I've gotten some "whoas" and some questions about my black backgrounds on my portraits. They really don't take too long despite my whining - about a days work for a really big one like this.
First off I use Polychromos on Fisher 400 paper for my portraits which has its pros and cons. The pencil acts sort of like a semitransparant pastel... where you can both smudge the pencil but the colors will mix together instead of just sit on top of each other for most colors. The con is that it smudges which can be annoying for storage, framing, shipping etc. Sprays don't seem to help much either.
So for a background like this I'll put down just enough pencil - well scribble it on really. Then I'll use my handy dandy blending tool - my finger - and smudge it all in. Oila it is smooth and has no grain showing. For a black background it doesn't feel much different than using charcoal.
In the swatch below you can see part of the Shannon background when I had enough pencil down and hadn't smudged it in yet.
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