Painting Backgrounds

I have received a number of questions about painting “backgrounds” specifically for portraits. Too many students spend their time rendering the subject and then try to paint the background at the last moment. The result is often a disaster; the figure looks pasted on or there is a formless envelope around the head. The problem is that the background is an afterthought rather than an integral part of the painting. 

Don’t forget, someone looking at the painting sees the whole…not just the subject. In reality, the background is vitally important because it defines the center of interest. My pastel mentor, Harley Brown, told me “always work the background at the same time as the subject”. The key is to give some thought to what you’re doing and why. Here’s a great quote from Quang Ho: “If you make a decision, it’s always right!” Think about it! 

I think of three elements and three approaches when I make decisions about the background: 

  1. Value – is the background darker (like a typical Rembrandt portrait), lighter  (like a more contemporary graphic piece) or the same value (used by some artists to lose the edges on the light side of the face).

  2. Hue – A background that is the complement of the dominant color of your subject (either grayed or high-Chroma) automatically defines the subject as the center of interest. Furthermore, if you place equal amounts of the discords (two steps on either side of the subject’s hue on the Munsell color wheel) near the subject you reinforce the effect.

  3. Shape – Rather than have a flat tone around the portrait (boring) you can create secondary points of interest…the three approaches listed below. 
  1. A specific scene or environment. Sargent did this in almost every portrait. He used columns, chairs and vases as secondary points of interest to create a mood.

  2. suggested environment. Abstract shapes still place the subject somewhere other than empty space. 

  3. vignette– although the picture plane is not completely filled, the shapes that are there fulfill a design purpose. (I was taught that it’s a good idea to have a vignette touch three sides of the picture plane. I often design the “background” to have a movement that opposes the thrust of the figure.)

Here are some examples of all three approaches. By the way, I cover this (plus a lot more) in my workshops and DVD on Design / Composition Secrets of the Masters

 “Circe’s Potion” by William Schneider OPAM – Oil
“Kelly by Moonlight” by William Schneider OPAM – Pastel
“Persecuted” by William Schneider OPAM – Pastel

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