The poor lowly background. It’s got a bad rap, it’s second rate, an after thought, that thing behind the good stuff. This is the farthest thing from the truth.
Have you ever seen one of “those” paintings, maybe a portrait, where the main character has been plastered on a flat background made up of a random color? This may have been done in desperation after completing the “interesting” part, what do I fill in that space with, she has red hair so a blue background would make her stand out, or if I paint it brown, it will just go away.
The fact is, the background is the most important part of the painting. Would you start building a house before you knew where your boundaries were, or buy some furniture when you had no idea what room you were putting it in? It’s working backwards.
The background tells me everything I need to know about my main subject, the world it breathes in, the air that surrounds it.
I always start a painting with the background until I get a feel for what’s going on in the world of my subject. What temperature is the light, is it bouncing around or sucked into heavy fabrics. What are the main color notes, these are the tones to use in the flesh. Notice the beginning stages of my latest painting below –
The dark greens in the foliage told me that the darks in her hair were the same color and value. Likewise the reds in the flowers told me her hand needed to be the same. The blues in the distant window casings were the blues in the foreground accessories.
The gold in the table is the gold in her hair, The violet in the flowers means violet in the flesh tone, everything connected. Painting like this is so much easier than trying to figure out every mixture from scratch, also it works harmony into every item.
Below is a slide show of the entire painting, photographed every half hour until completion.