Assumption: I have painted a bird with water colours. Now I want to colour the background green.

I will start painting from the edges of the bird's body and take my strokes outwards. My problem with this approach is that the brush stroke directions will be visible. Also, if I get too close to the bird's body, I fear some colour will get on the bird as well.

Moreover in the following painting, the painter has used different colours for the background, yet no strokes are visible!

  • What is the technique to achieve such result?

  • Does the kind of paint make a difference here?

  • Am I supposed to first paint the background, then paint the bird?

enter image description here

  • I don't think painting over the background is a viable method when using watercolors.
    – leigero
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 13:33
  • The reference work looks like it is brush painted over an airbrushed background after it has dried. The acrylic is opaque and can be worked that way. (Alternately it could have been painted digitally and then ink jet printed on the board and the foreground background layering done digitally.)
    – rebusB
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 21:38

4 Answers 4


The paint does make a difference in whether or not you can easily paint over the background.

Watercolor, for example, does not easily cover other art and you would need to use a different technique for the background if you used this medium. Most other paints (like acrylics or oil) are thick enough that you can easily paint over the background without any effort.

Thicker paints

With thicker paints you should paint the background of the image, get it as you like it, and then paint your subject over the top.

This has the down-side of not being very forgiving should you make mistakes to your main subject, fixing the background after touch-ups will be challenging.

Thinner mediums

With thinner mediums like Watercolor you would want to paint them independent of each other and not overlap them. I, personally, would paint the subject first and then follow with a watercolor background.

With watercolor you can use a common technique where you apply water to the paper before using any color. Carefully outline the dry subject with a wet brush and once the paper is wet, carefully apply your color.

The water will pull the color out of the brush and disperse it to the wet areas neatly without spillage. If you make a mistake with the wet brush, simply let it dry and try again before applying color.


You could try applying a frisket to the bird and flowers first (to isolate and protect your lighter more detailed areas) before beginning painting your background. Once your background color/colors have dried you can remove the frisket from the next area you want to paint by rubbing with an eraser. You can remove as much or as little frisket as you need to paint the next area (to isolate the following color) or remove it entirely (so colors can blend) before proceeding with the bird and flower areas.

  • 1
    Liquid mask is typically used as a frisket for water-colors. It is liquid latex and you paint it over the areas you want to preserve and it then peals off after the paint is dry. It works better on unpainted paper though so in the future you would want to reverse your process, mask the foreground paint the background, remove the mask and paint the foreground.
    – rebusB
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 21:47

If I were planning to paint the above blue bird on a blossomed apple branch, I'd lightly but exactly draw the outline of the bird and branch, and then apply rubber cement to the body of the bird and branch, going right to the pencil lines. Then I'd take an air brush or similar tool to apply the back ground color. When the background is dry, peel off the rubber cement in the body of the picture then apply rubber cement to the background, right up to the image. Now paint the image.

If you are using water colors, look into water color pencils, they will allow you to apply detailed accents in color and, with a little water, blend into the work.


To precisely follow fine, intricate outlines you require small brushes.
On the other hand, you'll need large brushes for smooth gradients in large areas, which are, preferably, continuous.

The most practical solution is to use a masking fluid, which is available in any art supply store.
A masking fluid is a fluid that can be applied by painting or pouring, and which will solidify after a short time.
This gives you the opportunity to both follow fine lines, and cover a large area in two, separate steps: after having masked the bird, you can paint the background in one large gesture. After the paint has dried, you can peel off the mask, and you're done.

With this method you can keep on using pure watercolours (as in the example painting)—you won't need to change your watercolour opacity, consistency, or technique, and it won't muddy the colours of the bird by having the background colours shine through (watercolours are never opaque). Neither would you hazard peeling off part of the pre-existing painting, as DIY masks might do.

Peeling of a layer of dried masking fluid, revealing a perfectly clean substrate among a painted background

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