Painting the Background in a Portrait Painting

When painting the background in a portrait painting, the important thing to remember is that the subject of the painting is the person, not the background. Keeping this in mind, here are a few guidelines for background painting.

Paint the background first. This way, you won’t have to worry about painting over the subject once you’ve finished it.

Keep it simple! Don’t paint too many objects in the background. If the props are more interesting than the subject then the focus will not be primarily on the person anymore, and the viewer’s eye may jump all over the canvas. Using color alone for the background is usually the best bet.

When painting a color-only background, don’t forget that you still have a light source that should affect it somewhat. Decide where you want the light source to be and then paint the background in accordance with that light source.

You may want to have a background that is very dark toward the right and quite bright toward the left of the canvas, or perhaps the brightest place would be behind the subject’s head, with the background becoming darker towards the edges of the canvas.

Unless you want your painting to appear flat and two dimensional, it is always a good idea to graduate the background. Paint with the direction of the light, starting with the darkest areas and working your way gradually to the lightest area.

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If you were to paint the background with a very dark color, then this could help to create shadows and contrast in your portrait, later. Doing this would mean that you wouldn’t have to paint as many shadows in your portrait’s face, but you would have to layer your light colors to get the highlights that you want.

When you’re planning your painting, it is a good idea to decide what sort of mood you want to set. The colors that you choose for your background will play a large role in the tone of your painting. Think about whether you want contrast between your subject and background, or harmony. Also consider which colors might be significant to the personality or history of the subject. 

Brush strokes don’t need to all go in one direction in color backgrounds. Try placing strokes in different angles and lengths, using different brushes and applying paint more thickly or thinly. You could also make use of other oil painting techniques to create different effects. Use stippling, paint with your fingers or other materials – try to be creative and to let loose when painting your background. You may even want to treat this part of your portrait as an abstract painting experience.

If you do want to paint props in your background, then choose items that relate to your subject. Balance the items that you place in the portrait with each other and with the subject. Paint these objects with more muted colors, fading them into the background somewhat so that attention isn’t drawn to them too much.

Once you feel that you’ve finished with your background, move on to paint the rest of your portrait. If you discover later that the background doesn’t work well with the subject, mood or tone of the painting, then you can always rework it later.

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