There is a very important aspect, in painting and drawing, that is often overlooked and neglected. Go into any art class and you are bound to see students toiling away at their foreground subject matter, but paying scant attention to the background, in their painting or drawing. Sometimes, they don’t even get around to putting a background in, or if they do, it’s a cursory afterthought, rendered carelessly, as if it didn’t matter. You’ll struggle to find any art instruction books about painting and drawing backgrounds, too. Nobody cares about the background. I think this is a massive mistake and this post is an attempt to state why.
Self-evidently, backgrounds are important because they finish your painting or drawing. Finishing things is a very good discipline to develop, as an artist. It makes you decisive, it counters the neurotic tendency to fiddle with your art forever, overworking it to destruction and it allows you to actually show your finished work. If you never finish, you live in a state of anxiety about every work you’ve made, never actually getting back to them to adjust and finish them and there is no way to put your art in front of an audience to gain honest reaction. You have isolated yourself in a bubble of perpetual uncertainty.
So many student works are abandoned, half-finished, or worse, painted over. That makes it really hard to gauge your progress. You can’t see your earlier efforts as completed encapsulations of your standard of work at the time. This lack of snap shots of your work, frozen in time, also makes it harder to see your errors and bad habits, so instead of taking steps to correct them, you get stuck in a cycle of blissful ignorance, where you make the same mistakes over and over again, but because you never finish your painting, you never notice. Leaving out the background is almost a sneaky, devious means of self sabotage, so that you never have to put your work up for judgement. If it’s always half finished, you always have a cop out. You never have to look at your own work, evaluate it and make a plan to improve. You can remain self satisfied with your foregrounds, never seeing that you don’t know how to make a painting yet.
One of the best things about finishing your paintings, backgrounds and all, is that you make a time series that demonstrates your development, as a painter. Going back and comparing your earlier efforts with your most recent can give you a great deal of satisfaction, when you realise how far you have come. That can be very motivating.
There are well established analogues and examples. In the theatre, your play is not a production, until you have a set to stage it in. In music, your songs need a bed of instrumentation for the lyrics to sit upon. In painting, every picture needs a background.
Speaking more functionally, the background is an important way to play with colour or tone contrasts, compared to the foreground. You can change the entire dynamic range of your painting with the right, dramatically contrasting background (try adding a mixture of burnt umber and ultramarine blue as a background, to see what I mean).
You can also use the background to produce a colour harmony with the foreground subject matter (choosing complementary or opposite colours, on the colour wheel). The colours in your foreground are actually perceived differently in the presence of different backgrounds. You can use that effect to adjust the impact of your subject matter, by choosing the background wisely. Your background can tie the palette you’ve chosen together, or else make the subject more (or less) startling and stand out to a greater degree (or else recede), simply by the choice of the colours used in the background. That’s without changing the colours and tones in the foreground at all. You can warm the whole painting up or cool it down, simply by choice of background colours.
Your background can be used to add depth of field effects. Paint it crisply or impressionistically and your foreground subject will be seen differently. If you want to place your subject into reality, or else into an imaginary world, this can be done by choice of background rendering. You can make it sharp and precise, indistinct and blurred, full of real life objects that are representational and recognisable, or a swirl of abstract colours and brush strokes, riddled with magical creatures. The choice is up to you. Whatever you choose, it will change the way your subject matter is seen, without you having to touch your foreground painting at all.
Occasionally, I like to bring some of the colours I choose in my background into my foreground. This has the effect of knitting the foreground to the background, chromatically. It makes the painting look like it was much more deliberate than it may have been. I also like to add highlights into the background, derived from the colours I used in my foreground. Same trick, only backward. These little hints and suggestions make the work look much more balanced, tonally. It’s like the foreground and background actually have something to do with one another and like they were sharing the same light, rather than the foreground being dumped into the scene like an alien from outer space.
The fact that there actually is a background lets you drop shadows or reflections from the subject into the background. It allows you to place your foreground subject into a context and perspective. This can greatly increase the believability of your scene, even if you paint in a non-representational or impressionistic style. You can plainly see that the subject is not real, but by adding light effects, highlights, shadows and reflections, it is accepted as real, in the mind of the viewer. It’s a peculiar paradox, but one which is very satisfying, if you can achieve it.
You can use elements you paint in your background to balance the composition of your work. Occasionally, you paint a really good foreground subject, but it’s slightly in the wrong place, or cropped or something else that disturbs the balance or symmetry of the painting as a whole. Paint some object into the background to counter balance your foreground and your painting will be perceived as much more satisfying. Correcting composition mistakes with the background is easier than starting the foreground from scratch.
For me, the most satisfying aspect of painting backgrounds is that I can give free rein to my abstract expressionist tendencies, choosing wild colours, startling brush strokes, swirls and scratches to produce a background that is straight from the art gallery. Contrasting an abstract expressionist or even fauvist background with a more traditionally rendered foreground adds to the interest of the canvas, as a whole, I find. It works well with life subjects, portraits and still life paintings. I even use it on landscapes. Nice little trees and flowers in the foreground; colourful, textural Armageddon in the background. It’s a great trick.
Another thing I like to do with backgrounds is use heavy structure gels to allow me to apply the paint with a palette knife and leave clearly defined textures. Then, the contrast is between the subtle, flat blending of the foreground, with the heavily textured background. I use the texture when it goes a little tacky and sticky to pull colours over it or scumble paint onto it, with a palette knife lightly dancing over the peaks. Sometimes, it’s very nice to paint the whole canvas with a structure gel and pigment mixture, and then carve the foreground out of it, while the gel is still wet, using a palette knife to remove the gel and paint mixture, revealing the white canvas below. I like to draw that way.
I also like to mix the gel with up to three related colours (complementary or contrasting), but not mix the colours too much, so that I get a marbled effect on the canvas, when I apply it. Often, I will add some interference colours to the background colours, just to add some sparkle, glow and colour shift, depending on how the painting is lit, when displayed. Sometimes I mix the interference colours in, other times I paint them over the top of the background colours or softly blend them in. The nice thing about the interference colours is that they tend to “amp up” the chosen colour palette and make the colours jump out at your eyeballs.
The way you paint the background lets you adjust the edges of your subject matter. You can soften the edge, blending the foreground colour into the background, or vice versa. Alternatively, you can use the painting of your background as a way of sharpening up the edges of a foreground previously painted, or else paint over the background, in the foreground, to make a definite transition between the two.
When I paint backgrounds, I like to use one inch and two inch brushes, similar to regular decorator’s brushes that you would use to paint the woodwork in your house. This lets me apply the background colours quickly, in broad, dramatic brush strokes and to leave the brush marks the way they fall. It’s a nice way to add drama to the canvas.
I often go back to the background and slash and stab the odd zing of colour, especially bright colours like cadmium orange, light turquoise, bright magenta or white, onto the canvas, just to balance the subject, draw the eye and add something that will make the painting stand out. Sometimes, the colour I add is only in small strokes, so that you don’t immediately notice it. You just notice that the background is now somehow brighter. At other times, I put large, deliberate strokes of a bright colour, leaving distinct brush marks, to make the foreground and background appear to be in tension with each other, so that the viewer doesn’t know which one to pay attention to first. It’s another nice painterly trick.
Backgrounds don’t take long to paint, compared to a foreground, but they require care. Sometimes I put the background in first, then paint the subject over it, or carve into it with a palette knife. Other times, I sketch the subject first, put the background in, then paint the foreground, and then complete the background, firming up or softening any transitional edges as I do.
At other times (though rarely), I paint the foreground to completion, then paint a background around it. I find this doesn’t work as well as the former two approaches, yet it seems to be the default student approach. In all cases, I will finish the background last, as I go back after my foreground is complete and add finishing touches to the areas of colour surrounding the subject. I also put some of the background colours back into and over the foreground, as a final finishing touch, if the whim takes me.
A very classical atelier technique is to colour wash your canvas before you start painting, with some red or brown staining colour and let it dry completely. If you are painting portraits or landscapes, this has a tendency to warm up the cold blues and other colours on your canvas, as you paint. The warm colour ground just subtly shifts the tint of the colours you apply, no matter how opaque. For semi opaque and transparent paint, it casts a reddish glow to all your colours and ties them together tonally.
Pre-staining your ground also lets you leave the canvas showing between brush strokes. Because it’s already a brown or reddish colour, you don’t have to worry about bringing the edges together and that lets you paint with a freer, more fluid technique and bolder brush strokes. The wash colour can happily show through between the strokes and it adds to the effect.
By the same token, if I want a very bright effect, with startling colours, I will leave my canvas pure white (or even bright yellow), when I start, precisely to avoid toning my colours down through, the effect of the background wash. If there are gaps between my brush strokes, they’re bright white, which is exactly the sparkle I am looking for.
I’ve also been known to start my work with a canvas covered completely in black gesso (and left to dry). That’s a difficult canvas to work with, because it’s very easy to contaminate, but the effect is dramatic when the black areas are maintained. After the black gesso has dried (sometimes it takes a few coats to make the background very black), then start your painting by covering the canvas in a thin layer of clear medium. Painting wet into this is astonishing. Try it. You can even paint very dark pigments onto the black, medium-covered canvas and while still wet, use pure titanium white to blend into the dark colours, to bring your subject matter out. With this preparation, you can get lovely, subtle, misty clouds in shades of the darkest pigment you chose. Utterly enchanting.
Another technique is to use a very dark pigment paint to cover the entire canvas thickly and while it is still wet, use a broad brush and some titanium white, to paint your portrait. The figure that emerges is rendered in subtle shades of the background colour that mix on the canvas. You can then go back and add highlights in a contrasting colour. It’s a great effect.
I spend about a third of my painting time on the background. I recommend you do too. The foreground is nothing without a good, supporting background.