How to Put Backgrounds into Paintings and Drawings
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How to Put Backgrounds into Paintings and Drawings

In this article you will learn how to overcome the difficulties beginners often face when putting backgrounds into paintings and drawings. It covers the basic principles of using colour and tone in backgrounds, and the order in which to include the various elements of a composition, as well as some technical tips on making the background look convincing.

How to Put Backgrounds into Paintings or Drawings

The background in a painting or drawing is as important as the rest and should be given equal consideration. Beginners often put in objects, buildings or people, or the figure in a portrait, then add the background as an afterthought - and it shows. It is vital to work on the objects and the background at the same time. How to go about this can seem confusing, so the following tips should help.

  • Start the composition with a simple background - a wash of light colour will do - then work on the foreground elements for a while, return to the background, incorporating some of the colours you used in the foreground but in a more subdued tone, then return to the foreground alternately until you are satisfied that the background and foreground are working together. This should result an integrated whole, rather than looking disjointed and patchy.
  • A good approach is to begin with whatever is furthest away - perhaps the sky or a wall, then work forwards, adding objects according to their nearness to you. Be sure all the objects are indicated though, before you begin work in a more concentrated way.  
  • Blank paper or canvas can be daunting, so putting in the background first can help overcome this. If you want white highlights or areas in a watercolour painting, be sure to "reserve" these by drawing lightly around their shape first, before you do anything else, or use masking fluid.
  • Tip for reserving out a shape in watercolour: Don't go round the shape with paint. Outline the shape very lightly with a pencil, then use plain clean water around the outside of the shape. While still wet, add the paint into the wet area so it flows around the shape but doesn’t go on the dry white area you want to reserve. This will help prevent it looking as if you painted round it. You can also use this method when putting in the background. For instance for a still life, use plain water around the objects, then put the background colour paint into the wet areas so it flows around them.  

Tone of the Background Generally, a background should be darker or lighter in tone than the objects set against it. If there is no contrast, the objects won’t show up against the background and will look insipid. Of course this could be intentional - objects seeming to melt into a background can look great, but generally some contrast will make a more dynamic and interesting composition - pale objects against a darker background, or dark objects against a paler background are good basic principles.

Landscape The background for landscape is usually the sky, though not always. Sky normally appears paler in tone than land, though a darker sky can make a dramatic backdrop to a landscape composition, in a storm perhaps, or snow. Sea and sky together can often be similar in tone to make a subtle background for strong foreground objects or people.

Land and sea always reflect the sky, so be sure to integrate the sky colour throughout the painting. You may see the grass as green, but adding some of the sky colour to the land mass will ensure sky and land relate to one another. For indoor flower and foliage subjects, a blue background often works well, but include some colour elements from the foreground objects into the background - even a few streaks of colour from the foreground objects will help to unify the whole composition. For portraits, use a fairly plain neutral background but still include a suggestion of the skin colour and costume of the sitter. This principle of carrying the background colour throughout the whole painting, and the colours in the foreground objects into the background, applies whatever the subject.

Tone versus colour Even if the background is a different colour to the other elements, make sure it contrasts tonally. For example, red flowers against green grass can appear to contrast, but if reproduced in monochrome (black and white), they can look identically grey. Ensure the flowers, in this case, are darker or lighter than the grass - you can vary this by making some of the flowers dark against light toned grass, and some of them lighter, or paler, against darker toned grass - this will make a visually interesting result . This principle applies to any type of object you may be drawing or painting.

Other factors Use "warm" and "cool" colours and tones, as well as complementary colours, to create interesting relationships in the painting. With warm-toned objects such as brick, terracotta etc., use cool blue or green-based tones in the background - this will also help the background to recede, so it doesn’t dominate the composition. Human skin is mainly shades of pink, yellow and brown, so a backgound of complementary greys with a blue, purple or green bias will help to offset the subject. A dominant background is fine in abstract or non-figurative painting, but for representational work, the background should generally be just that - it should not detract from the main subject. Think of it like a stage-set - the actors are the main focus, but the backdrop supports and completes the overall picture.

Technical aspects When painting or drawing backgrounds, whether paint, pencil, pastel or whatever medium you use, think about the direction of the strokes - vary your pencil or brush strokes - not backwards and forwards or up and down like painting a wall. If you need to adjust the background after the foreground objects are in, don't paint "round" them - use the plain water method suggested above for watercolour, or if using opaque media such as oils, gouache or acrylic, start your brushstrokes at the edge of the object and work outwards, to avoid a "halo" effect.

To summarise Begin working on the background at the beginning of the painting. Background and foreground need equal attention. The background should complement and support the foreground, not fight with it. A good principle is to work first on whichever element is furthest away, then on objects according to their nearness. 

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Comments (2)

I have been painting for years, good tips.

Very good painting tips. This is a good lesson to print out and place in a notebook.