Monday, 15 October 2012

What do I do with the BACKGROUND? Help!!

I hear this so often.  The "background" seems to be a huge monster to many an artist.  It is as if the background, and the objects, have no relationship with each other, and HAVE to be considered separately.

In fact, if the background is thought of as a totally separate entity, the painting becomes much more difficult.

Agonising over what to do with the background after the subject has been painted, can drive you up the wall.  It is easy to ruin a perfectly well executed piece of work, by fiddling with the background, trying first one colour, deciding it doesn't work, then trying another. And another.  Nothing seems right.  This is because your focus has been on the objects all this time, and the background has been left as an afterthought...while actually, it is just as important as the rest of the image.

Dealing with the "background" usually applies to portraits, and still life images.  Somehow, nobody fights with the "background" of a landscape.  

So, why not treat objects, and their surroundings, as one fully integrated subject.

This will certainly work for a still life.  You do not have to set up a special light box, and then fall back on the boring old "draped cloth behind"  Let's face realistic, or natural-looking IS that anyway?   Having said that, some artists do make excellent use of the light box idea...take a look at the still life images of Carole Marine.  She uses a special shadow-box setup, and often, she looks down on her subject, uses a viewfinder to seek out her composition,  crops in hard on the objects and as a result,  the objects, the shadows and coloured walls and base of the box are all equally important in terms of shapes within the rectangle.  
Here on her blog, on the right, you will see her "shadow box" and then take a look at her simple but beautiful compositions, which make such great use of cropping, and of the shadows cast by the overhead light.  Her images are an excellent lesson in the power of is interesting that we have no problem with "cropping" a landscape - we are, in fact, forced to do this, because the landscape "goes on" indefinitely, beyond the border of a painting - yet so often a still life is set up in the middle of a table, with plenty of "breathing space" around it, which usually turns into the dreaded "background" problem. 

Going back in time, what about this famous work at the top of this blog - the Van Gogh yellow chair.  See how he has used the ROOM as his background.  Again, with the use of a viewfinder, you can select whatever is behind your subject, and use that as an integral part of the picture. 

 Here is rather an old one of mine - flowers, fruit...but look at the "background", I didn't have to agonise over it, it was there!  Of course, some choice was involved;  this would not have been such a nice piece if, for instance, I had put in lots more of the shutter on the right;  it might have overpowered the still life setup.  I was careful to use my viewfinder, and to begin with a thumbnail sketch to ensure that the balance of the shapes, and the negative as well as positive spaces, felt and looked comfortable.

Ah, but what about a portrait, I hear you say.   I have to agree that this can be more challenging - although using the room is always an option. 

The late UK artist John Ward painted this subtly beautiful image, called "The Reflection",  He used a corner of a room to create a fascinating alternative kind of portrait:

Here is another unusual take on a "background" by UK painter Peter Khufeld-  "Girl with Umbrella". 
these two contemporary images with their simple but striking "backgrounds" may give you a little food for thought.

A close look at the work of some of the portraitists of the past will also offer some clues for dealing with backgrounds.  Often, they would deliberately use either "colour harmony" or "colour complementaries".  Here is an example of "Colour Harmony" - see how the range of colour is limited, and echoes throughout:

Berthe Morisot - Woman with Fan

Here, Mary Cassatt used "colour complementaries" of blue and orange very deliberately, not just in the obvious places, but also in the skin tones too:

So - when considering your backgrounds, if you are someone who struggles a little and needs a bit of help to sort out your ideas, here are just a few pointers you might like to consider:

1.  I recommend beginning with a thumbnail sketch, to work out the composition of the piece.  It will also be worth an extra 5 minutes trying out some colour ideas before beginning on your painting.

2.  If you can include what is actually behind the subject, treat it (still life or portrait) as if the background and subject have equal importance; think about the way the subject relates to the background shapes and how they BOTH relate to the edges of the rectangle - look for echoes (as in the Van Gogh - see how many echoing shapes you can find in that one) or useful elements - shadows, vertical or horizontal linear elements for example,  which help the subject to "join" the edges of the rectangle.  

For instance, the black fan, above, links beautifully with the edge of the rectangle, doesn't it, and it pulls our eye in to the figure so well. Its curving form is echoed so well.. the top of the fan, her bun, her shoulders,  the back of the armchair.  Delicious.    And now look again at the John Ward image above, and notice how the curves in the image echo each other  -scarf, mirror, back of shoulder, chair, wrist -  while the strong verticals of the wooden mirror surround provide a powerful contrast and link visually with the edges of the rectangle.

3. If you are thinking of painting a still life and do not want to paint a room of any kind, try looking DOWN on your subject.  Well lit, from one side, you will then have useful shadows which can become strong shape elements within the rectangle.

4.  If your background is to be fairly simple, "behind" a portrait, as it were, then spend some time in advance considering whether you want the drama of colour complements (if you do not know your colour wheel, now is the time to bone up on this subject!), or the tranquility of colour harmony.  

5.  There is also the option of allowing objects in a still life to partially "melt" into a dark background.  For masterful examples of this idea, look at the work of contemporary artist Mike Beeman at : 
And here is one of mine, which employs this idea:

As with so many aspects of painting - a little forethought and planning may help you to achieve a satisfying result.  And it can make the whole process much more fun and enjoyable too!  


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