Acrylics · Composition · Drawing · Oils · Painting · Portraits · Still Life

Why You Shouldn’t Forget the Background!

One of the most common mistakes beginner learners make when they start drawing and painting is forgetting about the background.  I see a lot of ‘floating’ jars of flowers, pots, vases and figures in the beginner classes.  The background should not be forgotten.  I will explain why:

Part of the Story

The background puts the subject in context and can ‘tell the story’ of what is happening.  For example if a figure is sitting on a sofa we know why their posture is a certain way, it would be different if they were sat on an upright chair for example.

There is useful tonal  information in the background which can help bring depth and tonal value to the subject.  Shadows are important for telling the observer that the subject is three dimensional and will tell us more about the lighting conditions.

Simple backgrounds are better than none.

Adding Depth

A background can add depth to a piece of artwork by suggesting what is behind. The background doesn’t have to be detailed, it can just be suggestions of lines but something rather than a blank sheet of paper is best. Adding depth to your artwork will lead in the eye of the observer and help to make your artwork more interesting.

A Point of Reference

The background can be used as a point of reference while drawing.  I often talk about comparative proportions, this is where you compare one object to another.  You can do the same with the background of a piece looking at where the top of the chair ends compared to the shoulders etc. The background is just more information you can use as an artist to help with accuracy.

Putting backgrounds in after can be tricky

Adding Character

Some backgrounds can be an important part of a piece. As a child I used to love spending hours looking at the ‘Mr Ben’ illustrations because there was so much detail in the background.  You don’t have to overcomplicate the background but sometimes a few features can add some interest or tell us something about the subject.  Portraits are one example where the artists might include them in their favourite chair with a cup of tea next to them to tell the observer more about the sitter.

Keeping it Simple

Backgrounds can be simple.  I really like the way one of my learners in this piece below has used a bright blue cloth for her background.  The colour really works to highlight the contrasting oranges, and yellows in the plastic box.  You could use a colour for your background that makes the subject stand out.

A simple but effective background of colour
A simple but effective background of colour

Back to Front

Typically in artwork we work background first to foreground.  Most of us at some point in the early days of painting have tried to alter the background after the foreground and found it is difficult.  Tell tale lines around the foreground objects interrupt the flow and tend to look displeasing, particularly in some media like watercolour.  You may have to let a background dry to work on top in media like watercolour but with oils you can use the background colour to come through, adding a certain richness which can work very well in giving the artwork interest.

Have you learnt something about backgrounds?  I hope so, share your thoughts here with other readers I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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