Friday, 15 October 2010

What do I do With the Backgrounds to My Portraits?

An otherwise successful portrait painting could be spoiled by a background that jars with the subject matter. An element placed in the background may create an unwanted focal point in the painting, or a garish colour makes the portrait look amateurish. What is the best background for portraits?

Portrait Backgrounds That Do Not Work

Backgrounds to a Portrait
Rachel Shirley
Understanding the causes of unsuitable backgrounds to portraits, or indeed pet portraiture, may help improve future portrait painting. The following practices could be the root cause of a portrait ruined by the background.

Using photographic reference that includes incidental objects in the background, such as part of a washing machine or a van parked in the driveway, and simply copying them exactly in the painting without artistic editing, resulting in a portrait cluttered with unwanted focal points.

Selecting a background colour that is slightly different to the portrait sitter’s clothes, hair or skin, such as pink and red; orange and pink or purple and blue causing unwanted conflict between two colours.

Selecting a harsh or garish colour, such as yellow, bright green or orange and pasting it around the portrait, resulting in a background that appears to advance at the viewer and the portrait to recede or appear too faint.

Using a flat colour and over-smoothing the paint over the background as though emulsioning a bedroom wall until it has a uniform quality without any life.

Guess-working how a sitter’s shadow may look is it falls on a wall behind the figure, resulting in an ugly dark patch behind the portrait.

Great Backgrounds for Portraits

Think about the background to the portrait before embarking on the portrait painting. One of several approaches can be tried.

A photograph that has lots of elements in the background can easily be edited by cutting. Simple is often more effective. A corner of a window, a splash of oblique sunlight on the wall or part of a lamp gives some context to the portrait and add atmosphere.

Featuring a complimentary colour or hue within the background to the sitter can be effective. Smoky blue, cool brown or forest green will bring out the warm flesh tones of a pale person. Cream, china blue or cool mauves will compliment Asian skin tones. Consider the colours of clothing in similar fashion.

An empty background can be charged with artistic energy with broken colours and brush marks. Avoid directing all brush strokes in the same direction, such as vertically. Move the strokes around the figure to give the figure some presence. Tonal gradation or from one colour to another can create dynamism. I often use a paler colour or a complimentary at one upper corner of the portrait, and then darken or modify the colour towards the adjacent bottom corner.

Oil Painting Backgrounds to Portraiture

Portrait Painting Atelier: Old Master Techniques and Contemporary Applications
click to buy from Amazon
Painting the portrait onto a white surface will give a misleading impression of the tonal and chromatic values of the portrait. Apply a neutral glaze, such as mid-brown or blue to the painting surface before embarking the portrait. This will help the artist get a better idea of the sort of colours that will go best with the portrait and prevent a washed-out looking portrait painting once the background has been filled in.

External Links on Portrait Painting

No comments: