How to Paint a Background

Alfred Wolmark by Alfred Wolmark oil on canvas laid on board, 1911. National Portrait Gallery London

Should I paint the background first or last? This is a question I hear quite often as an art tutor. It illustrates very well how many beginning portrait and still life painters think about painting. They focus on the subject matter of the painting first and foremost, and the background is a separate thing.

Does Everything have a background?

But the background problem only seems to appear when we paint a portrait, or a simple still life. Landscape painters or painters who tackle more complex still life don't seem to worry so much about the background. One reason of course, is that a landscape is not considered to even have a background.

And there is the clue to our problem. Even if a landscape painter is painting something quite close to a portrait or a still life, for example a single tree against a fairly simple sky, even then the landscape painter will not be left wondering what to do with the background. Usually the sky behind and the grassy field below is automatically considered as part of the painting.

And yet, as soon as the tree turns into a vase of flowers, a bird on a branch, or a portrait, we seem to start wondering what to do with the background. And what would happen if we change it?

Renoir, Portrait of Jean, oil on canvas, 1897. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.     The warm green background gives the impression of the girl being outside, in a park or something the like. The green nicely contrasts with its complementary colour orange/red and comes back in the shadows.

William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Mrs H., oil on panel, 1886. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.      A bold and strong background giving Mrs H. a bold and strong character. The red coat, the red chair and the red background are bold moves with great effect.

Consider your Portrait as a Landscape

So if you struggle with backgrounds then perhaps it would help to consider your subject matter as a landscape. Paint what you see and emphasize what you find important or beautiful. Don't forget that your art work goes from the left edge of the canvas, all the way to the right edge of the canvas; it is not just your subject matter. Everything from one edge to the other counts and helps to build your art work.

When to Paint the Background

So when should you paint your background? Well, at the same time as everything else of course. Your background is not 'second class' in a hierarchy of importance. It is as much part of the art work as the subject matter. So you must paint it all at the same time.

When you paint your background at the same time as your subject matter you willl immediately see how the subject matter and the background interact with each other. This is an important bonus of painting the whole art work at the same time.

While you see how parts of your art work interact with each other you might decide to enhance a colour, a value or the contrast. You might decide to soften an edge or highlight a shape. You will only find these things out if you incorporate the background in the painting process from the start.

Changing the Background when Working from Reference Photos

But what about changing the background from your reference photo? Is this ok to do?

Of course it would be ideal if your reference photo is perfect. It really pays off to spend time shooting good reference photos and making sure that you are happy with the background, foreground, colours etc. Even better, if you can work from life, make sure you set up your still life or model in such a way that you are happy with what you see. Change backgrounds with fabrics, large sheets of paper, or move around in the room. Start painting when you are happy with what you see.

If you are working from a less-than-perfect reference photo (tut-tut! No just kidding, we all do this!) or you want to play around a little with your reference material and be creative, it is even more important to paint your whole picture from the start. Get that background in straight away and see how it works with the subject matter. Fancy changing it into a bright blue? Try it! Do it at an early stage and see how it looks. If it is no good, you can still change it back, wipe it off, or paint over it. While you are painting you can experiment and play around. Even a single stroke of colour on the canvas will give you an idea of how it will work with the rest of the painting. You might well decide after one stroke whether your idea was good or bad.

Making Things up Could Well Go Wrong

Changing background colours dramatically can easily lead to odd-looking paintings. If you change the background of a portrait from a dull grey into a bright blue you will have to change a lot in the face of the sitter as well. If the sitter was actually sitting in a bright blue room, there would be lots of blue reflections and light on his or her face. Working from a reference photo with a grey background, you don't have this information and you would have to make it up. Paintings created from the imagination can look wonderful, but if you are after realism, it might not be your best bet.

So changing backgrounds (painting something else than you see) can be a tricky business as you end up making things up. You might get stuck painting things you don't have a reference photo for. Your best bet, if you want a bright blue background for example, is to shoot new reference photos, this time armed with a bright blue background material.

Duncan Grant, Portrait of Vanessa Bell, oil on canvas, 1918. National Portrait Gallery, London.    

Nina Hamnett, Portrait of Sir Osbert Sitwell, Oil on canvas, 1918. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Cedric Morris, Portrait of Antonia White, 1936, oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery London.

Busy Backgrounds

Often portraits have busy backgrounds and sometimes still life too. It could be a room full of books, a kitchen table, windows, or perhaps a landscape. I think few of us would leave such a background to the last painting stages. We realise more easily that the background is as important and as much part of the painting as the subject matter.

Busy backgrounds require great skill in composition, value and colour. After all we don't want the background to dominate the subject matter, yet we can't just blur it like we can in photography. If you have anything in your background it is important to look carefully where you want main lines to appear, patterns to sit, and colours to pop (or not). Do you want that horizon at the same level as the eyes or not? Do you want that doorway right behind the sitter's head or not? Do the dishes in the background distract from the flowers on the kitchen table? Can I leave out that tea towel?

Paint Backgrounds at the Same Time as the Subject Matter

So backgrounds,whether busy or plain, are as much part of your art work as the subject matter itself. They deserve attention and care and they have an important role to play in any painting. So when do you paint it? Remember the landscape painters who never have this problem: their subject matter runs from canvas edge to canvas edge and so does yours. A portrait or a still life runs from edge to edge and everything in between is equally important. Paint your background at the same time as your subject matter. This way you can see how it 'works' with the subject matter and you can develop it together and build up an harmonious art work.

Georgina Agnes Brackenbury, Portrait of Emmeline Pankhurst, Oil on canvas, 1927. National Portrait Gallery, London.          A beautiful soft portrait where the background seems to have grown naturally out of the figure. Similar colours and technique are used to create warmth and harmony.

Colin Davidson, Portrait of Ed Sheeran, oil on linen, 2016. National Portrait Gallery, London.        In this contemporary portrait the background is also very much part of the whole. Similar colours are used and we are not quite sure where the background starts and the subject matter ends. Subject and background work wonderfully together. 

Top featured image:  Alfred Wolmark, by Alfred Wolmark, oil on canvas laid on board, 1911. National Portrait Gallery, London (cropped).

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