, if beet juice could be splattered as part of a background. Ha! Thank you!

  6. Accidently on purpose…I like it. (K)

  7. Simply magical, so alive and beautiful ! I love the different levels that you created in this painting by working on the paper beforehand. I wonder how many painters in the past have used simple papers or cardboards with irregular textures or even marks to create their works ? Thanks for sharing this experiment, Leslie.

    • Oh, I am sure there are many many artists who have created on all sorts of surfaces in all mediums. This was fun because the vision in our heads begins to change as we face each new spot or disturbance in the paper. Thank you, so much threads of life!

  8. Interesting technique. You’re right about not being hasty in throwing away something that didn’t quite start out the way it was supposed to. What a dreamy aspect the girl has with her toy, as if she is imagining using it in some far away place and time.

    • Good idea, Ruth! I could use this reference photo to reach further and change the little girl, some, and make the toy a crystal ball, etc. Cool way to think outside the box! Thank you!

  9. Love this – it reminds me of my boy when he was about the same age and had a very similar toy. Great reminder of not wasting paper that has a few accidental splashes on it and thank you for describing your technique. Inspired to open my pot of gesso that has remained unopened for a while.

    • This is fun, June. I remember when you used coffee before! It also satisfies our need to be realistic because you can just paint in a realistic style on top of all the grunge and watch interesting things appear. I liked every single painting my students came up with using this type of background. It demands we be creative and accepting of what occurs on the paper. Thank you!

  10. This approach is soooo cool! I have always used sheets that have become “soiled” as test paper but paper is expensive. This is a great way to use it!

8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] was most impressed, however, with the night we explored creating a grunge background and then painted a portrait onto that […]

  2. By Autumn and a River Scene | Leslie White on 16 Nov 2015 at 10:34 am

    […] I chose to use a piece of watercolor paper that I had previously grunged as I described in this post. […]

  3. By Happy Thanksgiving 2015 | Leslie White on 23 Nov 2015 at 2:13 pm

    […] so only fitting that I was working on a snow scene. The above painting was drawn and painted on a grunge background. I then drew the scene with the Speedball Elegant Writer and then painted […]

  4. […] The eagle was painted on a grunge background. I describe how to create a grunge background here. […]

  5. […] The rice paper abstract began with a grunge background like I explained here. […]

  6. […] of ink with a mister (spray bottle with water). The above ink and watercolor was also created on a grunged background. Here are some ink […]

  7. […] paper that I had “grunged” with coffee, ink, and applied gesso to in advance. Here is a post that describes the […]

  8. […] The above is a painting I did on a grunge background. I have a tutorial for this technique here. […]

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