How to Paint Backgrounds

How to Paint Backgrounds

How to Paint Backgrounds

Backgrounds add depth to your work, provide a place to include even more expression, and complement the subject. Think about a party or a wedding or a play or a fashion show--they all have backdrops or backgrounds to set the mood and designers often use cleverly placed symbolism and subtleties that help tell the story or elaborate on the theme. The background of your work is just as important as your subject.

Artwork by: Vanessa Lemen

We all have different techniques, and your mileage may vary, but here are some tips on painting backgrounds that you may want to keep in mind:

  1. Paint the background first, not the subject. If you paint the subject first it can be more difficult to decide what your background should be. 
  2. Paint with the direction of the light. First, find your light source or direction from which the light is coming, and then move your paint the direction the light is traveling.
  3. Lighten it up. Once you’ve got your paint going towards the light, so to speak, go back in and add light.
  4. Add shadow--this seems rather obvious; adding shadow “anchors” the subject and gives perspective. 
  5. Paint the subject. Now it’s time to add the star of the show. 
  6. Rework the background by going back to it and add finishing touches or blend in as needed. 

Artwork by: Vanessa Lemen

Artist Vanessa Lemen (of LemenAid) employs certain techniques to her medium of choice--oil paints in this video on our YouTube channel. You’ll see how she uses acrylic mixed with water to “stain” a raw panel, giving the illusion of depth and leaving the grain still visible. She then mixes linseed with paint and applies on top of the stain, and then uses a regular kitchen spatula to remove some of the paint layer leaving an interesting design with the stain showing through. Vanessa’s process involves making several backgrounds at one time to have them ready for the addition of painting her subjects. 

No matter what techniques you choose to paint your backgrounds, keep in mind that they are just as important to your artwork as your subject and make a major impact in telling the story of your art.

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