Friday, 15 October 2010

The Background to My Dog Portraits is Insipid

A dog portrait otherwise beautifully painted could be ruined by a slapdash background consisting of dung brown or a cluttered backdrop full of unwanted focal points. What can the pet artist do about backgrounds to a dog painting?

The Worst Background for a Dog Painting

Backgrounds to Dog Portraiture
Rachel Shirley
The background to dog portraiture could be improved upon with a few adjustments to the colour used or the oil painting technique. But identifying the culprits to a poor background will enable the artist to make improvements, which could be any of the following:

Faithfully copying the dog painting from a photograph that features a cluttered background that draw the eye from the dog such as furniture or toys.

Using flash photography for the dog, resulting in a bleached-out version of the animal. Against a dark background, the dog’s face will appear cut out and two dimensional.

Applying paint over the background area as through glossing a skirting board, using one colour and uniform strokes.

Using a pigment that is similar in tone and hue to the colour of the dog such as a beige background for a greyhound, or a chocolate brown background for a Doberman, resulting in colours that sit uncomfortably against one another.

The Best Background for a Dog Portrait

There are several ways the pet portrait artist can paint a background that enhances the dog. The following tips might help.

If the photographic reference has lots of clutter in the background, edit ruthlessly. A small detail can be effective at creating a sense of space where the dog sits, such as the corner of a mirror on the wall or a chair. Less is often more when it comes to backgrounds.

Background Colours for a Pet Portrait

There is nothing wrong with using one colour in the background for a dog portrait, for this will add a classy touch to the painting that echoes of the old masters, but don’t use one colour for the whole area. Alter the tone or colour from one area to the other or leave expressive brush marks.

Using a contrasting tone to the pet will bring out the colour of the pet’s fur or eyes.

Dark forest green or rich browns will enhance a snowy poodle; pale smoky blues or eggshell will bring out a black Labrador. Similarly using a warm coloured background will bring out bluish highlights found in black fur, or using a midnight blue background will contrast nicely with the rustic colours of a Yorkshire terrier. A dog that has a variety of tones, such as a Dalmatian, would benefit from both approaches. I personally use a dark background to bring out the pales on the dog’s coat.

The Best Colours for a Dog Portrait

Rather than paint straight onto a white canvas, apply a thin wash of a neutral colour to gain a more accurate idea of the tonal values of the pet. This will prevent the dog portrait from looking washed out when the background is blocked in.

A lively impasto effect can be achieved if applying brush marks or broken glazes on the background to leave it looking unfinished. This will contrast with the high detail of the dog.

Oil Painting Glazes to a Dog Portrait

Drawing Realistic Pets from Photographs
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Another approach is to apply paint in thin glazes to achieve a smooth finish to create contrast with the texture of the fur. Glazing entails mixing the oil pigment with a little linseed oil to make the paint translucent. Once dry, the next glaze works to improve upon or deepen the underlying hue. Rich browns, rusts and indigos can be achieved by glazing with oils and helps to create a professional finish to the dog portrait.

Tips for Great Backgrounds for Dog Portraits

Using a contrasting colour or tone to the dog’s fur and eyes will make the dog stand out in the painting. Cut the clutter from the background and avoid using a flash for pet photography. Impasto effects are great for creating contrast to a detailed dog painting, but a smooth glaze will create a high finish resonant of the old masters.


Lee said...

Hi Rachel

Your advice has been invaluable. I have done my first painting of a dog (commission) and was wondering if you would mind giving me some advice on the background colour which is currently insipid, muddy and too busy. I'm think of changing it to one colour with subtle tonal differences but am stuck on which colour to use. If you're happy to give me your opinion, I could email you the photo or try and upload it somewhere and send you the link.

Thanks very much

Rachel said...

Hi Lee

Not sure how you can upload an image on a blog, but you can try uploading it on my Facebook page. Generally, I would avoid dark colours if the dog is dark-furred and likewise if it is pale. Look out for anything that might clash.

Introduce a contrasting element in the background colour. If the dog has warm colours, such as rust or autumn colours, use cool colours in the background. It is a good idea to vary the tone a little to avoid a flat and featureless area behind the pet.

Rich, dark colours will bring out the highlights or flashes of pale fur on the dog, but try to use a background that informs on the dog's outline, rather than one that conceals it. Again, a contrasting element, whether in tone and/or hue might be a good idea. You are right to keep it simple and pare out the clutter.

Good luck with the painting!

Lee said...

Thanks so much, Rachel. Your advice about contrasting light and dark is good. I started with a lighter Burnt Sienna background and have progressively got darker. Here's a progression so you can see how the background started out.

Original photo: (you'll see there are lots of blues and purples in the white fur. I used Burnt Sienna, Ultra and touch Alizarin/Cadmium red). Unfortunately used Black and Cadmium Red for the dark on the head (to get mahogany) - then found out I shouldn't use black :( I will try go over with Ultra/Burnt Sienna combo.

Stage 1:

Stage 2:

Stage currently at: (I used Burnt Sienna and Ultra with touch white for the background and left some of the original Burnt Sienna areas). The main bg colour is a dark green/blue.

I'm hoping to get an old master look. My husband says I should paint the entire background as dark as the shadow and have very subtle tonal changes. I'm in two minds, although I'm a bit worried about leaving it as it is as not sure if it looks too muddy/dirty (although I do like a bit of a gritty feel!)

Thanks so much for your advice. I very much appreciate it.