One of the questions I’m often asked by beginning artists is, “How do I paint the background?” This says to me that the background is being considered only after the main subject has been rendered, namely, it’s an afterthought! In fact, the background is as important to the painting as the subject itself. Really.
The thing to remember is that what we’re actually painting is shapes of colour and value, created with marks in varying thicknesses. Indeed, we are creating a pattern. That pattern could just as easily be
When I approach a blank surface that will soon be covered in marks and strokes of pastel, I consider ALL parts of it. What will each part
The area around the subject (the background) supports and spotlights the subject. For that reason, the background should almost go unnoticed. If, as a viewer, we notice the background immediately, that may mean it’s competing with the main subject. There’s a fine balance between having the part of the paper that’s not the primary subject hold its own in the painting yet not compete with the object or person you’re painting.
(For the purposes of this blog post, I’m referring to backgrounds that are simple and don’t add a specific environment to the main subject, for example, the addition of a window behind a figure.)
Many of the examples I use below to illustrate my points you will have seen before, but now I want you to look at them in the
I like to start my paintings by putting in the three main values – light, middle, and dark – right away. Blocking in those three values is how I establish the overall pattern. And, of course, the background is part of those three main values shapes whether it’s a light, dark, or middle value. So right from the start, I’ve considered the background and its place as much as I have anything else in the painting.
As I paint, I work back and forth between the background (and the foreground) or the main subject. I should say here that sometimes when I refer to the background, I could also mean part of the foreground. I consider the background to be the space that surrounds the object or person being portrayed. Often, a student may wonder, how do I fill up this space? Instead, perhaps a better question may be: how can I best have this area support the main subject?
So what’s a good way to paint the background?
A good place to start is to do a thumbnail sketch, deciding where the background falls in the three value options of light, middle, and dark. Always keep in mind the question: how can I paint the background to support the subject?
You may decide to paint the background in a value that contrasts with the subject. If the subject is light, you may choose to paint the background darker to contrast with that light. The same goes for a dark subject – paint the background lighter to emphasise the darkness. You could also gradually shift the background from a dark or middle value to a light one. It’s all about how the background can illuminate the subject!
You can also create a strong contrast with colour rather than value. If you don’t feel the values of the subject and background should be different, you could insert a slight shift in colour instead. For example, you might use a complementary colour – your subject could be green and your background could be a muted reddish tone. This contrast will bring attention to the subject.
Remember that the background’s function is to show off the main subject so it’s important that
Another thing to consider when you’re deciding how to paint the background is the mood of the painting. Is it dramatic? Then maybe you want to have a strong value contrast. Is the mood light and airy? Then you probably won’t want your background too dark. Or if your painting is on the dark side, you may want to retain a darkish background. You want the background to amplify the mood of the painting rather than weaken it.
You may want to keep the colours within the background fairly close in value and hue as this lack of contrast will prevent the background from competing with the subject.
One of the reasons I like to include the background right from the start has to do with working with edges. If you only put your background in at the end, the effect may be a pasted-on appearance, with the subject having a hard edge all around it. Subject and background don’t meld and they appear disconnected from each other. Putting the background in at the same time as the subject allows you to more easily create hard and soft edges as you go and as you see fit.
By working on the background at the same time and also using some of the same colours as the main subject, you will automatically establish colour unity between all the parts. This gives the effect of everything fitting and belonging together.
Another reason to work all parts of the surface at once is that you avoid creating a background that has a different look and feel, a different mark-making than the subject. The background that has a different texture from the subject a) brings attention to it (and remember we want the background to support rather than compete with the subject) and b) reveals that the artist probably put it in as an afterthought, to fill the space.
One last thought – how much background do you really need? Does all of that surrounding space help or hinder the painting? You may find that cropping out a lot of the background is helpful! On the other hand, the subject may need the surrounding space to set it off. Try various thumbnails and see what the effect of cropping has on the subject.
Each painting you do is unique. Be sure to consider the background and its role in that painting.
Now have a look at your own work where the background doesn’t work for you. Do you see how you can paint the background differently?
I’d LOVE to hear from you so do please leave a comment! Was this helpful? Did I miss any points? Do you disagree with anything? Be sure to add to the “paint the background” conversation!
Until next time!
PS. You can see the progression of “His Goggles” and “Venice Backlit”
And you can see the progression of “Full on Yellow” and “Flowers in Neutral” by clicking here.